Story by Anne Burns
Barcelona was, for me and my husband, the perfect destination for a week’s getaway. We booked on impulse, taking advantage of special fares, having always vaguely intended to visit the city. We had very little fore-knowledge of Barcelona, other than a TV documentary about the architecture of Antoni Gaudi and a love of Spanish wine. We had no itinerary to follow other than to explore and try to get the feel of a new city.
We booked into the centrally located HCC St. Moritz hotel, which turned out to be an excellent choice. Clean, friendly and unpretentious, it is in a small side street within easy walking distance of the major shopping area, markets and many places of interest. The metro line is just around the corner for more distant trips.
We started by strolling from the hotel to begin to get our bearings. Within 2 minutes we came across Gaudi’s Casa Mila, which is an astonishing blend of architectural features, resembling a wonderfully colourful fairy-tale illustration. Changing direction, we passed elegant stores and found ourselves on Rambla, the market street thronged by tourists and pickpockets.
In the actual market hall, Mercat Bouqueria, sales are brisk and there is a huge variety of food offerings beautifully displayed. We began to wish we were self-catering – but this was a holiday so we studied restaurant menus on our way back to the hotel, anticipating dinner later.
By evening, our area was transformed into a huge restaurant scene, where locals and tourists mingle and outdoor tables crowd the sidewalks. It would have been difficult to go far to choose a restaurant, as the aromas and the dishes we saw drew us in almost immediately. Ahh, Catalan sausage with baby beans equals happiness!
The next day we took the hop-on-off bus tour, staying on board for the whole circuit to gain a sense of Barcelona’s geography and places of importance, and realized that the week would go by very quickly. At the end of the tour, we fed our hunger along with our enthusiasm by studying the map and circling places to visit, over a glass of wine and a delicious selection of tapas.
On a morning’s walking tour of the Gothic quarter, we began with the imposing Cathedral. We discovered that the quarter, including the Cathedral, was built over the original Roman city. Close by is the Picasso Museum with a seemingly endless queue outside; we decided to keep walking. Next was the Santa Caterina Market. There we found the essence of Barcelona’s food culture – meat and poultry, local hams and sausages, an amazing assortment of fish (being cleaned and filleted to order), baked goods, condiments, cheeses, olive oils, fruits, vegetables and much, much more. Only a short distance from the Bouqueria Market, Santa Caterina was not crowded with tourists and we stocked up there on high quality local canned olives and olive oils, saffron and smoky paprika to take home. There is an excellent restaurant here too. [We returned twice for dinner, arriving early as seats fill up fast.] Our guide was a fervent Catalonian and told us at length of their struggle for independence.
Another day’s walk was to the Basilica of the Sagrada Familia. Gaudi’s breathtaking masterpiece, left unfinished when he was killed in a tram accident in 1926, remains a work-in-progress, too beautiful to describe adequately. Gaudi incorporated images from nature throughout his work; animals, plants and seeds are meticulously researched. We spent hours marvelling at his use of proportion, design and materials – all clear evidence of his genius. This was the highlight of our trip, and if I return to Barcelona I will return to the Basilica.
A morning’s visit, and in complete contrast, Gaudi’s garden is a colourful, playful park full of bizarre mosaic- covered structures. There is a very steep climb to reach the garden, and if you have trouble walking you should go as far as possible by metro. The views of the city from here are rewarding and it would be an excellent place to bring children.
Our only excursion outside Barcelona was by train, to Girona, approximately 60 miles away. We had seen posters advertising a flower festival there. The metro station near the hotel links to the train station and the journey is very straightforward. Unfortunately, the flower festival was a non-event. There were a few amateurish displays in windows and doorways and we climbed high up on the town walls to see a special garden of flowers, which turned out to be a tiny garden full of multi-coloured umbrellas. Girona is a pretty, ancient little town however, and we enjoyed a leisurely stroll around before returning to Barcelona.
One evening we decided to find a restaurant with the irresistible name ‘El Glop’, recommended by a Spanish friend of our daughter. We showed the address to our hotel receptionist and asked for its location on the map. He seemed uncertain and indicated it vaguely as “around there”. Full of optimism, we set off up the hill. More than an hour later, having asked countless people if they could direct us, and now completely lost in a maze of tiny streets, we finally sat to reassess the situation in a little coffee shop. Over the best cappuccino I have ever experienced, we chatted with the owner who, amazingly, laughed at our map and pointed us around 3 corners to El Glop! And it was wonderful!
El Glop was exactly the little neighbourhood restaurant we all hope to find when we travel. The charcuterie plate had a staggering variety and would feed an army, and the paella was the stuff dreams are made of. Wine was suggested, then a second bottle quaffed and when the bill arrived we were amazed to find such an enjoyable local wine was about $7 per bottle. We bought another 2 bottles to take back to the hotel.
After 8 days we returned home relaxed, refreshed and with very happy memories. We certainly hadn’t ‘done’ Barcelona – we didn’t manage to see most of the places we had circled on the map – but we are now familiar with its shape, its rhythms and friendly atmosphere. We walked miles, as the mood took us, and felt comfortable exploring on our own. And there is still enough left undone that we could be tempted back!
IF YOU GO:
- Beware, everything closes for lunch from 11 onwards, until 2 – 3pm, and again from 5 – 7pm
- Take very comfortable walking shoes, you will need to do a lot of walking to fully appreciate the city and to justify the enormous, delicious dinner you will eat later.