It’s been a long time since my last posting, so it’s about time for an update! I’m back on the road again and have been traveling through Europe for the past few weeks doing some tours with Rick Steves’ Europe! I had good intentions on writing new posts when I started out a couple weeks ago on the Best of the Adriatics tour, but with dodgy WiFi and just plain old laziness, I’ll have to catch up on that another time. For now, I’m currently doing the 14 Day Best of Spain tour and writing from the capital city of Madrid.
On previous trips to Europe, I’ve always finished off in Spain at the very end and never made enough time to experience it properly. Back in 2014 I had my first taste of the country on a two night visit to Barcelona. I didn’t get to see very much of the city at all, tired and broke after a summer traveling around the continent, but I did participate in the correfoc (fire run) during La Fiesta a la Merce, where locals parade through the streets dressed up as diablos shooting off fireworks in every direction, which is still among my favorite travel memories ever. The second time was in 2016, with just a couple days on the opposite side of the country in Sevilla. Despite the short visits, I’ve always been fascinated by Spanish culture and obsessed with the food, so I knew one day I’d have to return to do a proper visit.
On this tour, we start out in Barcelona for a few days. Despite a few years of absence, I felt at ease wandering down familiar streets and wide boulevards lined with cervecerias packed with chatty locals indulging themselves with beer and tapas. I fell in love with Barcelona last time I was here. It’s not the prettiest city in the world. Like LA, it’s a huge metropolis sprawled between the sea and the mountains. I just love the energy that’s here–there always seems to be some sort of party or festival happening. It’s a city that is always alive–no matter what time of day or night it is, there are always people out on the streets. Situated right on the coast, there are big beaches where you can lay on the sand with a nice Estrella Damm beer (drinking in public is allowed) and soak up that Catalonian sun. Being on the water also means you can get some seriously fresh seafood!
Right from the beginning of this trip, things were getting interesting as I entered Spain during a fairly interesting time in its history. Catalonia, the country’s most northeastern state (where Barcelona is located), is seriously considering breaking away from Spain. Catalonian independence has always been a controversial subject here for decades now, but has only seriously been considered recently. According to recent polls, many Catalonians support independence, but on the other hand many people within Catalonia and throughout the country wish to keep Spain unified. Right outside of my hotel on the day I arrived in Barcelona, an enormous rally of hundreds of thousands of people were marching in support of keeping Spain united. I’ve never seen a march of any sort of this size and the sheer volume of people shouting “Viva España!” while waving thousands of national flags gave me the chills!
Since I didn’t really get to experience many of the sights in the city last time I was here, I made it a goal to hit up some of the big ones. La Boqueria market was one of the first places on my to do list. A huge public market under a covered roof, the market offers a huge selection of foods and goods, from spices to meats, seafood, wine, produce, and even a few eateries where you can enjoy an array of tapas. Situated right off Las Ramblas, the main shopping and tourist drag that runs through the heart of the city, it’s a very popular market and is often very crowded. A better alternative is at Santa Caterina Market–a lot less crowded and touristy with an equally impressive amount of things to eat!
One morning we did a very nice walking tour of the old parts of the city, lead by a local guide, who did a wonderful job at orientating us to the city’s past and present, wandering through the narrow streets of the historic Barri Gothic and the trendy El Born neighborhoods. At the end of the walk, we took the metro over to La Sagrada Familia, which was another big sight that I skimped out on last time. The city’s biggest icon, this remarkable cathedral still remains unfinished since the first foundations were laid in 1882, 135 years ago. They believe it will finally be finished in 9-10 years from now, but looking at the ambitious designs of the project, that seems pretty optimistic. After having seen so many churches throughout Europe I honestly couldn’t care less seeing another one, but this one was remarkable and very much worth a visit. From the outside, it looks like a massive hodgepodge of sculptures and carvings featuring people, plants, and animals, but if you look closely you’ll find that the detail that went into it is significant. Stepping inside, you find yourself in a cavernous room with columns supporting the structure like giant tree trunks. With huge stained glass windows, the interior is illuminated with brilliant greens, blues, reds, yellows, and oranges and somewhat resembles both morning and afternoon sunlight filtering through the trees of a forest. It was mesmerizing.
After Sagrada Familia, we all had some free time to ourselves so I took the bus up the hill to check out another one of Gaudí’s projects that I failed to see on my last trip to Barcelona: Park Güell (pronounced “parkway”). Much of the park is free to enter, but to see the famous mosaic Gaudí features it costs 7 euro to enter, which must be reserved online in advance for specific entry times (we failed to do so last time, so we never were able to get in). Park Güell was actually a failed upscale housing development project that never got fully off the ground after stalling during WWI. Only two houses were built and they very much resemble gingerbread houses with whimsical features on both interior and exterior. I found the park to be fairly small and a little overrated to be honest. A large section of the upper terrace, where you get the nice views overlooking the park and the city, was closed off due to some sort of construction/refurbishment project. It’s considered a “must do” in Barcelona however, so if you have the time it’s a spot with some nice views of the city, but I think there are other sights that are more worth seeing if you’re short on time.
If you have extra time in Barcelona and looking to get out of the hustle and bustle of the city, going to Montserrat makes for an excellent day trip. This mountain dramatically rises outside of an otherwise bland landscape like the serrated edges of a saw (Montserrat literally means “serrated mountain”). Only 1.5 hours away by train and cable car from Barcelona’s city center, it’s quite easy to get to. It’s home to an old monastery and is an important religious and cultural site for the Catalan people. Aside from the monastery, a black statue of the Virgin Mary, and other religious sites, there are lots of trails leading into the mountain. It’s also a popular spot for rock climbing. After taking a short but steep cable ride from the train station to the mountain, I decided to forgo the monastery and headed straight up the trail to the highest peak. The trail starts out steeply going up a series of stairs, but is also flat enough in places where you can cool off in the sheltered forest. In October, it was perfect hiking weather–about 72 degrees F with a light breeze. I can imagine during the summer it can get incredibly hot, so during that time of year it’s best to start early in the morning if possible. At the top of the mountain, you’re given amazing 360 degree views of the mountain and surrounding landscape. On the day I went up there, it was clear enough to see the Pyrenees, the mountain range which makes a natural border with Spain and France.
Perhaps the best thing about Barcelona, and Spain in general really, is the amazing food! The variety of different dishes and cuisines here seem endless–I’ve never had something here that I didn’t like. Rich in olive oil, fish, breads, meats, pastries, and wines, Spain’s culinary experiences never disappoint. It’s one of my favorite countries in the world to eat in, and I always seem to gain a few pounds here with every visit. We explored a few different places for tapas, eating late into the night as the Spanish do. Some favorite spots were at Loft, a casual tapas place in the hip and trendy neighborhood of El Born. Onofre is also worth mentioning, a small and humble family-run tapas bar with some amazing dishes. La Xampanyeria is a great spot for cava, or Spanish sparkling wine. It’s very small and due to it’s popularity gets very crowded and loud with people sipping on cava and chatting over tapas.
Last but not least, going to the beach is part of the Barcelona experience! Although they are man made, you can still spend a very nice and relaxing day at the beach, having cold beers on the sand, swimming in the Mediterranean, and hitting up some of the nearby bars and nightclubs in the evening.
Having been twice now and with a much better perspective, Barcelona continues to be one of my favorite cities in the world. The energetic vibes of the city alone, makes it so appealing and I’m sure I’ll be back here again someday.