Benvingut a Barcelona!
“Finally… we’re going to Spain.”
In the midst of all of Katie’s hard work during her second semester, we decided that we would take a well-deserved spring break trip to both Spain and Germany; neither of which we’d ever seen before, and both of which we were very anxious to experience.
This post covers Stop One of our multi-city itinerary:
Barcelona is a city located in Spain’s Catalonia region, on the far eastern stretch of Spain’s Mediterranean coastline. You may have seen something in the international news circuit over the past year or so about Catalonia pushing for independence from Spain, as it has considered itself an autonomous community for a long, long time now.
Whether you’re for or against, it is undeniable that Catalonia, and Barcelona itself, hold a unique history, culture, and even language amid the rest of Spain. In fact, the main language spoken in Barcelona, and Catalonia in general, is actually not Spanish, rather Catalan, and the preferred use of Catalan in the region is an ever-present symbol of this special heritage.
This was something that Katie and I already understood before taking this trip, and we were a bit concerned about how my use of Spanish (we don’t speak Catalan, haha) would be received, because we had heard rumors of people who had traveled to Spain, had tried using Spanish, and were unapologetically answered in Catalan (if not ignored altogether), largely due to Spanish being associated with the unwelcome authority from which Catalonia has been trying to separate itself.
Luckily, Katie and I were delighted to find that the people of Barcelona were more than happy to communicate in Spanish, or English for that matter, and were incredibly nice people all around.
Day One – To Barcelona via Girona
Katie and I took a quick, 2-hour flight (that’s right, just 2 hours!) from Leeds to the town of Girona, Spain, just a one-hour bus ride from the northern side of Barcelona. Why not fly to Barcelona directly? It was actually way cheaper to land in Girona and hop a bus ride to Barcelona afterward, not to mention this gave us the opportunity to see a bit more of whatever countryside there was to see.
Landing in Girona was great, as we caught our first sight of the blue Mediterranean as we came down to the runway. The Girona airport was actually quite small, and the airport shops and services were actually all largely closed when we arrived in the early evening.
We had landed about two hours before our bus was set to depart, and despite having plenty of time to kill, we wanted to get an idea of where the pick-up spot was so that we would be fully prepared.
Excited to use my Spanish for the first time in Spain, we approached an information desk, where the lady behind the counter informed us that, not only was the bus pick-up just a short walk away, there was another bus that was leaving for Barcelona in just a few minutes, and if we wanted, we could see if the driver would take us now, rather than having to wait around for our scheduled bus!
So we hurried to the stop, talked to the driver, and he nodded his head yes, so we threw our suitcase in the underneath storage, jumped aboard, found some seats, and were on our way! Awesome!
Coming into Barcelona from Girona was a one-hour ride down a highway surrounded by hilly terrain, offering tiny glimpses of larger mountaintops here and there further back in the skyline.
By the time we made it into Barcelona it was well into the night, and we noticed the colorful lighting on a tall football like building similar to the Gherkin building in London.
We soon found ourselves alighting at the Estació del Nord (all signs and names are in Catalan). Our UK cell service wasn’t working as we’d hoped it would, so our first challenge was to find out how to get to our hotel from the bus station. We asked a couple of people if it would be safe to walk to our hotel from the station at night, and both said it would not be, which Katie and I both found to be a slightly unsettling first impression, but not too surprising in for a big city.
We decided to take a taxi to the hotel, and after getting directions to the taxi stand from a man that seemed as drunk as he was confident, we hopped in a cab with a young driver who looked as high as he was happy. The odd first impressions continued.
On the way to our hotel, we took note of how busy the streets were, even though it was late in the evening. The area we were driving through actually appeared to be pretty populated by all sorts of savory-looking people walking about, and I couldn’t really see any sign as to indicate why our first contacts in the city advised us that it would probably not be safe to walk at night. Happily, the mystery remains ‘til this day.
We stayed at Hotel Oasis, which was a pretty inconspicuous hotel right in the middle of the length of Barcelona’s Mediterranean shores. In fact, we were only a ten minute walk from Barceloneta, the most well known beach in Barcelona, which we would visit on our second full day. The hotel was also just a stone’s throw from the metro, which ended up being extremely convenient, if not appreciated a little too late to save our feet from some undue exhaustion.
Hotel Oasis’s exterior fits in well with the style of old Barcelona, but with welcoming upgrades on the interior that gives the environment a more modern feel. Unfortunately, our first room was found to have an unpleasant smell that we decided we couldn’t cope with, and so we were back down at Reception only minutes after arriving to see what could be done.
It took some convincing, and a trip with the receptionist back up to our room to confirm the issue, but afterward they were more than happy to upgrade us to a great new room that was well above the price point we had bargained for; service recovery at its best. We were excited.
Day 2 – Sagrada Família and Parc Güell
The next day, we were ready to get out and explore. While the metro was close by, we decided to walk the 1.5 miles to our first big site, La Sagrada Família, in order to take in as much of the actual city as we could.
Our path took us by Barcelona’s own Arc de Triomf, which was less grandiose than Paris’s Arc de Triomphe, but nonetheless picture worthy on the grand central pedestrian promenade that ran almost all the way from the arch to the beach itself, ending at the Barcelona Zoo, and running through a beautiful park just before that point, filled with palm trees and what appeared to be wild, green parakeets zipping around from tree to tree.
We walked along the promenade, checking out the Barcelona residents as they walked their dogs, and stopped to let their kids chase the bubbles, big and small, that were being made by “performers” dipping stringy loops tied between two sticks into a bubble solution and lifting the sticks up in the air and letting the breeze do the rest, hoping to get some spare change for their service.
We strolled up to the arch through the sunny, relaxed atmosphere, until we got to the point where the wide pedestrian promenade continued onto a wide, tree-lined boulevard, with traffic lanes running up and down each side, and framed by attractive buildings with floor after floor of balcony- and shutter-clad windows.
A great place to stroll.
Soon we saw the spires of Sagrada Família poking up between the city blocks. I can almost guarantee that Sagrada Família is one of the most unique looking churches, furthermore, buildings, you will ever see world-wide. With its diagonal columns, strange alien-like designs, snail and lizard sculptures, and hornets-nest-esque towers, Katie and I were caught gawking for a loooooong time.
What’s more, on the opposite side of the church, it’s like a whole ‘nother, albeit more traditional façade, but with its own unique flairs, and a dense, dense forest of sculpture (complete with a Christmas-like tree toward the top, surrounded by white doves).
The inside of the church is just as unbelievable, and extraterrestrial as the outside.
White-grey columns of unique shapes, branching out the closer the get to the ceiling like tree branches.
Indeed, Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, designed the church to simulate being out in nature, as he believed being in nature was a way to get close to God (according to a passing tour guide). The most stunning feature, however, are the stained-glass windows, which are different from any we have ever seen. Rather than multiple colors mixed together, each window was largely composed of different shades of one color of the rainbow, and with the sun shining in from the western side of the nave, shades of red, yellow, and green burst upon the light walls and other internal structures; like walking through a kaleidoscopic dream, or perhaps the set of The Neverending Story.
To learn more about Sagrada Família’s history, including the fact that it has technically been continuously under construction since 1882 (hence the cranes in the photos), with several features of the original plans still unfinished, I encourage you to check out the Wikipedia page.
After marveling at Sagrada Família, we decided to make our way further north across town, hiking another mile and a half, up to Parc Güell.
Where Sagrada Família makes its unique Catalan contribution in the world of bizarre religious architecture, Parc Güell is just as unique in the category of bizarre park architecture, and for good reason: it was also designed by Antoni Gaudí.
You have to buy tickets to get into Parc Güell, and then wait until the specified time to get in, so Katie and I took a brief moment to rest our feet in a small nearby courtyard, where we watched a father and son play “football” for about an hour. That boy certainly kept his old man hoppin’!
Just outside of the entrance to Parc Güell, there is a public trail we decided to take that led up to a stone mound, on top of which was a monument to Christ’s crucifixion. The hike provided us with our first great views of this lush hillside. From the top of the monument, there was a breathtaking panoramic view of the city, all the way to the sea. While stunning, ascending the monument itself was also a bit risky, seeing as the only thing to keep you from falling off the short tower of uneven stone steps is a janky railing sort of hammered into the side of the rock, and there are tons of people and kids climbing around, trying to take that one, spectacular selfie. See below how Sagrada Família juts up from the rest of the skyline like a little sandcastle!
The rest of the park is awesome, but I’ll let the pics speak for themselves. Essentially Parc Güell is known for its fantasy-land, quirky, Guadí architecture, along with the intricate use of mosaic tile as seen in the pics below. There was no better spot than the tile-clad terrace in the center of the park to watch the Barcelona sky turn pink as the calm of the evening set in.
It is no wonder why both Sagrada Família and Parc Güell are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
After our visit to Parc Güell, I made the (poor) executive decision that Katie and I would walk back to our hotel… drastically miscalculating the distance, which ended up being a little over three miles… not a mile and a half as I thought!
Our stroll home, while requiring us to stop several times due to exhaustion, was very nice. The evening air was pleasant, and since people tend to be up later in Spain, there were tons of people out on the main streets and strolling hurriedly or comfortably up and down the wide, central pedestrian walkways on those same attractive boulevards, now glowing yellow from the streetlights.
After we got back to our hotel, we collapsed for a few moments, and then had to go out for some dinner! It was already about 11 at night, but luckily, Barcelona is a city (and as I understand it, Spain is a country…) that eats late.
We just walked about a block toward the sea and spotted a menu stand outside a place that still had its lights on. The paella was reasonably priced, and I thought it’d be awesome to get some paella for the first time (in Spain, that is) after such an awesome day, and Katie went for a delicious chicken sandwich. We took both to go, and enjoyed our dinner at the hotel, where we could once again return to our collapsed state and, with just enough strength left, consume our delicious food.
Before sleeping that night, Katie checked the pedometer on her phone. We had walked just over 10 miles! Hahaha!
I should note, it was not funny at the time…
Day 3 – Barceloneta, Barri Gòtic, and La Rambla
With having knocked all of the long-distance sights out of the way on Day 2, Katie and I adopted a mercifully more relaxed pace on Day 3.
After all, for the first time since leaving California, we were going to the beach.
On our way to the famous Barceloneta, we took our time wandering through the beachfront neighborhood, which has done pretty well in preserving the charm of the larger, nearby Barri Gòtic, or Gothic Quarter.
Before we knew it, the waters of the Mediterranean were opening up before us.
It was a cool but bright, sunshiny day, and we came down to the boardwalk and strolled with the beach on our left, heading down toward the famous and unmissable W hotel, with its distinct sail design; just another way in which the architecture of Barcelona doesn’t disappoint.
Of course before coming to Barceloneta, Katie and I were wondering if we would discover the rumors about European beaches to be true, referring of course to their reputation for nudity and toplessness. In fact, we actually got online to research whether or not we could expect to see any toplessness at Barceloneta specifically, and we found so many forums where people, supposedly “in-the-know”, claimed, “Oh yeah, you’ll see topless women all over the place! Don’t be such a prude!”, blah blah blah. Well, maybe it was just because it wasn’t quite summer yet, but we hung out at the beach for 2 or 3 hours, and saw all sorts of scantily clad females (rather, Katie did. I asked her to look for me, of course…), and NONE of them were topless, which leads me to wonder how true the rumors are elsewhere. Anyways, if you’re worried about having to shield your eyes if you ever take a Barcelona vacation, don’t fret too much, at least not if you’re going in spring.
Looking for some lunch in a laid back atmosphere, we decided to stop at La Deliciosa bar and restaurant. This open air setting was the perfect spot for some nachos, and also the try our first tapa (essentially, Spanish appetizers or snacks, although purists will strongly disagree), this time being ham croquettes.
Never had a ham croquette? It’s basically like a breaded ball of gravy with little bits of ham inside. Katie and I can’t say we fell in love with them right away, but we really enjoyed the nachos, and were revitalized by an immensely refreshing bottle of Espiga, a Spanish wheat beer.
I can still taste that refreshing crispness even now…
After a great lunch, we kicked off our shoes and socks and made our way across the warm, but very coarse and pebbly sand to the water’s edge.
The water was crystal clear, but faaaaareeeeezing cold, and so our splash was a shallow and brief one to be sure, but before we took off, we collected some pretty green sea glass as a memento.
After reluctantly leaving the sand, we rinsed off our feet, threw our socks and shoes back on, and headed toward perhaps the most famous strolling street in all of Barcelona: La Rambla.
La Rambla is a roughly ¾ mile stretch of boulevard that runs from an intersection quite close to the coastline, and from there, almost directly north, into the city. To get to La Rambla, Katie and I chose to zig-zag our way through the narrow and attractive medieval alleyways of Barrí Gotic, a journey that felt very reminiscent of wandering the tight, romantic, old-world corridors of Venice, Italy, where we had our honeymoon.
The red and yellow-striped Catalonia flags hanging from the balconies in the pics below were an extremely common sight on nearly every street in Barcelona, large and small, and represent the popular campaign for an independent Catalonia.
Suddenly we were on La Rambla, which is an ideal area for tourist and shoppers not only because of the wide variety of clothing stores and restaurants that occupy the buildings on the either side of the street, but even more so because of the wide, attractive, tree-lined, pedestrian median that runs the entire length of the thoroughfare, and is jam packed with kiosks filled to the brim with souvenirs, tasty treats, caricature artists, and, to be honest, a lot of other cheap stuff you can get anywhere else.
For Katie and I, the best finds were in the surrounding neighborhoods, in stores that offered things like dishes that were actually handmade in different parts of Spain.
La Rambla is also home to apparently one of the most famous and oldest still-running food markets, known as La Boquería, which dates back to at least 1217. Not really looking to cook our own food that evening, Katie and I just took a brief moment to stroll through La Boquería’s historic “grocery aisles”, and be mesmerized by live seafood, still moving on ice for all to see, and by the wide assortment of cattle tongues, heads, and entrails just waiting to be taken home by some lucky cook.
After leaving La Boquería, and seeing all of those delicious… things… we decided it was time to find a place to have our final Barcelona dinner. While there were tons of places along La Rambla to choose from, offering all sorts of tapas and paella combination deals, we were pretty unsatisfied with the price and selection, so we decided we’d head back to our hotel through the labyrinth of the Barri Gòtic, and stop once we either got lucky, or desperate.
After making our way through the lovely courtyard pictured above, luck won out, and we ended up having dinner at La Catalonia, where we enjoyed both seafood and chicken paella, five different tapas each, and a large pitcher of sangría, all for the very reasonable price of around 30 Euros (about $37.50 USD). To top it off, our waiter brought us two complimentary glasses of Cava (Spanish sparkling white wine), with which we toasted to a fantastic rest-of-the-trip.
During the rest of the evening, we wandered out of the Barri Gòtic, walked along the marina filled with million-dollar yachts until coming parallel with the W hotel, and then headed back to Hotel Oasis to pack for the next day’s trip, which would take us on a race across the country…
Photo Credit: Katie Miller (Jeff Miller: Sagrada Família interior, 1 Barri Gòtic shot)