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Barcelona and Catalonia

Arriving on a late flight, we were amazed first that it only took about ten minutes on the bus to get in from the airport to Plaza Espanya (that’s how they spell it in Catalonia), in the heart of Barcelona’s Modernist district. And second, the joint was jumping at midnight. A football (soccer) victory is quite a thing in Barcelona, and there had been a semifinals victory that night. Revelers filled the streets and cafes, many of them in FCB (Football Club of Barcelona) regalia—and it was not slowing down when we called it a night around 2 a.m. A week later, we were there when FCB won the playoffs. The streets and subways were filled with partiers, as were many of the bars and restaurants, balcony windows, and even the kiosks selling chocolates along La Rambla.

We were staying just a few blocks from this magnificent plaza, with a beautiful Moorish-style bullfight arena (now repurposed), a series of colonnades, and several grand avenues.

In the morning, we retraced our steps and then headed uphill (south) along Carrer de Tarragona, up several series of stairs and (outdoor!) escalators, past the Font Mágica de Montjuic to the magnificent Museu Nacional d’Art, which looks like both a cathedral and a place. We expected magnificent views from the top, but the most magnificent part was actually the Historical Botanic Garden, a quick right turn near the art museum into a sacred space for trees, birds, and an incredible feeling of peace. The first birds we saw were huge, vivid green parakeets unlike any I’ve ever seen. Plenty of magpies, gulls, sparrows, and others, too. The whole place felt like an aviary.

By luck, we chose lunch at Piccata, Gran Via 489 (934-245-314), just two blocks from our hostel. Homemade paperdelle noodles with vegetables including very tasty asparagus, cooked lightly (as asparagus should always be cooked). We also were pleased with the grilled eggplant and zucchini with Romesco sauce.

Later, we took a much longer walk: down the Gran Via to the university, a half-right onto Ronda de la Universitat, and then a couple of right turns into a lovely neighborhood of art galleries, vegetarian restaurants, and cafes. The National Library and Museum of Contemporary Art are also in this section. From there, we doubled back on the Gran Via, followed our earlier path, but instead of turning again, stayed on Ronda all the way to the beginning of La Rambla, probably Barcelona’s famous street, which divides the Old and New cities.

We walked the entire length of it, down to the Christopher Columbus monument and beyond, onto a series of bridges and platforms called Rambla del Mar that led to a massive shopping mall. I have to say I was disappointed in this boulevard. Packed with tourists, and getting more so as we approached the waterfront, it was lined with a lot of American clothing chains and hucksters selling tchotchkes. Architecturally, like much of Barcelona, it was beautiful. The city is full of graceful buildings with turrets, gargoyles, iron balconies, and massive windows along tree-lined streets, and La Rambla put us in sight of the ancient city wall when we got a few steps up. We completed the third leg of the triangle on Avinguda del Paral.lel, which took us straight back to Plaza Espanya in about 20 minutes. It was several hours of walking altogether, with a few breaks to snack our way around.

Despite its reputation as a pickpocket capital, I felt very safe. I did refuse my son’s request to descend two flights of stairs—at 11 p.m.—into a basketball court with a lot of tough-looking 20-somethings hanging around in groups of five or ten, but I still felt safe watching them play from above. What didn’t feel safe were my lungs. Despite Spain’s many-year-old ban on indoor restaurant smoking—which was largely observed when we visited Andalucía in 2009—at least a few, and sometimes many, people were smoking in the majority of restaurants. And avoiding smoke on the streets or at an outdoor café is just hopeless.

The following day, we walked around the Old City and the Gothic Quarter. These neighborhoods still have dozens of buildings stretching back several centuries, made of rough-hewn stone and fronting narrow streets with many twists and turns. But I was surprised at how many more modern buildings had taken their places. The gorgeous Cathedral is definitely a highlight. As we approached the main entrance, we were treated to a performance by a band with unusual double-reed instruments—two of which my son the oboist didn’t even recognize. Several groups of passers-by circled up and performed the Sardana, Catalonia’s national dance. After exploring the inside for quite some time, we emerged at a side exit to a wonderful trio playing clarinet, kora (African stringed instrument resembling a cross between a harp and a sarod), and a steel drum with a much richer and more melodic sound than the Trinidadian style I’m more familiar with, even though this was much smaller. It was played with fingers rather than mallets. We liked them enough to buy the CD.

Nearby are a number of museums. We visited one that was featuring a career retrospective of the French performance artist Sophie Calle, saving others for later.

On Day Three, we rented bicycles. Amazingly, for five or six euros, you can rent a decent 6-speed bike with luggage rack and lock, but not helmet—nobody wears them on Barcelona’s well-used bikeways—for a full 24 hours. We had nowhere to store them and other plans for the following day, so we only took them for 4-1/2 hours and still felt we got well more than our money’s worth. Barcelona also has Bicing, a city bike program, although the bikes look a lot chintzier than the rugged industrial models common in the US, and with smaller wheels (which means the rider works harder). This is designed for commuters, not tourists, with an annual fee that gives you free rides up to 30 minutes. The system is very popular, with 40,000 rides every day.

We headed out to Barcelonetta via the bike lanes on Avinguda Paral.lel, and enjoyed a very pleasant ride along the beach. The boardwalk also includes dedicated bike lanes, though they make arbitrary lane-jumps and sometimes the markings disappear for a bit. Confusing but not all that difficult. The beach area nearest the entrance from the shopping district is totally jammed for 500 feet or so in each direction, but walking even a short distance would bring sun-worshippers to far more spacious sands. Then it gets almost deserted until the strip of fancy clubs near the far end.

Our big discovery was Fruit Express 2, C/Maquinista 5-6, at the corner of Marqués de la Mina, a reggae-themed juice bar with an enormous selection (I got an avocado/coconut/guyabana smoothie) and a strong emphasis on fresh-squeezed flavor and natural health—but also a full liquor selection. My son described the proprietor, a young African man, as the fittest-looking person he’d ever seen. The original location is in Plaça de la Mercè, in Barri Gotic.

The next morning, we walked to the Fundació Joan Miró, a beautiful museum near the top of Montjuic, built during the artist’s lifetime and with his active endorsement (and expanded later). I’ve always been a fan of Miró’s whimsy, and the way much of his art seems at first to have the simplicity of a child’s drawing, but goes deeper the more you look. What I hadn’t known is that earlier in his career he was skilled in formalist painting, and went through an Impressionist period showing heavy Van Gogh influence…that the titles of those of his paintings that had them added several layers of meaning, yet many of his works are just titled “Painting” or “untitled”…that he worked in a wide range of media, not just drawing, painting and metal sculpture but also fabric arts, stone, plastic, found objects, and more—sometimes combining several in a single work… the depth of his intelligence and humor…his exploration of sexuality…his passion for social justice…and monumental scale of so many of his works.

The bright and airy museum gives plenty of room to display these pieces well, though its collection—8000 drawings, 300 paintings, 150 sculptures, and 9 textiles, not to mention numerous letters and documents, art by others from his own collection or in tribute to him, and more—is far larger than what’s on display. The museum is well-curated and well-explained, with placards in Catalan, Spanish, and English, and does an excellent job of putting his life and work in context, breaking it into historical periods and reminding us what was going on in his life and in the wider world; we felt no need for the audio guide. However, there’s really nothing about his life prior to 1920.

Two of the most charming things: a photo of Miró next to two of his small child-like works, mounted with thumbtacks as if they actually were children’s drawings—and the rooftop sculpture garden, which is the only place to get pictures of the art—and lots of visitors were happily posing with the sculptures, including us.

Things fell apart for a couple of hours, as we got to the train station, accidentally left our luggage in a café (luckily noticing in time to recover it), stood on the wrong platform and missed the faster train to Girona, taking two and a half hours instead of one and a quarter.

But there were plusses. The café, in the Barcelona Sants train station, was surprisingly good. We had premade takeout goat cheese sandwiches on seeded whole-wheat baguettes, with block olives, lettuce, and tomato. The cheese turned out to be very high quality, and very generously portioned. We’d have paid substantially more in a cheese shop for just the cheese than we did for the entire sandwiches. Our son got a goat cheese focaccia, which he didn’t care for but I thought was quite good.

Also, the slow train afforded spectacular views along the seacoast, which we’d have lost out on. Instead, we missed the chance to explore Girona city this day, because it was already time to pick up our rental car and drive the short distance to our host in the small, charming seaside town of Sant Feliu de Guíxols. With 20,000 residents, Sant Feliu has gorgeous cliffs rising straight out of the Mediterranean, a pedestrian shopping district with pleasant cafes and at least three artisanal bakeries, and many buildings dating back several centuries, including a fortress-like monastery that now houses tourist information and the town historical museum.

We started the next day by exploring that museum. It’s only two euros, and includes a walk up one of the monastery towers, a couple of ancient manuscripts of Benedictine choral singing, and some descriptions (in Catalan, Spanish, and English) of life in the early days of this thousand-year-old city. There’s also an exhibit about the Iberians who first settled here. Explanations in that gallery were only in Catalan, but written Catalan is similar enough to Spanish and French that we could easily get the gist.

Then, after lunch and a relaxed hour on the beautiful beach (including a very short dip in the still-frigid early June Mediterranean), we joined our 71-year-old host, Montserrat, for a 2-1/2 hour exploration of the cliff walks on both sides of the small, cliff-lined harbor, where almost every time we rounded a curve, we got another stunning surprise. Some of the vistas reminded me of places as different as Kauai, Hawaii and eastern Nova Scotia. We saw not only great sea vistas, but also amazing plant life, including an orchid-like plant with closed, partially- and fully-opened flower buds…a succulent with bright golden daisy-like flowers…and magueys (agaves) with 15-foot-high flowers that looked exactly like giant asparagus. Most of our walk was on the right side of the harbor when facing the beach, where you could literally go for miles all along the coast (we probably did about two before our turnaround point). We hiked right along the dramatic cliffs out to a very fancy hotel, and then back along the mansion district just above it. Interestingly, it’s illegal to capture any part of the waterfront for exclusive use. Property owners have to allow free access to the beach. This law apparently led to the demise of one old hotel that was active from the 1880s through around the 1920s, but the beach has signboards with some cool pictures from this era.

Saying goodbye to Montserrat and her lovely village, we took the fast toll road to Figueres, and were pretty shocked by the hefty toll of €5.15 for a stretch of only 20 miles or so. We found the Dalí museum easily—it’s hard to miss, looking like no other building—rather resembling a rich and decadent red cake with a row of eggs on top. And the parking gods smiled on us once again, with a gratis space about three blocks away.

Inside, arriving around 10 a.m., we were astounded by the crowds. There seemed to be another tour group of French middle or high school students every hundred feet (France is only about another 20 minutes from Figueres). Threading our way through the crowds, we were overwhelmed by the density of people and of art.

Dalí worked in numerous media: humorous drawings (which made up the bulk of the collection on display), painting (mostly of his wife Gala, or of him painting Gala, or of Gala watching him paint her, etc.), sculpture, found-object or bought-object art (including a piece outside in the very eclectic courtyard based around a 1940s black Cadillac with a plastic (?) statue of a woman on the hood)—and jewelry, which gets its own building a few meters away (you get tickets to both halls when you enter the main building).

Like Miró, Dalí was very much the social critic; this came through especially in a gallery filled with holocaust imagery, called Aliah (the Hebrew word for a Jew moving to Israel). But he was much more blatant in his erotic works, much more ego-involved—he struck me as someone who would be annoying in person—and much more interested in breaking out of the confines of human thought. Like Miró, he was directly involved in setting up his museum. It’s a lot to take in during a couple of hours competing with huge crowds. My wife said the way to see it would be to get locked in, alone, for 24 hours.

After the museum, we took a stroll through the older part of Figueres, ending near Dalí’s birthplace. It’s a pretty town, but it didn’t excite us. So we headed back to Girona, this time taking the N-11, a perfectly fine two-lane road that only seemed about ten minutes longer. The only trick was the lack of any signs for the central city as we approached Girona. The signage has been for the most part quite excellent, but here, it fell apart. We actually had to flag someone down to find out how to get from the highway to the city.

Old City Girona is dominated by a hilltop complex of two cathedrals and several related buildings, including a small free art museum and a much larger one with paid admission. We toured the free one, which featured very enjoyable art by Enric Marqués during our visit. The two cathedrals also require an admission fee, €7 covering both plus some other buildings. And the interiors of both were completely shielded from prying unpaying eyes such as ours. Heading back down the hill toward the university, there’s a nice section of cafes, restaurants, and pleasant stores, and then on the other side of the river, an enormous and lovely park.

This time, we caught the right train, an express that made only about half a dozen stops all the way back to Barcelona Sants. And this time, we stayed in the Gracia, a hip neighborhood with many immigrants and considerably less of a tourist feel. After a dreadful lunch in Girona, we were delighted to find Namaskar Nepal, a charming Nepalese restaurant with wonderful flavors and—following our advance request for “picante verdad”—actual spice in the food. Carrer d'Hipòlit Lázaro, 34, at the corner of Pi Margall. And the next morning, we discovered the best Spanish-style hot chocolate (somewhere between pudding and a beverage) I’ve had in three trips to Spain, at the Candela, Pi Margall near Secretarî Coloma

The Gracia is perfectly placed for a Gaudi day; both the Sagrada Familia and Park Güell are walking distance. Buying tickets ahead online is strongly recommended for the Sagrada Familia; we sauntered past the long lines and walked right in with our timed reservations. Unfortunately, we didn’t know about buying tickets to go up into the towers, and those were sold out the day of our visit and not available separately; if we wanted to come back, we’d have to pay for another entire set of tickets to the whole thing.

However, the ticket we did buy was totally worth it. The intricate exterior was familiar from pictures, but the real thing is so much more amazing. And then the interior just took my breath away. The spacious, minimalist modernism created a feeling of deep peace, in sharp contrast with the busy outside walls. Stained glass and skylights let in lots of natural light, and the huge place easily absorbed a few thousand people at a time without feeling crowded.

After spending about an hour in the cathedral (a basilica, technically) itself, we went through the little museum about its construction. Even though I’m a bit of a how-does-it-work geek, I found this part not that interesting. But the gift shop was worth a stop, and is also in the paid area. Of note: Gaudi built a school for the workers’ children right on the grounds.

This lovely park is also Gaudi-designed, though many of the famous mosaics and buildings are walled off behind an expensive admission fee—for which it’s difficult to get tickets until an hour or two after your arrival, unless you can figure out exactly when you’ll be there and can purchase ahead. But much of the park is free, including some cool bridges and passageways. The Gaudian roundness is highly explorable, and it’s possible to walk all the way up to the summit of the little mountain and get terrific views of all of Barcelona from the sea to Tibadabo without paying, which is just what we did.

For dinner, we met friends at Teresa Carles, near the Rambla and cathedral. Of the several vegetarian restaurants in Barcelona and Catalonia we’d tried, this was several cuts above the others; upmarket, creative, well-prepared, elegant, and quite tasty. A bit of a splurge but not outrageous considering the quality. And a welcome change from the 1970s-style fake meats made with seitan or TVP that we found too often at other veg restaurants around here.

Conveniently, the next day was the first Sunday of the month, a day when about ten of Barcelona’s numerous museums waive the admission charge all day. The same museums also let people in free every Sunday, but not until 3 p.m. We took full advantage, squeezing in three, along with a music festival in the afternoon, a concert in the evening, and a fair bit of walking around in between.

We started at the Picasso museum. And quite frankly, even with a 30-minute wait to get in, I was very glad we went on the free day, because it didn’t seem worth 11 euros. Although the museum has more than 4000 pieces, the number on display seems to be only a few hundred. And unless you want the audio, there’s almost no information about the individual art works. You get “Portrait of __” but with very few exceptions (family members and his personal secretary), no indication of who this person was, his or her relationship with the artist, etc. There are small informational texts for most (but not all) of the galleries, usually in Catalan, Spanish, and English—though occasionally, the English is absent. The collection is nicely displayed in chronological order, but without much context other than those couple of paragraphs per room.

Next, the sprawling Museum of Barcelona History, including a tempting traveling exhibit on the Barcelona Haggadahs of the 1300s,, as well as the permanent exhibit on the history of Roman settlement (in Catalan and Spanish only).

Then we took a break and hopped the Metro to Glories to catch some bands at a Vintage Festival; there’s always music and food in Barcelona! It’s held in conjunction with a large flea market in a building with an amazing metal roof with many terraces and lots of cool light play.

From there, it was only a couple of blocks to the Music Museum, also free on the first Sunday. This was an amazing collection of instruments both exotic and ordinary, beautifully displayed and grouped by musical category.

Then we walked back to the Old City via the Arch of Triumph, somehow missing the massive football celebration parade, which we glimpsed later on television (hundreds of thousands of people in the streets). Our last activity of the day was a South African gospel concert in a 500-year-old church in the Old City.

For our final day, we took the Metro out to Badalona, a laid-back real-people city just across the river from Barcelona. It’s got a beautiful beach (unlike Barcelonetta, not at all crowded during our visit), a vibrant downtown, and an attitude that there’s enough time to take things slowly. It was the first place in Barcelona where I felt that I could actually live.

Shel Horowitz is the award-winning author of ten books including Guerrilla Marketing to Heal the World (Spring 2016) and the long-running category bestseller Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green