A personal note (you can skip this if you just want to read about Barcelona):
I like to dabble in family history. Not because I believe that one’s ancestors define them, but because I find it fascinating to know the story of where they came from and how our families were shaped. Various ancestry websites, family historians, and even a DNA test have given me a collage of faces, names, and stories that together create a grainy projection of the past. I am going to shock no one by relaying that I am mostly of English/Scottish/Irish/Welsh heritage. Even though I’ve inherited the most genetic markers from this group, most of them immigrated to the states so long ago that their basic information, such as hometown and occupation, has been lost. Alternately, there is a more recent and exotic branch on mother’s side of the family that came from Barcelona and the island of Menorca. I only inherited about 5-10% of my DNA markers from this group of sailors and merchants, but their impact is still visible. They are the reason I was raised Catholic, and probably the source of my grandmother’s Mediterranean good looks. Which is why, however distantly related, this corner of Spain literally has a piece of me. This is the only major European city I can point to and say that a part of my family’s story started here, some of my ancestors lived here, I may even have very distant cousins running around here. And bonus – it’s one of the best cities we’ve ever visited.
There was never a question of whether or not we would visit Barcelona, it was more a matter of when. Summer is too crowded, Spring and Fall never felt right, but somehow visiting this beach city in the winter seemed like perfect timing. I’m a late January baby so we timed the trip to line up with my birthday. (Happy Birthday to me!) Because of the off-season and the general affordability of Spain, we were able to book three nights at the H10 Metropolitan (highly recommend), a four star hotel for the same price that it would cost for a single night in Paris/London/Vienna/Rome/etc. Just one more reason to love Spain.
One of the hardest things to figure out when visiting any new city, is where and what to eat. I’ve said this before, but it’s too easy to sit down in the nearest plaza and have a so-so meal for a lot of money. We know these as tourist traps, and every visited city has them. What’s even more challenging is finding the restaurants and cafés that are not only good but enhance your experience and understanding of the local culture. In certain cities food can do this more so than the local museum, and Barcelona is a prime example of this. We ate so much here I almost named this post Eating Barcelona. But first, we wanted some expert guidance before setting out on our own, so just a few hours after our flight landed, we joined the Tapas Lover’s Tour for our first night.
I’m not always a tour person, but I haven’t met a food tour I dislike yet. We met up with two other American couples, an Australian and our guide who is a Parisian turned local, Matt. We strolled to several restaurants and made friendly traveler chit-chat. I don’t know if we just had a really great group, or if Matt’s hosting skills encourage good conversation, or maybe it was all the wine, but this was one of the highlights of our trip.
Of the three restaurants, one was “Mountain” based, meaning that we sampled foods typical to the inland Catalan region, the next was seafood based, and the third was a dinner too pretty to just be called food. We sampled cured ham, local cheeses, tomato bread, croquettes, chorizo, clams in an herb sauce, sardines, fish, octopus with potatoes, prawns, etc – just at the first two restaurants, and with many glasses of excellent wine. The third and final place, which was “dinner” even though we had been snacking for a few hours was a restaurant we would have never stumbled upon ourselves called Bardot.
If I lived here I would visit this restaurant over and over again. We had roasted artichokes topped with poached eggs and truffles, tender tiny quail legs rolled in sesame seeds and sitting in pear foam, more potatoes and octopus tapas, but more artfully prepared, croquettes, perfectly roasted peppers, and a steak that was my husband’s favorite dish of the entire trip. Not to mention a chocolate crepe topped with chocolate pop rocks, and lots of fantastic wine. But as I mentioned before, it was not just the food, but Matt as a host made the experience so enjoyable. Not once did we feel like he was just doing his job. Showing people the food of his chosen city and getting to know people seemed to be something he truly enjoyed. A rare trait in guides. If you find yourself in Barcelona, book this tour, it’s not an option.
However, if you do book, do yourself a favor and forego any early morning plans. I did, and we ended up missing our reservation to visit the Gaudí area in Parc Guell. Not really that big of a deal, but if I could do it over again I wouldn’t plan on being anywhere before 11am the next day.
So why did I have reservations for a park of all places? Barcelona, like many european cities seems to run on reservations. You need reservations for dinner, lunch, attractions, museums, monuments, and even one of the areas in a park. And if you think you can just queue up to get in, you might be in for a surprise. Many popular ticketed sights give tickets with assigned times, and not necessarily the time you are there. That means that on a crowded day, you could stand in line for thirty minutes to purchase a ticket that isn’t good for another few hours. Which basically blows up any schedule. Plan ahead. The websites are easy to navigate, and if you book a few weeks ahead in off-season, and ASAP in high-season, then you will have no problem walking into the sights with hardly any lines. I don’t like being tied down to a schedule either, but if you plan it right it won’t feel that way.
We decided to skip Parc Guell for the time being and went directly to Sagrada Familia.
This church, which isn’t set to be finished for at least another fifteen years, was on the cover of my tenth grade Spanish book. I used to contemplate it when my mind would wander during class and try to picture a society that agrees this is what a church should look like. As an adult I believe a church can look like whatever you want it to, but I also know that this is a church designed by Antoni Gaudí, an architect with a style all his own. You cannot and should not visit Barcelona without being confronted with Gaudí’s creations. I can’t say that he is my favorite architect, but I can admire the way he tried to incorporate nature into architecture with organic forms, and outdoor inspiration. One look at the nearby mountains surrounding Montserrat Abby, and you can see the inspiration for the freeform conical towers, and stalactite-like sculptures of the fascade.
Take time to admire the front door, being expertly climbed by life-like metal ivy and tiny bugs and butterflies.
The outside is impressive, and even more interesting up close, but to me, the best part is the interior. Try to frown when walking into this room on a sunny day. It’s like walking into a prism, or a rainbow hued winter forest rendered by Picasso during his cubist period.
Numerous slender columns, reminiscent of trees rise to the golden ceiling, with rainbows of stained glass reflecting off their white surfaces. Brightly lit glass medallions of saints hang like jewelry off the columns, and everything arrays around the suspended altar. This is a happy and celebratory space, so different and refreshing from the usual gloomy gothic cathedrals we find ourselves in.
We took our time here, soaked in the good vibes, then made our way to the rear of the cathedral where glass elevators smoothly rise to the tops of the towers. There are two towers you can visit, on the Nativity Fascade (the front), and the Passion Fascade (the back). We went with the Passion Fascade, both have basically the same view, but the Passion Fascade elevator will take you back down, which is a plus since I’m not a fan of spiral staircases. For a few extra euros everyone should do this, the view is so worth it.
It’s higher than it looks, and gives you the ability to see most of the city and a close up view of the towers themselves. A word of caution though, the towers are not for people with mobility issues, even with the elevators, there are still quite a few stairs involved, especially of the narrow spiral variety.
We had enough time between leaving the church and our lunch reservations to grab a cab and try to see if we could get into Parc Guell anyway. It turns out a reservation is a reservation, no exceptions, but the rest of the park was open to us, and after inspection it looked like half of the mosaic’d Gaudí area was scaffolded anyway. Plus, the open area of the park was really quite beautiful with a wide view of city, mountains, and ocean. Not a bad way to spend a half hour.
After exiting the park we found out that although a cab will drop you off at Parc Guell, and there is a taxi stand, it’s very difficult to get one on the way out. We ended up walking to the bottom of the hill and got a little hopeless until a cab happened to be driving down the residential street we were on. Another wonderful thing about Barcelona: you can hail a cab from the street, anywhere. No taxi stand required. Plus the city subsidizes their fares so a ride across town is very reasonable compared to most cities.
Amazingly, we actually made it to our lunch reservation on time. This is something I was very excited about. Despite how food-centric this post is, I’m not a foodie. I will never rave about sea urchin salad or complain about the texture of my calf brains. I also do not know a lot about Spanish/Catalan food, especially tapas, so I ended up researching the subject a lot, which lead to me learning more about the culinary scene in Barcelona and how it’s been at the forefront for the past decade or so. I got hungrier and more curious the more I read, and a recurring theme in all of my research were the restaurants run by Albert Adriá, specifically his flagship Tickets, which is next to impossible to get in to if you are planning less than two months in advance, but still looks like a lot of fun so I would try if you have the chance. But the compromise to Tickets is their daytime and more traditional establishment across the street Bodega 1900, which is where we went for lunch.
They sat us in the front room and we ordered a few glasses of vermouth, which I actually liked, and after reviewing the menu we let our server take charge of the courses, since we really had no idea where to start. And quickly the tiny courses started coming.
In well timed succession we ate spheres of pureed olives that burst in your mouth, jambon iberico, cheese, airy parmesan biscuits, razor clams, tuna belly soup, to-die-for calamari sandwiches, biscuits filled with chorizo, quail, cured beef, cheese, spicy stews, etc. It just kept coming, and all of it was wonderful. Midway through our meal I spotted a tapas recipe book written by Albert Adria, (which is available in English), we asked to purchase one, and our server was nice enough to run across the street to get it signed, which I’ll admit I fan-girled over a little. It’s expensive and a bit out of the way, but high quality, unique and tasty, so if you can swing it it’s absolutely worth it.
After this we tried and failed to find the Mies van der Rohe pavilion that was close-ish to the restaurant. I love GPS, it’s made traveling so much easier to have a little blue dot to follow on my phone and take me wherever I want to go. But sometimes it fails, and when it does I have no idea where I am because I was just following the stupid dot. We tried to get a cab driver to take us there but he misunderstood and took us inexplicably to the music hall on the other side of town. But if you’re a fan of modern architecture, this tiny building did a lot to set the stage for how buildings are designed today. We’ll try again next time.
Our next stop was Casa Batllo. Another trippey Gaudí building and possibly his most iconic.
There isn’t a flat surface in this entire building. Some people call it the ‘House of Bones’, some see water lilies, some see the faces of masks or insect wings on the balconies, and no one can ignore the very prominent dragon theme throughout the entire building.
The whole house is like a living mosaic of glass, ceramic, and plaster. I thought it would feel like a funhouse or novelty museum or something, but it actually feels very organic. As if someone asked mother nature to design her own house.
This was the end of our super-over planned day, that I usually try to avoid. They’re usually stressful, and though we did have a few mis-haps in the end we had a wonderful day filled with great art, tasty food, and sunshine. We kicked our shoes off in the hotel room for a while relaxed before our dinner reservation at – A MEXICAN RESTAURANT!!!
I should elaborate. You know that we live in Italy, and if you’ve been paying attention you also know that we’re from Texas. Which makes us accustomed to good Mexican food. Italy does not have good Mexican food. While some Mexican food ingredients can be found with intense effort like avocados, cilantro, and corn, for the most part fresh ingredients like tomatillo, peppers, black beans, and tortillas are nonexistent. And I get it, europeans in general have had no contact with actual good Mexican food, so the demand is low.
The Spanish are not an exception. They eat Spanish food, which is nothing like Mexican food, but a new restaurant called Hoja Santa opened in Barcelona last summer that specializes in authentic food from Mexico. With Mexican chefs and servers, and not a sombrero or electric cactus in sight!
Not only was the food delicious, and at times too pretty to eat, but it was so creative and fun. We drank margaritas with salt foam instead of salted rims, crab wrapped in thin slices of avocado and placed on corn discs like presents, spicy tacos on fresh corn tortillas with flower petals, beautiful spicy soups, refreshing ceviche, mole, and so so much more. We were stuffed, but we finally had that spicy south-of-the-border void filled for the meantime. I can’t say this with any authority but I believe this to be the best Mexican food restaurant in Europe. If you are from the states, you should try this place, if you are not familiar with Mexican food, then you have to visit. Mexican food is so much more than nachos and chimichangas.
If our first full day was jam packed with museums and reservations, our second was the complete opposite. Our only scheduled event was a museum at the end of the day, but otherwise the day was left up to us. We could hit up the flea markets, hang out in the parks and meet Snowflake the albino gorilla at the zoo, take a day trip to the mountains, sit by the sea, there was still so much to do. But instead of frantically zig-zagging Catalonia, we chose to take it easy, see what we could and take-in the old neighborhoods of the Gothic Quarter and El Born neighborhoods.
We started down the famous Les Rambles avenue. You’ll find many of these extremely wide streets in Barcelona with central pedestrian roadways between roads of traffic. They are referred to as Ramblas, which sort of means river or stream, because these roads used to be streams that ran through the city. Now they are paved over to prevent congestion. This is the most popular one that leads from Plaça de Catalunya to the column of Christopher Columbus by the water. It’s a nice short cut into the historic center but mostly I don’t understand why everyone says this such an amazing street, it’s crowded, full of touristy shops and not the prettiest street in Barcelona. But it does lead you toward some great places. First we stopped into La Boqueria, one of the oldest food markets.
Yes, it’s crowded, even on a January morning, but this is the best market I have ever visited. Wide aisles, clean, colorful, chaotic but not rude, instead of stacking produce together with a surly attitude, most of these stands were treated like businesses with displays and eye-catching décor. Grab fresh juice for one euro, stroll the aisles and keep your camera ready, I could not stop taking pictures.
They sell everything here. Every type of fruit or spice, nut or berry, even every part of the animal. Which I completely respect even though I will never be brave enough to eat tripe.
We had no real lunch plans, so we pulled up to one of the delicious looking bars that are sprinkled throughout the entire building.
We ate spicy chorizo sandwiches and picked up truffles at one of the chocolate stands for dessert. Every neighborhood should have a market like this. This place makes me want to move here.
We continued our walk down Les Rambles and ended up at the Monumento a Colón, or the Christopher Columbus monument.
Not my favorite historical figure, he was kind of a jerk. He lied, stole, and enslaved people on a regular basis, plus most of his theories were wrong. But I liked his monument, and Barcelona was the place where he was received by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella after his first voyage, though not the place where he reported that he was successful. Infact, he never acknowledged that the Caribbean, where he landed, was not Asia, even though many of his contemporaries believed it was a new land. Probably why America is named after Amerigo Vespucci and not Columbus.
We meandered around the Gothic Quarter and found ourselves in Plaça Reial. A nice open area with palm trees and restaurants. At night this is supposed to be a lively meeting space, but during the day it’s very low-key.
It’s hard to miss that most of the Gothic Quarter is not very gothic, and then suddenly very very Gothic around the church. At first I thought this was just the nicer part of the Gothic quarter, then I read that this area, though actually gothic, was adorned and renovated in the 1920s to look more gothic for the International Exhibition. Kind of a bummer to find that these little details haven’t actually withstood the centuries, but it doesn’t mean that this area isn’t 100% charming.
Of course if there is a tall crumbly church towering anywhere in the near distance, then I really must enter. In this instance we walked up to the Catedral de Barcelona.
The contrast between this church and Sagrada Familia is like comparing Venus to Mars, they are churches and they are in Barcelona but that is where the similarities end. I do love these old churches though. I’ve been to enough of them that you’d think I’d get bored, but entering each one always gives me pause.
Be sure to check out the side entrance, they keep geese there, a small museum, and a really beautiful courtyard.
After this we crossed the nearby Via Laietana in the El Born neighborhood, this turned out to be my favorite neighborhood. I could live here happily. Seriously. And I don’t often get that feeling in Europe.
Boutiques, bakeries, and wine bars fill the store fronts. Curvy streets give way to cafe lined plazas. Lights hang from lacey iron balconies on sunshine toned buildings. It’s very SoHo meets medieval Mediterranean.
The El Born area isn’t a large area. A five minute walk brought us to the center and the church of Santa Maria del Mar. Unlike the Cathedral we just let ourselves into, this was a church I wasn’t leaving Barcelona without seeing.
This gothic church is unique for several reasons. First, it was built from start to finish in just fifty years. Not three hundred like most churches, which means that it isn’t a hodge-podge of different styles, and a person could have conceivably seen it finished in their lifetime. Second, it was built as a community effort, by the people and the merchants of the neighborhood, not by a king or cardinal or as a peace offering from another country. Third, it has a bit of a maritime theme, who doesn’t like that?
We sat here for a while and took it in. Only a few other travelers were snooping around, so the room was nearly silent. I took a moment to think about my three great grandfathers (four if you count step-fathers) who lived in this region and chose to take a chance on a completely different part of the world. One of them, my Great Great Great Great Grandfather Mayans set sail just a few blocks from this church. I’ll never know this for sure, but I like to think he stepped in here to pray for a safe voyage and a better life in New Orleans.
We wandered the church and found a tiny staircase that lead up to a second story and gave close up views of the stained glass windows. It was only on our way out that I looked down and was delighted to find dozens of these:
My first thought was “PIRATES! Pirates are buried here!” But since then I have found exactly zero information to back this up. Most likely these are just symbols to indicate that someone’s bones were deposited in that location. I still like to think these are pirates though, or least some sailors with swagger.
We had time to kill so we sat for a glass of wine in a nearby and completely adorable wine bar called Vinya del Senyor that our food tour guide Matt, recommended. We both had a glass of Ribera del Duero red and enjoyed this perfect setting at one of the few outdoor tables they had. Little tip, if you want to sit outside, pay careful attention to which restaurant you’re sitting at. There are four restaurants clustered very closely together and it can be confusing which one you are sitting at.
Let me repeat myself, Barcelona is known for really amazing food, but they are also getting quite the pastry reputation. Two of the best are located in this plaça. One of them is Hofmann, which isn’t open in the late afternoon, but said to be worth the calories. The other is Bubó, which was open and completely irresistible.
The pastry here is beautiful. People were coming in here just to take pictures. But we had just walked across Barcelona, therefore we were not just in here to look. After a lot of deliberation, we chose a small chocolate confection that was voted best chocolate cake in the world, (I’m sure by a very important authority, and how do I get that job?), several years ago, and a fruity chocolatey yummy confection. Of course, we ordered with a glass of cava, because why not?
Our wide eyes met after the first bite, then we tried each others, then I decided I wasn’t sharing anymore. After that, the only sounds coming from our corner of the room were hums of delight. I tried to make mine last as long as possible. For those that say food is just fuel, I call bullshit, this little cake is a 2.5”D cylinder of joy.
We did the responsible thing and opted out of seconds, then slowly began our stroll along shopping streets to the Picasso Museum. This is another destination in Barcelona where it is best to buy tickets in advance.
Set in an old palace in the El Born neighborhood, we loved this museum. Picasso lived in this area off and on during his early adulthood. The museum chronicles a lot of his early work, and shows his transition from classical painter to the icon we know today. Along with works from his contemporaries and works that inspired him. I especially loved the last room in the exhibit, a room that displays dozens of Picasso’s interpretations of Velazquez’s Las Meninas. A very interesting painting from the Spanish Golden Age, and worth a study on it’s own.
This was our last scheduled stop on our trip, so we decided to get lost and freestyle it from here. And we did get lost, but in the best way. We found antique shops, bodegas, and sweet little green plaças. We hopped into galleries and pointed at clever street art. Also, my camera clicking finger must have gone numb because I completely forgot to take pictures of any of this. I did remember at the end though.
I’ve seen a lot of triumphal arcs, but for some reason this Arc de Triomf is my favorite. If it wasn’t about to get dark we would have pushed forward into the massive Parc de la Ciutadella, but we make it a point not to walk in parks at night, no matter where we are.
After two days of walking our angry feet had finally had enough, so we caught a cab back to the hotel to regroup. Again, I cannot emphasize enough how much I love a cab service that you can hail from the street, the luxury!
For dinner we chose something only a block away from our hotel, but with really great reviews. Trendy Ciudad Comtal doesn’t require reservations, but I do suggest you get there as early as you can. We arrived at 7:30, but just had to wait fifteen minutes for a table for two, which is kind of a miracle considering how crowded it was.
We ate creative tapas, like warm camembert cheese rolled in hazelnuts and topped with raspberry sauce, tiny delicious sliders, small filets with peppers, and a super filling and don’t-think-about-the-calories dish of shoe-string french fries mixed with poached eggs and a garlicky aioli sauce. So wrong, and so good. We congratulated each other on the perfect day and happily munched along while making pipe dream retirement plans for Spain. Finally and reluctantly, we made our final walk back to the hotel.
As I said in the beginning, this was a special trip for me. When planning, I was hoping to complete some ancestral cosmic loop and eat tasty tapas. I was not planning on completely falling in love with the city from beginning to end. The architecture, the wide boulevards and sidewalks, the people, the food, the prices, the cleanliness, the colors, the fashion, the sea, the mountains, the sunny winter days, the clear winter nights, and the unique laid back vibe that is not present in most European cities. I cannot type enough. Definitely one of our top all-time favorite cities.
As our flight took off the next morning, I starred out at the sea that my ancestors sailed from so long ago, and back at the beaches behind us. I couldn’t help but wonder why they wanted to leave, but ultimately I have to be happy that they did.
Until next time, Adéu!