One of the great privileges of living in Europe is the ability to hop around and see other cities in a short amount of time. Like most expats, I am a great enthusiast of the City Break Weekend – basically, you look at which budget airlines are offering cheap Friday/Sunday return flights to a city you’ve never visited, and you go there. This time, it was Barcelona.
I was under the misconception that Barcelona is in Spain. In fact, it is in Catalonia, as any local will quickly let you know. Not once in the whole weekend did I see a Spanish flag to balance the hundreds of Catalonian ones hanging from balconies, and every public sign will be listed first in Catalonian and secondly in Spanish, even if the difference is only a minor spelling change. This fierce-spirited independence really becomes the feeling you get from the whole city.
We had two full days and a jam-packed agenda of what to do with them. However, I failed to take into account the exhausting effect of the blistering July sun, and our plans had to be reduced to fit our sloth-like energy levels. First up was brunch at Brunch&Cake, a highly rated local place with delicious food and quick service. On a Saturday morning it was packed, and we were lucky to get a table without a long wait (no reservations possible).
After fuelling up it was time for a wander around the Gothic Quarter. It’s the ‘Old Town’ of Barcelona, with some of the elaborate architecture dating back hundreds of years. It’s full of narrow, shaded alleyways and beautiful stone walls, at it gives you a good feeling for the soul of the town. At its cultural centre is the Barcelona Cathedral, a quirky shelter where the guard charged us 14E and then gave us back in change more than we had actually paid. There’s a fence between you and some elegant white geese, which you’d assume is for the protection of the geese. Wrong. I am confident it is for the protection of the tourists.
Their territorial squawking is amusingly at odds with the elegance of the structure. A glance upwards adds to this juxtaposition:
After leaving the Gothic Quarter we wandered down the infamous La Rambla, a popular street lined with trees and shops, bustling markets and explosive Capoeira dancers, where you’re just as likely to get pickpocketed as not. Clutching our bags and sweating like albino piglets we struggled to immerse ourselves in the atmosphere of the street and find any kind of charm in it. Luckily for us it was over quickly enough and we arrived at the wide blue harbour, and Port Vell greeted us with a sea breeze and hawking gulls.
Over a pedestrian causeway we paused while the bridge split itself in two to let the tall boats through. On the other end was a shamelessly commercial monstrosity of soulless restaurants and shops completely devoid of beauty or any sense of curation. Never mind, though – you’re there for the water and it’s easy enough to find a place to sip chilled wine and look out at it!
For dinner we tried a little place called Arcano, its arched stone walls providing welcome cool and quiet. I was really impressed with the balance of quality and cost here; the experience felt fancy but the bill was quite reasonable, I think it was 70E for two mains, two desserts and a jug of sangria.
Before the sun had risen I was already sweating, but keen to march on and see more of the sights. My “wing it” attitude came back to bite me as we arrived at the Sagrada Familia and realised that we were not able to enter without a pre-bought ticket, unless we waited 5 hours. Lesson learned: book in advance! So I settled for a walk around the outside, then we moved on. The architecture has that fantastic Catalonian whimsy about it, curved fairytale turrets, bold inscriptions of words splashed at all angles across the walls, and coloured decorative accents such as one which appeared to be a large christmas tree. It smells of Gaudi all over!
Our introduction to the legacy of Antoni Gaudi continued as we went to see Park Guell (another place to book tickets in advance, but we got lucky). What an incredible place it is. It’s a series of gardens and structure perched on a hill overlooking the city, overflowing with ornate columns and violet alliums, and yet the main viewpoint is an ascetically sparse gravelled platform, not a bit of shade or green, lined with those famous mosaic benches. Nobody (including myself) includes the boring gravel platform when taking the predictable shot over the city, but it’s certainly there under my feet!
FYI, if you’re the type to want to buy wine, cheese and other necessities to enjoy at home and release you from the obligation of finding somewhere to go out for every meal, try the food court in the basement of El Corte Ingles. They have a great selection of everything yummy, and you will end up spending too much money and being mad at yourself until you relax with a glass and a plate of deliciousness and think, well, after all, how often are we in Barcelona?