Barcelona “You’ve Just Got to See It!”
By Cathie Arquilla
Tapas: “A small portion to keep you going or to accompany a good beer.”
I read this definition on a restaurant’s tent card my first night in Barcelona…
My own definition reads…tapas, “An amazing selection of tasty bites to keep Cathie joyously fed throughout her stay in Barcelona.” I had five days in Barcelona, enough time to sample several tapas bars and to see some extraordinary architecture unique to this seaside Spanish city.
I was there with my sister, an ER Doctor, who was attending a convention. After much preparation in leaving my two small children and husband at home, she and I set out to taste, smell, see and experience Barcelona.
Oh yes, and we wanted to do a little shopping too.
Before leaving baggage claim we exchanged some currency and headed for central Barcelona via the airport train station. Moving walkways to all the terminals connect the train station. The train operates every 30 minutes from 6:13 to 23:40 and is 2E. We were going to Placa Catalunya, which is about a 25-minute ride.
Placa de Catalunya is also where you can get the Aerobus service to the Barcelona airport–an option we took going home. It runs every fifteen minutes between 6:00 and 24:00. The journey is 30 minutes and it costs 3:30 E one-way. I liked this option better, as you got a very scenic ride through the city, which would have been nice upon our arrival.
Arriving in Placa de Catalunya we got our first glimpse of Barcelona. This grand square is the nerve center to much of what the city has to offer. It is a bustle of tourists and locals all heading in every direction. Many metro and bus lines, as well as the Bus Turistic and the Aerobus, originate from this hub.
Heading down any one of its connecting streets you’ll find great shopping for a variety of budgets. On the square itself is Spain’s omnipresent El Corte Inges department store where Bonnie and I made some great purchases later in the week.
From Placa de Catalunya we walked down La Rambla to our hotel. La Rambla is on every tourist itinerary and indeed should not be missed. Outdoor cafes, stands selling birds, flowers, postcards, paintings, jewelry and more are set up right down the middle of the street, while more permanent tapas bars, hotels and shops line this important part of the city.
Several guidebooks mention La Rambla’s elaborately costumed mimes. I didn’t find them particularly interesting, but clearly, many people did. We were warned repeatedly of pickpockets and the like operating on La Rambla, but we were cautious, and fortunately, nothing scary happened.
Just off La Rambla at Placa Sant Agusti, 3 was our hotel, Hotel Sant Agusti (Tel. 93 318 16 58) This is a three-star hotel. The rooms are modest and clean. Internet service from the lobby is free.
The hotel’s website touts it as being one of the oldest hotels in Barcelona, built in 1728 complete with stone arches, an 18th-century religious statue, and beamed ceilings.
While our room did have beamed ceilings this was hardly the reason for staying there. The real draw was the hotel’s excellent location. Service and information from the front desk were minimal. A typical tourist breakfast was included and welcome. But one could easily enjoy the many cafés near the hotel with better café con leche. (Namely: Agora C/Hospital, 13.)
As an alternative to hotels, keep in mind there’s an abundance of holiday apartments in Barcelona. Local laws are very strict and apartments need to be licensed. Some brands such as Airbnb don’t check these measures and have been fined by the Catalan government. If you must choose an apartment, I’d recommend sticking with a local agency that’s based in the city.
Sampling the Tapas Bars
Each day we went to a different Tapas bar. All of them were good and a really good deal, but two worth mentioning here are Cerveceria Catalana and a small family-run bar/stall at the back of Mercat de La Boqueria (Unfortunately, I never did get the name of this bar although I tried. You’ll find it by walking directly through the center of the market to the way back. The stall will be on your left).
Cerveceria Catalana is located near Placa de Catalunya on C/ Mallorca, 236 (Tel.93 216 03 68). We had champagne and sampled 13 different tapas. The best part about eating tapas is that it is all right in front of you and you only need point to something that strikes your fancy and in minutes your taste buds are savoring the delectable morsel.
Followed by a refreshing sip of beer, sangria or champagne it’s a really good eating-a gastronomic splurge. Cerveceria Catalana is the very best example of the vast array of tapas Barcelona has to offer.
You walk into this authentic upscale tavern with oak bars to your left and right (seating in the back) and you are assaulted by the sounds, smells, and tastes of authentic Catalonia.
You’re on the Mediterranean, so be sure to try the seafood, most especially the langoustines, sardines, and anchovies. These delicacies usually sit prettily on a lovely piece of crusty French bread complete with a smear of olive oil at its simplest, or goat cheese, tomato or tuna pate at its most complicated. If you are an hors d’oeuvres lover, as I am, Barcelona is your Mecca.
According to our Eyewitness guidebook, “Mercat de La Boqueria is Barcelona’s most famous food market.” Located on La Rambla, “Freshness reigns supreme and shoppers are spoiled for choice, with hundreds of stalls selling everything from vine-ripened tomatoes to haunches of beef and moist wedges of Manchego cheese.”
All true, but it failed to mention the real jewel of the market–a little family-run tapas bar/stall, I mentioned earlier. It was so good and so cheap and so close to my hotel that I ate there twice! The bar’s counter seats about 15 people. Luckily, I did not have to wait to sit, order, and watch, as my dish was deftly prepared right in front of me.
Langoustines were cooked in the shells and smothered in garlic, salt, and olive oil. I had a wonderful fresh green salad with tuna and hearts of palm. Caution to the wind, I tried a plate of fried peppers, salty, each one unpredictable spicy. Like everything, the sangria here was freshly made and exceptionally refreshing.
On my second visit to this un-named bar, I met a very nice gentleman born in Barcelona but currently living in his seaside villa 30 minutes south of the city. Stumbling through conversation with my lackluster foreign language skills and his earnest attempts at English, I believe we became friends.
We talked about our respective families and showed pictures. We discussed sports, foreign policy, and the impact of 9/11 on our lives. We kissed goodbye, on both cheeks, and as I made my way back to my hotel, contented with life, I was ready for an afternoon siesta.
Modernista Concert Hall
The best place to start sightseeing in Barcelona is Palau De La Musica Catalana (Palace of Catalan Music). This Modernista concert hall, built for the Orfeo Catala by Lluis Domenech I Montaner, is an art nouveau lover’s dream.
Liberte’, modernista, art nouveau was an artistic movement in the early 1900s that became a worldwide phenomenon. Barcelona’s Modernista movement is in magnificent evidence throughout the city but it is captured and explained best here. The English speaking guided tour starts on the hour and it is not to be missed.
The twenty-minute audiovisual presentation gives you a very good feeling of the dramatic changes Barcelona was undergoing at the turn of the century. In the three years, it took to build this opulent music hall, Antoni Gaudi, the flag bearer of the Modernista movement, was building his Sagrada Familia, La Pedrera, Parc Guell, Casa Batllo and more.
Palau de La Musica Catalana
A visit to Barcelona would not be complete without seeing these very important sights. The tour at Palau De La Musica Catalana, palaumusica.org puts this building and Antoni Gaudi’s architectural ingenuity in context with the entire movement, its music, artists, and buildings. Palau is located in the old part of the city, the Barri Gotic (Gothic Quarter ). The Barri Gotic is a maze of ancient shopping streets with specialty boutiques.
It is also home to the towering Cathedral de Barcelona dating from 1298 and other important sights, such as the Museu d’Historia de la Ciutat. Just east of the Barri Gotic is the ancient barrio of La Ribera notable for its medieval palaces some of which house the must-see Museu Picasso museupicasso.bcn.es
Shopping for Toys and Shoes
Two shopping discoveries we made while meandering through the Barri Gotic were El Ingenio and La Manual Alpargatera. Surely the toys in El Ingenio must come to life after hours. This store specializes in masks and theatrical costumes for carnival as well as puppets, party decorations, and music boxes. The workshop in the back of the store has paper mache masks and figurines in various stages of completion.
They are eerie looking but very cool. The day I was there a woman was bent over a sewing machine making, what looked like, a very elaborate costume. The shop’s figurines are collector items, artfully done, in a rather crude folk art manor. They’re charming, expensive and definitely look-at toys. El Ingenio, Rauric 6. 93 317 71 38
A short walk from El Ingenio off C/ Ferran you’ll find a world of espadrilles in La Manual Alpargatera on Avinyo. This store is lined floor to ceiling with espadrilles of every color, size, style, and shape. I took advantage of customizing two pairs with ribbons of my choice.
They even allow you to bring in your own fabric to create signature espadrilles of your own! I bought flat ones, high ones, striped ones, and little pink ones. The most I paid for a pair was 18 euros and the least was 5. A woman of about 60 was our tireless guide through this land of espadrilles.
While teaching us a creative tying technique she also recommended a good seafood restaurant in the neighborhood Restaurante Compostella, C/Ferran. Later in the week, we ate there and indeed it was quite good. See details at the top right of this page.
Boarding the Bus Turistic
On our second day in Barcelona, we hopped aboard the Bus Turistic. I wanted to do this early on to get an overview, both literally and physically, of the city. The Bus Turistic is a double-decker sightseeing bus that originates in Placa de Catalunya and takes you on two routes throughout the city. It is 20E and you can get on the blue line that encompasses the southern half of the city nearest the port, or take the red line, which takes you through the northern sights that are mostly situated on the hills overlooking the Mediterranean.
Indeed the most important site in Barcelona, the Temple de la Sagrada Familia, was our first stop. Otherworldly, fantastic, fanciful, awesome, modern, ancient, all describe Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia.
Construction on the Temple began in 1882. Gaudi was appointed Project Director one year later. He worked on the project until his untimely death in 1926 when he was hit by a trolley car. Towards the end of his life, he lived on-site as a recluse being so out-of-the-public eye that his body could not be immediately identified upon his death.
The overall plan of the Temple is based on “the use of innovative geometrical shapes of naturalist style”. Which is to say that throughout the building you can see a naturalistic influence. The columns resemble tree trunks, the passageways are serpentine-like, the spires echo shells or coral reefs. The Temple is so “out there” that both my sister and I kept repeating, “You’ve got to just see it.”
This became our mantra when visiting most of Gaudi’s buildings and it’s best said with a slight shake of the head. The Temple of the Sacred Family will be finished in 50 years. Eight of its twelve bell towers representing the Apostles are complete. Financing of the Temple continues to be from private donations and alms.
The sheer scope of the project can be appreciated by comparing the two facades. The Passion Façade completed in 1978 by Josep Subirachs is very modern, powerful and somewhat ominous-I liked it especially because Christ looks less victimized than usual. In comparison, Gaudi’s Nativity Façade, is incredibly intricate with whimsical plants and animals carved throughout the massive façade. sagradafamilia.org
Parc Guell–Another Gaudi Masterwork
Our next stop was Parc Guell. This too is one of Gaudi’s accomplishments and “You’ve got to just see it!” Spanish style houses built in the early ’20s with the landscaping of palm tree and yucca plants line the walk from the bus stop to the park. It is like a stroll through Hollywood Hills Barcelona style.
However, the Gatehouses you encounter upon entering the park have zero resemblance to any 20th-century architecture I’ve ever seen except, maybe, Disneyland’s Fantasy Land. Comparing the two feels sacrilegious, however.
Gaudi is worthy of sainthood. In fact, they are trying to make him a saint and Walt just isn’t in the same category. So imagine these sisters Hansel and Gretel type houses complete with intricate mosaic turrets and rooftops.
Pass through the gate, enter a courtyard, and ascend the wide staircase to find The Lizard! Ubiquitous in Barcelona, this lizard was on t-shirts, posters, postcards and bus shelters. One could buy a lizard figurine at any and all tourist locations.
But here the lizard was very big and magnificently decorated in sparkly mosaic. Continue up the stairs to the esplanade and there you have Gaudi’s undulating mosaic bench, this too the subject of many a souvenir, is incredibly detailed and beautiful. From here you can see views of the entire city framed by the fairy-tale houses below.
There are many other sites to see on the Bus Turistic route. But being a purist to Gaudi that day we finished the red loop with a stop at La Pedrera. One could devote several hours to this sight and it is worth it. The building itself is out-of-this-world but allot yourself enough energy and time to take in the Espai Gaudi, a series of drawings, photos, models and multimedia displays. Housed in the vaulted attic of La Pedrera, this exhibit helps one grasp Gaudi’s architectural mastery.
La Pedrera (the Stone Quarry) is an apartment block and Gaudi’s last civic work before devoting himself exclusively to Sagrada Familia. This Modernista building is breathtaking in its fluidity, detail, and beauty. Take in the furnished period flat. It is fascinating to see the contrast between the turn of the century furnishings and the modernista architecture and interior design surrounding them. Most striking was the attention to detail taken in designing the apartments moldings, doorknobs, light fixtures, and fittings.
The rooftop sculpture park was just another example of Gaudi’s outlandish, undulating design. Seeing this rooftop with its “chimneys resembling medieval warriors and huge ventilator ducts twisted into bizarre organic forms” was a fitting end to our Gaudi experience.
We were awestruck and repeated once again, “You’ve just got see it”.