The rest of that title should be “…if you’re me and/or my friends and it’s April of 2016”. Who am I to tell you how to spend your time, you know?
A series of celebratory things came our way for Jon and I and a couple of our friends, so we all headed to (you guessed it) Barcelona for a citybreak and some sunshine at the end of April. Because the sunshine+heat combo had not yet descended on the south of England where we make our home, and you gotta do what you gotta do to keep from descending into a cold and deep seasonal depression. (Sunshine and heat have landed now, and it is glorious, and hopefully they stay awhile).
We flew out of Gatwick early on Friday morning and landed in a slightly chilly Barcelona, which was a teensy bit disappointing, but at least it was warmer than the cloudy London we’d left behind. We hustled straight out for lunchtime tapas and stumbled on a tasty little joint down the street from our hotel, but fell into less of a tapas situation and more of a “more food than four people could ever eat” situation. It was a strong first meal. We were overly ambitious.
There was lots of wandering – wandering was our main goal, as we had very little on the docket other than 1) soak up Vitamin D, 2) rent some bicycles, 3) eat and drink our fill. Our hotel was the lovely Barcelona Melia Sky and even though it wasn’t very close to the hub of the city, it was easy to get to and the staff were super nice to us, storing our bikes every day and just being sweet people who speak lots of languages.
We rented the bikes from a guy with fantastic tattoos at Pedal Bike Rental, and it was without a doubt the best choice we made on the trip. Barcelona is big. So much bigger than I remembered! But it’s easy to get from A to B and they have a nice public transportation system too, including a nifty tram. But the cycle lanes were the game changer for us and it was easy to get where we wanted to go, although we switched out the bikes for taxis or trams in the evening when we knew we’d be drinking. Don’t drink and cycle guys!
This trip continually brought to my mind how much travel has changed since I first went abroad as a wee little baby in 2005, which, I think, was right on the cusp of a wider change thanks to all sorts of technological advances. I was studying abroad in France that summer and traveling on the weekends, and I remember having to go to a computer lab (that we were allowed into once a day) where I could sit on a public computer and look at potential hostels in whatever country I was going to, and I don’t know… Mapquest directions from the main airport or metro station or something? How did I buy tickets anywhere? How did I not die? It’s not like I had guidebooks for literally anywhere. I just…went. And wandered and maybe did some big ticket items that everyone knew to do.
This time around, I had a SIM in my phone that meant it worked exactly the same as in the UK. I’m not addicted to my phone in any way, but I could easily Google maps the fastest path to a place from the hotel, or figure out what public transportation was best to take, or how to ask for directions in the appropriate lanaguage (Catalan isn’t Spanish!). When we aimlessly wandered into a new area and realised we were hungry, I could do a quick check on the map of the area to see if there were any restaurants with good reviews nearby. If we wanted to find a rooftop bar – again, quick Google, make a decision, check the map, go there.
It’s just so helpful. And while I think carrying tiny computers around in our pockets can be bad in a lot of instances, for travel, it can really enhance the experience too, if you let it. With great power comes great responsibility, as they say. No wasting time accidentally heading straight into tourist traps – the option to cast a wider eye around where you are, with a world of knowledge at your fingertips is a magical thing, particularly on a short trip. So it’s more of a balance thing – being able to disconnect from the world at large is a wonderful, wonderful thing, and there are worse things than being lost.
While I would never advocate for never leaving home without your phone, I think a good balance of luddite unplugged time with thoughtful use of the technology available to us can really enhance a trip to a new place. And it did for us, this time.
Anyway, back to the trip! We whiled away most of an afternoon in the Placa Reial in the Gothic Quarter after a long walk through Las Ramblas, which was more bustling than usual thanks to their St George’s Day celebrations. It turns out that the Sant Jordi festival in Catalonia is a really charming celebration that revolves mostly around books and roses, and it’s more similar to Valentine’s Day than the St George’s parade in England (which usually descends into a weird standoff between the EDL and the anti-fascists out to protest them). We were very confused until we figured out why florists and bookstalls were everywhere, then our pants were charmed right off.
Of course we visited the huge marketplace known as La Boqueria and sipped on freshly squeezed juice while making our way through the maze of stalls selling every food item you could imagine. And here’s my tip – don’t buy anything from the outer ring of vendors! It can be found cheaper in the interior bits (like that juice : 2.50 Euro on the outside that we gladly paid for, and then 1 Euro in the center).
On our last night in the city we were also celebrating the beautiful Matilda’s 30th birthday and she booked us a table at Zero Km for her birthday meal. The restaurant focuses on producing food from ingredients that are sourced as locally as possible, with nothing coming from more than 100km outside of Barcelona. We had pizzas and tasty salads and wine and it was delicious.
Barcelona is the perfect city for not making plans. We had a few main things that we all wanted to do (Pete and Tilly went to the football stadium, Jon and I took a tour of the Sagrada Familia), but other than that we adhered to a loose pattern of cycle – tapas – cycle – walk around a cool area – cycle – wine – rinse and repeat, all in the sunshine.
And of course there’s Gaudi everywhere, making his aura felt all over the city, surreal lumps and bumps on random buildings here and there. But I’ll talk more about him soon enough.
Between the actual pounds of patatas bravas, padron peppers (lightly fried and dipped in salt), and the slabs of tomato bread that we ate at nearly every place we stopped, it’s a wonder we could move at all. But it was probably the perfect fuel for all of the general locomotion we were putting ourselves through! And let’s not talk about the huge hunks of cheese we brought back that’s still taking up far too much space in the fridge right now in my attempt to not eat all of it straightaway.
So what would I actually recommend for a 5 day visit to this charming, wonderful city? I’ve got a few ideas…
See and Do
Gaudi party – gotta catch ’em all!
- La Sagrada Familia – 1.5-3hrs. Can book online if you want to go in.
- Park Güell – a great day out, book tickets for the paid bit online before you go, because entry is timed.
- Casa Mila & Casa Batllo – these beautiful homes are just down the road from each other, so easy to do a quick walk/cycle by.
Parc de la Ciutadella – we spent our Sunday morning here, and it seemed all the families of Barcelona had the same idea. There was an impromptu dance lesson happening with a few dozen couples in a pavilion, children were everywhere, and it was just generally a nice place to catch the sun, snooze, and/or have a picnic.
Bike Rental – Pedal Bike Rental were really lovely!
Exploring – park your bike and pick a neighborhood – L’Eixample, the Gothic Quarter, El Born…pick one and go for a wander.
Eat and Drink
Rosa Negra – amazing Mexican food and margaritas.
Zero KM – pizza noms!
Mercat Princesa – Like a mall food court, except for so much better, and with alcohol. Stalls sell skewers, more patatas bravas, local wines, pizza, and so much more and it seems to be a place where groups of friends meet to have a bite and a few drinks before heading out into the late night.
1881 above the Musee de Catalunya. The food was pretty expensive, but the drinks are good and worth it for the views from the rooftop bar.