A Short First Visit to Barcelona

bird market on la rambla


The best known area of Barcelona is the pedestrian promenade called La Rambla. It has one very narrow vehicle lane on either side of the boulevard, but these are off-limits to all private vehicles beginning around 8pm. At least that’s what the signs seemed to indicate.

Sooo… having a hotel right off La Rambla is extremely convenient for sightseeing, people-watching and catching a bus or the metro. If, however, you drive into town in a rental car, have no co-pilot and are trying to get to your hotel after dark, then the location shifts from advantage to disadvantage, at least temporarily. Without knowing where I was in relation to the hotel I was trying to get to, I drove around Barcelona for more than an hour and ended up seeing some of the streets near my hotel several times without ever reaching the place. Many buildings were quite elegant, but I couldn’t really appreciate their beauty at that moment.

This situation called for a Plan B and I actually had a Plan B to fall back on: drive to the airport, turn in the rental car and take a cab back to the hotel.

I queued up at the taxi rank, greeted ‘my’ cabbie with “Hola” (“Hi”), bag into the trunk and off we went. My creaky high-school Spanish worked well enough, maybe too well. The cabbie was laughing at something on the radio and tried to discuss the joke (broma) with me! He finally understood that I didn’t have enough Spanish to get the joke – sorry, sorry – so to keep the conversation turtling along I made a remark about how well Barcelona’s football (soccer) team, Barça, was doing. The cabbie was thrilled to talk about this topic and maybe surprised that I knew about them. Sports chat was easier to follow than the punchline of the joke.

We arrived at the Hotel Cortes in short order. It was very near the north end of the Rambla within sight of Barcelona’s equivalent to Times Square – the Plaça Catalunya. The hotel was on a one-way side street and we were at the ‘out’ end so I walked the 50 yards to the hotel rather than have the cab drive around to the other end of the street.

Day 1
After a European-size (i.e., small) breakfast, I took a long, easy stroll along La Rambla – people-watching, window shopping and taking in the architecture. This was in May but the Mediterranean summer was already in high gear. The avenue is lined with plane trees – a European variety of sycamore – whose tall, elegant shapes cast dappled shadows several degrees cooler than the bright sunshine. Dozens of street artists known as living statues claimed their spaces near the curbs. Clad in a variety of outrageous costumes, wearing heavy, sometimes even metallic makeup on every inch of exposed skin, they posed motionless until someone tossed a coin into the bucket or made the mistake of accidentally standing too close. Then the statue comes alive, making noises to match the creature it represents, moving slowly into a different pose or, occasionally, grabbing a strollers’ hat or placing a golden hand on an unsuspecting shoulder. Pedestrians beware!

The crowds on the street seemed more tourist than local; many of the visitors were soccer fans, judging by the variety of team shirts worn by so many of the soccer-ball toting young men.

The Rambla also has plenty of newsagents’ stalls, flower sellers and a pet kiosk. The pet kiosk stocked a variety of small animals – rabbits, turtles, different types of small songbirds, hamsters – just the kind to appeal to young children and the perfect size for urban apartment living.

A few hundred yards south of Plaça Catalunya is the Bouqueria. This is Barcelona’s open-air covered food market; locals shop early for the best selection, whether meat or fish, vegetables, fruits and breads or any of the several delicious varieties of Spanish ham. There are also snack bars selling all sorts of fresh food and fruit smoothies.

Central Barcelona is quite walkable, but after the morning stroll, I did what I often do when visiting a city for the first time. City sightseeing buses allow me to get my bearings and see how far apart things are, which makes for a better organized visit. Most of Barcelona’s buses stop somewhere in Plaça Catalunya, another advantage of my hotel’s location. Barcelona has so much to see that there are two coordinated routes for the city sightseeing bus rather than just one. You can take one bus for one price or take both for a little bit more. The 2-bus ticket lets you see it all. The bus routes intersected at a couple of locations so you could hop off one bus after completing its loop and hop onto the second bus without waiting.

As with most European city bus tours now, there is a pre-recorded commentary available in several languages. Each passenger gets a fresh pair of earbuds, plugs into the outlet in the seatback in front of them and selects the correct language from the digital menu. The commentary is paced to stay in synch with the bus location. I couldn’t tell if the pauses matched the traffic because the traffic never changed or if the host or driver could control pausing the commentary.

It seemed that every few seconds we were looking left or right or straight ahead at one of Antonio Gaudí’s magnificent buildings, exciting public artworks by Miró, Gehri and others but even the ordinary sights fascinate me. The logo for the local bank was designed by Miró, just as one example. The train station parking lot, which would have been filled with cars in any American city or bicycles in Belgium or the Netherlands, was filled instead with hundreds upon hundreds of motor scooters.

The northern half of the city is home to wide streets and the University where classes are conducted not in Spanish but in Catalán. We drove slowly past the home ground for Barcelona football club, suitably huge and with vendors selling souvenirs even though the team were not in town! The bus did not go all the way to Park Güell because of the narrow residential street, but stopped some distance away. There is a great view of the city from the Park as well as the incredible Gaudí-designed outdoor environment. After a few minutes, you can catch the next tour bus where the previous one dropped you off. After a slow cruise down some lovely upscale streets thick with large, mature trees and filled with grand one-of-a-kind houses, the bus looped slowly around all sides of La Sagrada Familia – Gaudí’s great lifework – still under construction. This was another place to stop, visit the church and resume the tour on a later bus.

mediterranean at barceloneta

Finally, we arrived at the waterfront area known as Barceloneta with its chic (and pricy) apartment buildings, massive aquarium, enticing shopping promenades and inviting Mediterranean Sea-side restaurants. I’m not a beach person, but I could happily live here, at least in a cooler part of the year. From Barceloneta, the bus seemed to huff and puff its way up the steep hill to Montjuïc and the Olympic stadium and another great view of the city. There is a cable car that runs between Barceloneta and the summit of Montjuïc, something I’m putting on the list for my next visit, along with the chocolate museum!

After the bus, I found an internet café and spent some time with my email. These days, with no i-phone or i-pad (yet), my pre-trip research includes tracking down location of internet shops in my destination cities, mostly in case I need to print off any paperwork for my trip that was not available before my trip started.

Time for dinner. I got a recommendation at the hotel for a tapas restaurant away from the tourist area of the Rambla and sampled some grilled shrimps (gambas a la plancha) and some great Catalán beer called Voll Damm. Odd. Unfortunately, I didn’t note the name of the restau but I think I could find it again.

When I got back to the hotel, there were uniformed police all over the street; the sign on their van said Mossos. These are the Catalán regional police. They were in the hotel lobby, too, but I decided not to ask why.

Back in my room, I turned on the TV and saw that Barcelona football club was playing in the big match for the Spanish championship. The game had been running for some time and I noticed a bright glow coming from the Plaça Catalunya outside my window, along with a huge amount of crowd noise. I had to check it out.

The glow came from a giant TV screen in the center of the Plaça and the crowd consisted of a couple thousand mostly young, mostly male fans watching Barcelona play an arch-rival in a third city – no hometown advantage. I asked one of the guys, in Spanish, whether it was the first or second half; he said it was the 2nd half. Barça was ahead 3-1. With the score at 4-1 (I think) and only 5 minutes left of regulation time, I decided to avoid the crowd and any potentially overzealous celebrations and go back to the hotel. The Mossos were getting kitted up – heavy padded vests and helmets but, oddly enough, I didn’t feel especially intimidated – not just because they weren’t after me but because most of them looked to be around my height – several inches shy of 6 feet tall! They were headed over to the Plaça to do crowd control after the match. Judging by the ongoing cheering, honking car horns and the occasional siren, the celebrations continued until about 4 am.

Day 2
The second day was the winery tour. I located the minivan in time, despite the short night. The tour was in English, which was lucky; I hadn’t even asked when I signed up. I’ve taken winery tours before. How different could it be, even in Spanish?

a penedes vineyard

The first stop was a small vineyard called Jean Leon producing both red and white wine. After the usual tour of the premises and some breathtaking views of the hills of the Penedès region, we tasted a Cabernet and a Chardonnay. Both were delicious and I bought a bottle of the Cab – surprising because Cabs are usually too bold for the types of food I eat (I don’t eat red meat any more). This Cab, though had much less tannin. The bottle I bought is the same vintage as the sample at the tasting, so I’m looking forward to enjoying it soon.

The other stop was the Freixenet cava winery. We had bread sticks at the Jean Leon tasting but Freixenet had a mini-buffet for us. The tour started with 2 glasses of cava – one white, one rosé. These were accompanied by Ibérico ham, Manchego cheese, salami and paté with crusty bread. The sweet ending was the small, Catalunyan biscotti-like almond cookies called carquiñoles. It was good to get something solid in our stomachs, otherwise we would have slept through the rest of the tour, even if standing up – no wine-spitting for this group. The long, high cellars were filled with thousands upon thousands of bottles in various stages of fermentation. At the end, we went to the upstairs tasting room for a glass of the top-of-the-line reserve brut, called Brut Nature, and some nuts or crackers. A visit to the wide array of products in the gift shop, then onto the bus for the journey back to Barcelona just as it started to rain. Some of the passengers napped; I waited until I got back to my hotel, lest I miss some interesting scenery along the way.

At a small supermarket, El Corte Inglés, I picked up some sheep’s milk cheese, a box of carquiñoles, o.j. for the morning (I drink a large quantity of o.j. in the morning and the hotel restau seemed to be rationing everything at breakfast except for the cigarette smoke that came in from the bar, even at 8 am), chocolate and a 3-pack of small wine boxes – like the cartons we have that juice comes in for kids. Kind of an odd dinner, but it gave me some local snacks to munch on while I repacked my bags for the flight to London the following day.

Before going back to my room, I bought some postcards – an old-fashioned habit, I know – got directions to a shop to get stamps and actually found the place, a couple of alleys away, a tiny shop that sold mostly lottery tickets and cigarettes. My spoken Spanish is still crap, but my comprehension is improving.

Day 3
On the last morning, I wrote the postcards, plopped them into the bright yellow mailbox on La Rambla and took my first ride on the metro so I’d have some familiarity with it for next time. Then it was time to check out of the hotel and get over to the airport.

The airport bus was loading up in the Plaça Catalunya. This service runs several times each hour and takes about 30 minutes. I found out later that the metro runs all the way to the airport; it’s cheaper than the airport bus and a possibility for next time. Then again, maybe next time I’ll take a cab again and chat with the cabbie who will tell me about the jokes on the radio. And maybe next time I’ll understand the joke and the punch line.

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