Welcome to Catalunya! That was the sign we saw as we stepped off the plane in Barcelona. Wait a minute, weren’t we in Spain? Yes and no. Barcelona is the capital of Catalunya, one of 17 autonomous communities in Spain, and it has its own distinct language and culture. (It’s sort of like my native state of New Jersey.) The Catalans are fiercely proud of their heritage and their language. You see signs in Catalan, Spanish, and sometimes, English. But wherever we went, people welcomed us (and our euros) no matter what language we managed to mangle.
Our impromptu trip to Barcelona came about when we couldn’t resist hopping on an easyJet plane in Lyon airport, our French second home, to meet up with our “old” Durham, North Carolina friends Dan and Debbie when we learned they would be vacationing there for a week. With Barcelona only 316 miles from Grenoble, the flight took an hour and 15 minutes and landed us in a drizzly city that seemed unperturbed by the wetness. From the airport gate, we had a 10-minute walk down the concourse following the RENFE (train system) signs arriving at the train station for the 25-minute ride into beautiful downtown Barcelona. There, we hopped the underground metro and popped up at a station one minute from our hotel. All this for the economical price of €1,50 each. Gosh, we are so impressed with the European transportation systems.
With our plans to tour Barcelona in only two and a half days, we knew we had to hit the ground running to make the most of our time. We dropped our bags off at the Hotel Continental Barcelona, right on La Ramblas, the busy main boulevard in the Old City, and we were off. Sometimes referred to as the “Ramblas Ramble,” we promenaded down the center of the street, a wide pedestrian-only zone with auto traffic on both sides and walking tourists aplenty. Starting at the nearby Plaça de Catalunya, where one of the tourist info stops and the Canaletes Fountains are found, we ambled all the way down to La Rambla de Mar (Ramble of the Sea).
Along the Ramblas we came across all things weird and wonderful. The Human Statues that populate many cities ran the gamut from a mythical creature with a 10-foot wingspan who reminded me of something out of the Lord of the Rings to a terracotta-colored American cowboy who looked like Gary Cooper. Birds and animals were for sale in semi-permanent kiosks. And as no self-respecting European city would be complete without a food market, we stopped at La Boquería, a place where you can get almost anything you want in the way of fruits, vegetables, ham, seafood, and various animal body parts (you don’t want to know) that you would never see in your local supermarket but are consumed here with gusto.
We passed the usual souvenir shops, flower vendors, and cafés on the boulevard, and we were vigilant about watching out for thieves. Unlike our Tangier pickpocket experience, we were lucky to remain untouched. By the time we reached the bottom of the Ramblas near the harbor, we were ready to make a stop and admire the Christopher Columbus Monument (Mirador de Colón) commemorating his return to Barcelona after his adventures over the swells and squalls from America. The view of the city from the 200-foot monument top, courtesy of the tight elevator that transported us to the observation deck, was well worth the squeeze.
A stroll along the harbor led us to the newly restored three-mast schooner, Paileot Santa Eulàlia (St. Eulàlia is Barcelona’s patron saint), and the artistic bridge that leads to an upscale shopping mall and restaurants. Afterwards, we met up with Dan and Debbie for dinner at a restaurant on the Gran de Gràcia and feasted on some paella and traditional Spanish dishes.
It’s always more fun to share sightseeing with friends, so we decided to meet up again with our fellow tourists the following day to take a Barcelona Turisme guided walking tour. The Gothic Quarter (Barrio Gòtic) tour appealed to us, and with the enthusiastic tour guide speaking his best colloquial English, we wandered with the group learning about the old walled city that hearkens back to the Middle Ages. (Note to ESL tour guides: Don’t keep saying “okay” throughout your spiel; otherwise, you might end up with my headphones around your ears!)
As we traversed Barcelona, we realized there is an overriding art movement that pervades the uptown neighborhood of Eixample (eye-SHAM-plah) and the Block of Discord: Modernisme. This is definitely an area where you take multiple double takes because of the undeniable playfulness of the architecture spearheaded by Antoni Gaudí.
Still unfinished after almost 130 years and with no end in sight, Gaudí’s crowning glory, Basílica de La Sagrada Família (Holy Family Church), is a site that we could have spent days exploring and probably years to take it all in. My camera was no match for the massiveness of the church. All I could do was point, shoot, and hope for the best. Gaudí began at the tender age of 31 and worked on it for 43 years (1883–1926) until his death. Of course, this artistic genius also had several other fantastical projects in the works at the same time, so it seemed as if every corner we turned brought us to another Gaudí creation or inspiration.
After dinner Tuesday evening, we reluctantly decided not to join Dan and Debbie on their trip the next day to Montserrat outside of Barcelona. We still had more we wanted to see inside Barcelona, and we would be leaving Barcelona on Thursday to return to France.
Early the next morning, we zigzagged down the winding streets in search of the Museu Picasso, one of Barcelona’s best museums, which is tucked away on a side street. It was a short wait, and we were glad we arrived early because the entry line became longer once the doors opened.
Young Pablo Ruiz-Picasso spent his formative years in Barcelona between the ages of 14 and 21 (1895–1902). We were expecting to see the art work we’ve always associated with Picasso—the usual facial features askew with cubist precision. What a surprise! His early works were beautiful, talented, and realistic accomplishments. Later, he produced colorful, distinctive ceramic art and a series of engravings, all still unmistakably Picasso. I especially liked the Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, painted in 1896 when he was only 15.
Our time was running short, but the weather was cooperating with us by giving us a mix of sun and clouds to continue our visit. There was still one last place that we wanted to fit in to this trip—Parc Güell, a Gaudí wonderland, where I expected Lewis Carroll’s Alice to step out at any moment. This 30-acre park was the perfect place to end our trip to Barcelona with the fanciful 100-column hall, which showcases the mosaic-upon-mosaics ceiling, ceramic-tiled salamander/dragon fountain, mushroom-capped gate houses, and serpentine rainbow-mosaic benches that are constantly being repaired by a battalion of artists, jigsawing broken pieces of tile onto its surface.
I have to report one more “small” event during our trip that we can’t overlook. The evening of May 3, we witnessed one of the most contentious battles in all Spain. FC Barcelona fútbol (soccer) was meeting the Real Madrid team at Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona in the pouring rain. That night, Barcelona was able to advance to Wembley Stadium for the Champions League final in a tie game. The revelry started at the end of the match and continued well into the early morning hours with fireworks right on the street (with no visible sign of fire trucks) and a blaring, chanting, honking celebration. Even though our room was in the rear of the hotel as far away from the street as possible, we thought the craziness was right in the hallway in front of our door! “Lucky” for us we were in a prime location where everything happens in Barcelona: La Ramblas!
Barcelona vs. Manchester United on May 28, 2011: Good Luck, Barça!