Barcelona Bound: Rediscovering Joy Amidst Loss, Reconnecting with Friends and Exploring Gaudi's Masterpieces

October 27, 2023

We are so excited to be back on the road, but we're still doing so with a bit of trepidation.  For those who may not know, we had been back home in Florida for the last few months.  While we were home for one of our scheduled visits in July, Stephen's dad got sick, and we stayed with him and Stephen's mom and sister through his illness and passing, and a few extra months while we all adjusted to the reality of him being gone.  He was one of our biggest champions and supporters of our travel adventure, though, so we hope we are honoring him by picking back up again.

The tail end of our planned segment that was supposed to go from August through November was to meet our friends Ken and Michael in Barcelona, along with their friends Charles and Jeremy, and then we'd head to Morocco for 18 days and then back home to the US for Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Year.  We were excited to get back into the groove with some good friends.

Luckily, we were able to cancel our ticket to return to Europe without penalty and there was only a slight difference in fare for us to book at this point direct to Barcelona.  Our plane was scheduled to arrive in Barcelona at 7:30 in the morning, but due to some favorable tail winds, we ended up getting here at 6:30 instead.  By the time cleared passport control, got our luggage and got into town, it was about 8am.  Since we couldn't get into our Airbnb until 11:30, we took the airport express bus to Placa Catalunya as there was a luggage storage spot there and we figured we'd walk around the neighborhood a bit before taking the metro to our Airbnb, checking in, and meeting Ken and Michael for lunch.

Buying the ticket for the airport express bus is very straightforward, and they offer the opportunity to get a metro ticket bundled as well, which we figured we'd need for when we headed to our flat.  That, unfortunately was a mistake.  We'll explain that in a bit.

With luggage stored (there are plenty of them around Placa Catalunya, but we went to Locker Barcelona), we walked through the narrow streets of the Barri Gotic, past the main Cathedral de Barcelona (not Sagrada Familia), and along the waterfront, catching beautiful vistas along the way.  After about 2 hours, we headed back to pick up our luggage and went to catch the metro to check into our flat.  First, Google didn't have quite the right location for the entrance to the line we wanted (line 6) so we had to ask, but we were able to use the ticket machine to pick up the metro ticket we had gotten with our bundled airport express ticket.  We went above ground, went a few blocks, went below ground again and found line 6.  We put the ticket in the fare gate, and it was rejected.  A woman working in the station said that we had the wrong ticket.  We were extremely confused since we wanted to get on metro line 6...  it's the metro and that's the kind of ticket we had.  However, lines 6 and 7 of the metro are actually run by the suburban train operator, and therefore the kind of metro ticket we had wouldn't work on this line.  She said all was not lost, since likely we would be able to use the metro only ticket at another time when we needed one of the other lines, and she suggested that we buy a "family ticket" which is a ticket that has 8 rides on it bundled together and it includes all forms of transit in zone one so we could use it on line 6 and all the other lines of the metro.  It also saved us per ride, reducing the cost to 1 euro 25 cents from 2.25 per ride.  You can also get unlimited passes, but those are a bit more expensive per day than what we have been using with the family ticket.

Our flat is basic and not in the best condition, but it's cheap and it's pretty well located overall.  After dropping our stuff and making a quick trip to a mini-market to pick up breakfast-y and snack-y stuff we headed to meet Ken and Michael for lunch.  We suggested Cerveceria Catalana, which was recommended in the Lonely Planet guide.  We arrived at 1pm and it was a short wait for a table, but just 15 minutes later there was a line around the block.  We had a mix of tapas to share for the table, and all were very respectable, and in fact, quite delicious, if not the most creative out there.  Including the bottle of wine for the table, it was $45 per couple for a very filling meal.

From lunch, Ken and Michael wanted to go rest a bit before our shared visit to Sagrada Familia, and we decided since we were a bit further away from our flat that we didn't want to go back and then turn around just an hour and a bit later.  Instead, we headed to Palau Guell, one of Gaudi's first commissions.  It is very different in style from Batllo and Mila, but you can see how his style developed from here.  It is in the neo-gothic/neo-renaissance style (which would have been the fashion at the time) and it is the first time he used the parabolic arch (which is his contemporary take on what would have been a gothic arch in other buildings of the time).  The facade isn't much (in fact, neither of us bothered to get photos of it), but the interior is more interesting.  After spending about 45 minutes there, we headed toward Sagrada Familia and stopped at a cafe to have a lemonade and guanabana smoothie (see our Ecuador page for more about guanabana smoothies).

Michael had organized tickets for all of us to Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's now almost completed masterwork, and had gotten them for 5pm as he was hoping we'd get some interesting light on the building and through the stained glass windows.  Both of us were excited to see what had changed since we were last here about 20 years ago.  You MUST get your tickets at least a few days in advance to visit this site, and a few weeks if you want your pick of times.  It was a little bit of a zoo around the church, but we got in without too much of a hassle.  However, the audio guide was a little bit of a fail.  Stephen couldn't get it to download (you use your own cellphone) and they give you a choice of a 25 minute or 45 minute guide.  We started by sharing Eli's phone, but then we just gave up and awed at the incredible everchanging views inside and outside.  All the strange angles and shapes created quite a sense of awe and wonder and it was intensified by the colored light streaming through the stained glass.  It rivaled the Sainte Chapel in Paris in that regard.

Since it had been a long day of travel and we'd had a pretty big lunch, we said goodbye to Michael and Ken and we headed back to our flat to make a light dinner of salad and sandwiches before heading to bed.

Barcelona Chronicles: Art, Architecture, Markets, Paella and a Night out on the town

October 28, 2023

Exploring Palau de la Musica Catalana: A Gem of Catalan Modernism

Ken, Michael, Charles, and Jeremy had a city walking tour in the morning, and since we'd been to Barcelona before way back when, we decided to skip that and check out a building niether of us had been to before, the Palau de la Musica Catalana.  It's not a Gaudi building, but has all the hallmarks of the Catalan modernism style.  Falling after beaux artes and around the time of or just before arts and crafts and art deco, the style is much more in an art nouveau style than what we might think of as modern, but you can see the progression and similarities to the other styles.  And it does feel much more contemporary than some of the classic art nouveau buildings in Riga, Latvia, for example, which is known for its art nouveau buildings.

The hall is the home of the Orfeo Catala, and it's primary use is as a space for choral music.  There are busts of all kinds of famous composers worked into the decor.  We lucked into catching a rehearsal of a organ concert, so that was fun to be able to experience.  Since we're here only for a short while, we didn't have the opportunity to see an actual concert in the space, but generally we can't recommend enough doing something like that.  We had a chance to do that at the Sydney Opera House and the Palais Garnier in Paris and it allows you to appreciate the space so much more while you're seeing it used as intended.  We did marvel at the stained glass skylighted ceiling though (and we imagine at an evening performance it wouldn't have been the same).

Exploring Barcelona's Neighborhood Markets

From the Palau, we headed to the Santa Caterina market, which was not too far away.   The boys after their tour went to La Boqueria market, but they felt very overwhelmed there.  Santa Catarina is much more manageable.  There were a good mix of meat, seafood, fruit/veggie, and restaurant stands.  We got a cone of jamon iberico and manchego cheese for 6 euros and a just so-so pastry of chorizo and potatoes for 5 and snacked on that.  We also actually went in to the Cathedral of Barcelona, but we didn't feel it was worth it and didn't take any pictures inside; there are many more gothic catherdrals that are more impressive.  On our way back to the flat, we stopped at the local market in our neighborhood, Mercat de Galvany, which looks to have been placed in an old abandoned church.  This market was probably smaller by about 25% from Santa Caterina and the perfect size for a neighborhood fresh food market.  Apprently each neighborhood for the most part still has their original market or a refreshed one.  That was one of the aspects of Barcelona that got us thinking that we might enjoy living here.

Gay Barcelona: Exploring the Nightlife Scene

For dinner, we met all the boys at L'Arrosseria Xativa San Antoni for paella.  It had been recommended by their guide from earlier in the day.  One of our guides in Sevilla had warned us against getting paella outside of Valencia but we all enjoyed the meal (It's not like you can't get good barbecue outside of Memphis, Kansas City, the Carolinas, or Texas in the US).  Jeremy, though,  missed some of it due to some missed communication from the baby sitter for their son (everything turned out to be okay).  After that was resolved, we all headed out to the Axel hotel bar in the gayborhood of Barcelona.   Axel is known as a gay-centric hotel, but the bar on the night we visited didn't feel that way.  There was something going on with some beauty queens (one with a sash that said "Miss Barcelona"), and there were a lot of female instagrammers around.  Granted it was just now 10pm and no self-respecting Spaniard would be out drinking yet, but we were disappointed.

We left Axel after a couple of drinks and headed to Night Barcelona.  This was more what we were after, and it was surprisingly populated, even at around 10:30.  There was some outdoor stage on the street playing dance tunes, and there were some people dressed up in Halloween/Day of the Dead costumes.  We didn't think that either of those were as big a deal outside of Mexico and the U.S., but at least there were some revelers here.  It was great to spend quality social time with Ken and Michael and to get to know Jeremy and Charles better.  We stayed until about 12:30 and we all decided we should head back to our respective places since we had another day of sightseeing ahead of us.

We decided we would take the bus back to our flat as it would be less walking than taking the metro.  Buses are supposed to take both metro cards and credit/debit cards for tap payment, so we thought we were all set.  The bus came and we tried tapping our credit cards but they didn't work for some reason.  Then we inserted our metro card and the first one went through, but we had miscounted and we didn't have another fare on the card.  We offered to pay cash, but the bus driver wouldn't make change for our 50.  After arguing with the bus driver that it wasn't our fault his tap to pay system wasn't working and pleading that we were foreigners, he wouldn't budge and so we had to find another way home (after losing one of the fares on our metro card from the swipe).  We found a cab fairly readily and were on our way home.

That's tripe.

Discovering Gaudi's Legacy: Casa Batlló and Casa Mila Adventures

October 29, 2023

After a time change here which gave us an extra hour of sleep, we met the boys at Casa Batllo for our tour of 3 other Gaudi buildings.  The bus was the more direct route to the meeting location, and since it wouldn't have been an awful walk if we couldn't take the bus, we decided to try it.  There was no problem with tapping the credit card on this bus, so we were all set.

  For these sites, it's important to get your tickets at least a day in advance as by the time we got to Casa Mila at noon, people were being told they were all sold out for the day.  You have to get a specific time so for these we scheduled them about an hour and 15 minutes apart.  Depending on the order that you see them in, though, that might make a difference.  We spent more time at Casa Batlló  vs. either of the others.  Casa Batlló  is a short walk from Casa Mila and then a short one stop metro ride to Casa Vicens.  

In our opinions, Casa Batlló  is the premier one to see if you can only see the interior of one place.  We were disappointed in the interior tour of Casa MilaCasa Vicens was similar to Palau Guell that we had seen the day before in that it is also an early work.  You could probably just see one or the other  and there were pros and cons to both, but we were happy to have seen them both.  A note that they make you sit through a trippy visual experience on your way out of Casa Batlló  which really doesn't have anything to do with the place or with Gaudi, but it was cool to watch.  Also to note, Mila has a museum of sorts in the attic where you can see models of Gaudi architecture and learn more about his process.

After touring, we came back to the neighborhood where our flat is and we had a nice lunch at a Galician restaurant, Faro de Vigo.  Galicia is in the northwest of Spain (and we learned that the proper Spanish adjective for Galician is Gallego/a).  We had some typical Spanish tapas and then also shared a gallegan soup which was similar to a Portuguese soup we like to make, and some lamb chops. 

Tasting Barcelona: A Gastronomic Journey (don't miss the best restaurant from the Michelin Guide!)

October 30, 2023

Today we had a tapas food tour from 10:30 to 2:30.  It was a combination history and food tour, but heavier, we think, on the history vs. food.  We doubt that it was the best tapas food tour that you could find in Barcelona--so much so that we're not recommending to our followers.  Ken and Michael said it retreaded many of the places that they had gone during their walking tour.  Our first stop was a pasteleria, La Colmena, where we had a chucho (spelled xuixo in Catalan).  It's like a cream filled doughnut with sugar on top.  Like pasteis de nata in Portugal, you can find them everywhere, but there is one definitively the best;  La Colmena is it when we're talking about chuchos.  The filling had just a slight hint of cinnamon and orange and that's what makes it the best.  We also learned that the city has placed plaques in front of notable artisanal and commercial spaces in the city and protected them from alteration.  They are voted on by the council as representing the best of the city in a certain area and they receive the plaque.  It's not necessarily about being the oldest, but more about the best representation.  So, if you're walking through Barcelona and see a plaque on the ground, it's definitely worth stepping inside to see what it might be about.

From there we headed back to Santa Caterina market (we had been there the previous day).  It was a lot quieter today and felt more manageable.  We had samples of different cheeses, sausages, and cured meats, including jamon iberico, but we felt like we got more information about iberico pigs and all related products from our tour in Sevilla (not that we can remember any of that information). 

Next we headed to a tapas bar where we mostly had tapas familiar to us, other than the bomba, which is a native tapa to the neighborhood we were eating in, Barceloneta.  A bomba in this context is basically a papa rellena... ground meat encased in mashed potato, coated in breadcrumbs and fried.  It was, quite literally (and figuratively), the bomb; it was our favorite tapa so far according to everyone!  From there we headed to another restaurant for paella.  This one was less enjoyed than our previous one, although Ken actually did eat a prawn and said he sorta liked it (after Michael took off the shell and head for him).  We also had a crema Catalana (which was pretty good) and an interesting kiwi digestif.  Our tour ended here with our guide giving us each 2 candies he had bought earlier from La Colmena.  They were like jolly ranchers in all kinds of interesting flavors (including rosemary).

From there we headed back to rest up for our big dinner tonight at Berbena.

Berbena: A Bib Gourmand Gem Serving Family-Style Delight

We decided on Berbena from the list of Bib Gourmand restaurants in Barcelona.  Loyal readers of our blog know that we like to consult the Michelin restaurants guide when they have it for the city we're visiting looking for the category of Bib Gourmand.  These are more economical and locally well liked restaurants that are "star adjacent." Berbena was on the list.  Chicago has a Michelin guide and the boys use Bib Gourmand to find new restaurants there when they're at home at well.  Great minds think alike.

They do two seatings, one at 7:15 and the other at 9:15.  It was all tourists for the 7:15 seating, but we think there likely would be more Spaniards at the 9:15.  Everything is served family style, and the wait staff (all men) recommended that we do double of each thing we order since there were 6 of us so that there would be enough for everyone to try the same things.  We did 4 plates (doubled) from the appetizer list and 3 plates (doubled) from the "main course" list, although the "mains" were only slightly bigger portions than the appetizers.  Basically everything we had was excellent (very well deserved Bib Gourmand).  Standouts were the grilled cabbage, beet salad, porkbelly, and shortrib.  It ended up being about 130 dollars per couple, including 2 bottles of wine for the table and two shared desserts.  Speaking of wine, they do a really great job of helping you select.  They ask you to describe what you like in wine, they bring out 3 different bottles (with cute chains around the necks showing their prices), they describe the differences between them, and then you choose.  We seemed to to really well with this in finding wines we all liked.

After dinner we asked the staff (well, one of the cute waiters) to recommend a good cocktail bar where we could continue the evening and they recommended Dry Martini.  It was definitely the right vibe for us tonight, although it could have had a bit more mood lighting (the lighting was rather institutional).  We all had cocktails and hung out for another 2 hours or so before heading back to get ready to leave the next day.

With such a short visit, there were a few things that we had wanted to do while we were in town but we missed.  The biggest was to go out of the city to the Santa Maria de Monserrat.  We know, though, that you can't ever see everything... and it's an excuse to come back to Barcelona for an extended stay in the future.