Barcelona- The Happiest Place on Earth
I've been putting off writing about Barcelona for some time now. I'm not really sure exactly why. Maybe because it has been my favorite place I've traveled to, and I'm afraid I won't be able to do it any justice? I didn't know much about BCN when I started planning the trip. I found a listing of several European travel deals on www.travelzoo.com. I ended up getting quite a deal- 6 nights AND airfare from Philadelphia from www.virginvacations.com for "$499" which equaled $650 with taxes. There was an annoying layover in the worst airport ever in Frankfort, Germany, but at least I could browse the German gift shops. I'm not a picky person when it comes to hotels, so I looked up the offered hotels in the travel deal and chose the one that was closer to everything, rather than by star rating. I ended up choosing the cheapest one, Hotel Coronado, in the district called El Raval. It turned out to be a great location on Nou de la Rambla, about a 15 minute walk from La Rambla, which took us past many ethnic food shops, a big music venue, Hotel Gaudi and Palacio Guell, which was sadly closed for the season. The room was simple and clean, with 3 beds, a tile floor, TV, bathroom, and probably the thinnest walls imaginable. Free coffee/juice/biscuits were available each morning, and there were vending machines with beer (cerveza) for 1 Euro and a bodega across the street which sold decent wine for 3 euros a bottle. I'd suggest taking a taxi from the airport, it is kind of a hike with public transportation. You have to transfer from regional rails to different subway lines, kind of a headache.
Barcelona is the city with everything. Amazing architecture and urban planning, beaches, great shopping, museums, palm trees, farmers' markets and a huge party scene! I went over Thanksgiving (yes, again) and the weather was great - sunny and about 50-60 degrees. Perfect for walking everywhere, and I DID walk EVERYWHERE. BCN's underground system is great, but I didn't want to miss anything! I bought my Streetwise map and Let's Go book and navigated my way all over. I even walked holes into the bottoms of my shoes. I didn't know any Spanish, which mattered little since most natives speak Catalan or speak Spanish with a thick Catalan lisp. Most know English, and all signs are in Spanish, Catalan and English. My most used phrase while there was "Dos cappuccinos con azucar por favor!" the coffee there is GREAT. The Spanish are incredibly friendly and welcoming, so don't worry if you don't know the language.
With so much to do, it was hard to decide how to plan our trip. We decided to divide our time between 4 planned days, and 2 "wandering" days (which are my favorite!) A trip to Barcelona is like visiting a progression of the life and work of Antonio Gaudi. From very early works, like the street lamps in Plaza Real, to his greatest work Sagrada Familia, one can experience each step of design from his rich life. Sagrada Familia was a must for me. Started in 1882, the cathedral looks like something from a science fiction movie with its space age spires, cubist Passion scene contrasting with the opposite Nativity side which looks like its melting. Still under construction (and probably for years and years to come), the entire interior is still exposed to the outside. The 8 Euro entrance fee includes admission to the basement, which houses the sculpture workshop, as well as a museum of progress and Gaudi's notes and inspirations. Gaudi was largely influence by nature, and the museum shows side by side his designs to their organic counterparts. (a VERY interesting way to get inside Gaudi's head!) Rest up, and be sure to walk up the hundreds of steps in each spire. It may be exhausting, but it was seriously the most spectacular view I've ever experienced. Better than the Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building, CN Tower and SpaceNeedle combined! Now, that is saying alot. So break a sweat and do it! I'm eager to one day go back to BCN and see the progress. I wonder if and when it'll get finished. Ironically, Gaudi died as an old man, after he was struck by a street car when crossing the street near Sagrada Familia. Always living humbly, he dressed in worn clothing, so passersby thought he was a street person and wouldn't help him laying in the street. He died in a hospital nearby soon after. How tragic! Other must see Gaudi buildings are Casa Battlo and Casa Mila, both equally amazing.
Another Gaudi-inspired planned day was a trek to Parc Guell. Located in the north eastern part of the city, it took us a good 1-2 hours to walk there (yes I know it would've been an easy subway ride!) The sprawling park is self-irrigating, designed to mesh perfectly with the already rough terrain. Gaudi built 2 gingerbread like entryhouses, and a house that he later lived in on the premises. It is now a Salvador Dali museum, who was a close friend. Decked in mosaics, Parc Guell also boasts the longest bench in the world.
Barcelona is an easy city to wander in. In the Gothic quarter, Barri Gotic, we wandered through the tiny alleyways through centuries old shops, galleries, gothic cathedrals and even Roman tombs! The sounds, sites and smells are a bit overwhelming in that there is so much going on, old and new, its almost unreal. Catalonia is very meat-centric. In fact, pigs legs are hanging EVERYWHERE, waiting for someone to order a bikini, aka ham and cheese sandwich. I ate a few cheese bocadillos (sandwiches for about 3 Euros) but I wasn't impressed. Finally, I found Maoz Vegetarian- a take out falafel place for 3 Euros that had a giant free toppings bar of yummy mediterranean salads. I later went to one in Paris, and Maoz opened the ONLY location in the US right near my house in Philadelphia! I don't like to waste alot of time eating when I'm trying to see sights, so this was perfect and cheap.
I spent another day wandering down La Rambla toward the beachfront. I walked around the serene Barcelonetta district, a wharf area, along the beach and over to the Parc Citaduella. The park is full of palm trees, a huge and I mean HUGE early Gaudi Fountain, and the zoological gardens. Aside from palm trees, there are many tangerine trees. Although off season, we had to try one... and found it was much like burning acid mouth. Gross.
The nightlife in BCN is insane. Residents seemed to be very international and friendly, I met many Germans, South Americans and British people, all eager to party it up and have a good time with us. Some clubs don't open until 2 am, so we would walk around from pub to pub, or buy a cerveza on La Rambla. Guys wander up and down with mini coolers selling them for 1 Euro, which beats the tourist traps along La Rambla that sell beer for a whopping 11 Euros! Spanish beer isn't very good, and only worth about ONE Euro! We were told about a few clubs at Plaza Real and ended up meeting some random German twin dudes and going with them to one called New York New York for a night called "The Black Sounds" aka a soul night. The entry was 10 Euros, and drinks were only about 5 Euros and strong. The twins paid for everything for us for some reason. In fact, most people there were really generous about buying drinks and such. We danced until dawn and walked back to the hotel.
The streets of BCN are much like New York, always buzzing with people and activity. It was hard to gauge what was more important, sight seeing or enjoying the incredible party scene. It is definitely my all time favorite city. I could wander around there for hours, days even. And the incredibly rich culture, history/architecture and friendly and fashionable people make it even more alluring. In a week, I feel I barely scratched the surface. Next time, I'd like to hit up alot more museums, and take a day trip to Figueres to see the Dali Museum (where they have the Mae West room actualized!) And find a hot Catalan man to marry me and take me away from all this.