Friday, May 27, 2011

Spain: Barcelona

By Melissa at 9:26 AM
Just a quick note that for the most part in this post I use the Catalan names for the sites, but I'm a bit lazy so there are probably a few Spanish translations here and there depending on which came to my mind first.

We booked eight days in Barcelona and so we were able to slow down the pace of sightseeing, only visiting about one major sight per day. Also, after traveling for 6 weeks, your brain needs a break from looking at 100 paintings a day. Now, that did not mean we spent a lot of time sitting around because if you know Brian, you know that he does not like sitting still. We were able to spend more time walking (about 6 to 7 hours per day) than we could in Andalucia because Barcelona is just so much bigger than all of the cities we visited in Southern Spain and there is more to explore.

We really loved Barcelona and you could call it the San Francisco of Spain. Like San Francisco, it has a waterfront area, has a laid back feel and is generally more liberal than other cities in Spain. Catalunya, the province in which Barcelona is located, was the first province to outlaw bullfighting. Barcelona also felt a bit more racially diverse than Madrid and was much more diverse than any of the other cities we visited. There are also a greater number of non-Spanish restaurants in Madrid, which is a good thing if you're going to be staying there for an extended period of time. There are even hippies! We happened upon a protest by a group arguing for squatters rights. They marched carnival style, with costumes and music, down the streets of the Ciutat Vella to the Ayunamento, or City Hall, where they proceeded to put on a clown show. We felt right at home.

Our favorite area of the city was the Ciutat Vella, specifically the Barri Gotic and Born District. The best way I can describe it is the Mission meets Hayes Valley. Or, for you East Coasters, Greenwich Village meets SoHo. There are a lot of great restaurants, tapas bars, artisanal bread shops, and clothing boutiques around every corner. The best part is that the clothing in the boutiques is actually affordable. You don't have to pay $60 for a T-shirt with an appliqué bird on it like you do in San Francisco. Oh and the shoes! To die for. This was the first time on the trip that I was bummed about not being able to shop. But c'est la vie, I'll just have to return to Barcelona another year with an empty suitcase.

The Born at night
From Barcelona, Spain

Okay before I go on about what else I liked about Barcelona, let me tell you what I really didn't like; the Ramblas and pickpockets. I personally have no idea why the Ramblas is mentioned in every single guidebook about Barcelona. Some do mention that it's very touristy, but most say go just to experience the ambiance of a stroll down the Ramblas. But as far as I could tell, there wasn't any ambiance to speak of. Just skip it, because in my opinion it's not even worth going to say you've been there. The other less than wonderful thing about Barcelona is the number of pickpockets in the city, which causes you to always be looking over your shoulder when you're in the touristy areas. We witnessed an attempted theft on the metro and our flatmates had a close call as well. It made the experience a bit less relaxing than I would have liked. On the sort of bright side, the pickpockets are very easy to spot because they hang out in the touristy areas, but are obviously looking for their next target and not the sights.

On to the sights, which were all great. Our first stop was La Sagrada Familia Cathedral--Antonio Gaudi's epic, and still unfinished magnum opus. After having visited umpteen cathedrals on this and our other trips to Europe, visiting La Sagrada Familia was like a breath of fresh air. Now, this is not to say that visiting St. Peter's in Rome wasn't amazing and worthwhile, but after seeing a dozen Gothic and Renaissance cathedrals, they can start to blur together. Gaudi's style highlights organic forms and his facades are filled with sculptures of fruit, birds, animals, trees and sea life. And really what better way to show one's worship of God than to showcase his creations in a grand monument. In contrast to the deep beige colored and busy facades of the cathedral, the inside consists of soft white forms with smooth, parabolic arches and egg-like light fixtures. The milky colored walls are punctuated by impressive stained glass and large, clear windows.

Passion facade of the Sagrada Familia
From Barcelona, Spain

Looking across the Sagrada Familia
From Barcelona, Spain

Jesus over the alter in the Sagrada Familia
From Barcelona, Spain

We had a bit of fun touring the insides of the towers, which was a great way to get out of the crowds, get good views of the city and see the work being done on the still unfinished central tower element up close. When we were done touring we had to take one of the spiral staircases all the way back down to the base of the cathedral, which was a very dizzying experience. Thank goodness for handrails. I thought climbing up the inside of the dome in St. Peters was bad.

Looking down the spiral staircase in the Sagrada Familia
From Barcelona, Spain

We also spent a couple of hours touring the extensive collection in the Picasso museum, located in a particularly cute part of the Born District. Afterwards we wandered south and stopped at two of the many bars serving pinxtos (pronounced pinchos) for dinner. I absolutely love pinxtos and wish there was an equivalent dining experience elsewhere. The closest I can think of is those sushi boat restaurants, but those are much more expensive. In a bar serving pinxtos, they pile up the bar with various three-bite sized goodies, usually on top of a piece of sliced baguette. You grab a plate at one end of the bar and then fill up your plate with as many pinxtos as you want and then head to a table where a waiter will come by at your table to get your drink order. At the end of the night when you ask for the check, the waiters take your plates, count up your toothpicks and add it to your drink tab. Each pinxto costs about $2.50 and you can get full on four to five, so it's a relatively affordable meal with a lot of variety. They even make dessert pinxtos.

Pintxos
From Barcelona, Spain

The next two sites were Gaudi and more Gaudi, but that's what Barcelona is known for. La Pedrera, meaning the quarry, is the nickname for an apartment building called Casa Mila, designed by Gaudi and located in the Eixample District. Just north of the Ciutat Vella, but decidedly modern with large avenues and more mainstream shopping, the Eixample was another neighborhood we really liked and spent a while walking around. La Pedrera was built as an apartment complex for well-off Barcelonians. Like Gaudi's other creations it looks like something that just sprung up out of the earth, or in this case, perhaps out of the sea. The building courtyard has a cavelike feel, but the balconies are made of metal ribbons that look just like seaweed draped on the building. Gaudi designed special tiles for the building with raised relief figures of sea life. The tiles have been replicated and installed in the sidewalk in front of the apartment and also stretch to the main street a couple of blocks away. On the roof there are clusters of eerie chimney stacks resembling angry rock people.

La Padrera
From Barcelona, Spain

Sentinels on the roof of the La Padrera
From Barcelona, Spain

Closeup of one of the statues on the roof of the La Padrera
From Barcelona, Spain

Next we headed over to Parc Guell, which is actually a failed real estate development that was financed by Count Eusebi Guell (he also financed several other Gaudi projects). The roads, a public market space, two gingerbread-style guard houses and two homes were built before the project was halted and purchased by the city in 1926. It is currently a public park where you can wander around marveling at Gaudi's surreal creations. You can also visit the Casa Museu Gaudi, which was the home where Gaudi lived for almost 20 years before he moved into the basement of La Sagrada Familia to oversee that project.

The entrance of Parc Guell
From Barcelona, Spain

Market hall below at Parc Guell
From Barcelona, Spain

Our tour through Parc Guell made us yearn for more strolling through green and leafy surroundings, so we headed to Montjuic mountain up on a hill near the sea. The area is filled with many museums as well as attractions from the 1992 Olympics. We took a funicular about half way up the mountain and visited the Fundacio Joan Miro to view the works of this amazing Spanish painter. The collection is housed in a building designed by Josep Lluis Sert, a friend of Miro. This was definitely one of my favorite museums so far. There are almost a dozen sites in Montjuic and we did not leave ourselves nearly enough time to enjoy them all, but just walking around is quite pleasant.

The last two nights we were lucky enough to be able to stay with a friend of a friend of ours from San Francisco. It was really nice to be able to stay with someone who had similar interests. Our hotel and bed and breakfast hosts have been nothing but nice, but it was a real treat to stay with someone who we would hang out with on a regular basis. And even luckier for us, our host, Camilla is a seasoned couchsurfing.com host and she really knew how to make us feel at home. Camilla took us out to the countryside, which of course in uber-connected Europe means a 10-minute train ride, out to a town called Baixador de Vallvidrera. We took a quick stroll up a hill and over a dam to a rustic farmhouse restaurant where we ate a delicious lunch of grilled pork, rabbit and chicken. After lunch we went for a nice hike in the woods to work off our lunch. The town is adjacent to the massive metropolitan nature preserve, Parc Collserola, occupying over 20,000 acres and with miles of well-marked hiking paths.

Camilla and Melissa in the Panta de Vallvidrera
From Barcelona, Spain

Brian and Melissa in Panta de Vallvidrera
From Barcelona, Spain

On our last day in Barcelona we again took the expert advice of our lovely host and rode a train to the nearby town of Sitges. It's a beach town about 45 minutes from Barcelona and in the summer is a very popular gay holiday destination. The town has plenty of character with narrow stone-paved streets, restaurants with outdoor seating and plenty of boutiques, bookstores and ice cream. You could see hints of South Beach in the very toned and tanned people wandering around in slightly-bigger-than-speedos-swim briefs and its-bitsy bikinis, but since it was a Monday, things were very quiet and the beach was not at all crowded.

Melissa on the beach in Sitges
From Sitges, Spain

Father and son on a pier in Sitges
From Sitges, Spain