Wednesday, December 14th, 2005

I’ve had the good fortune to be able to visit most of the countries in western Europe at one point or another. But in all my travels, I’d never stepped foot on the Iberian peninsula. This was not for lack of desire: I would love to see the Prado museum in Madrid and the Alhambra in Granada, to wind through the steep streets of Lisbon, to sample fine wines, port, paella, and seafood. But when I’ve had the opportunity for vacation, my desire to do these things has always been superseded by my desire to go hang out in Ireland, or visit Italy, or just go home for a week.

Recently, however, a friend’s decision to celebrate her birthday in Barcelona was the impetus for Jeremy and I to take the plunge and explore a city we’d never been to in a country I’d never seen. It was also an opportunity for me to dabble in two new languages: Spanish and Catalan (I naturally gravitated towards the Catalan, and while I didn’t get to use my few words very often, I was happy to know them nonetheless).

I’d only ever heard wonderful things about Barcelona, and I can say now that the city does not disappoint. Everyone goes on about the Rambla - the long, pedestrianized street lined with places to eat and thronged with tourists, locals, street artists, souvenir shops, and pickpockets - but to be honest, I found it to be the least interesting aspect of the city. Maybe it’s different in the summer, when you can sit outside and watch the world go by. To me, it was just too busy and tacky.

No, what I fell for was the Barri Gòtic and the Ribera, Barcelona’s astonishingly large and endlessly interesting gothic quarter. As was the case with Brussels, I was woefully ignorant of the historical delights that Barcelona has to offer, so everything came as a bit of a surprise to me. Our first evening in town was spent meandering through the lamp-lit passages and alleyways of the gothic quarter, emerging every now and then in a grand, cobbled square or quiet medieval plaza. There were Christmas markets near the Catedral de Barcelona selling everything from honey and cheese to hats and jewelry. The streets were thronged all evening, and we made good use of the late opening hours by sampling tapas in a busy bar, going for dinner around ten o’clock, and then hopping from café to bar to imbibe cafe con leche, vino tinto and cerveza until well into the night.

Gothic alleyway

The next morning, Jeremy and I made straight for the gothic quarter again to check out a tiny church we had passed the night before. The pre-Romanesque church of Sant Pau del Camp is a little gem situated in an otherwise seedy part of town. The promise of "Visigothic decorations" around the doorway drew me to the church like a moth to the flame. Unfortunately for us, a wedding was about to take place that morning, so we couldn’t go inside and check out the supposedly lovely cloisters. But we did take pictures of the fascinating entrance, and we wandered around the outside a bit. The ground was golden with fallen leaves in the bright morning sun, and there were parrots in the trees. It was heavenly.

Church of Sant Pau del Camp

Our next destination was the massive Mercat de la Boqueria, Barcelona’s largest food market. It was jam-packed with stalls offering fruit, vegetables, fish, Spanish hams and salamis, rabbits and pheasants, sausages, cheeses and sweets. Since it was Saturday morning, it was also jam-packed with people shopping, and we found it impossible to get a seat at any of the tapas bars dotted throughout the market hall. We finally managed to snag a small table at a seafood bar on the edge of the market, where we indulged in battered calamari, grilled prawns, fried green peppers, and bread rubbed with tomato and olive oil.

Thus fortified, we plunged into the gothic quarter again and ambled aimlessly for hours. As evening began to fall, we found ourselves outside the beautiful church of Santa Maria del Mar, a perfect example of Catalan Gothic architecture. It is a gorgeous - if somewhat austere - church, both inside and out. Again, a wedding was about to start, so we sat on the square in front of the church, had a glass of wine, waited to see the bride pull up in a fancy car and go into the church, and watched the rosy towers turn brilliant red in the last light of the setting sun. And then we went off for more tapas.

Church of Santa Maria del Mar

We spent the better part of the next day exploring a somewhat different side of the city. In the morning, we caught a funicular up to the Parc Montjuïc on one of the hills surrounding Barcelona. We walked the rest of the way up to the Castell de Montjuïc, which provides amazing (though hazy) views over the city and the sea. After strolling around in the bright sunlight at the top of the hill, we made our way back down and caught a tram to the Sagrada Familia.

Passion façade of Sagrada Familia

On our walk up to the Castell, I had caught my first glimpse of Gaudí’s massive construction from a distance, and the sheer size of the thing took my breath away even then. Up close, the Sagrada Familia is even more bizarre and overwhelming. It almost defies description, really. The west-facing "Passion" façade looks like a church of the future, all angular and modern, while the east-facing "Nativity" façade looks like a giant melted candle. The inside is an enormous construction site, and the pillars supporting the roof have a strangely sci-fi feel to them. Outside, the finials of the spires are topped with various fruits, and there’s writing all over the place. It’s all very…odd. We took an elevator up one of the bell towers and experienced a harrowing walk back down, taking in some lovely views over the city along the way.

Nativity façade of Sagrada Familia

After getting our fill of modernism, Jeremy and I couldn’t resist going back to the gothic quarter for our evening’s entertainment. We strolled back to Santa Maria del Mar and grabbed some tapas in a nearby bar, then wove through the narrow streets and stumbled across a comfy café, where we had coffee before meandering some more. We lingered over a hearty Spanish dinner in Taxidermista on one of Barcelona’s more picturesque squares, and then, on the recommendation of an acquaintance who had been there in the summer, we made our way to the strangely wonderful Bar Tequila.

Bar Tequila is kind of a heavy metal bar - but a really cozy, relaxed heavy metal bar, with a clientele that is not at all "metal". The main room has a bar down either side of it. There are a set of headphones at each seat along the bar, and there are scraps of paper and pens on the counter. You’re encouraged to write down musical requests on the little pieces of paper and hand them to the DJ, who is a 60-year-old man in a tiny booth at the end of the room. The music - which is not played loudly in the bar itself - ranges from classic metal to more recent bands and hair metal to hardcore, with indie stuff like the Cure and the Pixies thrown in for good measure. The idea is that when a song comes on that you like, you can put the headphones on and hear it at a quite extraordinary volume to really rock out. It’s very quirky and very fun, and Jeremy and I sat there for several hours, requesting the occasional song, drinking the local beer, and enjoying our last night in Barcelona.

Barcelona really won me over; I wasn’t expecting to like it nearly as much as I did. The people were friendly, the buildings were lovely, and there was food and drink everywhere - what more could you want from a vacation destination? I’ll admit, when it comes to Mediterranean countries, languages and cuisines, my heart still lies with Italy - but the architecture, atmosphere and culture of Barcelona are pretty hard to beat.

For more pictures of Barcelona, check out my Flickr pages.


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