Barçelona, the city of Gaudí and Gothic architecture, of tapas and two-wheeled traffic, of beach bars, bikes, and beautiful views, it was a pleasure to wander around for four days.
Unpacking four extensive days and stuffing it all back into one blog post would be a bit much. Particularly since my negligence has made me write this so late after getting back. So I am writing this in broad sections -- pick any or all that you would like to read!
I do have to begin though by thanking Robert Gernon and Anthony Dawson (pictured above^) for sticking it out in the city with me. Looking back on the four days, that would have been lonely as hell. And no, they are not in a band, but yes, it one hundred percent looks like they should.
As a brief introduction, here is why I was spending time in Barçelona in the first place: it made my overall trip five hundred dollars cheaper. I booked my flights through the trip planning company Expedia. Probably won't do it again, but I made it across the Atlantic and back with only minor hick-ups so I can't complain. The beauty of Expedia is it does the flight match-making for you. You put in your departure location, arrival location, and low long you will be gone, and out pops the cheapest connection of flights to get you from point A to point B and back to point A again. For me to have flown to Barçelona the day the trip started and flown back to California the day it ended would have been just over $1200. No bueno. For me to get to Spain a day early and then hang out in Barçelona for an extra four days after the climbing was over would put me in the ballpark of $750. Mucho bueno. It was far less than $500 to stay in the city for four nights so I booked the flights. It worked out for the best because two other climbers opted to stay in Spain with me and so for four days the three of us explored as much as we could in the Catalan capitol.
Like many European cities, Barçelona is known for its intricate and beautiful architecture. I'm not saying this just as some tourist with a wanderlust infatuation, but compared to what I have seen of Europe so far the architecture of America just doesn't really stack up. We have nice cities. We have neat buildings. We have beautiful areas that the cities are in. But of the major ones that I have walked/driven through -- Boston, Boulder, Denver, Phili, Chicago, NYC, San Jose, San Francisco, Seattle, Reno, and others... -- none
of their architecture is what I would call beautiful. Maybe in my mind anything hand carved out of stone instantly gets an extra +10 points on the "cool scale", I'm not sure. But the buildings of Barcelona are very cool, and very beautiful. The beauty is not relegated to just one historic part of town either. It's street after street of multi-floored, beautifully trimmed, stately buildings interspersed with narrow, windy, cobblestone alleyways lined by buildings that looked like they have been pulled off the Diagon Alley set of Harry Potter. There was a unique aspect to the streets that we couldn't figure out: the main roadways are incredibly wide. The common trend that I have seen in European cities (and almost always the case in villages) are very narrow roads. A city planner 800 years ago wasn't factoring multiple lanes of cars into the road width -- a few horses wide would do. The result is not straight and not wide roads. Outside of the Gothic Quarter and the connecting alleyways, Barçelona was the complete opposite. It was a grid of spacious roads that could handle 3-4 lanes of traffic, dedicated bike lanes on both sides, wide stone dividers down the middle, and sidewalks that spanned at least twenty feet. Maybe there were swaths of houses demolished with the advent of cars? I'm not sure. They also have a uniformed system of forming an
octagon at all intersections with matching building architecture. Picture an intersection with four buildings -- one on each corner. The corner of each building adjacent to the intersection is built on a diagonal so that you now have a square. A roadway lies in between each building forming their own square offset by forty-five degrees. Add two two together, and you get an eight-sided intersection.
Much of Barçelona's architectural beauty is owed to a man named Antoni Gaudí. I won't turn this into a biographical blog -- I only know a little about him -- but he was born mid-1800's and spent his educational and adult years in Barçelona. I do know that a unique element to his design style was his ability to design things that were equilibrated, meaning they could stand on their own with an internal framework. Many commissioned projects stand around the city that can be visited. As one of my friends put it (and I paraphrase) "It's kind of cool that Barçelona said 'Gaudí, we like your shit... go to town,' and just gave him free reign of the city." Far and away, however, his most famous project is La Sagrada Familia. Over one hundred years in the making and it still isn't done. You could say he was a bit of a dreamer. La Sagrada Familia is a church that towers (LITERALLY towers) over the surrounding city center. It has been built in phases and continuously worked on since the first stone was laid in 1883. I have always been one to marvel at Mother Nature's creations more than man-made creations. Something about dirt and rock moving itself into 20,000+ foot formations just really blows my mind. But, La Sagrada Familia won out. As another friend stated, "This building makes me proud to be human." It is truly a spectacle. If you haven't seen a picture, do yourself the favor of a quick Google search. It will do absolutely no justice to seeing the real thing, but it's a start. If you are ever in Barçelona, it's a must see. Even if you don't by a ticket to go inside (which is something you have to do ahead of time), it is worth just to stand outside and marvel. Then look at your own hands. Then look back at the ornate stone work. Then back at your own hands... and just ponder that for a bit.
Being someone with a pretty serious food allergy that is found in many foods (gluten), food on the go can be a bit of a challenge. Particularly when staying in a country whose language you do not speak. Luckily, I learned early on in the week that the key words to look for on packaging were "Sin Gluten" -- "without gluten." Across the board, Barçelona's food scene was quite easy to navigate. For any other GF travelers who find themselves in the capitol of Catalonia, Messié Sin Gluten is a must. It's a family-owned, hole in the wall pizza place on the north side of town up by Parc Guell. A little tricky to find but one hundred percent worth the effort. Pasta and pizza dishes, fresh-made juices, local artisan beers, cakes and muffins, everything is gluten free. I almost walked right back in and bought a second slice of double chocolate cake as I took my first bite heading out the door.
Markets abound in the city as well. Up and down La Ramblas -- the main shopping avenue of the city -- are vendors selling fresh goods. In the heart of the Gothic Quarter is Santa Caterina Market, one that me and my two friends visited for lunch. Fresh fish and other meats were hanging from every other vendor. Fruit smoothies chilled on ice stood next to endless crates of fruits. There were salami and chorizo in every form and flavor imaginable. Between the mixture of smells and cacophony of people talking was an assault on the sense but in the best way possible.
The truly iconic dish of Spain (or, more correctly, dishes) are tapas. Walk down any street in Barçelona and you will probably be within a block of a tapas bar. I wish I had grasped an understanding of what tapas are earlier in my stay. I had thought it was one specific dish and from what had been described to me it didn't sound like something I could eat. Not true. A rough translation of tapas would be finger-foods. And there are TONS of traditional tapas. Unfortunately, I didn't get to experience this until our last night in the city. Generally served in a bar setting, it's a variety of small dishes you can select from: patatas bravas, croquetas, fresh prawns, gazpacho, chorizo al vino, tortilla de patatas, the list goes on. Sometimes it is set up as a buffet style where a set will price will afford all you can eat, other places pay per plate. One friend described a bar where each item was on an individual toothpick; eat all you want, save your toothpicks, and bring them up to the register at the end to get tallied up. Regardless, a night with friends, drinks, and tapas is a must have experience.
Because I have only been to a few European cities, I don't have too many data points to compare this observation: Barçelona utilized two wheel transportation like no other city I have seen. Motorcycles, bicycles, mopeds, segways, hover-boards, scooters... if it had two wheels and a smaller engine than a car, it was used. Enough so that users develop their own flows of traffic on the streets. In cities I have visited, there tends to be a few brave souls that will take their lives into their own hands and try to leap-frog cars and pedestrians to get where they need to go. Barçelona had enough two-wheeled travelers that they formed their own line of traffic moving about streets, sidewalks, and bike lanes. And they were used by all ages! A middle-age woman would be sitting on her moped in heels next to the young-gun male on his matte-black motorcycle, both of whom were parallel with the mom riding a scooter on the sidewalk with her son in between her body and the handlebars.
To get a true Barçelona experience, we decided to rent bikes for the day and tour around. Three tourists on old bikes in busy street ways with no helmets and no knowledge of the traffic rules -- a solid plan! The bikes we got could have been out of a set for a WWII movie. They were the "Dutch Model" according to the pamphlet we selected from, in addition to being the cheapest option. Weighing forty pounds at least, they were solid metal with a bell (which proved to be quite useful), two speeds, U-shaped handlebars, and a built in lock around the back wheels to deter bike thieves. While there was a large
amount of two wheeled traffic on the roads, we opted to stick to the very wide sidewalks that line Barçelona's streets until we got a little more comfortable with our mode of transportation; this was much to the disappointment of some elderly couples out for their morning stroll. Safe to say there are old curmudgeons in every culture and I think we were getting a lot of "you goddamn kids!" yelled at us in Spanish.
The north side of Barçelona becomes much like Seattle or San Francisco in the sense that streets start heading uphill at a very steep angle which is when the upgraded option of an electric bike really started to look appealing. But, what goes up must come down and it made for an enjoyable ride back toward the city center as we left Parc Guell and headed for the Barçelona beaches. Turns out I didn't need a bell on my bike, I just had to squeeze the break. Every application of the lever let something close to the sound of a duck being choked out from the brakes and let everyone within a couple hundred foot radius know that a tourist was heading their way.
The entire day was pretty much without incident -- amazingly -- and we were able to cover so much ground while having a blast. Highly recommend doing it if visiting the city. Bike rentals are available everywhere and for what you are able to see in a day it's far and away the cheapest way to do it.
The Best Moment:
Monday night was the highlight experience of my stay in the city. Me and my two Irish friends had opted to stay in a hostel for our visit and had selected a room of eight. Hostels can be real hit or miss when traveling. If the stars align -- good accommodations, good roommates, and good location -- it can be the best way to travel. They tend to be relatively cheep and are an awesome opportunity to meet people from around the world. If the stars do not align, they can be a nightmare experience. The stars aligned for this trip. For twenty euros a night we were in the heart of the city in a clean place with, as it turned out, some really cool people.
The decision was made to go up into a park overlooking the city that housed old bunkers from the Spanish Civil War with wine, cheese, and meats to enjoy a sunset. Luckily three members of our group were fluent Spanish speakers; taxis were hailed and we made it to the park with minutes to spare. We
ran for the rooftops and found them already lined with people taking in the spectacular view. There was just enough time to pass out cups, fill them with wine, and make a quick toast to the moment as the last rays disappeared behind a castle-topped hill and ignited the clouds overhead with oranges and reds.
For the next hour, the seven of us sat and talked enjoying each other's company and the place we were in. With our current global climate, I found something really neat about that moment. Our group was made up of two Americans, two Irish, two Mexicans, and an Argentinian. It didn't cover all corners of the world but it was a pretty good spread. We had a fashion stylist turned product designer from San Diego. A law-
student with hopes to enter global politics. A restaurant's assistant manager who wanted to pioneer software with virtual reality. Two day workers and travel enthusiasts. An engineer going back to school to specialize in solar energy. And an aspiring storyteller currently in between jobs wandering his way around. <--- Yes. That one is me.
Maybe this is a dramatic interpretation, but I feel like listening to enough daily news could easily give the impression that the majority of our nation's, and definitely our world's, population hates each other. We are polarized. We don't get along. Violence ensues. It's the other side's fault. Yadayadayada... So it made me really appreciate the fact that seven people, who, for the most part had been complete strangers just days before, could appreciate being with one another. They could have a kick-ass time, and discuss things, and ask each other about their home country's and life experiences. There are a lot of shitty people in this world. That is without a doubt. And I am aware that no amount of beautiful Spanish sunsets, sangria, tasty chorizo, and group hang-outs would stop them from being shitty. But that experience, and traveling more and more in general, has started to show me that there are a lot of really good people out there, too. People that have similar hopes, dreams, desires, interests, etc. I think that's an important thing to remember.