After not having visited Barcelona (while living in Spain) long enough for it to get embarrassing, we finally made it there! It was getting to the point where at least two people said something to me along the lines of, "You know, Barcelona is somewhere you really should visit...it's kind of a big deal to Spain...and the world...it would be a shame to miss out seeing how close you are in Madrid...etc etc," and other people just raised their eyebrows and thought it when we told them how long we'd been here AND hadn't made it to B-Town. So, like I mentioned in our Zaragoza post (see it here!), we snagged some fancy Black Friday train deals and made our way to Madrid's more-visited, more-laidback stepsister, Barcelona.
We arrived midday, dropped our bags at our Airbnb, and started out with a tour of the Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter, and the center of the original part of Barcelona) with stops at the Catedral de Barcelona, a Christmasy square, some old Roman ruins, the Palau de la Música Catalana (only to stop by and buy tickets for our tour that we went back for later in the evening though), and the Arc de Triomf.
D - I planned our trip to Barcelona, while Shannon planned the Valencia and Zaragoza legs of the journey. I was definitely looking forward to Barcelona the most, but when it came down to it, I think I was able to enjoy Valencia and Zaragoza more. This is probably because I had really high (probably impossibly high) expectations for Barcelona and really romanticized it in my head, while I knew nothing about the other cities and was therefore really pleasantly surprised by them. Also, I think since I planned our visit, I felt sort of a burden of responsibility about whether or not Shannon would enjoy it (sort of like if you talk up a movie to your friends and then you all watch it together and you look around the room after every good part to see if your friends are enjoying it). Anyway, the old quarter was so different than what I was expecting from Barcelona (a hip, vibrant city) that I think it kind of threw me for a loop for a bit. That being said, it's definitely worth exploring!
We had tickets for a mid-afternoon tour of the Picasso Museum (I think free!! if I'm remembering right because we now have Spanish residency cards that show we live here as students and students go in for free!). Picasso was born in Málaga, and spent his youth in Spain, but moved to Paris in 1904 when he was 23 and never returned to Spain aside from short visits here and there. The Museu Picasso in Barcelona holds many of Picasso's works created while living in Spain, much of it spent in Barcelona. On a personal note, we've found we enjoy many of his earlier works more than his later cubist and surrealist art anyways, so we liked this museum very much.
D - Yes! This is a Picasso I can actually appreciate with my limited knowledge of painting! It's amazing how good he was from such a young age. It reminds me of myself and basketball early on (if only I hadn't jammed my finger when I was 8, derailing a very promising, and almost guaranteed, long and successful career).
Back to the Palau de la Música Catalana for our evening tour (note: I think it's probably best toured during the day as it was gorgeous when we saw it so I can only imagine how much more stunning the building would be with natural light streaming in through the colorful windows and doors.). The building is just a year shy of being a century old and is truly grand, inside and out. It is in a crowded part of town, though, so it's hard to fully appreciate its grandeur from the outside, I felt, so do plan ahead and take a tour of the inside - it's worth it!
D - Yeah, booking the evening tour of a place that really shines brightest during the day was my mistake. Oh well! It really was a great tour anyway. It really enables you to get up close and personal with the Modernista architecture that Barcelona is so famous for.
Barcelona was really decked out for Christmas. Many, many streets had lights on them and we saw a few different Christmas trees, markets, and squares full of decorations - even Santa!
We started our second day in Barcelona at La Pedrera, or Casa Milà, a building designed by Gaudí and built in the early 1900's. The building wasn't necessarily popular when it was built, and I think it (along with many - all? - of Gaudí's works) is still somewhat polarizing and controversial, but I rather liked La Pedrera. Right now the inside is primarily apartments and the rest is a museum (what we toured). Visitors can walk around the roof, which offers a unique perspective of the building and the city and a chance to get some of those classic shots you may have seen floating around Instagram and/or Pinterest. First thing in the morning was the perfect time to go, too - as you can see, when we first got up on the roof, we were some of the only ones up there!
D - La Pedrera is really cool, though I think my internal jury is still out on whether I can truly appreciate the Modernista style and most of Gaudi's work. It's kind of like a lot of modern art. I just don't really get it.
From La Pedrera we walked along Passeig de Gràcia a bit and checked out some of the other buildings (from the outside), one of which (Casa Batlló) was also designed by Gaudí.
We changed direction (but kept things in the theme of Gaudí) and walked to Park Güell. It's technically a public park, but within the past few years certain parts of the park have been deemed the "Monumental Zone" and an entrance fee is now charged to get in. (Gaudí's house museum is also located in the park, for another separate entrance fee.) We were there on a beautiful day, and the park is really unique. It doesn't seem to have loads of green space - i.e., it's not a great place to bring your dog to run around or play fetch or get friends together to play football as far as I can tell, but it's not a bad place for a picnic or to read a book - there are benches and tables and plenty of little spots to hang out. It's just not really a traditional park...it's more a tourist attraction (although I think that certainly wasn't Gaudí's original intent), or at least that was my impression.
D - During our time in Barcelona, I kept thinking about how much it reminded me of California. I've found that places are never as exotic, as foreign, or as alien as I imagined them to be in my head before arriving. Not to say that these places aren't amazing, but they always have an aura of familiarity surrounding them. Like when we went hiking here in Spain and, to me, it felt very similar to hiking in Colorado. I don't know why this came as a surprise to me but it did ("They have pine trees in Spain? Shocking!"). Travel has shown me that there are only so many ecosystems on earth, and they all feel like... well, earth.
La Sagrada Familia...wow. I don't think I prepared myself to be properly impressed by this church since I knew it was still under construction. I was kind of the mindset of, "Well, if it's not done yet...Why visit? Why pay to go inside? (Why are they even charging people to get in if it's not done?!) And also - why is it taking them so long to finish the thing in this day and age??" Well, let me say, if you go to Barcelona and you have just a small bit of time and you can only do one thing, (in my opinion) this is the one thing you should do. And definitely, definitely go inside. Take a guided tour (in your language) so you understand why it has taken so long and why it costs to get in (so they can pay to finish it, of course), and when it should (finally!) be finished, as well as many of the stories and symbols you might not know from just taking a look at the outside. I loved the Sagrada Familia, and was especially struck by the inside - it's truly like no other church we've visited.
D - I had similar thoughts to Shannon while we were headed to the church. I didn't think it was going to be that great. Again, this confirms my ongoing travel theory: low expectations makes for better experiences. Having low (or even no) expectations gives one the freedom to just explore a place and enjoy it for what it is. At any rate, the Sagrada Familia is amazing and Shannon and I both agree that we are excited to go back and see it when it's completed! On a side note, we were both a bit amused when our tour guide informed us that not only were we paying for admission and future construction with our entrance ticket, but also (as buying a ticket is a form of penance) for the forgiveness of our sins. I'm glad we made it here in time!
We wrapped up our second day with a visit to the interior of the Catedral de Barcelona, where a service was taking place, so we couldn't explore the whole cathedral, but we could walk around about half of it. Also, check out the massive Advent wreath suspended between the two aisles! Too bad we missed the lighting of it - seems to me like it would require nothing less than a very tall ladder!
While walking back to our Airbnb, we passed by an intriguing looking market. It turned out to be Barcelona's famous Mercado de La Boqueria, a tourist hotspot right off of La Rambla. We arrived shortly before closing time it seemed, as sellers were trying to get rid of juices and fruit cups and we ended up with a pretty sweet deal on a late night snack (fresh juice and fruit for a euro, I think). So pleased with ourselves for discovering this secret spot in the city, we returned the next morning (and I believe in the evening as well to get some goods for the train).
We started our last day in Barcelona at the Castell de Montjuïc, a military fortress from the 1600's. We walked in and around the castle, enjoying the peaceful views of the city and the sea.
D - The castle is interesting not only because of the great views that it offers, but also because of its history. During Franco's reign, it was a symbol of the oppression of the Catalonian people and culture. The castle is where rebels were sent, and often never seen or heard from again. Nowadays, in true Barcelona fashion, instead of being torn down after Franco's reign, it has been repurposed for the needs of a modern city.
Montjuïc is a hill in Barcelona, and the castle is at the top of it. As we walked down the hill, we made a few other stops...first up, fun slides! Always happy when us big kids can get a chance to play once in a while too ;)
Next was the stadium used during the 1992 Olympics games, which were held in Barcelona, the Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys. The stadium was built in 1927 for both an international exposition held in the city and for the 1936 Olympics (which ended up being held in Berlin), and was then renovated in 1989 to be ready for the 1992 games. It can now seat ~54,000 people, and is still used for events, in particular, concerts. Last year Beyoncé played in the stadium and this summer U2 is scheduled too, although I was most interested to read that One Direction had played there a few years prior. There is also an Olympic museum just across the street that seemed well-done and interesting (if you like sports and/or the Olympics) but we just didn't have the time. Next time!
We didn't go into the Palau Nacional (home to the National Art Museum of Catalonia), but we did have our camera take a few pictures on the self-timer in front of it...and we allllmost used one of them for our Christmas card.
Just down the street is the last bullfighting ring to operate in Catalonia - which has now been converted into a mall. From the outside, it still looks like a bullring you'd find elsewhere in Spain, but on the inside there's no doubt it's a mall. Bullfighting has been banned in Catalonia since 2010, although while getting that fact I found out that Spain's constitutional court overturned the ruling this past fall, saying that doing so went against the "preservation of common cultural heritage." A spokeswoman for Catalonia said her government would, "set to work immediately to ensure that the ruling has no practical effect." So...without getting into the nitty gritty of it...bullfighting is definitely still a touchy subject here :)
D - The old bullring is really cool. Seriously, who doesn't love sweet, repurposed buildings?
We finally made our way to the beach, and after deciding not to have lunch at the food court at the (former) bullring, we found a fun place with a patio (yes, in December) and some good-looking food and dug in! Below - Danny's veggie burger and my strawberry banana cheesecake French toast. Both the presentation and the taste was top-notch.
D - I would have never thought to put an imitation ice cream cone (with hummus) on top of a burger, but these guys did and it was incredible.
Around the corner from the restaurant we rented bikes and rode along the beach, and then along a "bike path" (aka crowded sidewalk) to Parc de la Ciutadella, where one of the main features, a large fountain, was partially designed by, you guessed it, Gaudí. After returning our bikes we walked along the boardwalk for a little while (while I love biking around new cities - so much faster than walking! - sometimes I feel like I can't really slow down and see things very well, so since we had the time, we went back and strolled for a little while at sunset).
And that was Barcelona! We took the train to Valencia the next morning, where we had even more gorgeous weather and time at the beach and on bikes!
Obviously, we can't say enough glowing things about Barcelona. And really, we had a great time. As I was going through our photos for this post, I commented to Danny how we should really find a way to live in Barcelona once we're done in Madrid. The weather is milder, it's on the coast, it's closer to France, and I can't even count the number of vegan/vegetarian restaurants we saw while walking around (my rough estimate is 50-100). Every meal we ate was delicious, and many of them were not planned in advance - some restaurants were chosen based on research we'd done in advance, but others we chose while walking around, "Oh that looks good, they're advertising vegetarian options, let's check it out" - and everywhere we went is worth recommending (if only I had thought to write done the names or something...).
There's a lot of comparing Madrid and Barcelona that goes on, and not just because of their football (soccer) teams. Madrid is more classically Spanish - if you want to really experience Spain and Spanish food and art and culture - visit Madrid. Barcelona is more worldly, more European, more hip, more touristy - it has more "big" sights to see, perhaps in part because it's spent more time on the world stage (or vice versa) - if that appeals to you, visit Barcelona. But I say, visit both! They're both important to Spain and to Europe (and, arguably, the world) and have plenty to see and do - very different things to see and do, but both have plenty. So, until we find a way to make the sunny city our home, until next time Barcelona!