Whenever I visit a European city, I feel like I’m in the movie Pleasantville. As I meander through the cramped diagonal side streets, dine at an outdoor table in some random square, snap pictures of churches, fountains, and castles that have existed for hundreds and hundreds of years before anyone even thought to pave paradise and put up a parking lot in America, I think to myself that no place like this actually exists, that these cities are here for my awe and amusement; they are not – cannot possibly be – real. I am convinced that when I leave Europe, these cities break down like movie sets and are stored away in boxes until I return. Good thing for those set-designers that I only go to Europe every five years or so.
I just got back from Barcelona, which has now overtaken Vancouver as my favorite city on the planet. Both cities share some commonalities that suit my personality well: they are both fairly major yet laid-back cities; they both have beaches within the city limits; they both have hike-able mountains nearby; they both have amazing food, especially seafood. These four points have essentially become my vacationing criteria. Can I do city things, beach things, and outdoorsy things all on one trip? Can I eat great food while doing all of those activities? If so, then that’s my next vacation destination.
However, where Vancouver is super modern with its tall, glass buildings and Toyota Prius cabs, Barcelona is old – really old – with many of its structures built by the ancient Greeks and Romans. And, where Vancouver is cold and rainy for a good portion of the year, Barcelona is sunny and hot, mellowed slightly by the cool breeze blowing in off the Mediterranean. Our tour guide Christian informed us that it only rains about 100 days out of the year in Barcelona, and the winters are fairly mild, with snowfall happening maybe once every few years, and, even then, it’s only a few centimeters (though the entire city shuts down at the sight of the first flake!).
We stayed at a hotel called the Chic and Basic in the El Born district of Barcelona. The name Chic and Basic is the exact definition of our accommodations. The interior design of the hotel was, I guess what you could call, chic. The hotel had 60’s mod style furniture, crazy lighting, and a lot of hanging beads. It was the sort of place Austin Powers would stay.
The “basic” part of the title related to our room amenities. We were actually upgraded to an “extra large” room, which, by American standards, was anything but. We essentially had a studio hotel room: everything was in one room. The bed, the shower, the sink, the toilet – all in one space. No closets, no desk, no privacy…period. We did, however, have a great balcony, and this provided some of the space that a couple inevitably needs when traveling together for long periods of time. Every morning when I woke up and every night when we returned from dinner and drinks, I would park myself on that balcony, read the news, catch up on Facebook and email, or just people watch. My husband only ventured onto the balcony once (he has kind of a heights thing), so this balcony truly became mine, my space to relax, meditate on the day, review our travel books, plan our next adventure, and spy on the people walking by below me.
So, here are a few things I liked, learned, or observed about Barcelona:
Steps and Views – There is a reason that everyone in this city has great legs, and I believe it’s the amazing genes and the never-ending sets of stairs. It seems that the Barcelonians really love their rooftops, mountaintops, church tops, or any other view from the top that could possibly be had. Therefore, there is a lot of climbing involved in navigating this city. Sure, it’s possible to see all the major touristy things without climbing all the steps; in some places there are elevators, and there is a cable car that can take you to the top of Montjuic, a small mountain in the city proper (though we opted to climb it – erroneously in flip flops). But, for the most part, if you want to see the amazing views, you’re doing it uphill, on foot. A word of advice: make sure to spend some pre-vacation time strengthening calf and thigh muscles.
But the stairways do indeed lead to heaven…
Dogs – Everyone has a dog in Barcelona. With the insane number of dogs that I saw, I was surprised how clean the city was. People do a fairly thorough job of cleaning up the mess. Plus, every morning at 1:30am, street cleaners come and spray down the streets, so that helps too.
Food – Barcelona is a great food city. Obviously, being on the Mediterranean you get some of the best seafood that you will ever eat. I ate squid, anchovies, octopus, mussels, clams, and prawns at almost every meal. The Spanish are also known for their ham, namely Iberica ham, which is made from acorn-fed pigs. The Barcelonians are very adamant about the power of the acorn diet when it comes to getting the best ham. Also with every meal, you were typically served tomato bread. This was crushed tomatoes with a little salt, pepper, and olive oil smothered on a piece of delicious crusty bread. So simple, but so delicious. Another moment of food joy for me was the role that eggs played in the Spanish diet. Fried eggs and omelets were a staple not just in breakfast meals but lunch and dinner as well. Almost anything could be served with a fried egg. In fact, my very first breakfast in Barcelona was baby squid over a fried egg. It came out looking ugly as hell, but it was fantastic.
Obviously, everyone thinks about tapas when they think about Spain, and, to be sure, we had a lot of tapas, which, hands down, is the best way to eat – small plates of delicious food, giving you room for lots of sampling. My favorite restaurants were those that served Pintxos. Pintxos are small tapas, usually served atop crusty bread, with toothpicks in them. You eat whatever you want, and then you pay according to the number of toothpicks on your plate. Since choosing a meal off a menu is a completely anxiety-producing experience for me (I always pick the wrong thing and wind up wanting whatever my husband ordered instead of what I ordered), this is a great way to try everything without having to make that large commitment of ordering one dish.
In addition to eggs and tapas, the Barcelonians make some amazing fresh fruit juices. You can buy them pretty much everywhere, though I found the ones in the La Boqueria market to be the best. In fact, Barcelona has inspired us to invest in a juicer because there is just no way that I could ever go back to Tropicana orange juice ever again. For those with a sweet tooth, Barcelona has an amazing chocolate and pastry scene. There are pastry shops at least every third or fourth storefront, and right up the street from our hotel was the Museu de la Xocolata, a museum dedicated to the history and making of chocolate, replete with chocolate artwork – chocolate Don Quixote, a scale model of La Sagrada Familia, Jesus on the cross, the Smurfs, and remakes of Picasso paintings – all constructed by famous local chocolatiers. And, at the end of the tour, you are led out to a courtyard that faces the pastry school attached to the museum where you can watch the chefs building their next great chocolate creations. And, of course, there’s paella and fideua (basically paella but with noodles instead of rice)…lots and lots of paella and fideua.
Music – I may never be able to listen to music that does not involve classical guitar ever again. In the plazas, on the mountain top, at the beach, it mattered not; music was everywhere. And, it wasn’t just dudes with accordions looking for tips – though there was plenty of that as well. There were trios and quartets playing guitar, violins, and horns that would make you stop in your tracks and just start dancing. I’ve always loved the sounds of Spanish and Latin music, but it was completely different to experience it live and not just in Zumba class. One night while we were walking home, we heard the most exciting sounds coming from a bar we were passing. The music was like a magnet: we could walk no further; we had to go inside. The Harlem Jazz Club (yep, we flew 3000 miles to go to Harlem) was hosting Rosario Smowing, an amazing swing jazz band. The horns were electrifying, and the lead singer Diego Javier Casanova, was full of fiery passion and bravado. He sang with every inch of himself – his hands, his face, his chest, his tattooed neck. By the end of the first set, my husband had termed Casanova “the most interesting man in the world,” and, by god, he certainly was. It didn’t matter that we didn’t understand any of the words or the apparently funny exchanges that Casanova was having with the audience between songs. In fact, sometimes that made it better because it forced you to just feel it – feel the instruments, the voice, the body language.
Here is a video of Rosario Smowing, the band we saw at Harlem Jazz Club:
The Barcas – Diego Javier Casanova was probably the most excited guy that I saw in Barcelona. I know that the Spanish have this reputation for being passionate, hot, and spicy, but it’s not like that at all in Barcelona. I wouldn’t necessarily describe the Barcelonians as cold, maybe more just…nonplussed. When I traveled to Mexico, the people were in your face constantly, either trying to take care of you or sell you something. Barcelonians are not that way. They don’t care that you’re an American tourist willing to drop big money on their establishments. They’re not there for your entertainment. When we would go out for a meal and ask for recommendations, the wait staff would nonchalantly point to things on the menu, not even making an attempt to talk up the chefs best dishes. They would drop our food off and not once return to check on us throughout the remainder of the meal. Normally, I wouldn’t mind being left alone while I eat, but when I’m out of mojito, I’d like someone to be ready to offer another. This same sort of malaise is evident on the streets as well. The people are in no rush to get anywhere, which is an expected European attitude that, overall, I appreciate. But, because the streets are so small and narrow, it’s difficult to pass a group of five elderly grandmoms taking an afternoon stroll, pushing their little ninos and ninas in big, bulky baby carriages. So, you quickly learn (or not – in my case) to develop patience. Speaking of the escapades on small, narrow streets, I also noticed that the Barcelonians don’t move when you’re walking toward them. I’m not saying that I always expect the on-comer to move; I’m certainly willing to get out of people’s way. But, sometimes it makes more sense for that person to move right if my moving left means that I will have to step into a busy street of traffic. Not in Barcelona. Every walk down a crowded street in Barcelona is a game of chicken.
Modern Medieval – Barcelona’s art and architecture is a great mix of really old, gothic style mixed with the crazy and modern. On one corner, you will see a church from the 1400s and then around the corner will be a bizarre art installation in the middle of a plaza. The Modernist style of Antoni Gaudi and his contemporaries brightens up the dark, gothic vibe with what can only be described as architecture on acid (in fact, it is rumored that Gaudi took a lot of magic mushrooms in his day). The best example of this combination is Gaudi’s cathedral La Sagrada Familia, which is a complete blend of classic Gothic structure and Modernist oddity. It might be the most amazing cathedral I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been to Italy. One might think that the Modernist and Gothic structures would be at odds, but they blend together beautifully and give the city an almost magical, surreal quality.
There are many cities that I have fallen in love with in my travels. Florence, Paris, Vancouver, San Francisco, and London all have special places in my memory. But, I found a home in Barcelona. I can see myself living permanently in a place that is sunny and warm all the time, where I can spend a full day out exploring the city, take a long nap, and start my evening at 10pm, where I can swim in the sea, hike a mountain, and visit a contemporary art museum all in one day, where I can eat delicious local food, smoke freely without judgment, and dance publicly in the middle of the day. Where I can sit on my third-story balcony, sip espresso, and watch the world unfold before me…starting no earlier than 11am, of course.