I returned to Barcelona last week after 9 years. It’s amazing how many technological advancements there have been in that time. 9 years ago there was no Facebook (at least, not in my world) and I didn’t have a digital camera, so I only had a smattering of mediocre quality photographs with which to awaken my memories of this Catalonian city. I recalled the Gaudi-designed architecture – the immense and imposing Sagrada Familia – and the abundance of art, but little more visual pictures remained in my head. Barcelona had also been one of the places I’d visited with an ex-boyfriend of mine, probably the first person I truly loved, and with whom I have memories of a time in my life that is still very dear to me.
So, I returned to Barcelona with a mix of trepidation, curiosity, and excitement. Excited to be returning to a place I have fond memories of, but trepidant due to the nature of those memories and the person they relate to, and also curious to discover what I remembered of the city, as well as what I didn’t remember, and parts that I hadn’t yet explored.
I arrived in Barcelona on a balmy summer evening at the end of June and found my way to the city centre via train, which – in comparison to the airport bus – is a more pleasant, authentic – and fractionally cheaper – way of making the short 17km journey. Now don’t get me wrong, I can’t really complain about the £16 a night charge for a bed in a nice enough dorm room, in a city that’s expensive even by British standards. However, I did feel that the location of our first hostel – just on the cusp of the Esquerra de L’Eixample district near to the University, was a little out on a limb, and the staff there seemed more concerned about making sure we came to their nightly party (read: a large bowl of free Sangria for guests to help themselves to) than they were about offering us a map or any information about their city. That said, free alcohol is always a great way to break down those social barriers, so probably not a bad idea in itself; it just felt a little impersonal. Coupled with the disorientation you always tend to feel when arriving at a new or unfamiliar destination, the fact that I got a little more drunk than I’d intended to (I blame the absinthe!), got separated from my boyfriend, and later learned that he’d been victim to a couple of pick-pocketers during his stumble home, I have to admit that at first, it was a bit of an ambivalent love affair I had for the city.
So how did Barcelona manage to charm me?
With its tranquil green spaces…
On our first full day in the city, through the haze of an absinthe hangover, we decided to explore the verdant park area of Montjuic. It is possible to walk up from Placa d’Espanya, although I understand it’s a pretty steep climb, and one that we didn’t fancy doing in the heat of the (almost) midday sun, so we caught the funicular from Paral-el metro station. Montjuic is a beautifully serene, shaded area, and is home to the Fundacio Joan Miro (a permanent exhibition of the work of Catalan artist Joan Miro), the Botanical Garden (which is laid out on terraced slopes and offers some superb views of the city), and the Castle. If you’re into your surrealist, abstract art then you’ll love the Joan Miro exhibition. The Mercury Fountain is amazing and even the building itself is a work of art. Wandering around this area, I felt a million miles away from city life, and that’s the beauty of Barcelona’s green spaces…like Parc de la Ciutadella and Parc Guell – so close to the city, yet so far removed.
With its wonderful food…
Whether it be the colourful markets of La Boqueria (the highlight of busy thoroughfare Las Ramblas) or Santa Caterina (north of the Born area), or the busy tapas bars, or the cosy little restaurants tucked away down little side streets in Barcelona’s old town, the city’s vast array of culinary offerings will not disappoint.
There’s something for every budget too, and it’s not just traditional Catalan or Spanish fare on offer – although it’s almost unethical to leave Barcelona without sampling some of the local favourites. Although not specifically Catalan eateries, the following are definitely worthy of a mention…
1. La Cereria, Baixada de Sant Miquel 5, Barri Gotic
This is one of those places you walk into, and you instantly know that they’re going to be serving some of the tastiest organic, vegetarian cuisine in Barcelona. It’s got an arty, rustic, bohemian feel to the place, and is full of unusual instruments and bright colours. The portion sizes are very generous, making this little gem very good value for money. Order from their extensive menu of imaginative pizzas, salads, crepes, as well as some artisan beers, exotic teas and tasty riojas.
2. El Salon, L’Hostal d’en Sol 6-8, Barri Gotic
It’s easy to fall for the charms of cosy, candlelit El Salon, and its intimate, understated decor belies the outstanding quality of the food they serve there. There’s a plethora of inventive salads, and a wide variety of fish dishes. I ordered oriental style tuna steak with a soy and ginger sauce, and it was cooked perfectly! There’s also a lovely little terrace in the nearby square, although this seems to fill up first so get there early if you want to dine al fresco. The food here isn’t cheap but it’s certainly worth it.
3. Tapas bars Vaso de Oro (Carrer Balboa 6, Barceloneta) and Champagneria (Carrer de la Reina Cristina 7, Barceloneta)
Two very different tapas bars but both are great little finds in their own right. Vaso de Oro may be in all the guidebooks but it still retains it’s traditional Spanish charm. Sit along the bar and order from their extensive tapas menu, watch the food being prepared in front of you, and wash it all down with one of their own light or dark beers. We ordered Manchego (one of my favourite cheeses) – served with roasted and salted almonds, and spicy tuna. Service is efficient, the portion sizes are generous, and the food is deliciosa!
Champagneria on the other hand, is more of an experience in itself rather than a dining establishment. It was initially recommended to me by an acquaintance of mine who used to live in Barcelona. It’s hidden away behind a couple of huge wooden doors down otherwise quiet little Reina Cristina. I was warned it would be busy but I hadn’t pictured quite what I found – I had to push my way in past hoards of people, shouting “Perdoneme!” as loud as I could without seeming rude, yet still not being heard or noticed. When I finally got within reaching distance of the very tall bar, I was too overwhelmed to order. To order would have meant shouting, in a language I wasn’t very confident even speaking in, and to do that would have meant being able to understand the tapas menu written on the huge boards behind the bar – in Catalan. It may not sound like I’m painting a very good picture of this tiny, crammed, standing room only tapas and cava bar, but beyond the crowds and the language barriers is a buzzing hub of social activity and one of the cheapest places to eat and drink in Barcelona. It shuts at 10pm every night – a testament in itself to Champagneria’s popularity.
With its beautiful barrio’s…
A stroll through Barcelona’s old town quarters is a true delight. The Ciutet Vella encompasses Barri Gòtic, el Raval, and La Ribera (also known as El Born) and is a labyrinth of narrow streets and tall, crumbling old buildings oozing with character. The streets are lined with tapas bars, vintage shops, quirky cafes, and colourful galleries but above these are residential apartments like the one we stayed in, right in the heart of the beautiful Barri Gotic. Sat out on our small balcony in the morning, drinking tea and eating cheese and crackers (how very English!), we felt the intimacy and charm of this lovely serene neighbourhood. Ciutet Vella, whilst at once belonging to modern Barcelona, has clung independently to its historic roots. What I also love about wandering these streets is that you can be walking down a quaint little alley one minute, and then the next you are met with a wonderful open space – a beautiful plaza full of outdoor cafes and talented buskers – and a stunning church or cathedral rises up in front of you.
Despite the relaxing atmosphere that permeates these streets, there’s also a certain vibrancy…whether it be an entertainer making huge bubbles to bewitch and delight small children, or a musician plucking the strings of his harp outside Gothic cathedral La Seu, there’s always something to lift your spirits and awaken your senses.
With its abundance of art and culture…
Everywhere you look Barcelona’s streets are alive with visual art…along with the work of Antoni Gaudi, Pablo Picasso, and Joan Miro, there is some fantastic street art, interesting sculptures and wonderful murals to marvel at. Barcelona feels like a city that encourages creativity, in whatever form it may take. One of my favourite nights here was the evening I paid Robadores, in El Raval, a visit. With its stone walls, low ceilings, manga artwork and cheap beer, it has the appeal of an underground bar. The clientele seem diverse, friendly and down-to-earth, but the reason this bar really shines is the live music nights it hosts. I understand there is live jazz on a Wednesday night, but we rocked up on a Sunday night – for the live flamenco jam session. We got there pretty early (around 10:30), so we managed to get a seat, but all those who showed up later on just grabbed a space on the floor or squeezed on to one of the benches along the walls. It was a fantastic thing to see…the flamenco style clapping, singing, guitar playing, a bit of piano. At times it was difficult to tell where the crowd ended and the artists began. Towards the end of the night, the room was full of smiling, slightly inebriated faces sharing one common interest between them – their love of music.
The artwork you can see on the back wall above is only a microcosmic example of the fantastic graffiti art that can be found all over the city. Graffiti is a word I use reluctantly, because to me graffiti is tags; it degrades the appearance of the landscape rather than complementing it. I want to call it street art, but then it’s often used inside buildings as well as out, and there are still many people who refuse to accept it under the label of ‘art’. Tell me what you think…here are a few examples of the expressions of creativity on display. These two in particular can be seen in the skate park along Avinguda del Paral-el, along with – randomly but brilliantly – a large ornamental gate valve.
With its cool bars…
Whether you like cocktails, a bottle or two of real ale, a glass of chilled Sangria, or some sparkling pink cava bubbles, Barcelona has it. Whether you fancy some live Flamenco or Jazz, a bit of rock, some chilled beats or a full-on D.J set, Barcelona has that too. The city’s nightlife ranges from tiny cramped tapas bars, to wood-panelled pipe smokers pubs, to cocktail lounges, and underground clubs. Those that serve food normally shut by 11pm, but all the remaining establishments stay open well into the small hours of the morning. Nightlife here starts late, so it’s not unusual to find yourself heading home as the sun is coming up.
For real ales, check out La Cerveteca (on the same street as El Salon). Not the kind of place you’d expect to see real ales served – it’s a bright, modern bar with few seats – but they have a huge selection from all over the world. I do like my ales and I’d not heard of a single one of the bottles that were stacked up on wooden shelves from floor to ceiling. There’s some interesting names too…Rogue dead guy anyone?
For a chilled beer with friends, check out Pipa Club. It’s hidden away in the corner of Placa Reial, in an inconspicuous third floor apartment. You have to ring the bell, wait to be let in, and ascend the stairs, and as you do you feel like you’ve discovered a secret den, a million miles from the buzzing tourist trap of Placa Reial. Through the rather seedy looking entrance door, you’ll discover a wood-panelled, jazzy, pipe smokers haunt. There are several rooms in this converted apartment, and you can wander the linking corridors to view a quirky collection of pipes, including one that belonged to Dali.
For an absinthe experience, check out the authentic, atmospherically run-down bar Marsella – named after the French port of Marseilles, where absinthe is the drink of choice. It’s located just at the bottom of Rambla de Raval, on the corner of Carrer de Sant Pau and Carrer de Sant Oleguer; you can’t miss it for the hoards of people hanging around outside, smoking cigarettes and sharing inebriated conversation. Opened in 1820, everyone from Picasso to Hemmingway is rumoured to have been a regular here. You wouldn’t think it had been cleaned since it opened, the dust is inches thick on those ornamental bottles behind the bar and the chandelier is so grimy, you can’t ever imagine it once being grand, but this is part of Marsella’s appeal. Moreover, I’m not entirely sure they serve anything other than Absinthe and Estrella – but that’s part of its appeal too.
For live music, cheap beer, and an all-round fantastic little underground-style bar, check out Robadores 23 (as previously mentioned under the art and culture section)
For some happy hour Mojitos (until 10pm) or a late night drink, with an in-house D.J playing some cool, laid back beats, check out Milans – on the street of the same name just off Carrer d’Avinyo in Barri Gotic. This bar was opposite the apartment that we stayed in for the second half of the week, and always seemed to be open when other bars nearby had closed.
Because, after less than an hour on the train, you can be here…
The mountain of Montserrat (which I affectionately named ‘Monster Rat’), with its rocky crags, vast monastery, hermitage caves, and stunning views. Montserrat is 1236m above sea level, and walking up here certainly feels like being on top of the world. I climbed the mountain on my last day in Barcelona, and it was a wonderful way of reflecting upon my experiences in the city. With the wind in my hair and the clean mountain air in my lungs, I took a deep breath and considered that perhaps Barcelona had managed to charm me once again…maybe just a smidgen 😉
Thanks to…Bridges and Balloons for their recommendations of Where to eat, drink and go out in Barcelona, many of which I followed up during my visit, and a few of which I have also recommended in this blog.