SOL, TAPAS Y MUSICA: MY BARCELONA GETAWAY

“I love Barcelona”, “It is my favourite city in Europe”, “Oh Barcelona, I would love to move there one day….”. These are examples of some of the reactions I heard when I had mentioned I was planning a trip to Barcelona earlier this year. The place is often referred as one of the prettiest cities in Europe so it is no surprise that Barcelona had been holding a very high spot on my travel bucket list for quite some time. Actually, I can’t believe that with the amount of travel I like to do, I turned 26 without ticking this one off. So, in the beginning of the summer 2017, I decided to finally fly to the capital of Catalonia and see what all the fuss is about.

And while Barcelona is really eye pleasing and entertaining, quite frankly, I did not find it as amazing and captivating as I had expected it to be. Maybe my expectations were too high or maybe I just wasn’t in the right party/shopping mood which seems a necessity when visiting this bustling city. To me the streets were too busy and too crowded with too many boisterous tourists. I don’t want to complain or sound negative because I’m usually one of those “beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder”-kind of people, but I should be honest and say that I just wasn’t blown away. While there are cities in Europe that are just perpetually beautiful, to me, Barcelona hides several amazing corners and beautiful sites but the rest of the streets were sort of average.

Nonetheless I had lots of fun on my trip and enjoyed rambling the streets of Barcelona anyway. I just did not leave piece of my heart there which I tend to do a lot when I travel to unfamiliar destinations. I guess I will just have to give Barcelona another try someday…

THE CITY OF GAUDÍ

An English writer Julie Burchill summed it up pretty well: “Here in Barcelona, it’s the architects who built the buildings that made the city iconic who are the objects of admiration – not a bunch of half-witted monarchs.” It is true that while in other European cities the main landmarks are either royal castles or church supported buildings, in Barcelona architects really ruled them all and its mostly secular structures that draw the most attention.

The one who deserves admiration the most is obviously Antoni Gaudí, a Catalan modernist architect, known for its distinct and detailed style as well as incorporating symbolism and ceramic pieces into his work. It is not only his masterpiece, the still-incomplete Sagrada Família, but other structures such as Casa Battlo, Park Guell, Palau Guell, Casa Vicens, Casa Velvet or cascade fountain in Parc de la Ciutadella that attract visitors for its originality. Gaudí’s unusual buildings have also inspired other modernist architects and so Barcelona has successfully managed to blend the traditional and the modern architecture into its streets.

Or BarTHelona?

As soon as I arrived and got settled in my room, I started chatting with the owner of the Airbnb apartment who had corrected me several times that I was pronouncing the name of the city wrong and that the right way to say it is Barçelona [BarTHelona]. It seemed like a big deal to him so I took the local advice and started pronouncing Barcelona with a lisp.

The next day, I met few other locals who had notified me that I was saying it wrong again and according to them, it should be simply Barcelona, not BarTHelona. So I gave up, decided to call it whatever I wanted to but got interested what is the correct version. Turned out, neither or both.

There’s a rumour about a Spanish king who talked with a lisp and everyone around him tried to copy him so he wouldn’t feel weird. It’s pretty well known among travellers but if ask a Spaniard, there is a chance that they have never heard of the story. It’s been retold and built upon so many times but from what I googled it is for all purposes just a myth. The truth is that the Spanish way of pronouncing the city is Barthelona (with a lisp). Barcelona, however, lies in Catalonia, a region with its own distinct language (and soon maybe also its own autonomy but let’s not get into politics now…), which pronounces Barcelona with a simple c. Hence the confusion. All you have to do is choose and not let anyone throw you off.

SURFING THE STREETS OF BCN

There is a reason why Barcelona is often called to be one of the best cities for skateboarding and longboarding. Local boarding scene belongs to one of the top in the world as the city centre is basically a concrete jungle and almost every young guy (and lot of girls and older people too :)) is enjoying the urban heaven on the wheels. I decided to give it a go, rented a longboard (for 8 euros per day!) and surfed the local streets as well. It was a challenge not to hit anybody since the city is so crowded so I took it to the boardwalk and rode along the beach which was one of the top things I’ve done on my trip. Another perfect spot to try some tricks (or just to learn how to ride) is in front of the Arc de Triumpf where all the cool kids from the block seem to hang out in the evening. If this activity wasn’t on your BCN list, it certainly deserves to be inserted there.

CRUILLA 2017

As soon as I bought my flight ticket to Barcelona, I started browsing the internet in search for events and almost fell of my chair when I saw that The Lumineers were playing in BCN exactly the same day I was actually going to be there. To give you a little background, The Lumineers are possibly one of my favourite bands of all time. Ever since they released their first album few years back I fell in love with their music. The songs make me feel all kinds of emotions and I had been trying to see them live for a long time but it never worked out for whatever reason. Being in the same city and not seeing them this time? No way was I going to let that happen!

Barcelona’s Cruilla is a three day music festival taking place in an outdoor venue on the outskirts of the city. This year, one of the main headliners were also Jamiroquai,  the Prodigy, Two door cinema club and The pet shop boys, which I did not see. But back to The Lumineers….

Their concert was everything I had imagined it would be and more. I was lucky to be in the first row (for the first time in my life!) surrounded by other dedicated fans; some of them coming to see the band all the way from Colorado and other US states! The Lumineers played all the songs I love and their show was truly incredible. Every song gave me goose bumps and looking back at it, the concert was probably the best performance my eyes have ever seen. It’s absolutely amazing how one band can make you feel and mainly how one concert can bring so many strangers together. Honestly, I have never been in a crowd that would know every word to every lyric so well and it’s safe to say it was a perfect evening that will remain in my memory forever.  If only they played longer…

MY TOP 10

When I got back from my trip, my friend asked me what my favourite place in Barcelona was. First thing that came to my mind was a hike through the hilly Montserrat, followed by a quick stop in a little beach town Badalona. But none of those places are actually lie in Barcelona! That made me realize that even though the city might not be my cup of cake but I can’t wait to come back to Spain to explore more.

So here is my TOP 10, a list of places that I would recommend to visit if you are a 1st timer as I was:

Montserrat

If you’re craving some breathtaking scenery and love surrounding yourself with nature, Montserrat is your place. Just one hour northwest by a train from Barcelona lies a national park that consists of multi-peaked mountain range ideal for walks among one of the most unusual rock formations in the whole of Catalonia.

The highest peak of the national park is called Saint Jerome, stands at 1 300 meters above sea-level and can be reached by a pretty steep trail. I added a little adventure to my trip and hiked all the way to the top just before the storm rolled in. It felt magical having the entire place for myself only and seeing the rocky peaks of Catalonia getting covered by puffy clouds. Of course I ended up soaking wet after the rain because hiding under a tree was not enough but that was the price I happily paid for the experience.

The “cherry on the top” of the entire reserve is the famous Benedictine monastery, called Monistrol de Montserrat, which was founded in the 10th century and still to this day functions as a sanctuary for over 100 monks.  Set on a steep cliff, it is accessible by hiking trails, funicular or cable car. Spectacular views are a sure thing, on a clear day, even the island of Mallorca can be spotted.

Badalona

One of the best things about Barcelona is that it comes with a long stretch of fabulous beaches. What makes Barcelonetta less attractive though, are the crowds that occupy every meter of its sandy surface. So if you’re looking for a bit of space, forget Barcelonetta and take a train to Badalona. In 15 minutes you’ll find yourself in a little beach town with narrow cobble stone streets full of Spanish bakeries, Catalonian flags and restaurants offering their freshly cooked paella around every corner. The beach was equally, if not more, beautiful minus the crowds. Loved it!

Arch de Triomphe

I’ve seen my fair share of Triumph arches in my life and the one in Barcelona was probably my favourite. It is different than the other ones I saw for many reasons. First, it was built with reddish bricks and stones and the detailed reliefs are incredible. Secondly, its location is perfect for chilling, skateboarding and people watching. The arch is situated at the northern end of the promenade leading to pact Cuitadella that is beautifully framed by palm trees. Lastly, what really makes the arch different from the other ones is its civilian character as it represents scientific progress and economic development while the rest of similar arches mostly reflect military victories. Built in 1888 as an access gate to BCN World Exhibition, the Arch de Triumph is often referred as a gateway to modern Barcelona.

Gothic Quarter

Rather than visiting a specific landmark, the Gothic part of the city is perfect for aimless wandering through its cobble stone streets and tiny alleyways framed by historic building with magnificent facades that have survived since 13th century. Located between famous la Rambla and Parc de la Ciutadella, this beautiful neighbourhood used to be the Roman village and over the time has become a delightful maze of narrow medieval lanes. Anywhere one wanders, hidden surprises accure, from tiny arcaded patios to peaceful alleyways. Buskers find quiet corners where the acoustics are perfect for playing melodies of classical Spanish guitar. The Gothic cathedral lies in the heart of the neighbourhood and definitely should not be missed.

Mercat de la Boqueria

The large indoors market right next to the famous boulevard La Rambla is a paradise for any foodie lover. Picture stalls packed with fruits, vegetables, juices, sweets, pastries, fish …. Basically anything delicious that Mediterranean cuisine has to offer. Origin of this market goes back to the 13th century and nowadays it is possibly the largest market in the city so be ready to bump into many other visitors but trust me, the food is worth it!

Mt. Tibidabo

Do you know that episode of F.R.I.E.N.D.S, where Joey tells his Europe story, that he uses to get laid and that ultimately got Rachel pregnant? “Years ago, when I was backpacking across Western Europe, I was just outside Barcelona, hiking in the foothills of Mount Tibidabo. I was at the end of this path, and I came to a clearing, and there was a lake, very secluded, and there were tall trees all around. It was dead silent. Gorgeous. And across the lake I saw, a beautiful woman, bathing herself. But she was crying…” and it goes on and on until you stop following the story line and just get lost in Joye’s eyes. So as a number 1 F.R.I.E.N.D.S fan I could not visit Barcelona without making a trip to Tibidabo and picturing Joey hiking the foothills here (even though it was a lie and even though it is “just” a TV show). And I am glad I didn’t.

The summit is occupied by monumental Roman church and an amusement park which is more than 100 years old. It is home to the iconic colourful Ferris wheel, an old school carousel and plenty of other attractions (so be ready to enjoy Tibidabo while listening to children screaming on the rides). The top of the mountain is reachable by foot of funicular and the views of the surrounding mountains as well as the coastline are magnificent.

Park Güell

Park Güell, located in Gracia neighbourhood on a hill overlooking the entire Barcelona, is a reflection of Gaudí’s naturalist phase and represents so-called landscape gardening. Gaudí has started designing the park in early 14th century upon a request of Spanish entrepreneur Güell in order to create place that would perfectly combine nature and the city. Later on the Spanish government opened the public and nowadays people can visit the location and admire colourful ornaments, mosaic salamanders, odd viaducts and pathways decorated with characteristic tiles that belongs among the most typical sites of the entire city.

Parc de la Ciutadella

This park is a real oasis in the concrete desert and provides the city with much needed lungs in the urban labyrinth of Barcelona. Lush lawns, lots of flowers and enough space to put your blanket and just chill, that’s how I would describe it. Right next to the park you can also find Barcelona ZOO, Catalonian parliament, large fountain designed by Gaudí himself and a pond which invites everyone for a little boat ride.

Basílica de la Sagrada Familia

If you ever feel like you’re taking too long to finish something, just don’t. The basilica La Sagrada Familia is a real example that sometimes, masterpieces take their time. The construction of the basilica began 135 years ago according to the plans of famous architect Antoni Gaudí and is hoped to be completed in 26, 100 years after Gaudi’s death. In fact, when he died, he had only seen one quarter of the structure. By the time it is finished, it is supposed to be the Europe’s tallest religious buildings (with 18 towers and some of them reaching 170 metres) and one of the largest churches in the world.

Although Sagrada Familia is the most visited site in the entire country for a reason, it’s monumental, huge and jaw dropping, I must admit that I wasn’t blown away. To me the exterior is just too much for one’s eye as I usually enjoy simple and more elegant buildings. Either way, seeing this basilica while in Barcelona is a must or I am sure once the facades are finished, I will find it more spectacular.

On contrary to the exterior, I enjoyed the tour of the basilica’s interior so much. The inside of Sagrada Familia is as big as a football field and could fit up to 15 000 people! Gaudí’s carefully planned symbolism, tall ceilings, rich ornamentation and tree-shaped columns, unbelievable amount of architectonic features and sculptures truly took my breath away. Plus the views from the Passion tower and climbing up the “endless” staircase were an experience of its own.

Note: Since visiting the basilica is so popular by tourists, make sure to book the tour weeks ahead.

Parc de Montjuic

I didn’t have to go that far to find a green place to lay down when my feet hurt after the entire day of urban hiking through Barcelona. In the southwest corner of the city lies a hilly park overlooking the harbour which consists of plenty of lawns, small forest, botanic gardens, museums, summer theater, playgrounds and much more. You can even find an old Jewish cemetery or an old Olympic stadium there!

If you ever visit, walk (or take a cable car) all the way up to the top where you can admire the fortress that used to defend the city during the medieval times and on the way down you take in the view of the harbour. Make sure to finish your stroll by the famous magic fountain that lights up in the evening during the music show.

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