We just spent four days in Barcelona. At every opportunity, we asked residents how they like their city. All of them enthusiastically said, “I love it!” And it was easy for us to appreciate why.
Barcelona is vibrant, eclectic, culturally rich, architecturally beautiful. It has that easy, inviting, comfortable ambience so characteristic of Spain. And, like most European cities, Barcelona is entirely walkable. For urban hikers like us, it’s an ideal destination in winter. At the Calgary airport, the ground crew spent 30 minutes de-icing the wings of our jet during a blizzard. When we arrived in Barcelona, we left our hotel wearing short sleeves.
Go to the Photos/Videos page of our website (http://www.hikingcamping.com/photos-spain.php) to see far more shots of Barcelona than we could possibly include with this blog post.
You’re a traveler, and Barcelona is on your “gotta see” list? Here are a few notes from our recent stay that will further encourage you to visit this great city, might help you plan your trip, and could be useful once you arrive.
Make reservations at Aparthotel Silver (www.hotelsilver.com). This 40-room hotel is everything a traveler could ask for: modern, clean, comfortable, efficient, friendly, and an excellent value. We chose what they call a “comfort” room. It even had a kitchenette and a safe. We were entirely pleased. The hotel is in the Gracia neighbourhood, which is authentic, low key, neither commercial nor touristic. Yet there’s a subway stop within 100 meters of the Hotel Silver’s front door. (In Spanish, the subway or metro is called “el meteo.”) And its an easy walk from the Hotel Silver to Parc Güell—the huge, gorgeous, unique, urban park designed by Antoni Gaudí, Barcelona’s most celebrated architect. From the park’s highpoint, you can survey the entire city. It’s dazzling at night.
Upon arriving at the Barcelona airport, we caught the Aerobus (runs every 15 minutes, 4 euros per person) to Plaza Catalunya. From there, we rode the meteo to the Fontana station, then walked five minutes to the Hotel Silver. Utterly easy. Even enjoyable. Suggestion: In all the public transport facilities, look for the elevators (ascensors) so you don’t have to portage your luggage up and down lengthy staircases and end up in need of a chiropractor.
We enjoyed wandering the Gracia neighbourhood. Flow east along Carrer d’Asturias, then north along Verdi. You’ll pass a superb bakery that offers organic, alternative-grain, gluten-free bread. You’ll also see silver-jewelry shops, a couple exotic tea shops, and of course numerous boutiques selling those utterly impractical, extremely sexy, nearly knee-high leather boots that fashion-conscious women everywhere from Montreal to Moscow are tucking their tight jeans into these days.
Eat at La Lola. It’s on the corner of Carrer de l’Escoria and Carrer de Saint Lluis, near the Joanic metro station, about a 20-minute walk from Hotel Silver. This is by no means haute cuisine. It’s fresh, hearty, local fare at a reasonable price served in the Spanish equivalent of an American diner. The collegial staff rightfully takes pride in their excellent work. They hustle, but they’ll also stop to chat with and kindly touch the cheek of a long-time local patron. Watching them in action was gratifying and entertaining. When we came back a second time, they all beamed, then proceeded to treat us like friends. This is “community” in action. For about 10 euros, the lunch special (approximately 1 to 3 p.m.) is an enormous meal that includes a cerveza and dessert. La Lola is a convenient place to stop while walking from Parc Güell to the most famous Gaudí creation of all: the wildly whimsical cathedral known as Sagrada Família.
From Barcelona’s iconic cathedral, we entered the city’s medieval center. The Barri Gotic and Ciutat Vella are intriguing warrens where you can wander (we call it “urban floating”) for hours through narrow, serpentine alleys and streets, admiring an encyclopedic variety of unique shops and distinctive restaurants. Like hot, colourful, liquid jello poured into an antique mold, people have oozed back into this ancient setting and exuberantly revived it. Contemporary creativity and sophistication ambushes you around every archaic corner. Locals obviously find everything they need here—including stimulation. Independent entrepreneurs such as these artfully demonstrate how soul-less the world-dominating superstores really are.
Be sure to see Eglesia de Santa Maria del Mar. It’s a marvelous, Gothic cathedral that will inspire you regardless of your spiritual leanings. The Placa del Rei should also be on your agenda. If possible, see it at night, when golden lighting romantically softens the harsh stone of this stalwart plaza.
We also enjoyed the relatively new district of Eixample, which has many, impressive Modernisme apartment buildings. On Passeig de Gracia you can admire Gaudi’s famous Casa Milà, better known as La Pedrera. It’s more sensuous sculpture than monolithic structure.
As for tapas, you’re spoiled for choice in Barcelona. We saw dozens of tapas restaurants we yearned to sample. Tapas, by the way, are a sophisticated, Spanish cuisine—a slow meal in which you continue choosing from a vast array of appetizers. They can be cold (such as mixed olives and cheese) or warm (such as puntillitas—battered, fried, baby squid). Tapas are conducive to conversation because a single, large meal never distracts you from your companions, and because you all share, plucking the toothpick-speared delicacies from numerous, small plates. In some restaurants, diners stand and move about while eating tapas, which further stimulates social interaction. Caveat emptor: the bill can quickly swell to three figures well before you’re sated.
After much deliberation, we finally chose Longja de Tapas. We’re glad we did. Superb food, gracious service, congenial atmosphere, reasonable prices. Here, the chefs respond to each order as it arrives in the kitchen, so every tapas dish arrives at your table fresh. (Some restaurants have counters laden with trays of pre-prepared tapas.) You’ll find Longja de Tapas at Pia del Palua 7, in Ciutat Vella, across the alley from an exotic tea shop that seductively offers free samples.
People who’ve visited Barcelona tend to launch their description of the city by telling you about Las Ramblas—one of Europe’s most famous pedestrian arteries. It’s true that walking Las Ramblas is an engaging experience. We enjoyed it. But everything else we’ve described here outranks it in our memory. Most of the commercial establishments lining Las Ramblas are not particularly interesting. And a large percentage of the people strolling Las Ramblas are tourists, much like yourself. What’s of interest here is the ambience. Tidal surges of humanity aimlessly sauntering up and down a grand boulevard and eyeing each other with curiosity is… well, a curiosity. By all means, join the promenade. But only once, for a short while. Don’t fixate on it the way most visitors do.
More impressive than Las Ramblas is Monestir de Montserrat—an ancient monastery perched on a spectacular massif just beyond the edge of the city. After exploring Barcelona for a day or two, it’s refreshing to switch from urban hiker to mountain hiker and stride among pinnacles and along ridges to Montserrat’s 1,236-m (4,055-ft) summit. A mere 16 euros buys you a 3-hour round-trip train ticket from the city center to the monastery, where marked, maintained trails begin.
Infinitely more impressive than Las Ramblas is a performance, any performance, at Barcelona’s gorgeous Palau de la Musica Catalana. Immediately after you settle in at the Hotel Silver, find out what’s on at the Palau and reserve seats. For us, the planets aligned: we discovered Cecilia Bartoli, the world’s most famous mezzo-soprano, was performing the night we arrived. She was perfection. And the venue itself beats many of the world’s great art galleries.
After the performance, we walked across the city, back to Hotel Silver. It was late. The Spanish are creatures of the night, but by now the streets were quiet. Barcelona was ours. And we felt absolutely safe. Guidebooks had warned us about thieves, pickpockets and such, but we detected no threat whatsoever.
We could have ridden the meteo. Barcelona’s public transport system is extensive, swift, and comfortable. Ten meteo passes cost just 8 euros. But we rode the meteo only when we were burdened with our luggage.* The rest of the time we walked. We urge you to do the same. Barcelona is a brilliant city for urban hikers.
*Wish we could say we travel in svelte, ultralight style, but we don’t. Between destinations, we’re beasts of burden: humans imitating mules.