Another disgustingly early wake-up can only mean one thing – holiday time! I had decided I needed a short sunshine filled break after a month in the new job and so was on the 06.30 Ryanair flight to Barcelona. I had wanted to visit this city for so long, there is so much hype surrounding it and as I learned with Thailand earlier in the year where there is hype there is usually a good reason for it. I just had time for an avocado toast and green tea before boarding the short 2 and a half hour flight. It is here I would like to sing the praises of Ryanair. Previously these guys had a bad rep and understandably so. But after a new CEO and a new service focussed ethos they are now in my opinion one of the best budget airline options. They are quite relaxed about the handbag and small suitcase and so there is no scrambling to cram everything into your case in the queue to simply take it back out again to get on the plane. They also don’t have the awful practice Easyjet have started of checking all of the hand luggage bags for the second half of the queue regardless of airline space.
After a quick and event free flight I arrived into Barcelona Terminal 2 and jumped on the terminal shuttle to meet up with my travel buddies Maeve and Ruairidh at Terminal 1.Their flight arrived slightly after mine and so it was perfect timing. After a little reunion we jumped on the airport shuttle to Placa Catalunya for €5.90 although in hindsight buying a return ticket would have made sense given my lack of change on the Monday morning. It was a quick 30 minute journey to Placa Catalunya where we took the metro to our stop Lesseps which took about 10 minutes and then had a short but very hilly walk to our apartment for the weekend. We had contacted Pablo our host to let him know we would be arriving slightly earlier than the advertised check-in time and so he was there to meet us and show us around. The apartment was very modern, clean and pretty much brand new (a lot of the glasses still had their stickers on them) but in hindsight was quite a pricey option given its location quite far from the centre of town. Barcelona is a HUGE city as we were soon to learn.
As with arriving in any new Spanish city a walking tour is a great way to find your bearings and get to know a bit about a place and so we had signed up for the Sandemans free walking tour which left from Placa de lAngel and was right outside of the Jamue metro exit. We arrived in plenty of time and decided to find some nearby Lonely Planet recommendations for lunch. We found a few places but every single one of the nearby recommendations seemed to be vegan – top tip: Barcelona is the perfect city for vegans, I have never seen so many vegan places to eat in one place. We vetoed the vegan plan and opted for a small tapas bar right on the corner of the square called Tapafina. The bar was covered in a variety of Pinchos and so Maeve and I went to explore and opted for the crab, cod balls and chorizo and pimento pepper. Washed down with some local white wine and potatas bravas it was a nice snack before our walking tour but nothing particularly special. It was particularly convenient or meeting the walking tour group as we could see them congregating from the bar and so nipped across just before they started.
The tour is a generic Barcelona one and focusses on the specific knowledge of your tour guide in question. Our guide Andrew was from London and had moved to the city in 2000 just at the dawn of the Millennium. He had come as an artist and had some success before turning his hand to tour guiding full time on the arrival of his family. He took us straight away round the corner from the square and into the square leading to the Historical Museum of Barcelona. This is housed in the remains of an old castle building entitled Padellas House. Here he told us about the history of the city, the archaeological remains of which can still be seen in the basement levels of this museum, and the story of how Christopher Columbus climbed the very entrance stairs after his first trip to the America’s to report to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. The square itself is just beautiful and one of the best preserved Catalan Gothic architecture. We moved on from the museum to the Cathedral of Barcelona. This spectacular building was intricately carved with lots of gargoyles, but watch out they kill people by falling down upon their heads to this day, particularly during periods of rain in the city. The cathedral is dedicated to Saint Eulalia who suffered martyrdom during the Roman occupation of the city. Here our guide delighted in telling us many stories of her martyrdom including when she was put into a barrel of knives and rolled down the street but escaped without any injury, another when she was left naked in the street to quash her dignity but a sudden snowfall in spring covered her nudity. There are 12 white geese kept in the cloister inside the cathedral used to symbolise the fact that Eulalia was martyred at 13. The cathedral can be entered for free in the mornings and evenings and so we decided a return visit to see the famous geese was definitely in order.
We stopped for our half way point drink in Kurz and Gut where we had some wine and you had the opportunity to purchase tickets for the pub crawl and any of the other walking tours or trips the company runs around the city. It was a well earner break to chill out before hitting the streets once more and heading back through the city and past the Cathedral. Here we saw Picasso’s Frizze and for free! The artist also has a lot of ties to the city having spent a lot of his formative years in the city and where many believe he called home. He had a rivalry with Dali seeing his work as unskilled and so responded to knowledge that Dali had been requested to commission a piece of art for the College of Architects by scribbling on a piece of paper his interpretation of what Dali might do. His heights of fame were clear when as a result his scribble on a napkin was chosen over Dali’s piece and now stands in the main square across from the cathedral for everyone to see – HINT: it is very unlike any other Picasso piece since it was undertaken as a mimic but interesting nonetheless.
We meandered through the tight streets of the gothic quarter and crossed the road into the Ribera district to yet another church, Santa Maria Del Mar. This church is just as grand as the Cathedral but there is a distinct difference in style with this being built around the Catalan Gothic style rather than the more traditional Gothic style of the Cathedral. This means a lot more straight lines and less ornate carvings, altogether a much more sober style than the grand gothic often purveys. This was an interesting opportunity to juxtapose the two styles against each other and highlight the similarities alongside the stark differences. At the side of the church lies a memorial square which is in fact a graveyard where the defenders of the city were buried during the Siege of Barcelona at the end of the Spanish Succession. It was here that the topic of Catalan nationality and independence was piqued. For those of you who don’t know much about it, it is a fascinating subject that one could spend endless days researching but it was interesting to gain our tour guides unbiased view and then his own personal view which he assured us was not the views of the company and how even being a foreigner in the city he resonates so strongly with the Catalan values and believes the region should gain independence from the rest of Spain. The square comes alive on the National Day of Catalonia when the city parades through the square dressed in traditional attire to symbolise the march their ancestors made and the sacrifice of so many of them for their beloved city.
We had pre-booked our Sagrada Familia tickets and so after Andrew had finished we quickly paid and ran away to the metro filled with knowledge but keen to not miss our allocated slot for our visit. For those of you who wouldn’t dream of visiting Barcelona without a stop at Gaudi’s most famous work (still under construction but due to be completed in 2025) I cannot recommend enough booking online. You simply request the time that best suits you and wallah, skip right to the front of the queue at the rear of the Basilica which is the Nativity Façade. However, as I mentioned before Barcelona is HUGE and the metro while useful for getting around is often a good 15-20 minute walk to sights from the exit. We arrived at the entrance stressed and sweaty from our jog from the nearest stop (not quite the 5 min stroll our tour guide had assured us off). The ticket checkers are quite strict and you have a 15 minute window for your time so make sure to arrive with plenty of time to spare. Given our last minute arrival we didn’t have much of a chance to admire the Nativity Façade which is incredibly intricate with details of – you guessed it – the Nativity scene and Christ with lots of biblical imagery. After a few pictures we rushed inside to try to locate the access to the tower (another point to note, Barcelona has no signs). We found it and luckily there was no queue, strange as the towers had come highly recommended and I had thought they would have been extremely popular. We were swept up to the dizzying heights of the top of the front of the cathedral and as we took in the spectacular views of the city I thought to myself, surely this can’t be it? The tower access is €15 in addition to the already €14 entrance and the free audio guide which was included in the package had no settings for either of the towers. After a few nice view points which you could get for free at one of the many rooftop bars in the city, we made our way down the narrow towers which were quite dark with very little to see. Underwhelming to say the least. At least we could now spend the next few hours exploring and taking in the majesty of the interior and exterior of the basilica to make up for the disappointment.
After a quick toilet stop I spent some time at the front end or the Passion Façade. This is in direct contrast to the busy Nativity Façade with lots of curved lines and flat plain stone dotted with simple statues. It is designed to resemble a skeleton and faces the setting sun. The façade focusses on the crucifixion with scenes from the last supper and of course Jesus on the cross. This façade was completed in the 50’s on the designs of Josep Maria Subirachs and so many believe are not what Gaudi envisaged for the Basilica given how starkly different it is to the Nativity façade. As we wandered into the interior the setting sun cast the colours and light from the stained glass windows throughout the cathedral and there was an ethereal sense as I took in each of the detailed windows so bright with colour. Just as I sat down to contemplate the phenomenal ceiling, Gaudi is of the view that there are no straight lines in nature and so the roof rises to the heavens in great curving columns, Maeve and Ruairidh rushed over to say it was closing. This could not be, the website had clearly stated the closing time to be 8p.m and I had only purchased the tickets the week before. They ran off to gain clarification and in standard Spanish fashion it was indeed closing, the opening hours hadn’t been updated since August! This was particularly disappointing given we had wasted a lot of our time in the tower and so had to try and rush around the rest of the interior missing the underground museum and crypt as we were ushered out. So, I can definitely say this is worth seeing but I would recommend arriving early in the day to miss the crowds and ensure you get as long as you want to experience the place. Also, skip the towers.
We decided the only way to fix our sadness was to head for wine of course, however, the area surrounding the Sagrada Familia has nowhere to eat or drink. We walked a few blocks and stumbled across Bristol Cafe which seemed to specialise in cakes. I opted for the chocolate and caramel layer with meringue (this was phenomenal but so sickly I couldn’t finish it) and then some wine. It was nice to finally relax after our hectic day as we consulted what our evening plans would be. A work colleague had recommended Dry Martini as being fantastic for cocktails and this was sort of on the way back towards where we were based and so we decided to take on the 25 minute walk to get there passing some of the most hipster furniture shops I have seen in my life. It was suitably old fashioned with the waiting staff decked out in the traditional white coats and eye-wateringly expensive for Spain. It was however, one of the nicest cocktails I have ever had! I opted for the a long sparkling cocktail which was interesting yet tasty. We each got something different and after having a sip of them all I was happy to have spent €14 on some of the nicest drinks I have had, we should have ditched the towers and had two!
By this point we were getting peckish and decided to try out a recommendation from one of Maeve’s colleagues for dinner. It was on the way back to our apartment and so we took the metro one stop (we had spent a lot of time walking that day) passing a very lively area as we exited en-route to Polleria Fontama. We were lucky to get a table through the back and ordered a feast of croquetas, squid (potentially the best I have ever had), a potato bomb and tortilla. All of the food was great and we had some nice wine to go along with it. Somewhere we would never have found alone and that I can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone visiting the city. It is surrounded by some really interesting bars and we decided after our feast to check one out on the way back to the apartment. However, we had obviously passed the most happening strip on the walk from the metro and so ended up opting for a quiet restaurant called Mantura where we got chatting to the owner (from Lebanon) and a friendly local guy about everything from good places to eat in the area (we got a lot of tips) to Catalan independence. Their views were quite different to our tour guide from earlier in the day and seemed to think that the recent referendum they had had was skewed by the fact that the people who don’t want it didn’t go to vote because they knew the vote was not legally enforceable meaning only those who are very pro-independence made the effort to actually vote. We enjoyed some wine and after the great chat headed back to bed absolutely exhausted – I had been up for 18 hours and my body was shutting down.