Back from Barcelona: Part 2

When we last left our heroes (i.e. me and John), they were exhausted but exhilarated from a day of walking the narrow cobblestoned alleys and the wide, tree-lined La Rambla. Onward to Easter Sunday, which felt much less like Easter than any other place we’ve been to on that date. The Catalans just don’t get all that excited about Zombie Jesus day, it turns out.

We found a delightful brunch place, Federal Cafe. The restaurant could easily have blended in with our favorite breakfast joints in Philly, as the menu encompassed more than just English Breakfasts and boring “toasties” that you’d find around Oxford. Federal Cafe was so wonderful, in fact, that we went back again for our final meal before leaving for the airport on Monday. The coffee was incredible, and the New Yorker evidently left behind by a fellow American traveler made for high-quality, high-brow reading material while waiting for my latke and smoked salmon.

Although Sunday morning was misty, drizzly and a bit cooler than the previous day, we trekked up to the Montjuic Teleferic for a view of the city. At the top of a steep climb, we explored the grounds of the Montjuic Castle, and saw the spot where a former President (of Barcelona) was executed (for being a leftist, naturally). 

We also stopped by the Olymic Stadium, which was not too far away by foot, and which pretty much looked like your typical baseball stadium. It didn’t have the gravitas that I was expecting, but was interesting to see nonetheless. We also wandered past the Joan Miro foundation, looked at the queue formed around the block, laughed, and moved on. I might’ve said this in my last post, but I just don’t believe in standing in line, wasting time, when you come to a place to explore and enjoy its sights. Much like I don’t believe in Santa Claus or unicorns (though ghosts are definitely real).

After resting at our hostel to recharge our batteries (our phones and our aching feet, tired by 1 pm), we made our way via the metro to the Park Guell, which was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. A description won’t do it justice, so you’ll just have to wait for the (eventual) photos. I was panicking a little because I purchased tickets for a 2 pm slot, and by 2:15 we were trekking up a mountain (seriously…there was an escalator for assistance, it was so steep) and got a little lost trying to find the entrance. But, we made it in time, and really enjoyed the serenity of the place, which was overwhelming enough to drown out the chaos of too many tourists.

Not too far away from the Park was Casa Vicens, another Gaudi work (I think his first popular structure, a house designed for some rich person). Oddly enough, we were the only people there, apart from maybe 2 other families who briefly passed by to snap a picture. The solitude of this spot made the house seem almost like a typical residence rather than the World Heritage site that it is. I imagined, as I stood there, that the inhabitants of the apartments on that block probably viewed that house just as a typical neighbor’s house. For some reason, I found that comforting.

Next, we passed by the Palau de la Musica Catalana, a concert hall that was probably even more impressive inside than out, but again, [insert my stance on waiting in line]. We also passed by a market, that I thought would be much nicer, but turned out just to be an overpriced, stuck-up place where they didn’t even serve coffee that wasn’t laced with booze (La Princesa). I wasn’t too upset about the detour, though, because we happened to wander by a Bavarian Pretzel shop and picked up a cheese and pepperoni brezel as well as a “Laugenbreze.” It was a poor imitation of what Nurnberg offers, but whetted our appetites for our next trip (May 3rd!) 

I thought that the Picasso Museum, free on Sundays after 3 pm, might not be so busy on Easter Sunday, when basically every European country has the day off and isn’t spending it gorging on subpar bunny-shaped chocolate like we do in the U.S. Yeah, I was wrong about that. The queue stretched not one, not two, but three (or more?) blocks away from the entrance, so we counted our blessings that we’d seen enough Picasso in other museums to last a lifetime, and moved on.

A few more stops littered the way to our hostel for another break (we’re old!), including the impressive Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar. That night, we went out for Mexican, which is downright impossible to find in Oxford (Mission Burrito doesn’t come close, local friends). The nachos were somewhat disappointing, and the tacos were decent but lacking lime. Luckily the gelato afterwards, with its crazy flavors (parmesan-vanilla, anyone?) made up for it.

We didn’t stay out very late, but probably one of my favorite moments of the whole trip was during our walk back to the hostel. There was a street performer in one of the alleys, a dreadlocked guy who looked like anyone from my college class, entertaining a gaggle of kids with this stick-and-rope contraption that he used to dip into a bucket of soapy water and blew bubbles the side of…well, those kids who were gazing up at him in awe. As I found myself smiling just as admiringly as those kids, I thought that he probably didn’t have much money, and I didn’t know what his life was like in the slightest, but he was using this small gift, this act, to make people happy. This realization, though cheesy, made me appreciate the simple things I do, and that others do, to spread joy (or at least get someone to smile).

I think that’s a good place to wrap up this trip down memory lane (at least to the memory lane of last weekend), because if there’s on thing that Barcelona represents to me, it’s liveliness. From the architecture, to the leisurely meals of delicious cuisines, to the energizing walking along the steep hills and countless city squares, Barcelona is a city of vibrancy and inspiration. I can’t wait to return.


Back from Barcelona: Part 1

I really wanted to avoid using the term “jam-packed” in a vacation summary post, but I can’t, so I might as well include it in the first sentence. On our past few trips, John and I have typically taken things on a day-by-day basis, and not really made checklists of places to see. Granted, the last few plane rides have been to Germany and Pennsylvania, and those places are more like secondary homes where we don’t need or want to do the tourist thing.

But this time, I did some research and made a custom Google map, and tried very hard not to be lazy. The map shows the final result of our trip– clearly, “jam-packed” best describes the 60 hours we spent in Spain.

Before I launch into a long-winded account of (nearly) everything we did, I want to share a new realization (to me, at least) about traveling. It sounds great and enlightening and exciting, but it’s also damned stressful. From airport hassles to overeating because everything looks appealing to debating whether to to X first or Y, and then Z– it’s not just some rosy picture of slapping on some sunglasses and coming home in a wiser, worldlier state. Your problems, from work stress to the thoughts that keep you up at night, follow you on vacation, too. There’s a lesson to be learned here about learning how to accept that and declare vacations a success in spite of the messy parts you’d rather leave behind. I’m not sure I’ve learned it yet, but at least I’m comfortable enough with the idea to put it out there.

After we landed in the Barcelona El Prat airport, we hopped on the Aerobus to the city center. We stayed at Spain House Apartments, a hostel that actually stays true to its namesake in that it’s in an apartment building with private rooms. I think I’m finally at a point in my life where I’ve outgrown shared-room hostels, because I have no patience for late-night partiers and gross showers. Yet I’m still too cheap to splurge for a hotel, so this was a good in-between. Our host was a really friendly guy who picked us up from the bus stop, and spoiled us with fresh sheets and towels every day. Apparently we were near the “bad” neighborhood (Raval?) but I didn’t notice. Then again, we lived in Kensington, Philadelphia for a year, where break-ins, crack pipes, and neighbors brawling in the streets was the norm.

On Saturday, we wandered around the block for some Spanish brunch at Rekons. John had a platter with empanadas and a salad that could have fed four. I had a dish of roasted potatoes, topped with serrano jam and brie cheese, that was amazingly delicious, especially considering how simple it was. I felt like I could go home and make this, and it was nice to get a little kitchen-related inspiration.

After digesting and recharging our rapidly draining phone battery (Google album coming soon!), we wandered to Casa Battlo and Sagrada Familia. Before this trip, I was completely unfamiliar with Gaudi’s work, but now I see what all the fuss is about. I felt like I was in a Tim Burton film, or a fantasy world– I’d never seen such dream-like buildings. 

We wandered back toward the hostel and happened to pass by a place that I’d bookmarked, so maybe we were subconsciously led here, to La Taqueria, a place that promised (and delivered) taco goodness. They were ridiculously pricey (compared to Veracruzana in Philly, one of the few restaurants I really miss), but worth every cent. Speaking of cents/pence, I was reminded over and over again during this trip just how expensive Oxford is by comparison, so it really did feel like everything (from food to transport to lodging and beyond) was a steal.

Somehow, we still had enough energy to wander to the Arc de Triomf, which was oddly packed with more skateboarders than tourists, and then onward to the Palau de la Musica Catalana, another architectural masterpiece that warranted prolonged gawking. Finally, our feet called it quits and we collapsed back at the hostel for a few minutes, before heading to Barceloneta to get some burgers and tapas at Negro Carbon. The food was tasty and the subway/metro ride there was a nice way to see another part of the city. On our way home, we stopped by a gelato place, Artisa Barcelona. The place was overcrowded and I almost had to beg them to take my money, since customers were getting served left and right but, seemingly, no one had really thought of how to manage the cash register. The chocolate hazelnut cone made up for the chaotic service, though, and we enjoyed the last licks while sitting on the steps of a nearby square, watching street performers balance soccer balls on various body parts. (Yes, it’s soccer, not football).

I couldn’t sleep at all that night, maybe due to the excitement or the uncomfortable bed (any bed that isn’t mine is by definition uncomfortable), or maybe just as an extension of the insomnia that’s plagued me for the last few weeks. But that’s another story, less interesting than the story of Barcelona, which I’ll pick up again later this week.