For those of us who know Spanish as it is spoken in Mexico, Barcelona is pronounced Bar-sell-ona. For the Spaniards in Spain, however, it is pronounced Bar-thell-ona. The “th” replaces the “s” sound, making your gra-thi-as more toothy. It took us a few rounds to get the hang of it, but we got into the Bar-thell-ona groove soon enough.
We stayed at Eurostars Ramblas Boqueria, which fronts on Las Ramblas and abuts La Boqueria to the rear. This simple boutique hotel is small, but clean. Being located right on the main tourist drag meant that we were walking distance from a variety of shops and restaurants. It also put us in the middle of the travel action. There was not dull moment along this busy thoroughfare. It is good to note that the rooms are soundproof, thus, you can still find some quiet time on your trip.
La Boqueria is considered one of the best markets in Catalonia. You will find fresh vegetables, meats, fruits, and tapas. Originally an open-air market dating all the way back to 1200, this spot was merely a great place for local farmers to sell their fresh produce daily. Now it is a permanent venue and you can even take cooking classes here. Our cab driver could not stop talking about how fabulous this market is and insisted that we check it out. Unfortunately, the market was closed for most of our stay. In a twist of travel fate, we arrived in Barcelona just in time for the Festival of St. Joan also known as the Night of Fire.
The festival celebrates the Summer Solstice and the ritual of lighting fire gives “strength” to the sun as it heads towards winter. It was both good and bad timing. Local haunts like La Boqueria were closed yet, the streets were alive with celebration. Many head to the beach to dip themselves in the water – thought to have healing powers on this night – and dance the night away with DJ’s, bonfires, and pop-up bars. With this being the Night of Fire, the skies were lit regularly with fireworks. A word of caution – locals are allowed to shoot fireworks off buildings as well as low on the streets. This made for an exciting trip, but it was loud and sometimes a bit precarious. In honor of the festival, you may also find people in costume singing, dancing, and performing artistic demonstrations. We happened upon a parade of people doing just that while we searched for dinner. As in true European fashion, this can go on late into the night.
We ate at a handful of restaurants – some were great, some just decent. Txapela had a wide variety of tapas that were flavorful and worthy of multiple rounds. I loved the Moruno which is a pork loin skewer, the Tolosa, a zesty burger, and the Braves which is fried potatoes with a chipotle-type mayonnaise. With over 50 tapas to choose from, you are sure to find something you like. We also liked Tapas Gaudi. They not only had appetizers, but also pretty good meal specials that included a beverage. Speaking of drinks, the Sangria was refreshing and can be ordered by the pitcher almost anywhere. Both locales included great service and were English-friendly. In fact, most locations were very accommodating to non-Spanish tourists. You will find some poor reviews of Tapas Gaudi on TripAdvisor, but our experience was a pleasant one. Also, Iberian cured meats are a regular staple and you will most likely pass one or two meat shops that offer slices to go.
Antoni Gaudi is big in Barcelona. His work can be seen everywhere – both authentic and imitated for take-home souvenirs. The face of Catalonian modern architecture, his work includes interesting colors, tiles, materials, and shapes. I like to think of his buildings as part structure, part sculpture. He contributed to the famous Sagrada Familia, a cathedral that continues to be a work in progress. You can stroll by the Casa Batllo and view this sea-inspired house . Batllo is characterized by boney pillars and coral-colored tiles. If you wander further up the street, you will see La Pedrera, also called Casa Mila. An interesting fact about Mila is that the exterior façade is self-supported and independent of the interior walls. Thus, the owners had the freedom to renovate as they saw fit without disturbing Gaudi’s visual masterpiece. Mila also boasts a very cool roof-top terrace. For each Casa, Gaudi designed custom furniture, creating livable artwork for his clients . You can take tours of each Casa with the cost for tickets running you approximately 16 Euro for Mila and 27 Euro for Batllo. If you prefer an outdoor venue, check out Gaudi’s Park Guell with mosaic animals, sculpted columns, and artfully designed park benches. Park Guell also includes a house where Gaudi lived for a little while. The house is now a museum.
Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia is not far off Las Ramblas. Construction on this Gothic cathedral began in the 13th century. Further down the way is a narrow walking street that was filled with pop-up vendors displaying original artwork. We saw home-made leather goods, metal jewelry, clothing boutiques, and fresh paintings. We occasionally saw residents in their apartments above, watching us from their short wrought iron balconies. Being away from the crowds was a nice change of pace.
While I highly recommend a trip to Barcelona, there are a couple of things that did not work out for us. We did not sleep well in our hotel. The bed was very hard which left my back and neck aching the entire time. The hotel boasted a restaurant which ended up being a breakfast-only room that served a continental spread for 10 Euro – pricey and limited. Being there during the Night of Fire meant some cool venues were closed and we had two nights of very loud, very close fireworks. You could literally be strolling along the sidewalk and sparks would land at your feet. It would be nice if it was a bit more contained as I imagine some people get burned. One thing about Las Ramblas – there are so many people trying to sell you souvenirs. You can’t just walk and take it in – no, someone is trying to sell you a decorative fan or there were these mouth pieces you can buy that sound like chirping birds. The guys selling the chirping mouth pieces could be heard down the whole street.
My suggestion for a great trip: get a hotel room within walking distance – but not on – Las Ramblas. Give yourself a couple of blocks space. Double check the hotel amenities and be sure that the “restaurant” is more than an expensive spread of bread, cereal, and meat slices. Either avoid the Summer Solstice or stay a few days afterwards so you can experience the area without the frenzy. Plus, you want all the great locales to be open. Lastly, we did not take the time to sign up for any off-the-beaten-path tours. One or two would have been a nice addition to our weekend of wandering, especially getting out into the countryside. It would have also been very cool to take a cooking class at the famed La Boqueria.
My suggestions aside, we still had a great time. The Gaudi architecture, the savory tapas, and the picturesque side streets were all enjoyable. It doesn’t hurt that the June weather was very comfortable. If you hit up this Spanish city, I wish you refreshing sips of Sangria, plenty of cured meats, and a cultural experience that constantly has you saying ‘gra-thi-as’.