I always felt that Barcelona was quite different than the rest of Spain. After all, it is Catalonia. Until today, Catalans still feel a sense of separateness from the Spaniards with whom they share a nation, and Catalonia continues to debate about separating from Spain.
But considering all of this, in my mind, we were still traveling to Spain. It is really no wonder, because you still feel like you’re about to experience the Spanish traditions that are synonymous with the image of Spain as a country!
The Catalan culture has it’s own distinct set of traditions and cuisines. But the Flamenco dance, the infamous Spanish Paella dish, and everything people generally know about Spain are also expected to be found in Barcelona. All of these cultural customs do exist and can be experienced there, however, Barcelona isn’t originally home to them.
The more we stayed in Barcelona, the more the differences became apparent.
As excited as I was to experience Spain for the first time, my first impression of Barcelona was that it’s a tourist trap. It’s one of the most visited cities in Europe. Even though we planned our trip during the low season and expected the crowd to quiet down, it was still throbbing with tourists which became a nuisance at times.
But the city’s overall hip hangouts, interesting collections of art, and monumental architecture made everything worthwhile. After all, we were in a new place and that was enough to keep us excited all the way!
Antoni Gaudi’s Modernista Architecture
Honestly, I hadn’t known much about Barcelona’s treasured architect until we witnessed his artworks in reality. The Spaniard left his footprints all over Barcelona and we spent most of our time tracing his iconic buildings. Gaudi practiced a form of art known as Catalan Modernism, mostly drawing inspiration from nature, religion, architecture and Catalan culture. His work was characterized by mosaics and an impressive level of detail. He had a recognizably distinct and signature style in all his buildings. Barcelona is simply a manifestation of Gaudi’s artistic vision and when one thinks of Barcelona, Gaudi should immediately spring to mind.
The very first building we spotted was Casa Batllo, visible from our hotel balcony. From the early morning until dusk, we could see the never-ending queues to the house and never really managed (or even attempted) to enter it.
(Just as I journey through my story here, I will be writing more about Antoni Gaudi’s work along the way, many of which are now Barcelona’s landmarks)
We continued to explore much of the city on foot. Our hotel was located in a shopping area called Eixample, so there were high-end brands everywhere. In Barcelona, the buildings are incredibly historic and most of the time I found it bothersome to see these ornate and ancient structures sharing a wall with a Starbucks or stamped with the zillionth Zara brand in the area. It was frankly an eye sore and one of the main things I immediately disliked about the city!
The Gothic Quarter: La Ramblas and The Boqueria Market
It only took a short taxi ride or nice walk from our hotel to reach the famous medieval neighborhood known as the Gothic Quarter and this is where most of the touristic places are found.
The Gothic Quarter starts with the notorious La Ramblas street, a wide pedestrian zone. If you look up any tourist guide or tips it will probably tell you to preferably avoid this place at all costs and there are a number of reasons for this.
Once in the Gothic Quarter, sometimes there is really no other way to get to a place except to cross La Ramblas, so we didn’t intend to entirely stay off the tourist trail. It’s lined with giant trees and hordes of pop-up vendors selling their kitschy tourist trinkets (good for magnets though!) There are also tons of restaurants and cafes which are reportedly said to be too over-priced for only mediocre food.
Aside from being crowded, Barcelona is the pickpocketing capital of the world and the La Ramblas boulevard is THE place for it. You’d be surprised at the variations of schemes these pickpockets employ to trick their victims. The only way to safely get through this “dodgy” street was to make sure we had our bags in front of us and clutched with one hand, also ensuring all pockets are empty, or better yet, having no pockets at all.
Walking through La Ramblas wasn’t that bad I must say. As first-time visitors it was actually quite interesting, just as any first encounter with anything.
Eroticism seems to be quite the rage in Barcelona, due to it’s open tolerance. As we look up to our left, we spot an erotic museum with a Marilyn Monroe impersonator poised at the balcony, waving at the crowd below. Flower stands along the La Ramblas sell seeds of erotic fruits, from melons that grow to look like a woman’s breast, to flowers that resemble, well, you probably guessed it!
One of the places I was excited about was Mercat de La Boqueria, Barcelona’s famous open food market. It’s teeming with a variety of produce ranging from a kaleidoscope of fruits, ham, flowers to cheeses. It was bustling with faces from all around the world. The limitless bounty of flavors and scents surrounding us was overwhelming, I must say!
Thinking we would be leaving with a full stomach and camera filled with photos, that wasn’t the case. The place was super crowded, we could barely walk through or even stand to look at a stall. With the amount of people rubbing up against you also made it hard to take a decent photograph!
After a quick round in the market, we left and continued our path along La Ramblas until we reached the Mediterranean sea. Around that time, the sun was just beginning to set.
A taste of Paella!
It was time (isn’t it always?) to devour some seafood for dinner. On the beachside, we found a restaurant serving primarily fresh marine goodness with a variety of paella dishes as their specialty. We ordered the mixed seafood paella and some calamari for starters.
I hadn’t realized how delicious paella actually is until this moment. Because the term Paella refers to the iron-cast pan in which the dish is cooked, usually over an open fire, the rice is formed into toasted, caramelized edges which becomes more tender and creamy towards the center (not as creamy as a risotto). It was bursting with seafood flavors! The calamari appetizers also melted in the mouth. Delicious!
Interestingly, there is also a Catalan version of the Paella dish called the Fideua. It’s exactly the same, except instead of rice, the Catalans use a short type of noodle similar to the Indomie ones.
The next morning, we embarked on a trip to La Pedrera, also known as Casa Mila. It’s another enduring monument of architect Antoni Gaudi, featuring an alien-like rooftop of strange figures. The house was designed for a wealthy family in 1912.
Before we were about to leave La Pedrera, there was a very interesting art shop inside with cool art figures, toys, and best of all, books on all kinds of art topics!
I wouldn’t call myself a football fan at all. When my husband wanted us to go to Europe’s largest and most popular football stadium, I wasn’t that much enthused in the beginning. Besides, he’s a Madrid fan. But oh boy, it turned out to be quite fun.
Camp Nou is actually referred to as an experience because it gives you access to the FC Barcelona stadium and the ‘player journey’ through back stage areas, namely the massage and relaxation room, dressing room, and press room. We enjoyed the experience at our own pace as we never enjoy being hurriedly herded through a place with tours. My husband was my personal tour guide and I was impressed by his expertise! (He’s a football fanatic!)
The first area as we entered opened up to a museum showcasing the history of the football team complete with a parade of winning trophies and many other moments of the club’s history. Then we moved on to the back stage areas and ultimately the stadium from a tunnel entrance where players had passed through for years. The scale of the stadium was huge, I can only imagine what it’s like on match days when it’s filled to the brim!
To top it off, there was also a new virtual reality area at the stadium that we decided to try out. In a 10 minute 360 video tour, we were immersed into the footsteps of the players and also the spectators which captured the overall lively atmosphere of a match!
The El Raval Urban Street
Historically known as a red light district, El Raval is considered a seedy place with a rather dark history of violence, sex, and crimes. It’s preferable not to walk these streets alone (as a female), even in the daylight. As I was taking pictures, an angry drunk woman yelled something in Spanish. I guess she didn’t want to be in the frame! There are certainly a lot of wandering eyes there that can be intimidating.
With a labyrinth of dilapidated buildings, El Raval looks almost like a ghetto. It’s also a multi-cultural community, as we also spotted falafel restaurants, Thai cuisines, Indian cafes and Pakistani supermarkets. In general, the entire district has a Bohemian and indie feel to it, which gives it part of its charm. With some exploration there are trendy spots to stumble upon.
In the same area as El Raval, there’s Barcelona’s Contemporary Art Museum (MACBA) which is also popular with skateboarding communities.
I was told that Gracia is one of Barcelona’s must-visit towns, owing to its quaint hipster neighborhood characterized by independent shops and local restaurants. It is also said that is where we could get a taste of the real Barcelona experience.
One of our first stops was Gaudi’s Park Guell!
Park Guell by Gaudi
The park is HUGE and also insanely popular. It took quite a trek to cross the whole place! This is probably my second most favorite of Gaudi’s works after Sagrada Familia.
Park Guell was also intended to be a new housing development for the wealthy, but for some reason, the project had failed. That’s one beautiful failure though. From what I’ve heard, is that Park Guell was quite a complex construction to build, which ultimately lacked funding. There was a plan to build up to 60 houses and the buyers would help fund this development. Due to a shortage of buyers Gaudi completed only two houses, one of them being his own and another turned into a museum. Now, it’s an artistic monument open to millions of tourists.
The centerpiece of the park is a mosaic salamander statue that resides at the gates of Park Güell. The lizard now acts as the symbol of Barcelona as well as Gaudi himself.
The intricacies of the mosaic designs covering the park are really impressive!
Because Park Guell is located on a hill, there is also a small terrace overlooking Barcelona which at the time was undergoing construction and I believe there’s a fee to enter.
When we left the park, we stumbled upon a cool-looking vibrant souvenir shop, filled with mosaic trinkets.
Since we were in Gracia, we decided to walk back to it’s next-door neighborhood called Eixample close to where our hotel is located. There, we decided to have some lunch in a place called Paelleria, and yes, it’s all about paellas!
El born is another hip and trendy place. We primarily wanted to check out the district for its local shops and “Made in Barcelona” goods. El Born is actually the locals’ favorite place. It’s a very “bo-ho” – looking town with an artistic edge. Interesting places range from chic art boutiques, trendy concept stores, and even a local design market (which was closed on the day and we didn’t make it on our trip), but we did find plenty of great places to see.
The Picasso Museum
Arguably one of the most famous artists out there, this was a good enough reason to pay a visit to the museum dedicated to his life and work. What surprised us mostly, is that while he is known for his colorful “Cubism” style artwork, this is not what we found. The museum focused mostly on the artwork he did during the early parts of his life, which were unexpectedly less vivid and radiant but duller with black and grey tones. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take photos at all.
It was interesting to see how his work evolved over time. I wanted to understand how he made this drastic transition in his paintings. One of the biggest factors had to do with his life story as that greatly affected how he expressed himself.
The Santa Maria Del Mar Cathedral
By coincidence, we came across this beautiful gothic church in El Born. We decided to take a quick peep inside, and just in time a tour was about to start. At first we joined but then wandered off and found ourselves lost from the group.
During that time we just strolled around and marveled at its interior.
I just love it when religious sites are decorated in beautiful stained glass. It gives the church that magical and heavenly illumination, especially when sun rays shine through!
We then found ourselves in an atmospheric courtyard, where we rested on a bench for a while and made friends with a Russian Blue.
We decided to head back to the tour group but couldn’t find them. So we asked a man working in the church how to reach them. Apparently they were already on their way to the bell tower and had locked the door behind them. The man was kind enough to show us the way and unlocked the old wooden door that lead to the tower.
“Here you are! Got a little lost didn’t you?” said the tour guide.
It was indeed a long climb up through a narrow spiraling staircase!
Panting and somewhat dizzy, we finally reached the top featuring 6 bells with varied sizes. The bells are given names and baptized since they represent the voices of god.
Further up ahead, there’s a terrace overlooking some of the best views of Barcelona!
On the way to Poblenou District
Poblenou is also one of Barcelona’s towns recommended to us. It is another authentic part of the city with a local atmosphere, filled with traditional Catalan hole-in-the-walls. There are old derelict buildings around from the industrial age, but also a lot of residential streets that are fun to look around.
The Olympic Park and Montjuic Hill
Twenty-seven years ago, the Olympic Games of Barcelona were inaugurated in 1992. Here, in Montjuic, we witnessed the beautiful Olympic Park on a cloudy morning. The vast space lined with columns are one of it’s distinguished features, as well as the soaring white needle-shaped tower which almost pierced the low-laying skies that day.
The tower, which is called the Calatrava, acts as a sun-dial as well as a communications tower that carried the coverage of the games back then.
Within Montjuic park, we also came across Barcelona’s Museum of Art (Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya). Unfortunately it was closed on the day but we still admire its beautiful architectural grounds.
After some short chats with the locals who helped us navigate to Montjuic Castle, we eventually located the Funicular ride up Barcelona’s highest hill where the castle was situated. Oddly enough, “Montjuic Mountain” actually translates to “Mountain of the Jews” because of a Jewish cemetery that was found there.
The Montjuic fortress overlooks the sea and for over 300 years served to defend the city. It was used to bombard the people below and to imprison, torture and execute the survivors in the 1800’s. For this reason it was also used as a prison during the Spanish Civil War.
Inside the castle, prisoner rooms now accommodate displays of old artifacts, weapons, armor, and exhibits showcasing the several episodes of history of the Catalan capital. The creepiest part is that many important figures in Spanish history were even executed within its walls!
It was getting quite gloomy at this military enclave, so after exploring the place we started to head back home. It was a long day!
Last Day: Sagrada Familia
The Everlasting Legacy that crowns Barcelona
Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, also known as the Basilica of the Holy Family, was the perfect culmination to our trip. We decided to make the reservation days before in the afternoon as it’s believed that the sunsetting gives the interior a beautiful glow.
When we arrived to our destination, I was in awe!
Started in 1883 and to this day, Sagrada Familia is an unfinished dream. It is still in the works after 135 years! Antoni Gaudi dedicated the rest of his life on the project, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to finish it within his lifetime. He believed that his client was god himself.
As I walked towards this behemoth of a church, it left me awestruck at its sheer size. I’ve always seen it in photographs and didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. I always felt it looked like a half-melted candle. But up close and in person, it’s completely different and it gives you a real sense of scale and grandness. The strangeness of it was rather moving.
I find it amazing that a construction so old is left to be finished in the hands of modern times, which is already set to be completed in a few years. The Basilica is entirely funded by private patrons and the entrance tickets.
If the exterior wasn’t striking enough, the ethereal beauty of the interior was just as marvelous!
I already mentioned my love for castles here, but my other big love are cathedrals!
What I hadn’t know prior, is that Gaudi himself is buried in the cathedral. His crypt is in one of the chapels and visible through a glass window from above. Fascinating!
Further inside a corridor, there’s an exhibition of the story behind Gaudi’s work.
After a wonderful time at Sagrada Familia, our hunger pangs started to kick in.
Time for Tapas
We found a bustling Tapas bar next to our hotel. After going there a few times we liked the experience and became regulars.
Tapas are like morsels of meals on toasted bread and are meant to be eaten as a snack. Usually they are topped with simple ingredients like olives, cheese or ham. But Spaniards have gotten creative. In general, sharing tapas is a social activity and a bonding experience.
A Catalan Trinket
The caganer is one of the most characteristic and beloved figures in popular Catalan Christmas imagery and it is believed to represent good fortune. Apparently, pooping ceramic figures of famous people is a popular thing in Barcelona. Even presidents, political figures, and celebrities are turned into a “Caganer”. The traditional caganer is depicted wearing a red Catalonian hat and a white peasant shirt.
That’s all for my Spanish story. If I ever do return, I think I would love to see Valencia! or perhaps the Canary Islands 🙂
Until next time!