Barcelona truly is everything one could want from a European city. It has marvellous architecture, great weather, stunning hills and viewpoints, a rich history and left me absolutely captivated.
Football, Barcelona style
After a 100 minute flight from Gatwick, we worked our way from Barcelona airport by train to Sants station and then walked to our AirBnB apartment on Rocafort street. Our host Leo was super friendly and helpful, showing us key places to visit on a map and welcoming us to his beautiful apartment. Our cute room was spacious, well lit and had its own small balcony and television, as well as a cute ‘welcome to Barcelona Jodie y Jon’ post-it note!
It was nearly 10pm by now and we were hungry so we walked a couple of blocks to a place Leo had recommended, only to find it was shut. Instead we ended up at a small bar opposite our apartment watching Barcelona vs Bayern Munich in the Champions’ League semi final first leg. When we arrived some 50-odd minutes in, the score was goalless. As we ate succulent chorizos, prawns and delicious creamy patatas bravas (soon to become our favourite dish) and drunk Estella beer, Messi scored not once but twice. The dozen or so fans in the bar made enough noise to fill the Nou Camp it seemed – the atmosphere was electric on that street corner on a hot spring evening. They were hugging and cheering like the trophy was already theirs. Meanwhile, each time Messi found the net someone down the street let off an ear-shattering firework-like explosion. I was absolutely buzzing to have shared the occasion with such passionate people.
I had mentioned to Leonardo the night before that it was my birthday the next day, but I never expected him to put up balloons and a Feliz Cumpleaños Jon banner. He even put candles in the muffins he provided for breakfast, which were delicious.
As we strolled into the city centre that blue breezy morning, the light on the buildings and trees of L’Antiga Esquerra de l’Example looked exquisite against the pastel sky. Dappled light through the leaves, traffic lights on curved poles arching across wide roads and Vespas buzzing by gave me that welcome feeling that I was in western Europe. It could have easily been Milan or Paris, that was until the architecture became very, well, Gaudí. Casa Batlló (The House of Bones) sat a block north east of Las Ramblas on Passeig de Gracia and is the archetypal Gaudí building. It really did resemble a bone-like structure and the juxtaposition of stained-glass windows made for about as Gothic a facade as one could imagine.
Further down the Passeig de Gracia lies a nice waterfall in the middle of a roundabout, leading onto Jardins de la Reina Victòria where four sided billboards stood advertising the Grand Prix we would be attending that weekend. The shops along Dreta de l’Example had chequered flags outside them in honour of the race. The Example district, meaning extension, was Barcelona’s answer to overcrowding and is now one of the coolest parts of town.
Walking down Las Ramblas was every bit as vibrant and joyous as I remembered from my visit 13 years earlier – half my life ago! We had been warned to keep our valuables out of sight but fortunately never encountered any pickpockets. White seeds danced across the wide streets lined by leafy green trees, providing pleasant dappled shade under a spring blue sky to the vendors, tourists and street performers below.
It was quarter to eleven when we arrived at the Cathedral of Barcelona and already the sun was beating down and making us squint as we gazed up at the epic Gothic structure. It took six centuries to build and is both the geographic and historic heart of the city. Traditional in its design, it is everything you would expect of a european cathedral and yet upon entering my breath was taken away. The scale of it was awe-inspiring and humbling in a manner even the impressive external facade deceived. The way beams of light pierced through the upper echelons to the colossal arches below was truly majestic. Although humming with tourists already, the voices of the throngs felt muted and lost in the height of the place. The mighty organ on high, the tall narrow stained windows and the Gothic chandeliers, sculptures and chambers hidden behind crevices gave new surprises everywhere I looked.
Outside, I used the map in the back of The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, a novel which I had recently read and loved, to guide us to Plaza de San Felipe Neri. Hidden down a couple of tall narrow streets, the plaza was full of children playing football in the respite from the adjacent tourist hecticness. All the streets in the Barri Gothic quarter are mysterious and alluring, some behind the Cathedral embellished with the sound of live music. We ambled through Santa Eulalia and Sant Honorat to Plaza de Sant Jaume I where a protest was going on (apparently this is a regular occurrence there). Past Calle del Bisbe we stopped for lunch at Els Quatre Gats, another landmark from The Shadow of the Wind.
There are four Ramblas leading into one another and we strolled from Santa Anna up Ramblas de Canaletes past beautiful historic black lampposts and every walk of life. If Las Ramblas was an eye-opener, Mercat de la Boqueria was a true assault on all the senses. I have been grabbed and shouted at in Saigon’s Ben Thanh market and watched Bodrum market come to life, but I have never seen colour and energy quite like Barcelona’s flower market. The fruit drinks come in every flavour you can imagine, all made with fresh produce available in every hue under the sun. Chocolate, cheese, pineapples, figs, shellfish, meats so fresh they were almost overpowering… each more pungent, mouth watering and eye catching than the last. Jodes was scared of the fish heads and ran away (she is still not over her fish experience snorkelling on the Whitsundays three years ago). All the vendors spoke good english and I enjoyed a delicious shellfish basket and fruit drink in the sun. All the produce may have been beautiful but the bins outside were leaking juice in the heat and smelt a tad gross. Jodes got a call to tell her that her Fitbit was available for collection so we strolled back up to Placa de Catalunya to pick it up from the PR company she was working with.
We checked out the front of Palau Güell, which was once the dwelling of Antoni Gaudí himself. From there we strolled back down Ramblas de Canaletes to Placa Reial, a majestic square of cafes which were once rich dwellings surrounding fountains and elegant palm trees and another location from The Shadow of the Wind. Dotted between said palms were chic lampposts with an exquisite yet playful trim designed by Gaudí himself. The glorious Gothic arches were lined with umbrellas and the outdoor furniture that is ubiquitous across the city as hawkers and street dancers swept past us. Also from the book I found Calle Arco del Teatro, beautifully and aptly described as ‘more of a scar than a street’.
The Port of Barcelona
Further south we reached the beautiful Port of Barcelona, where blue but chilly waters lapped on golden sand under the watchful gaze of Mirador de Colom, a monument to Colombus dedicated in 1888 for the Universal Exhibition.
The beach was full of tourists and city-dwellers taking a break and catching some rays. Many were topless, some were playing volleyball and the man selling mojitos was clearly making a mint (pun intended). In some ways it reminded me of Miami but classier. Instead of taking one of the many sailing trips available around the harbour, we took our sore but eager feet past the market stalls and Martini party boats and over the bridge where the wind was a bit blustier but still pleasant. Around the other side of Barceloneta lay more exquisite 18th century architecture with colourful laundry swinging in the breeze of top story apartments.
Taking the cable car to Montjuic
Strolling back along the beachfront we reached Transbordador Aeri, the cable car across the harbour. It took an hour to queue for but was entirely worth it. The views were breathtaking over the glistening blue waters and magnificent city below us as we bobbled along over the World Trade Centre. On arrival at the Torre de Miramar on Montjuïc mountain we walked up to the Costa i Llobera Gardens and the Parc del Mirador del Poble-Sec. The views from there were equally fantastic but we were eager to ascend higher so began the trek up Montjuic mountain. We grabbed some mini pizza focaccias halfway up and were rewarded for our walk by yet more spectacular vistas from Montjuic castle down to the colourful tetris-like shipping containers in the port below.
The castle itself is majestic and imposing, particularly when one thinks of the atrocities committed to the residents of Barcelona in the early 20th century who were marched up to Montjuic castle never to return to their loved ones down below. This was at a time when anarchists, communists and fascists wrestled for power and the ruling party could change on a weekly basis almost. Turning back to the city, the pink and white rooftops looked brilliant in the late afternoon sunshine between a pastel blue sky and lush green foliage of the park and tress on the hillside.
Montjuic rapidly became my favourite part of Barcelona thus far as we rambled through the Jardins to the 1992 Olympic Park. The stadium was spectacular and despite being 86 years old now, was still in better shape than the London 2012 Olympic stadium at the time of writing! The plaza and fountains outside were grand indeed, especially given the backdrop of the entire city laid out in the distance. We followed the route of the old Montjuic Formula One circuit and dropped down the hill past the spectacular Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya where Jodes managed to take the shot of Barcelona she had been obsessing over. From here we walked to the Poble Sec district and had a beer before dinner at Elche where Jodes had booked a table for my birthday. They have made paella there since 1959 and boy was it good – the prawns and mussels were sublime. To my surprise they brought out an amazing chocolate dessert with ice cream and candles that read ’26’ whilst the whole restaurant sang me happy birthday! It was the perfect evening.
By the time we left however, we were running late to make the last showing of La Font Magica, the magical fountains and light show. Sprinting to the steps of the Museu Nacional d’Art we made it in time to see them from afar but chose to sprint further, off the main pathway down a dark hillside track to the bottom. We made it there just as they were finishing, delighted, frustrated, with a couple of blisters and adamant that we would come back later in the trip.