published in Fort Wayne Living
I was just waiting for the magic to kick in.
The traffic whizzed by as I balanced my luggage in the center island of a busy Barcelona street. I struggled to remain upright against the waves of passing people and strained to read the pretty but tiny street signs posted discretely on the sides of buildings.
I was tired from a three-hour drive to Chicago, a filthy shuttle ride from the car park, a delayed takeoff, a nine-and-a-half-hour flight to Milan and a layover in a room way too hot for Europeans sans deodorant.
My long trip also included a two-and-a-half-hour flight to Madrid, an endless hike to recheck my luggage, two more hours in the air, chaos in the Barcelona airport, a sweaty bus ride, teeming streets, a wrong turn in the Metro and luggage that grew heavier with every step.
But Europe is magic. It is history and art and architecture and culture and political awareness and fashion and fun and a passion for life. And I was there, in the heart of one of its cosmopolitan cities, just a few weary streets away from a hot shower and a new pair of shoes.
I could almost feel the tingle already.
With a metro-area population of 4 million, Barcelona is second in size to Madrid, Spain’s capitol, but foremost in its corner of the country, Catalonia. This proud and independent region, in a forced marriage with the rest of Spain, even maintains its own language, Catalan. In most of Spain, the Spanish is Castillian, a bit different from the Latin American Spanish commonly heard in the United States. In Spain, gracias sounds like gra – thi – as. Catalan is yet another variation on the language. Any attempt at Spanish, however, will go a long way.
In fact, though Barcelona relies heavily on its tourist trade, visitors will enjoy their stay far more if they learn some fundamental Spanish. Spaniards at the strictly tourist sites – Starbucks, for example – can speak basic English. But who wants to go to Barcelona for a mocha frappacino when you can have a thick, rich café amb llet (café con leche in Madrid/coffee with milk)?
How much better it is to be able to ask for a price in a little clothing shop, chat with the waitress in a café or get where you want to go in a cab. Learn your numbers and your courtesy and directional phrases. Rick Steves writes a clever phrasebook that can get you out of trouble (Lo siento/ I’m sorry) or into it (Te invito a una copa/I’ll buy you a drink). My traveling companion and sister, Valerie, majored in German, so it was up to me por hablar español un poco. While no one mistook me for a native, I did earn a measure of grace for trying … and I was flattered that they thought I might actually understand their super-fast responses.
The bus from the airport, a bargain at 3,75 euros ($4.61 at an exchange rate of $1.23), unceremoniously dumped its mighty load near the fountain at Plaça de Catalunya, in the heart of the city. Fortunately, our hotel was just eight or so blocks away. We found west with the setting sun, stumbled through the crowds in the unseasonably warm April afternoon and, after a dash into a farmacia for some forgotten razors, dragged our bags to the Hotel Europark, a clean-by European-standards tourist class hotel with private baths near L’Eixample, the newer (and more expensive) extension of Barcelona’s historic core.
We were unpleasantly surprised to be charged an extra 25 euros a night for a second person in the room, despite booking a double room. Not knowing whether to blame the hotel or Expedia and too tired to care, we piled into one of the teeny-tiny lifts typical of Spain. They’re a good barometer of when one’s eaten too much flan – a little outline of a person on the keypad lights up to show how close the load is to capacity. We giggled as the two of us and our bags filled the tiny man halfway.
Our room featured two of the hardest twin beds ever made, but we were too exhausted from our adventures to notice. The wood floor was dusty, but compared with the streets it seemed almost to shine. And the shower was powerful and hot … something I was grateful for every day.
Our spirits restored, Valerie and I ventured into the warm night, pleased to discover we were perfectly situated. Our hotel was just four blocks east of Passeig de Gràcia, which, along with the parallel street La Rambla de Catalunya, forms the spine of L’Eixample, the “Extension” district constructed in 1231 as Barcelona overflowed every nook and cranny of the Ciutat Vella, the old city.
One of L’Eixample’s famous sites became our landmark. At the corner of our street, Carrer Aragó, and the Passeig de Gràcia sprouts Casa Batllò, a residential project designed by quirky and brilliant architect Antoni Gaudí at the turn of the century. Often referred to as “gaudy,” Gaudí latched on to innovations in building materials and construction techniques to incorporate shapes and embellishments representing nature into the very structure of his works. His presence in Barcelona is inescapable.
This former home, now open to the public, was lit to accentuate its rippling balconies, rolling façade and glittering mosaics. It’s known to locals as la casa dels ossos (house of bones) or casa del drac (house of the dragon). To us, it was the Mushroom House; it and the Burberry store on the opposite corner always told us when we’d reached our street.
We stopped to gape for a bit at the sight, then strolled down the street with the streams of other locals and tourists, enjoying the mild night and the sense of simmering energy. It was nearly 10 p.m. Barcelona time, appropriate there for dinner but late – or early or something – for we tired travelers. We ducked into the first comfortable tapas bar we saw, where it turned out no one spoke a word of English.
I managed to secure a vino tinto (red wine) for myself and a vino blanco (white wine) for Valerie. A sweet waitress took pity on us and gave us the pinxtos plate, sort of an appetizer sampler. Mostly fried and oil-soaked, as Spanish food is, it was impossible to determine what we were served. An adventure! I tried to translate for my sister as we shared the seafood and sausage bites filled with cheese and cream and other wonderful artery chokers.
We took the edge off our hunger, then went in search of Catalonia’s famous cava (aka Champagne, if it were from that region in France). A glass of bubbly and some tiramisu at decidedly touristy tapas bar – this host spoke English – and we were ready to quit for the very long day.
Few things are as exciting and full of possibility as a fresh, sunny morning in a foreign city. The crisp air and blue skies served to outline the amazing architecture down every narrow, winding street the next morning. Beauty and function were equally important to the architects of the old, colorful buildings, and the current shopkeepers and residents uphold the standard with lush ivy and tangles of flowers dangling from balconies and windows.
Most Spaniards start their day with a pastry and a café con leche, and who was I to argue? Memories of a croissant con chocolaté from a previous trip to Spain propelled me into a nearby café where trays of fresh breads were emptied into the glass cases every few minutes. The flaky crust with chocolate core and creamy coffee doused with sugar may not have been the breakfast of champions, but we would torch every last carb with hours of walking ahead.
It’s no mystery why Europeans are so much slimmer than we Americans: They walk everywhere. In the congested streets, tiny cars seem outnumbered by mopeds. The Metro, the underground subway system, zips into stations throughout the city every few minutes. Even easier, however, and way more interesting is walking.
We set out with the Catedral as a destination and whatever we came to along the way as a bonus. Despite its age, beauty and charm, Barcelona is a busy, working city, so we walked as briskly with the crowds as we could while gawking, shooting photos and shamelessly consulting maps like the clueless tourists we were. Valerie was a bit unprepared for the big-city atmosphere and Europeans’ condensed sense of personal space. Soon she discovered that if she just kept surging forward, others would get out of her way sometimes, too.
As would happen all week, we stumbled across another destination on the way to our first. Meandering down a picturesque, brick-paved alley where teens bounced a soccer ball over and around parked mopeds, we rounded a curve to come face-to-carved-face with a triangular corner of La Palau de la Música Catalana.
Though it would appear much older, the massive concert hall was wedged into the Ciutat Vella at the turn of the century. At its point, the façade erupts into stone carvings of classic men and women. The walls that stretch in either direction are lined with balconies, arches, columns, mosaic, busts, finials and every other manner of elaboration.
Being the flexible types we are, we decided to check it out while we were there. Our decision was fortunate: Tickets to tour the popular destination must be purchased days in advance. We paid to return Thursday, then ventured on toward the Catedral.
Our fair City of Churches is home to some amazing structures. But nothing in the United States will prepare your jaw for its descent to the floor when you step into a European cathedral.
Devotion, pride, faith and possibly even some corruption through the years caused money to pour into the construction of these lavish edifices. Though not quite on a par with the cathedral in Tolédo, south of Madrid, Barcelona’s seat of the Catholic faith still is a breathtaking sight. As we entered the cool, dim vastness, we had to pause to absorb the sights around us.
Before us was the main altar, massive Gothic columns soaring in rows along the approach to the elevated platform. To reach it, one passed through the walled choir, where intricate wooden figures and designs – no two the same – wrapped over and around and above the carved and painted seats.
Steps leading up to the altar are matched by steps leading below the altar, where a sepulchre is visible. The walls of the cathedral are lined with ornate chapels dedicated to various saints, each dripping with bronze and gold and statuary and gemstones, many holding the mausoleums of bishops.
We spent hours admiring the craftsmanship of the interior, the lush gardens in the cloister, the mystery of the ancient temple and the view from the roof. By then however, our croissants were long gone. It was time for siesta, the midafternoon break when shops close and restaurants fill for a leisurely lunch. It was time for el menú del día.
Siesta exemplifies the healthy, relaxed attitude toward life so cherished in Spain. At 2 p.m., most institutions shut down for two hours, their occupants filling café tables inside and out for the main meal of the day.
El menú del día, or the menu of the day, is the most affordable and adventurous way to enjoy this cultural phenomenon. Restaurants set a fixed price, often 7 to 12 euros, for a beverage (wine is the common choice), first course, second course, bread and dessert.
Again, most everything is in Spanish. Be not afraid! Most everything is delicious. It’s half the fun to order something you couldn’t guess at with three tries, then take bets on what will arrive on your plate. Chances are the first course will be some sort of pasta, vegetable or beans, the second course will be grilled meat, sausage or seafood, and your choices of dessert will include ice cream, flan or a layered cake. Nothing scary about any of that.
Ravenous, we stumbled into the first café with available seating, the jackhammer on the sidewalk outside only partially muted by the closed door. (Everything in Spain is always under construction or renovation.) The gentleman who seated us, however, made us feel warmly welcomed, ushered us to a table near two businessmen soaking bread into the sauce on their plates and quickly brought us each our own bottle of our vino of choice. The jackhammer quickly faded into the background.
Portions were huge, so Valerie and I had plenty to share with each other. I sampled her rich pasta with bits of bacon, and she tried my vegetables soaked in butter. I passed to her several rings of my fried octopus, and she sliced off some of the little bird – maybe a hen? – that she was served. I gave her a bite of flan, my favorite, for dessert, and she left for me some of her pudín, slightly thicker and less eggy than my flan, with a date jam on top.
It was the perfect first of many opportunities to sit, sip, sample and relax in true Spanish fashion. We lingered over the wine, then wandered into the warm afternoon.
We had many days ahead to visit sites and museums, but now it was time to shop. Barcelona’s streets are lined with little tiendas waiting to be discovered. Shoes, clothes, ceramics, more shoes, more clothes. We drifted in, exchanged holas with the shopkeepers and drifted out, wherever something caught our eye.
We reached my favorite, Zara, a clothing chain popular in Europe and just now entering the States via Miami. Always crowded with Spainards shopping the latest trends, Zara requires patience and a sacrifice of personal space. Unique styles and great prices make it worth it, however, and they don’t sell online. I dove in.
Just down the street was a similar retailer, Mango, with a slight shift in styles and a small increase in prices. My sister found her mecca there, and I was all too happy to dig in the denim. Each of us had saved suitcase space for just this reason, and it wasn’t empty on the flight home.
We wandered up La Rambla, the broad boulevard filled with artists, musicians, street performers and vendors. Here we heard voices in every language, as mirthful tourists from around the world amplified the revelry emitted by the bars and cafes lining the street. We shopped ourselves right back to L’Exiample, where we found a table on a streetside terrace at which to sample tapas, assortments of finger foods whose ingredients again eluded us. It didn’t matter – it was all good.
After a short rest at our hotel and a change of clothes, Valerie and I set out to experience another well-known side of Spanish culture: the nightlife. Because everything in Spain happens at a later hour, we waited until nearly 1 a.m. to go in search of Otto Zutz, a club on the northern edge of L’Exaimple. We planned a cab ride to the clubs on the beach for another night, but we felt confident we could at least reach this hot spot on foot.
Twenty minutes of direct walking and twenty minutes of circling tiny side streets later, we finally honed in on our destination. A beefy man at the nondescript door took our admission – 15 euros each. I asked in limited Spanish if they were open – all was dark and quiet. “It’s early,” he replied. Valerie and I exchanged glances; it was already going on 2 a.m.
Up the stairs, we joined the staff at the lighted bar and purchased a drink, another 15 euros each. The friendly female bartenders said things would pick up at 2:30, and told us as well that our door passes were good for a free drink. Between that and the generosity of club patrons we would meet later, we didn’t have to spend any more.
Valerie and I chatted until, as if on cue, people began trickling up the stairs at 2:30. The music picked up, the dance floor filled, and the room swirled with lights and languages from Sweden, Germany, southern Spain and other places around the world. The party still was going strong at 5, when we stepped into the street to flag down a cab.
It wouldn’t be long before the awesome possibilities of a bright sun, a blue sky and a beautiful European city would dawn again. We crawled into bed with heads full of the sights and sounds of that day and plans for the next. There were many, many art galleries, churches, architectural marvels, cafes and shops yet to be explored in the following four days.
As for the lack of sleep, it was no matter. Barcelona is history and art and architecture and culture and political awareness and fashion and fun and a passion for life. It is magic.
And the magic had kicked in.
How to Shop
Stores in Europe impose a value-added tax on all purchases, which in Spain is 16 percent. It can add up, but you can get it back. Look for “Tax Free Shopping” signs in stores and pick up a brochure. It explains the process: If you spend more than 90 euros in a single transaction, as a foreigner, you may reclaim that tax. At many stores, the clerks will prepare your paperwork. As you leave Europe, show your documents to customs officials in the airport. They will stamp your paperwork, which you can mail in for a refund check or redeem right at the airport … depending on how willing you are to stand in line.
There are a few key phrases to remember: ¡Hola! – Hello! ¿Cuánto cuesta, por favor? – How much does it cost, please? And gracias – thank you. Learn your numbers, too: Asking how much something costs is pretty pointless if you can’t understand the answer.
Carrie Bradshaw and Imelda Marcos would get along in Spain just fine. Shoes there are unusual, plentiful and inexpensive, even piel (leather). Clothing can be a bargain, too, with the exception of Diesel, Burberry and the like (which are cheap nowhere). Prepare to feel rather dowdy: Young and old alike exude a distinctive style and a knack for accessories. (More reason to shop!) Sizes are different, so be sure to try things on, then remember your numbers. Other special Spanish selections: rosaries (at the Catedral and other Catholic sites), wine or cava, silky scarves (even sold in the street), ceramics (particularly with Gaudí’s dragon motif),and turrón, a sweet, chewy nougat.
Thankfully, there are no Wal-Marts in downtown Barcelona; most tiendas are little specialty shops. El Corte Inglés is the massive, pricey department store. We also found a shop near our hotel, Mercat Concepcio, that combined a small grocery downstairs; a mix of cheap clothes, appliances and household goods upstairs; and an open produce and meat market in back. We stopped every morning for a large bottle of water to tote all day. In most cases, however, you will find cosmetics at a cosmetics store, pain relievers at a pharmacy, sweets at a candy shop, perfumes at a perfume store, and so on.
Remember that most stores close between 2 and 4 for siesta. Most also are closed on Sundays, and many shutter for much of August, when all of Europe is on holiday.
What to Eat
Spain is not Mexico – forget finding spicy. Instead, ham and sausage infiltrate almost every dish under many different names. Here, Rick Steves again saves the day, listing the difference between jamón (ham), jamón ibérico and jamón serrano. Many dishes include eggs, cheese, potatoes, seafood fresh from the Mediterranean and, of course, olive oil.
Bacalao, or salted cod, is a Spanish specialty, as is pulpo, or octopus. Grilled salmon and grilled tuna are often options in el menú del día.
Paella is quintessential Spanish. This rice dish can be prepared any number of ways; I persuaded my sister to try the paella negro, black with squid ink. It gave the mix of other seafood and vegetables a welcome zing.
Gazpacho, a thick, chilled soup of tomatoes, cucumbers and olive oil, is a must-try if you find in on el menú del día. It’s best to skip the spoon and soak it up with crusty bread.
Bikinis are not just for the beach in Barcelona. They’re also known less inventively as ham and cheese sandwiches. Thin slices of each are grilled on thin bread for a great snack anytime.
Churros y chocolate is more a Madrid treat, but cafes who serve it proudly proclaim so in their windows. Churros are fried doughnut sticks designed for dipping in chocolate that is served in a mug but thick enough for a spoon. Churros y chocolate and bikinis are yin and yang solutions to the long stretch between breakfast and lunch.
To drink, one may choose from Coca-Cola, Coca-Cola Light (aka Diet Coke), all manners of coffee or espresso and, of course, wine – which in many cases is cheaper than water. Tea is available on a more limited basis.
Lunch is the main meal of the day, between 2 and 4 p.m. And no one worth their tapas sits down to dinner before 9 p.m. (Relax, this is a lighter meal.)
El menú del día is a fixed price lunch typically consisting of two courses, bread, a beverage and dessert. Tapas are appetizer-size portions of food. Raciónes are larger servings. Bocadillos are small sandwiches; one might find them on a tapas menu, or one might find an entire restaurant devoted to them.
In many restaurants, both bar and table seating are available. Meals eaten at the bar are less expensive than at the table. In warm weather, terrace dining often is an option. Diners will pay more, but it is well-worth it for the festive experience.
Other Stops on Our Adventure
We relied heavily on Lonely Planet’s “Best of Barcelona” to plan our sightseeing and map our excursions. The suggested itineraries and walking tours were especially helpful in maximizing our chances to do it all. And we did:
La Sagrada Família is a must-see. Gaudí’s fantastic church has been a source of inspiration, ridicule and awe. The architect took over the project two years in, in 1884, and devoted his life to it, even living there for a time. Incredibly, the church still is under construction because it is financed solely by donations and other private sources. The structure is as whimsical as his residential projects; Gaudí’s love of nature is expressed in massive columns that erupt into stone treetops at the ceiling, for example. This site is crowded, and it’s noisy – men with hardhats are working away as you tour inside. Going to the top is breathtaking, but not for the faint of heart.
Just down the street from Casa Batllò, our “Mushroom House,” is another Gaudí construction, La Pedrera. Tour a furnished example of one of the luxury apartments he designed, rethinking traditional techniques such as load-bearing walls to allow window access in every room of every apartment. The Gaudí historical exhibit in the fantastic attic is a glimpse into the architect’s brilliant mind, leaving one with a greater appreciation for his inventive genius. And the rooftop provides beautiful views of the busy streets below as seen through stone arches and behind chimney tops shaped like soldiers.
His presence is inescapable: Gaudí turned his attention to nature when commissioned to build a park on a hill high above the city. It was a Metro ride and a very long, hot, uphill trip to get there, but we quickly cooled off under the lush canopies of blooming vines and trees in Parc Güell. Winding paths and stone stairs eventually lead to the architect’s home, open for tours. The best part of Parc Güell is a vast, sunny expanse surrounded by signature-Gaudí mosaic benches looking out over the city. There, musicians play, vendors sell scarves and trinkets, and happy visitors loll in the sun sipping icy beers.
It’s fascinating to watch Picasso’s talent blossom at Museu Picasso. The examples of what he accomplished as a teen can serve to make us all feel inadequate. It’s tricky to wind one’s way through the rooms in proper order; guides direct visitors at odd junctures in the mansions housing the museum. Follow their direction to get the best picture of an emerging master.
Though we visited Museu Nacional D’Art de Catalunya on a free day, it surprisingly was not very crowded. The palace in which the museum of Catalan artists is situated is a work of art itself; incredibly, it was constructed only in 1929. Huge wings devoted to types and time periods will challenge all but the most dedicated of art museum fans. We had visited the Joan Miró art museum earlier that day, so while we appreciated the spectacular exhibits, we also were grateful when closing time gave us reason to quit reading placards and take a whirlwind tour.
Far apart from the traditional, historic or Gothic exhibits elsewhere, the Fundació Joan Miró is colorful and completely contemporary. White walls and bright windows form the backdrop for the artist’s abstract designs in primary red, green, yellow and blue. I took home a postcard of Femme Rêvant de l’Evasion (Woman Dreaming of Escape), but the work that most amused me was a piece Miró created for a recluse: a single black line drawn on the wall.
The Museu Nacional D’Art de Catalunya and Fundació Joan Miró are within walking distance of each other in Montjuïc, a hilly, green portion of the city along the coast. The gardens that separate the two are worth a detour off the sidewalk. Consider taking a picnic. There are no restaurants in sight in the area, so if you see both museums in one day, your only other option is an itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny bikini sandwich in the Miró café.
While the cathedral inspired awe and La Sagrada Família inspired disbelief, Església de Santa Maria del Mar inspired prayer. The massive, 14th century structure was cool, dark and echoing with the strains of a choir at practice. Simple stone walls and pillars soar to the heavens covered with the soot of centuries. A newer, peaceful chapel behind the altar drew tourists and parishioners to their knees.
By the time we figured out where to go and what to see in the trio of museums that make up the Museu d’ Historia de la Ciutat, we had little time to explore the underground Roman city. We were still marveling over the half-walls and wine processing pools first carved two millennia ago when the guards started stalking us, closer and closer. I explained in halting Spanish that we still had 15 minutes; one replied that the rest of the museum was huge. Trying to get my 15 minutes’ worth, I peered over the rails as I picked up the pace – much to the men’s dismay. At last we gave up and simply skipped along the walkways that crisscross this ancient civilization, which was discovered during road construction in the 1930s. Nonetheless, we came away with a great understanding and appreciation of Roman culture and the settling of what became Calatonia.
While Gaudí used large, organic forms to represent nature in his designs, Doménech i Montaner designed a frilly flower garden in the Palau de la Música Catalana. Our lovely guide pointed out, in perfect English, every representation of blossoms from the stunning skylight to the floor. This turn-of-the-century palace was constructed for choral presentations, so additions and renovations to the stage were necessary to accommodate instrumental performances. A more recent expansion included a restaurant to the side and offices in a new level just under the skylight, above the hall. Especially impressive were the powerful pipes of the towering organ.
Barcelona is not a beach town, but it is on the sea. Our flight circled over the dark Mediterranean, whetting our curiosity. Though it was brisk the day we visited la playa, the sand was populated by families, and there were captains working on their boats. Remnants of the construction for the 1992 Olympics are visible here, including American Frank Gehry’s giant copper fish sculpture looking as if it will leap over buildings and into the blue. Restaurant terraces serving fresh seafood line the shore, interspersed with nightclubs that shake the streets until sunrise.
La Rambla is the spirit of tourist Spain, a constant celebration of food, drink, art and (sometimes shady) entrepreneurial enterprise. This broad boulevard leads from La Plaça de Catalunya on the north to the sea on the south, paved in the middle and populated by street performers, newsstands, floral vendors and artists – as well as a few pickpockets. The sides of the street are lined with taverns, tapas bars, restaurants and tourist shops. Here, the hubbub of many languages reaches a crescendo – don’t be surprised to suddenly understand a conversation by some English speakers nearby. Young, old, all are boisterous, bold and happy to be in Barcelona.