Summer 2017: Barcelona

Day Zero

I arrived in Barcelona relatively early for once and breezed through passport control and out to the taxi rank. There were public transport options but I would just miss a bus and have an hour wait so thought I’d bite the bullet and grab a cab. It’s not until I’m five minutes down the road that I realise I had made such good time through the airport that I probably could have caught the bus. Never mind – door to door service!

Ange and I were looking forward to the art in and near Barcelona: the city is the canvas of Gaudi and I’d always wanted to got ot the Picasso Museum as well. Dali’s museum is only a shiort train ride up towards France, so the extended weekend is looking to be quite full.

Day One

The latter weekends in our tour had been very well behaved weather-wise with a long run of brilliant blue skies and scorchingly hot days. Day One was no different as we headed out to visit the Gaudi Exhibition Center in order to give us some context to the rest of the art we would see of his in the city.

The Exhibition Center is next door to an impressive church which is open for free for certain restricted times, and we look over and see a line of people queuing to get in and the first person in the queue entreating the security guard to be allowed entrance. His gesticulations and exasperation are obvious even from fifty metres away.

Spread out across three floors, the Exhibition Center steps you through elements of Gaudi’s life and works, paying particular attention to the differences his training as a sculptor brings to his works. Rather amusingly the exhibits and audio-guide tend towards the hagiography – which is to say it makes Gaudi out to be a saint.

The tone starts off as a shock but by the end of the tour it’s actually a little humourish. The museum doesn’t allow photography, and for an additional 2 euro you can get a VR experience. Basically as you leave you ask about the fact you spent the extra money and they will take you back up to the 3rd floor, unlock a couple of Oculus Rift headsets and start a very short video which you can change the camera perspective. Barely worth the additional euros.

I must admit that even though the museum wasn’t the most expensive museum we’ve been to, it still was touch and go whether it was worth the money. It was admittedly good to get a bit of context on some of his works but so many questions went unanswered, both about the man and his works.

We then headed over to the nearby Picasso Museum. I’d been to Barcelona a couple of times before and had always tried to coincide my trip with the first Sunday of the month because the Picasso Museum is free on those days. When I had managed to line them up, the queue for tickets wound down the block and so each time I would decide to head out and explore the city further rather than wasting my time in a queue.

This time it wasn’t a Sunday and the queue was mercilessly small. After maybe ten minutes we were allowed in and started working our way through the exhibits. Much better than the Gaudi Exhibition Center! Even though you still couldn’t take photos, the illustration of the development of his work plus the additional context provided by the audio guide made this well worth the money – even at the higher price point.

We were wandering down the road, looking for somewhere cheap to eat and came across a Vietnamese fast food place called Wok and Bao. We liked the DIY ordering system: you tore off a copy of the menu and filled in how many of what you wanted with a little golf pencil and then took the completed form up to the counter and paid.

One of the fields was your name so when the food is ready they’d call out your name and you’d collect it from a counter. We ordered a couple of Bao (little baps) with langostini – figuring that they would be shrimp – plus Japanese crackers and Edame.

We then settled down to wait. After a startlingly short wait the lady behind the counter yelled out someones name. It really could have been anyones. We looked at each other and decided I should go to the counter and check. I pointed at the food and asked if it was mine and she made a brush off motion while saying “yes yes it’s yours”. I frowned a little – the food didn’t look like what we had ordered but still took it back to our table. We both frowned now. Nope: not shrimp. She’d seemed so adamant though.

Anyways, we finally figured out she’d given us someone else’s food so Ange duly returned it. We’d been photographing it so hadn’t actually eaten any of it – I’m not sure what the restauranter would have done if that had been the case. In a few moments more we got our food – definitely shrimps in that one! It was a bit of a pity really – the food was good and the ordering system novel, but the service was pretty bad. The staff didn’t seem to care who they gave the food to…

Ange had mentioned a movie that she had seen that she thought I might like – Personal Shopper, starring Kirsten Stewart. We’d kept an eye out for it and managed to find a cinema in Barcelona who were showing it, so headed over. It had been a mission finding someplace that would show it in English and unfortunately there were sections in French which meant that the translations were shown at the bottom of the screen in Spanish. Between the context and the smattering of French I could understand, I got the gist of it though.

After the movie, even though it was latish we decided to have tapas on the way home. Cervecera are local bars serving tapas open late. We stopped off at a few but either weren’t served or didn’t like the vibe. We had just given up and were a block or two from home when we saw one that looked alright. We ordered a few plates and enjoyed the evening that was just getting started for the locals, before heading home.

Day Two

Ange and I both like surrealist art, and I had raved about the Salvador Dali Theatre and Museum in Figueres, about an hour north of Barcelona, so we decided to do a day trip up to see it. We got up early to avoid any crowds and headed there by train, surprised by how cheap the tickets were.

What to say about the museum? It’s interesting – Espace Dali in Paris is more of a shop, but the Museum in Berlin has a good collection of his drawings and paintings. With the extra space in the theatre in Figueres, there’s more space for the larger pieces and the art requiring changes in perspective. It’s certainly worth the trip out, and swallows a couple of hours easy. The entrance is not upon the main street and is down a side street. It’s sign posted but there’s another entrance on the main road which everyone naturally goes to. I’ve been twice and I still go there first. Because we had arrived maybe fifteen minutes after it had opened, we managed to surf the wave of visitors, finishing up in time to have some tapas for lunch before heading back to the train station and the train back to Barcelona.

Upon arriving back to the hotel we visited the green grocer on the ground floor beneath the hotel, where with great smiles and banter, he proceeded to charge us a couple of euro for a banana. They go for a euro and a half for a kilogram. Muttering under my breath, we headed up to our room and made some sangria, and enjoyed the afternoon sun on the balcony overlooking the street. 

Ange had found a brilliant sushi restaurant just down the road (that’s the best part of Ange preceding me to destinations: she finds the best places to have dinner!) and so we made reservations for later that evening. We do try to have the local delicacies when we go places, but Ange assured me that the sushi was just that good.

After the sushi, which was every bit as good as Ange described, came the dessert. Now Ange had also raved about the dessert – saying that the New York cheesecake was to die for. And so I chose that and she tried out the lemon meringue. And although again the cheesecake was as promised, delicious, I still managed to look enviously across as Ange thoroughly enjoyed the lemony goodness.

Day Three

Changing hotels always soaks up time, and it’s not the travel between the hotels which does it. If you’re sleeping that night in the same room you wake up in, you can just shower, get dressed and head out. Whereas if you’re changing rooms you have to pack, schlep your stuff across town, and then either wait for the room to be ready, or else dump your bags and head out.

We’d chosen Monrooms because it was so close to Park Güell, so decided to visit first thing, then head back and check out for our next hotel.

Park Güell

We’re there early enough at Park Güell to beat the tour buses – and to figure out how it all works. There are ticket machines and kiosks at the entrances to the park, but these don’t give you tickets to the park. They instead give you access to the central bit at the entrance where the buildings are.

This means that you can stroll around the grounds for free, but to get access to the most photographed areas, plus the house, you need to pay.

The ticket only allows you one visit to those areas too: once you leave the ticket is scanned again and you can’t come back in. It’s a way of controlling the vast crowds which descend upon the park and which raise the hackles of some locals.

We saw anti-tourist grafitti close to the top of the hill – I couldn’t follow the nuances of the argument, but it seems one or more locals don’t appreciate tourists in their park, because it restricts them from using it? Interesting points, but it doesn’t seem to stop locals from jogging through the “tickets only” section without needing a ticket.

Suitably wowed by the architecture and the views, we headed back to the hotel to checkout. After another sushi meal taken away and eaten on our new hotel’s balcony, we headed over to the other famous Gaudi building, the Sagrada Familia.

Sagrada Familia

Gaudi’s masterwork, a cathedral that he knew would not be completed in his lifetime, is one of the truly unique churches in the world. We’d booked tickets for the Sagrada Familia online and had to choose which tower to go up and to climb down.

If you get this choice yourself, please don’t do what we do and select the Passion Tower – choose the Nativity Tower. The reason for this is that the Passion Tower is a simple trip up in the lift and then a boring descent in the spiral staircase of the tower. The Nativity Tower on the other hand has a couple of balconies that you can look out of – much more interesting!

The interior of the cathedral is a master class in the use of colour – brilliant stained glass windows of every hue capture the sunlight and bathe the neutral interiors with glorious beams. Definitely get the audio guide – there aren’t too many stops and what they have to say actually makes the experience even more enjoyable providing just the right level of context without being hamfisted or over-genuflecting (I’m looking at you Gaudi Exhibition Center!)

The audioguide deposits you outside in front of the cathedral, but inside the fences is not the best place to get shots capturing the full grandeur of the building, so we return the audioguide and leave, crossing the road and getting enough space for us to take shots which would show it off to its best advantage.

After a quick nip into one of the many souvenir shops for Ange to buy a fridge magnet, we pause on a park bench in the park nearby, alternately watching the families enjoying ice cream in the sun and gazing up at Gaudi’s masterpiece – still under construction with a estimated completion sometime in 2020.

Magic Fountain

We have just enough time to grab something to eat from the street vendors before grabbing a seat on the steps overlooking the Magic Fountain of Montjuïc, the show is supposed to start at 9pm. Before the light show a troupe of street performers give a 15 minute breakdancing performance before heading off to some other locations – I figure they’ll do the same show four times before the fountain show and we also see them afterwards on the way to the metro – they’re busy folks!

The show we actually came for though is a lights and water show set to music. It goes for about an hour and the thousands of photos you see online do not do it justice. It’s very good though people keep pushing past us and eventually we decide to move before Chris goes Hulk on them.

There’s something that appeals to my inner child about being wet by the performing fountain – and the steady procession of eighties music certainly shows who the target market is! We leave just before the show ends, our hope being that we get to the metro before the hordes do. We’re lucky and while the trains are full, they’re not sardine-like.

On the way back I finally figure out the itch in my brain. whenever we had taken the metro, I had seen a sign in Spanish and it had troubled me though I could not read it. When we were in the station on the way home I finally figured it out – there was going to be a strike the following day, so there would be restricted trains and they recommended finding alternate routes. Great! Just what we needed heading to the airport! We figured out the additional time we figured it would take and set our alarm accordingly.

Day Four

After breakfast we headed off early to catch the metro to the train station and from there to the airport. Barcelona as promised was an energetic and young city and for me would always be Gaudi’s city. his stamp was on the city, exemplified with an enduring landmark of Sagrada Familia.