Basking in Barcelona
Barcelona. We made it. The true beginning of our European adventure was finally here!
We got off of the cruise ship at the port around 8:30am and took a bus downtown. It was difficult to take much in since we were concerned with figuring out where we were in relation to our Airbnb and how to fill the time before our check-in at 4pm. Luckily, we found a luggage storage facility not too far from where the bus let us off and we made our way there. It was the first time we had to carry our 30-lb packs for any significant amount of time. It’s a vulnerable feeling trekking through a foreign city with a big backpack on because you can’t escape the fact that you look like a tourist, an outsider, and, to some, a target. I knew without a doubt that I wouldn’t be able to run away from anyone with that pack on my back and thank goodness I didn’t have to.
The city was just starting to wake up and the streets were relatively quiet. We walked up a lovely tree lined pedestrian path without realizing it was the famous La Rambla because it was so deserted.
After dropping our luggage off we set out in search of what is truly the greatest treasure on an overseas adventure – free WiFi (pronounced “wee-fee” in Europe). Kody has an international phone plan with Sprint, but we couldn’t figure out how to use it. I cancelled my phone plan prior to leaving the US and decided not to get another one, simply using apps like WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook to communicate with people back at home when I had a connection. We found a mall with free WiFi and paid bathrooms… everything in balance, I suppose.
Ready to get our sea legs behind us, we set a route for Park Güell, a modernist private housing development turned public park created by Barcelona’s great architect, Antoni Gaudí. Barcelona and Gaudí go hand-in-hand, one would not have the same notoriety and fame without the other and the Spaniards know it. Gaudí and his works are celebrated throughout the city and we were excited to see our share.
The walk to the park was absolutely lovely. The buildings in the sprawling downtown are beautiful and each one is unique from the next. The tree-lined streets had wide sidewalks and were impeccably clean. My eyes were drawn up continuously. The care put into each detail of the buildings, the street lamps and the landscaping made me feel like I was in a city that meant something to its citizens. They were caring for its presentation and its history.
Along the way, we stopped in a couple of bakeries and tried a few treats. I think one of them may have been the best sandwich I’ve ever had. It was an herby croissant baked with crusty cheese on top and filled with fresh cheese, a sauce that I’ll never be able to identify, lettuce and tomatoes. That’s how we learned the Spanish word for sandwich – “bocadillo” – and started using it as a pet name.
Barcelona has some hills. Some big ones. After coming to the top of a particularly steep road, we were treated with a panoramic view of the city and the sea beyond it. We caught our breath and turned around to find a giant staircase. Google Maps told us this was the road to the park, but a kind old woman intervened and showed us a way to get up there without totally destroying our knees.
The Park is surrounded by a high wall covered with mosaics and stones. You can walk around a portion of the park for free, but the paths around the monuments require a fee. As we stood in line for tickets, they sold out completely for the rest of the day (even though it was barely lunchtime). We didn’t take this hit too hard because we knew we would be back in Barcelona in November and would be better prepared with our tickets beforehand. Unfortunately, planning a trip with 43 cities and multiple cultural monuments means you might forget to get a couple tickets.
The rest of the afternoon was spent meandering back towards where our bags were stowed. We stopped for drinks and I had my first glass of cava (a sparkling Spanish wine) and Kody learned how to order a “copa de vino tinto.” Our Airbnb for Barcelona was a room in someone’s apartment. We met our host and he was very kind (we didn’t actually see him again after this first interaction). The room was small, but well-located only a block away from La Sagrada Familia. Through the tiny window facing an alleyway we were able to hear the bells from the basilica.
Dinner our first night was a special treat for me. We ate at Honest Greens, a healthy eating restaurant owned by Chef Benjamin Bensoussan. Chef Ben was recently on the Netflix cooking competition show called The Final Table and was one member of my favorite duo. We over-ordered and it was amazing. Kody got a large Asian-inspired salad and I had roasted chicken with hummus and greens. For a side, we had a local seasonal treat called calçots which are a type of green onion that is grilled and served with romesco sauce. Wow! It was a filling and flavorful meal in stark contrast to the cruise food we had grown accustomed to. In all, our first day in Europe was wonderful. We walked 12 miles, ate very well and had a decent bed to sleep in.
Waking up with the bells from La Sagrada Familia the next morning felt like a reward for having come so far. It was also a reminder that we would be visiting the monumental building later that day. We started the day with breakfast at a café inspired by Gaudí’s style. Our breakfast was one we would come to have many times – coffee, orange juice and aham and cheese sandwich. We used the time to catch up on our travel journal and make our plans.
After looking up places to explore on foot, we settled on the El Born neighborhood which is known for its locally owned shops and long history. Instead of making a beeline for El Born, we made our way slowly, walking through the Parc de la Ciutadella. The Parc has a huge fountain in one corner of it with a building behind it that you can walk up to and take in the view. We felt like we were continuously stumbling upon the most beautiful buildings and carefully curated landscapes. Nothing in Barcelona seemed accidental. The path from the fountain led to a huge area of the park with open green space and wide gravel lanes. We rested there for a while, enjoying the people watching and the sun.
Our first indication that we had arrived in the El Born neighborhood was the Born Cultural Centre, an event center in a renovated market space that houses excavated city ruins from the 1700s. We took ourselves on an unguided tour before heading into the neighborhood to eat and seek out a particular and well-hidden historical marker.
El Born is artsy without being hipster, narrow without being claustrophobic and smells like the greatest combination of international fare. We had a lot of fun moving down alleys and scouring building corners for the marker we sought – a face, on the edge of a building, signifying a former secret brothel. We knew that we would find it on the corner of Carrer de les Mosques (“Street of Flies”) and another Street which I won’t say so that you can search it out yourself someday. When it appeared, it was small and almost hidden by wires attached the building. We felt very accomplished and rewarded ourselves with a mascarpone-filled croissant from Hofmann Patisseria that, honestly, I’m still thinking about. We shared a bowl of pho for lunch and started our long trek back to our Airbnb to rest up before we visited La Sagrada Familia.
A part of me wants to share every photo, video and detail of La Sagrada Familia because it felt transcendent and awe-inspiring, but another part of me feels it would be unfair to reveal its secrets before you could see it with your own eyes, like I would be taking something away from you. I suppose that’s a very cheesy thing to say, but it was one of the few times I felt my soul shift in response to a piece of art or architecture. La Sagrada Familia is both, a towering structure and a devotional art piece. On the outside, its face and towers are completely covered with carvings of fruit, flora and blocky human statues. The towers taper skyward to a fine point and look like melting candles with wax dripping to the bottom. From far away, the details run together and the whole building looks pockmarked and indiscernible. On closer inspection, the details are impeccable. The uncompleted basilica has been under construction for over 100 years and it is easy to see why. The complicated architectural techniques required to build it didn’t even exist when Gaudí designed it and the intricate details could not have been rushed.
The busy grey exterior can in no way prepare you for the simple colorful beauty of the interior. They look like two halves of something that could not exist together in harmony but somehow do. Walking into that starkness makes your mouth hang open. I just wanted to lay on the floor and watch the color from the stained glass windows move across the ceiling. If our entire trip had only been to see La Sagrada Familia, it would have been worth it. The truth is, Gaudí built the entire thing as his own tomb. He’s buried in a chapel under the basilica, watching over the completion of his work. He was inspired by nature in all of his works and in La Sagrada Familia that is represented in the tree like columns that rise up to and support the ceiling. The stained glass windows do not show portraits of saints or religious figures, they are more like abstract art with glass cut in random shapes and fit together. One wall has windows in cool colors like blue, green and purple and the other has warm colors like red, orange and yellow. The angles of the walls and the refracted light work together to make the massive space feel cavelike and bright. It’s well worth the cost of admission.
The next day began with a plate full of croissants. Every day should start like that. We followed it up with… a croissant. Honestly. We trekked about a mile and a half to get another mascarpone-filled croissant from the Hofmann Patiserria, it was that good.
Although the weather wasn’t conducive to sunbathing, we decided to check out the beach in La Barceloneta. The way to the beach included walking through a gauntlet of hawkers selling knock-off brand shoes, purses and toys. Then we had to make our way past all of the restaurants with people pushing special offers on the sidewalk.
One tip: if a restaurant has this sign in front of it, it does not serve fresh or housemade paella. It will be frozen paella warmed over. There are a lot of these signs in Barcelona and in other cities in Spain and Portugal. You can also tell because they’ll have different menus for different types of food. One for paella, one for sandwiches, one for pizza, etc. All frozen.
Our next activity was one we had been looking forward to since we booked it – a paella cooking class. We booked it through Airbnb using their new(ish) Experiences platform.
The entire 14 person group met up at the entrance of the Mercat de la Boqueria just off of La Rambla. Our hostess, Helene, gave us a fascinating tour through the market while we picked out supplies for our pan de tomate, sangria and paella. Walking through such a large market felt like sensory overload – strong smells mixing together, people shouting and haggling, and bright signs designed to lure you to certain stalls. We learned how to pick out the best saffron and which cuttlefish are the freshest.
At Helene’s apartment, we all introduced ourselves. The group was mostly Americans and ranged from a trio of students to a family to a few older couples. Kody and I seemed to be squarely in the middle of the age groups and ended up sitting between the college students and the older couples later when we sat down to eat.
My job was to toast the baguettes for pan de tomate and to help cook down some of the seafood for the paella using a massive paella pan. Kody’s job was to uncork wine bottles for the sangria and then to… milk a cuttlefish spleen. Yes. He milked a cuttlefish spleen. No. I never thought I would say that sentence. The cooking was so fun. Everyone took turns chopping things up and snacking from cheese and cured meats that were laid out on the table. The wine and the conversation were flowing and if someone had peeked in, they wouldn’t have known we were 14 strangers. It felt like a bonus that the paella turned out to taste amazing. There was enough for everyone to have their fill and then some. It was a great cooking class and made us excited to find and book more Airbnb experiences for other places on our trip.
Barcelona was such an interesting and beautiful city. We can’t wait to be back there in November! On our last morning in the city we took a long cab ride to pick up the car that we leased for the rest of our European trip.