Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Impressions of Barcelona (Memories, Travel Tips and Links!)

So life brought us back to Spain two years after our trip to Madrid. I had written about my experiences with Madrid and recommendations for Madrid. We were actually considering a number of vacation destinations such as Caribbean islands and alternately Germany and Czech Republic since it matched work obligations. However, we really wanted to go back to Spain and see Barcelona, which we always felt we missed.

My relationship with Barcelona started with the 1992 Olympics, and then a conversation with my manager in 1995 who studied there. She told me about Gaudi architecture and all the beautiful art around the city, and I was hooked. I was reading about it, watching every travel channel show about Barcelona. It's ironic that I ended up in Madrid first because I did not care to go to Madrid. Of course, I fell in love with Madrid too.

By the way, there's been a bit of rivalry in my family about Barcelona versus Madrid. I actually feel like choosing between Madrid and Barcelona is like choosing between New York and San Francisco - amazing cities in their own right. Each city has its own vibe.

We spent 6 days in Barcelona and it was not enough since we did not go to all the museums and every Gaudi building tours. We actually planned our week because we know that time slips away when you're on vacation. With Barcelona, there's advantages to planning ahead because there are museum cards and online ticketing. So if you know what you'd like to see, you can actually save money. We're there for too short a time to just "wing it" and waste hours in line.

What We Did

Segrada Familia
This is once in a lifetime experience. And, even if you do come again in this lifetime, it's going to be a different building since it's still under construction.You could spend hours just looking at the architecture, the carvings, the stained glass. It's definitely a magical experience to stand inside the church and feel the colored light and the eminence presence of spirit, of the artists and worshipers.

1. When you order tickets online, you will be asked to pick a time slot. You need to be there at that time. They won't let you in 10 minutes early. Once you're in, you're in and can take your time inside the church.

2. Do not do the Towers if you are not comfortable with heights or the idea of being in a 5x5 room with 8 people who speak different languages and have no clue, and only a narrow staircase with room for one person to descend. There's an elevator that takes you up and we had the option to take it down. My sister had gone 2 years ago and said elevator up was the only option and she descended the stairs, which was claustrophobic.

Frankly, I don't see the point of the Tower tour because the design of the Towers is for a priest or a monk to climb the stairs. Not a bunch of tourists. They ask you not to take any bags and provide lockers.

It's better to go to MontJuic and see the most stunning views of the city. Gaudi said he did not want the towers to exceed the height of MontJuic to be respectful of nature's dominance. 

Parc Guell
It was my dream to come to Parc Guell and I unfortunately did not have the experience I wanted. My plan was to take a picture on the benches for my Facebook profile. I thought the benches were part of the 'free' area, but it's actually not.

First note is that our tour guide said that the metro stop Vallacare was closer. What he forgot to tell us that it's steeper. There was an intense, San Francisco 45 degree climb to the top. Fortunately, there are escalators, but it is quite steep if you're not in physical shape. As it turns out,there is the Lesseps which is slightly further, but flatter!

We arrived at 5 pm, and were in line for tickets. Someone told us at 6:15 there is free entry. Wow, if we can save almost 30 Euros for 3 of us by waiting 1 hour, why not? We walked around, enjoyed the cafe and returned at 6:15. However, we did not realize the sun would be set and there would be a full moon! There was no lighting and actually quite dangerous. I could not find my family and we were walking down unlit steps with strangers. The Park should actually NOT let people come in after dark.

We would've paid our fees and enjoyed the architecture. It's much too dangerous if there is no lighting. The Parc should actually consider adding lighting and offering a reduced night fee because it would be quite beautiful. (I've duly sent my note to the Parc Guell admin, but they said it's a UNESCO site and cannot be altered with lighting)

Gaudi Tours
We took a walking tour of Gaudi architecture with Running Bean Tours. We started in Placa Reill and covered Palau Guell. We took the metro to Casa Guell and Casa Mila (La Pedrera), and another to Segrada Familia.Our guide Miguel was knowledgeable and patient enough to give lessons on getting around with the metro. The purpose of the tour is to become familiarized with the history and the buildings, and having a local as a guide, we picked up other tips about the city.

Unfortunately, we did not tour the interiors and rooftops of the buildings on this trip. Next time!

Gothic Quarter (Barri Gotic)
We stayed in this area, so we became comfortable here. I wanted to note we took a walking tour with Orange Donut and our guide Aleksandra was very good. She was passionate about history and pointed out different aspects of the city's background and Roman roots. The tour was about 2 hours and as Barcelona resident, she had lots of suggestions for where to eat.

Getting to Museums
There were two options - Barcelona Card and the Museum Card. There were 3 of us with different tastes in museums. However, we decided the 'must see' for us were the Miro and the Picasso. Therefore, the Museum Card would not have been useful as you should see at least 3 to make it worth the cost.

The Barcelona card includes train tickets as well as museums, and a discount only on the Gaudi buildings. So if we got a 2 day pass, it may be cost effective, but we're forcing ourselves to see a lot of museums in 2 days. We actually got the T10 metro card and shared it between ourselves (one person passes through and hands over the ticket to the next person). For us, we stayed in the Gothic Quarter the first 2 days and we did not need the metro since we walked everywhere.

Fundacio Joan Miro
This is located in MontJuic and we ended up walking uphill from Plaça d'Espanya. That was quite an intense walk, and they do have escalators. I read later someone said to take a cab. That's an option too.

This is a beautiful building designed by Miro to blend into nature, and the views of the city are amazing. The collection is vast and the audio/video guide is a must. Frankly, his work needs the explanation and there's a deeper understanding of the work, once his inspiration and intentions are understood. In addition to audio, it's also a screen on the device so they display other art and photographs not necessarily on display. There's also a short film about Miro that is worth watching. The museum ends with an embrace from other artists who were friends of Miro and/or influenced by his creativity.

For me, to gain freedom is to gain simplicity. So, in the end, a line, a color is all that’s needed to create a painting. - Joan Miro

Museu Picasso 
Remember the scene in "National Lampoon's European Vacation" when they had only 15 minutes to see the Louvre? After getting lost through the gothic alleyways (thank goodness for GPS!) we managed to find the museum. However it was closing in 45 minutes. We decided to let it go and come back in the morning.

I'm a Picasso fan, so I was eager to see this. I've seen a lot of exhibits in the US, and have been to the Picasso Museum in Paris. The first part about this museum is the building itself. There's a beautiful staircased courtyard, and just beautiful architecture. Wait, I forgot. This is Barcelona, could we expect any less?

What was exciting to me about this collection was Las Meninas. This is Picasso's attempts at recreating Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez. When we were at The Prado in Madrid, we had seen this painting; the audioguide had been in depth about the analysis. So, it was fantastic to see Picasso's artistic process and the progression to achieve this parallel classic.

Side note: Picasso's "Guernica" is at the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid. Again, powerful masterpiece and worth seeing. 


So, when the Picasso museum was closing, we were disappointed and bit grumpy about trying to figure out our next plan. Let's just walk around the old neighborhoods. A gentleman beckoned us from a doorway. There was a flamenco show starting now. Not later, now. At 6.

This was Palau Dalmases, a beautiful old palace with a courtyard as you enter. The decor was beyond eclectic and like a museum. (Check the site's gallery for pictures)
For the entry fee, we got one drink (sangria, anyone?) and front row seats to a fabulous performance. The artists were wonderful, and captivating. The only issue we had was that it was 1 hour performance and artists took a 10 minute break. It was small and intimate and just amazing.

So, it lifted our mood immediately.

I can't figure out the food in Spain. It's simple. There isn't a lot of spices and there isn't a lot of fancy treatment to the ingredients. So, why does it taste so wonderful? Slice of manchego and bread is wonderful. Sangria is always plentiful - tart and delicious!

Our favorite restaurant was Les Quinze Nits in Plaza Real. We found this place randomly, and tried it on our first night. Since we stayed in the area, we came back 2 more nights for dinner. Actually the last night in Barcelona, we walked from the waterfront to this restaurant because we knew it would be perfect.

The food was delicious, and the prices were quite unbelievable. I've never see lamb or swordfish on a menu for less than 13 Euros. The focaccia is insane, or you can have some Spanish olive oil and bread.

Sit outside, have the sangria by the pitcher and just enjoy Barcelona moments.

Spain is all about the tapas. If you don't walk carefully, you might trip over a tapas bar and you'll end up with a cerveza or glass of vino in your hand. I wish Americans had the tapas culture instead of the happy-hour-with-fried-appetizers. The beer is just lighter and easy to drink. I'm actually a white wine drinker, but I practically downed a bottle of Rioja in Barcelona. The sangria is just heaven.

The tension in the family was that beer and wine is 1.50 Euro. My daughter's Fanta is about 2.50 Euro. So, we had to tell her that we couldn't buy her soda all the time, and she fought back with us being 'alcoholics' for having wine every meal.

So one of our tour guides had pointed us a street between the metro stops Paral-el and Poble Sec.It's a great street of tapas bars, which have tapas for 1 Euro. And, these are pretty healthy portions! It was a lot of fun to pick out which ever we wanted and then pay by the toothpick. Our guide had told us that the key was to move between bars. We only went to 2 spots and were quite full!

Montserrat is absolutely beautiful and worth the effort to see. The climb to the top is via cable car or railway.

We took the cable car at the request of my daughter and husband; I had to suck up the fear of heights on this!It takes only 5 minutes to shoot to the top. We had 20 people with us on the journey up, and only the 3 of us on the journey down.

The views are incredible and the monastery is beautiful. We went inside the basilica, which houses the a "black Madonna". We didn't realize that there was a line that allowed visitors to see the Madonna up close. Our line was lengthy and there were worshipers who had come especially to see her. It was actually quite moving experience for us. Just as we reached the alter, a school choir concert began. Their voices sounded heavenly in the vast basilica!

Alongside the "main street", there were local farmers in a line giving out samples of fresh cheeses, jams, honey, and nuts. We had a lot of fun trying different samples and were tempted to buy some cheeses. However, we weren't sure of restrictions taking it back to the US. After I came home, I saw similar cheeses for $50, while these were 10 Euros for a wheel.

Travel Tip: 
We took a train from Plaça d'Espanya to Monserrat. We actually had printed notes from these 2 sites:
Barcelona Tourist Guide
Montserrat Tourist Guide  

And, yes, it was quite confusing! Check the train schedule and give yourself extra time to navigate through the train station. There are assistants for helping you buy the tickets from the kiosk.

It is generally cooler in the mountain so prepare accordingly.

The restaurant at top is a cafeteria style. We had picked up sandwiches in Barcelona, and just had some hot coffee and other extras.

Make the Most of Your Visit to Barcelona
  • Stay local. We stayed 3 areas: Barri Gotic, Avinguda Diagonal near shops and restaurants and last one by the water, near large mall. Switching hotels is not always fun, but we were happy we got to explore 3 different vibes. 
  • With the Barri Gotic, it was great having a hotel nearby where we could crash for a bit, get recharged and then back to exploring the neighborhoods.
  • Be ready to walk. Have your lotions and powders, and a little soap to wash your socks in the hotel room. Bring knee braces and insoles as you will be walking on cobblestones for hours. Being overly prepared, I grabbed an Ace bandage just in case of sprains. 
  • While we loved the Barri Gotic, it does get a little 'creepy' at night. Some nights are hopping and people are everywhere. And, then other nights it all shuts down fairly early. Also, if you have GPS on your phone, it is quite helpful as you're navigating through the medieval labyrinths of streets. Even if you ask for directions, it's quite confusing! Else, try to stick to main streets and save adventures for day time.
  • We followed a walking tour in a guidebook through Poble Nou neighborhood. We weren't too impressed until we stumbled upon cool sculptures at Parc de Diagonal Mar and also saw a small statue of Mahatma Gandhi. 

I studied French for years into college. I lived in NJ, so I've got a little Spanish under my belt. In Madrid, I felt confident that if I stayed on for another month, I'd be golden (rather dorado)! Welcome to Catalyuna! You can try to speak Spanish, you can may be speak French to get by. "Good Morning" is "Bon Dia". Or just skip it and hope for English.