We’ve now been in Spain for nearly a week, and we spent the first four nights in Barcelona. It’s so very different from anywhere else we’ve been in Europe, however is perhaps the most similar to Turkey. I imagine it’s not too different from southern France either, particularly as part of that also used to be part of Catalunya, but we’ve never been so can’t really compare.
Barcelona, however, is really cool. In the few weeks before we left, I read a few comments where people said they hadn’t liked it much. How can someone not like Barcelona??
Our first day we took a Sandeman’s walking tour, as we do of every city we visit which has them. It was lead by an English guy who has lived in Barcelona for 15 years, and this particular tour was probably one of the two best walking tours we’ve ever done. It takes you through the historical centre where we saw the steps that Christopher Columbus climbed to request funding for his expedition to India (and was declined, so had to go to Madrid), the cathedral of Barcelona, parts of the old city wall, the oldest building in the city (the old synagogue), the town hall, among many others – all, of course, supplemented by a history of the city. We also had a pit stop at a local bar where Andre had a local beer and I, a sangria (definitely the best way to drink red wine!).
After lunch we visited the Columbus column (the only one in Spain not looking towards America, a stipulation imposed upon Barcelona when they requested permission to erect one as they had turned down Columbus’ request for funding), then spent the afternoon walking up Montjuic and through its parklands (Montjuic = jewish mountain). At the end is a huge palace (which now houses an art gallery) which overlooks an avenue of fountains running down the hill, the main one being Fontmagica, or the magic fountain. This fountain puts on a colour and music display on Friday – Sunday nights, so being a Sunday we had timed it perfectly! We were under the impression the fountain started at about 7:30 for an 8 o’clock start to the actual performance, so we were in for a long wait when we discovered it actually only started at 9. We got there so early though, that we had one of the best seats in the house – smack bang in front of it, right in the middle, sitting on the stone and concrete handrail.
It was worth the wait though – the performance went for nearly an hour as the huge fountain performed what can only be described as a water dance, filled with changing coloured lights, synchronised with varying genres of music starting with Freddie Mercury’s ‘Barcelona’, through to modern pop songs such as Pharrell’s ‘Happy’ and Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’, and Disney classics (in Spanish!)
The climate in Barcelona was just perfect too. The days got to a maximum of about 28 – 30 degrees, humid enough without being suffocating, but the evenings cool enough that our one-windowed, airconditioning-less room wasn’t stifling (it did have a fan, which was definitely a necessity). Parts of the spanish culture were immediately apparent – when we left the hostel by 8:30 in the morning, the streets were still pretty empty, and it wasn’t unusual to see families out eating dinner at 10pm.
Throughout the rest of our visit we also spent an afternoon at the beach, although the water was too cold for us. We enjoyed just lying on the beach for a few hours as the sun set though, and eating at a water-side cafe. We also visited Antoni Gaudi’s two most famous achievements – the Sagrada Familia church and Park Guell. I felt a little ripped off by Park Guell – while it’s free to enter the park itself, you have to pay an entrance fee of 7 euros to enter the ‘monument’ area, which is where you access the lookout with Gaudi’s mosaic benches, can see two of his buildings (which I imagine were originally intended as houses – one is now a museum and the other, a gift shop), see the famous salamander fountain (really not much of a fountain, although the mosaic salamander is pretty cool) and wander through some of the open-air corridors. Park Guell was originally designed to be an estate for well-off families but the plug got pulled on the project by Guell himself when he realised it wasn’t going to succeed. Eventually the property ended up in the hands of the Barcelona city council who has now made it available as public parkland. Most of the rest of the park outside the monument area is just parkland. You can book for both Park Guell and Sagrada Familia in advance, which I recommend, especially as you have to select your admission time slot for Park Guell.
The Sagrada Familia was incredible though. I’ve seen photos of the exterior many times, however I don’t think I’ve ever seen a photo of the interior (I might have once, as I had a vague impression that the inside was very different to the outside, but really didn’t know what to expect). I’m sure everyone’s seen images of the famous many-spired exterior, covered in carved depictions of biblical scenes. But the inside was really not what I expected (although I don’t know what I expected!) It’s nearly entirely white and grey, but is filled with amazing colour from enormous vividly-coloured stained glass windows. The columns branch out up to the ceiling like trees, and the stairwells and choir stalls (which line the front wall behind the altar area, over several levels) are shaped in Gaudi’s famous flowy, bulbous design.
We also wandered up and down Las Ramblas a few times, which actually disappointed me a little (it’s mostly filled with mass-produced tourist stalls) and took a tapas tour by Sandeman’s. We visited three tapas restaurants where we got varying amounts of free tapas, supplemented with cheap additional plates. I’m still undecided if the cost of the tour was worth it, as to have a meal’s worth you probably have to end up paying for an additional 4 or 5 plates (or more, for bigger eaters). On our last evening we also went for a walk through the La Boqueria market. About half of it was closed when we visited (I don’t know if this was due to the hour or the day) but there were loads of interesting fruit and vegetable stalls, lots of fresh juices available (as there are in pretty much every tourist-frequented market I’ve been to), butchers, seafood merchants (some of the food still alive!), herbs and spices, and even egg stalls with emu and ostrich eggs! There was a lot of fruit I haven’t seen since leaving Australia – rambutans, dragon fruit, custard apples and even a durian.
Barcelona was a bit of a departure from our normal pattern when visiting a new city, as we didn’t really visit any museums or galleries until the very last day. Often I like to visit museums to get a feel for the history of the city, but our walking tour did a pretty good job of that, and so much of what makes Barcelona worth visiting is outside! The beach, architecture, fountains, parklands, weather! But on our last afternoon we did visit the museum of 1714, which is an archaeological site of part of Barcelona from 1714. This is the year the city was under siege during the war of the Spanish Succession (this is the third time we have come across this war in the last two months or so – the first was at Blenheim Palace, as the palace was built for Winston Churchill’s ancestor John Churchill for his victory in battle during the war, and the second was in Paris in the Musee l’Armee where we watched an animation of battle tactics for one of the war’s battles that France fought). The free part of the museum is just a raised walkway around the archaeological site with interpretive signs explaining the historical context of the city, and parts of the site itself. There is an exhibition you can pay to go into, but we didn’t because we weren’t sure there was enough time left for it to be worth it (plus we didn’t know how good it was either).
Barcelona has certainly put itself into our top european cities to visit. I think Spain often gets overlooked by Australians visiting Europe but I’m so glad we came, and Barcelona set a great precedent for the rest of our visit!