TRAVEL TALK - - VOLUME 4 - - SPRING/SUMMER 2012
4 DAYS IN BARCELONA SPAIN (continued)
The Barcelona airport is easy to navigate and transportation choices are easy to understand. We stop at the tourist board booth for a little bit of information about attractions and sites. At the advice if the tourism office, we chose the Aerobus (A1) which runs from 5:30A until after midnight from the aiport to Plaza Catalunya which is near our hotel. The A1 Aerobus bus stops at Plaza Espana, Gran Via Urgell, Plaza Universtard, and ends at Plaza Catalunya in Barcelona.
We are off the bus and have a six block roll to our hotel with the luggage. Sidewalks are wide on the Passeig de Gracia. I must compliment Condes de Barcelona as the staff checked us right in at 10A so we could shower before our first day in Barcelona. Our room at Condes de Barcelona is very clean and the staff is smiling. I always suggest beating jet lag by staying up until 9P or so local time and using a good nights sleep to beat the jet lag. We are lucky as Gina caught a very good deal on our travel agent system Amadeus for the Condes de Barcelona hotel so we are staying in one of the best neighborhoods in town. While many people search for hotels online, our Amadeus airline/cruise/hotel platform is for travel agents only so every once in a while, the system has private hotel rates that are not shown publicly online. As a travel agent, we have access to hotels.com inventory but also have rates equal to hotel websites on this system and we are guaranteed to have the best rates offered by most chain hotels plus private specials. It always pays to check with an agent about hotels in a foreign country if you want to be guaranteed the best rate the best location for the best quality hotel.
After the shower, we head towards the port/marina area through the Barrio Gotico which has tiny streets with local shops and restaurants. We hear music in the streets and stop to see a jazz band with a cute old Catalan man shuffling to the music. The Barrio Gotico is the neighborhood with the Picasso museum and the Cathedral. The port/marina area is beautiful and a meeting place for the people of Barcelona and tourists. It is the place where you can catch a boat tour on various sizes and shapes of boats that head out onto the Mediterranean. The port area has a huge boardwalk which is the site of craft exhibitions on the weekend we were there and an antique flea market across from the Columbus monument. We have been hearing loud jet noises and realize we are in Barcelona (October 1, 2011) on air show weekend when we see EU fighter jets streak by low across the marina in formation.
We walked half-way to the port, but realized the boats were not really walking distance from downtown. In fact, most of the cruise lines have transfer busses that drop right near the Columbus Monument at the foot of Las Ramblas. From that point, we walked about a mile along the marina which has a beautiful assortment of private boats, restaurants and more craft vendors. Every once in a while a bevy of jets come by with colored smoke or upside down so it is a very interesting weekend to be in Barcelona, Spain. We sit in the park by the Marina for a while to soak up the scene, enjoy the beautiful Mediterranean weather and recover from the previous night's flight. This afternoon in October is about 83 degrees farenheight as they are having a heat wave.
At the other end of the Marina is Barceloneta which we found to be one of our favorite neighborhoods in Barcelona. Across the street from the waterfront is a line of restaurants and shops that are very busy. As we wind through the neighborhood of Barceloneta, we see very inexpensive local restaurants and higher end local restaurants like Can Ramonet where we ate on the outdoor patio. Barceloneta was the port area, home for sea captains and fish market of the city so the focus is on seafood. You can go all the way from a 5e fish soup or the daily special at the cheap hole in the wall restaurants but for our first day of vacation, the seafood display at Can Ramonet strikes us as a great way to finish the day.
We started with a bowl of mussels in vapor which featured very fresh black mussels without much spices. The vapor (steam) that had condensed in the bottom of the pot was just a little bit of water, lemon and a very light spice. We have had mussels in all types of sauces from tomato to mustard, but these were so fresh that the light Catalonian vapor treatment was the ticket. We have begun to like wines that are blended or purely Cabernet Franc so we bought a moderately priced bottle of wine (14e). This was Cabernet Franc blended with the Spanish grape Tempranillo and it was quite good.
The meal was completed with fish choices that were shared as we had not eaten either fish. We do that in foreign countries sometimes, share entrees as insurance that both will like something in a strange place. We had one fish called a Dorado that was small and served whole and split with salt and crispy fried garlic. The second fish choice was Monk Fish that was served with a Romana sauce. The sauce was dark red and almost rue based and the Monk Fish was a good hard fish that almost tasted like lobster. Actually in this instance, they both were wonderful but very different so we were glad to share a taste of both. One was little bone picking crispy salted fish and the other was a rich sauce on a thick fillet. The dorado had an olive oil, salt and crispy fried garlic combo that seems to be a hallmark of Catalon food. We enjoyed shrimp done the same way with the crispy garlic at another restuarant a few days later.
After dinner, we heard a ruckus around the corner from the restaurant. As we got closer, it was loud music coming from outside a Samba club. A Catalonian Samba band is about 20 or 25 musicians with a mix of teenagers and adults playing. There was at least 10 horns of various sizes and plenty of drums with other percussion instruments. The street was packed with families and adults that had enjoyed a few Estrella Beers on festival weekend. The show we saw looked like the finale to the day as we saw old guys leave with instruments when they were done. For me, it was like a Spanish version of New Orleans or Rio where you couldnt help but move your body.
We finished our walk through the Barrio Gotico and got a jamon tasting from a local merchant. There are various kinds of jamon that can cost upwards of 75e per pound. The finest jamon only eat acorns their whole life. Even though we are full, we enjoy the Catalonian hospitality of the jamon shop owners so we have a taste. After an hour or so of walking off dinner, we stop for some Italian Gelato and realize at the end of the day that Barcelona, like any port city, is very cosmopolitan in terms of food. As we have a balcony at the hotel, we stop for a 5e cold bottle of cava at a convenience store. Everywhere in the city, you see people drinking cava (sparkling wine) it is a local product of the region and you can even take day trips to see the caves. After a glass of cava on the balcony, sleep comes easily after the red eye flight.
When we arise for the second day in Barcelona, Spain we see a bright blue sky as with most of our days on this vacation. We read that the Picasso museum is free on the first Sunday of the month so we are heading out to save 25 euros. We figure it will be a line, so we stop at the café next door called Costa Gallega for a café con leche. This was part of a chain of local restaurants with a nice tapas selection, great service and a smile each morning. Our hotel serves continental breakfast, but we have a hard time getting up for hotel breakfast in Europe as many of them end by 9:30 and you are slow to get going with the time change when we are across the pond. I kind of discount the "included" breakfast as with the jet-lag, I frequently miss it as I get up later in Europe while adjusting to a new time zone. Plus the Europeans go out and eat late and we seem to fit right in as we eat late at home. To me, it is nice to absorb the vibes while the locals rush in for a quick breakfast on the way to the office or store anyway. We muse that vegetarians might not do so well in Spain as there is always a ham hanging on a meat hook above your head while you drink coffee.
We cant help having one or two Tapas (jamon sandwiches and cheeses) with our café con leche and fresh squeezed orange juice. That is the idea of tapas, Oh, yes... I will have one of those! Most European bars have these cool machines that automatically slice and squeeze juice and spit the empty oranges into a bowl next to the machine. It is usually 2 or 3 euros but worth it if you are not doing a full American breakfast.
The line at Picasso is about an hour we figure so Gina takes a place in line and I head across the street for the bakery. The Croissants look so good that I change the order to two as I decide I dont want to split one as we originally planned. Gina is happy to have her own when I give it to her and the buttery sheen graces her fingers. We finish the complimentary bottles of water from the hotel so remember to take those if they are up by the coffee. Usually, the one or two bottles up by the free coffee is complimentary, but the ones in the mini bar cost 2e so we always put the complimentary ones in the fridge to get cold when checking in.
Picasso lived in Barcelona most of his life and the town has a very good collection of his artwork. Paris has some of the whacky, whimsical pieces but the Picasso collection in Barcelona is broad based including works from his early student art which seemed very normal compared to his later cubist pieces. At the time that we were there, the museum had an extra collection from his Paris period around 1900. With the line and time in the museum, we are heading out around two oclock in the afternoon. You never get as much accomplished as you plan on vacation so plan just to enjoy the town sometimes. Sunday is a great day to enjoy a museum and then kill the afternoon like a local. There are many Spanish families in line with us at the Picasso museum as most Europeans want to expose their children to great artwork and many European museums have one day per month that is free for the local population. We notice that guards take families with very small children to the front of the line so the kids dont get antsy and so everybody enjoys the museum. I always am struck by what a feeling of community there is in Europe with concrete steps taken by local governments to strengthen the family and socialize children. While in line, we are given a flyer advertising a Spanish guitarist that evening and decide it will be a good way to finish the night.
As we are already in the Gotico, we head to the beach to see the air show. It is truly a bright clear blue day so the benches at the beach look very inviting. Jets zoom over head with streamers of smoke trails doing loop to loops over the Mediterranean. We watch for a while and then the smell of Paella comes wafting across the street. We walked past one being dissected on our way to the beach so the choice for lunch was a foregone conclusion that we will sit by the Mediterranean and eat Paella at Salamanca Silvestre.
We expect to walk up to a table but we are greeted by the Managers of the restaurant and directed towards a reservation lady floating the plaza with a clip board. This is a pretty funny scene as they have put out hundreds of tables outside a small restaurant. We are told there are plenty of tables inside but like everybody else, decline and wait for a patio table. We watch the crazy scene as they only have a few hours to make big money in this frenzy during the air show. Everybody is moving at a fast pace but offering gracious service and God help the reservation lady if she gives two people a four top. One older brother is running the service operation and the other guy is working reservations and keeping prospects from moving on to the next restaurant. At one point the one old guy tells the other to slow down and let him get them cleaned before seating people. Even with this frenzy that is going on around us, there are plenty of tables so we are not rushed to eat and the service is great.
The paella is fantastic and comes on a very large platter which is presented before being plated at a mobile cart. In Barcelona, Spain Paella is served with mussels, clams, shrimp, squid and fresh water prawns with claws. It is the dish that locals gather around on a Sunday afternoon. As you are seated a small plate of spicy olives is presented to nosh on. We start with a Mediterranean salad that has a mix of lettuce and greens blended with fresh corn, olives, fresh tuna and a mix of interesting things. The salad is topped with high quality Spanish olive oil and rock salt with a small amount of light vinegar. The salad is served with large wedges of lemon that you squeeze over the salad to add to the vinegar. As it is festival at the beach I opt for an Estrella which is the local beer and quite good. After lunch, we catch more of the air show and then head off to find tickets to the Spanish guitar show that was advertised at Picasso in the morning. As we leave the Barceloneta, the samba band is kickin it again.
We wander through an Arabic neighborhood and a Chinese neighborhood on the way to the venue. First, we read the flyer wrong and think the concert is at the Palau de la Musica. We are glad that we get to see at least the outside of the building as it is one of the iconic buildings in Barcelona but we are shown that the flyer says as seen at. With much assistance, we finally find the smaller church that is the venue. The people of Barcelona are very gracious and helpful to tourists with a fantastic Catalonian hospitality. It is hard to believe that this country was run by a fascist dictator just 30 years ago. We buy tickets and realize the venue is right off Las Ramblas for the return trip.
Manuel Gonzalez is a great Spanish guitarist doing an unplugged show (clck to listen to YouTube clip of Manuel Gonzalez and see the inside of the Palau de la Musica) The venue was a small side church that was dimly lit except for the artist. The New York Times called Manuel Gonzlez is One of the leading specialists in Spanish music in the World. He plays these small shows when at home in Barcelona and you can check at the Info booth at the airport or on Las Ramblas to see if any concerts are going on when you are in Barcelona as they distribut tickets for local events many times at that booth along with selling tours of the area, hop on hop off tickets, etc. Look for a blue sign with a lower case i in italic to mark those booths all across Europe.
We end up on Las Ramblas de Catalunya which is behind our hotel. This is the nicer extension of Ramblas that is beyond the Plaza Catalunya. I found it to be nicer and quieter than Ramblas which was too touristy for me including McDonalds and guys selling silly trinkets as you walk. I like to see the touristy streets but prefer more local neighborhoods like this as we travel quite a bit and the very touristy areas have a commonality even though you are in a different country. We did a tapas walk back to the hotel with glasses of wine accompanied by sausages, potato dishes, cheese plates, olives and small sandwiches.
The last day on this pass through Barcelona is dedicated to Sagrada Familia and the neighborhood called Eixample. Eixample seems more residential than the other places we have been in Barcelona. We walk the straight blocks past another Gaudi building with a line of tourists then walk deeper into the neighborhood. The idea of Eixample is that everything you need including shopping, schools, parks and other services will be all within your neighborhood. It is about a twenty minute walk to the Sagrada Familia.
I was not looking forward to the tour of the Sagrada Familia as I was at some of the other more famous churches I have seen like Notre Dame or St. Peter's at the Vatican but boy was I wrong. It takes walking this whole city to fully appreciate Gaudi and we purposely left the Sagrada Familia for last. Plus we stupidly did not pre-purchase entry tickets on the web before departing for Spain and the midweek lines for tickets were under an hour where they stretch two or three hours when the cruise ships are in port over the weekend. The church is under construction but that does not take away from the spectacular natural design. Entrance is currently 12.50e and you can take the optional elevator to the top for an additional 2.50e which should only be done if you can walk down a lot of steep steps and are not afraid of heights or small spaces.
Gaudi has blended nature inspired lines with a religious respect for God that is amazing. The support beams are shaped after the trunk and branches of trees. Gaudi;s core beleif about architecture was that there are no straight lines in nature and therefore should be no straight lines in architecture. Windows are styled after giant honeycombs and the sanctuary has a light that is magical. The altar has Christ suspended from a parachute or parasol looking suspension system with beads and small lights all around the perimeter. The light filters in above the altar from a huge skylight punctuated by gold mosaics. As we sit in the sanctuary and soak it all up, all we can whisper is wow but the silence is occasionally broken by the sound of a circular saw as it is an active construction site. There is an exhibition about his life history which explained as a child he was sickly and his mother took him for long walks in the woods when he could not be at school. It showed the relationship of all the features of the church to the natural world.
Outside is punctuated by the construction and the ornamentation that seem like huge Christmas ornaments. The cranes are doing heavy concrete work and scaffolding is all around high into the sky. When you take the elevator up you are right in the middle of the action and close up to some of the ornamentation. They give you a time for the A or B lift which is about 2 hours from the time of your arrival at mid-day. You pop out three quarters of the way up the spire to walk across a bridge from spire to spire then a long, windy set of steps inside the spire that take you back to ground level. Besides the top view, there are windows along the way where you can pop your head out to see a particular feature of the church. I do want to emphasize that the signs are right, if you have any type of physical problem DO NOT do this feature of Sagrada Familia as the steps were a challenge for me going down and I walk good. After a while the spiral staircase kind of made you dizzy, it is dark in places and the steps are very, very steep as you get to the bottom. If none of that bothers you, it was a pretty good thrill to pop out of the elevator up in the spire and be up at the level of the cranes and scaffolding on top of the church plus you can look out windows along the way and be right up close with some of the whimsical features outside the church.
This is Gaudis best project from his lifetime so the thoughts, nature inspired lines are super sized on the Sagrada Familia project. We expected to be two hours to see this site, but ended up being there 3.5 hours with the tour of the basement museum/studio which is amazing as they are modeling and making the huge stone pieces the stone masons will hoist up with the cranes on future days. We leave the Sagrada Familia awed, but hungry, so we stop for a few homemade empanada like fried patties with bacalao (codfish) and a beer on the way back to the hotel to drop off the trinkets we bought in Eixample.
We had planned to do lunch at the Boqueria market, so it was kind of disappointing that we did not arrive there until closing time. It was still obvious that this was one of the best local markets in the Mediterranean with fish, fruits, spices, nuts and all kind of specialized offerings. We bought a couple of sticks of jamon and sausage, a taste of nut candy and shared a fruit smoothie on the way through. At the end, we met a representative of local winery from the Pyranees, by coincidence we had a bottle of his wine at a restaurant on the first night of the trip. Abadal was the red that was mixed with Temporanillo and Cabernet Franc in a Spanish twist on a Southern French blending. As we had already bought one of his wines, we were invited to taste almost everything on the table including the Cavas from his friends who were in attendance at the tasting. The tail end of any tasting kind of breaks down to a party and this was the case on this late afternoon in the Boqueria. Abadal makes a local varietal white, a Crianza and a merlot with five merlot grapes from five different fields. Javier invited us to visit the wineries if we were ever in the foothills of the Pyranees and he would introduce us to restaurateurs in the region when we visited.
For our last night in Barcelona so we decide to stay local. We start with the busy chain tapas place downstairs from the hotel where we have eaten breakfast everyday. We have a Mediterranean salad and calamari to start. As it is Barcelona, we decide to ramble so, we head behind the hotel to the Las Ramblas de Cataluyna, but head deeper into the neighborhood instead of towards the more touristy area.
We stepped down into a very busy local Tapas bar called La Bodegueta and sat at the bar as the locals had all the tables full and we wanted to soak up the atmosphere instead of the outside tables. The owner was slicing cold cuts and cheeses and the waiters were coming in and out at a frantic pace. A good tapas bar has a counter but also an active kitchen doing hot foods and this one had both. We started with some olives and a cheese plate. The waitress put a bottle of local red on the bar next to me and told me to count my glasses on the honor system. After a while piping hot chicken croquettes came sizzling out of the kitchen to be placed at the bar in front of us so we asked for a plate of those! The evening was completed but we had to have a bite of the dolce which was a flaky sweet pastry before we left for the hotel to leave Barcelona in the AM.
On our way back from Sicily, we had a final night in Barcelona but we stashed ourselves at an airport hotel. We caught the #21 bus and headed into the city, we changed to the #24 to get up to the park. Each ride was 1.45e but the locals were telling us we could have bought a card with ten rides that could be used for multiple people and would have allowed one transfer on each ride. The busses were very clean but got very busy around rush hour and made quite a few stops between the hotel and the Parc Guell. A bus ride at rush hour is always a great local people watching experience in Europe.
This was also obviously a very touristy area of Barcelona but the park is 50 acres of green space using those same architecual elements that are the Gaudi trademark, Nature and no straight lines. Here he has done a lot of colorful mosaic as this was the main residential area of his main patrons the Guell family. Only the grand entrance, the plaza, the paths and the steps were completed on the project. You have the abundance of trinket sellers inside and outside the park but the park has a great view of Barcelona from the hillside patio Gaudi constructed at the beginning of the park. We have a little more food and head back on the 21 to the airport hotel which was a good value for the money called the Best Western Alfa Aeropuerto. The hotel offered a free shuttle to our flight in the morning.
When comparing the airport hotels to the downtown hotels, the Aerobus puts the downtown hotels within as easy a ride as the airport hotels. If I was staying more than one night in Barcelona for vacation, I would not probably use an airport hotel because it is so easy to get into the city centre and the local bus made a lot of stops through the port area on our way into the city. The local busses were also very clean and the late night driver stopped for us at the appointed time for the hotel when we advised we were tourists with no idea which stop to use on the way home.
All in all, if you are going on a cruise or seeing Spain on a vacation, you owe it to yourself to see Barcelona for at least three or four nights. It is a cosmopolitan city with great attractions , entertainment and especially food. The Catalon people were some of the friendliest people we have met in our travels and everybody went out of there way to make sure we had a good time in their region of the country. By the way, I had to research for this blog, but the area is called the Catalunya Region of Spain and the people are Catalon or Catalonians which seems to be used interchangeable. They have their own dialect of Spanish that is called Catalon and they were even a semi-autonomous region of Spain at times, until the reign of Franco. The city has a beautiful waterfront and Mediterranean neighborhoods that all have a different character and style along with a funky vibe that everybody would enjoy.
Sample 4 Night Barcelona Hotel Prices
- Sagrada Familia Hotel - 3 star - room only $595
- Apsis Porta Marina - 3 star - room only $581
- Caledonian - 3.5 star - full breakfast $702
- Condes de Barcelona - 4 star - room only $1080
- Melia Barcelona - 5 star - room only - $1098
- 4 Night Hotel prepaid vouchers per room based on double (2) occupancy including VAT tax. In US$, subject to change and could be higher on peak sesason dates. Prices are subject to change.
- Hop On Hop Off Ticket - 1 Day $32
- Barcelona Bike Tour - $33.50
- Stiges and Friexnet Cava Cave Tour $69.50
- Barcelona Gothic Walking Tour $18.50
- Gaudi Buildings, Parc Guell and Sagrada Familia with skip the line $80
- Montserrat Royal Basilica $70.50
- Prices are per person and subject to change.
Sagrada Familia Website
Sagrada Familia Pre-Purchase Admission Tickets
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