Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Our Time In Sultry Barcelona

The alien pods of Gaudi's La Sagrada Familia

Barcelona was truly beautiful and quite magical. With the palm trees, warm weather, Spanish speakers (or Catalan which is very similar to untrained ears), and tourists or expats from the U.S. speaking English, we felt like we were back in California. I didn't know that'd be comforting, but it was. Berliners are friendly (especially this time of year), but there's no pressure to be, which is one awesome aspect of Berlin. In much of California (I've never lived in another state so I can't attest to the personalities outside it), people can be nauseatingly outgoing, and if you don't feel like smiling, well then you're not seen as a very nice person and should be avoided. Here in Berlin, the older generations are a little bit judgmental of all the youth and newcomers, and the younger generations are doing their own thing and aren't subjected to the social expectations of cordialness. It can feel freeing and relaxing. However, when in Barcelona, not only are the expats and tourists VERY sociable but the locals will smile at you for no reason at all! It surprisingly felt... familiar.

Mar Bella Beach
Wherever we go, we analyze our surroundings, comparing them to what we've experienced before. We discuss the people we encounter, the food we taste, the architecture we see, and the overall atmosphere of the place. Barcelona in a few words to us was friendly, warm, sultry, humid, humble, low-key. Here are some breakdowns:

The People
In most parts of the city that we visited, an emphasis on family life was evident. Local families were out enjoying the weather with their kids, playing in the parks and at the beach. The other predominant groups were the tourists - twentysomethings from all over the world, several dozen hen and stag parties, and American families and tour groups. Hordes of people move to and from the beach all day long, not only the tourists, but also a good number of locals who obviously go there often (we could tell by their deep tans). People were, in general, having a blast. Many men walk the 10 minutes between the Metro and the beach without a shirt on. Most women wore their bikinis under a simple dress that you could tell spent most of its time on the sand. Some beach-goers were even walking the streets without shoes.

Swing dancing at Barceloneta Beach
Elsewhere in the city, the shop-owners were mostly indifferent, but the waiters were affable and usually spoke some English. There were a surprising amount of locals who were young bohemians. Working people were there, though in the central parts of town they were hard to see through the crowds of tourists. There were also homeless people living in some public spaces and parks, and it appeared that no one bothered them.

We heard Catalan and Spanish, of course, and a smattering of other languages, like a group of Germans at the beach and a Chinese family at the museum. But we were surprised at how much English we heard everywhere, mostly from Americans. Apparently this was the time for American tourists to be in Barcelona.

The Food
We're not sure if we had bad luck but overall we were a little disappointed in the food we ate. We were expecting to be blown away because we heard so much praise about the cuisine in general and had several specific restaurant recommendations to follow. The thing is, the food generally fell short, especially compared to Paris, where even the nutella crepes sold in the tourist areas are mind-melting, and Berlin, where you can find an assortment of international food including yummy shawarma and doner. One important note: the wine is really cheap even at nicer places and very, very good! Especially if you're not a fan of their type of beer, their cheapest white wine is a great option. We didn't try the sangria, which seemed to be very popular. Here are our breakdowns of the restaurants:

Fermin Bodega on Placa del Poeta Bosca in Barceloneta was a random choice - we were passing though looking for a quick snack and chose this place because they had an open table outside on the Placa. It was a good place for people watching with a cheap glass of wine, some olives and house-made sausages.

Tapas at Marcos Boqueria
Also in Barceloneta, we followed the recommendation of a Spaniard we met in Berlin, and sought out a seafood place called Can Mano on Calle del Baluard. It looked promising - a small place packed with locals on a narrow street. The atmosphere was very simple and authentic, with florescent overhead lights, rusting fans, ancient wooden doors and windows thrown open, and a kind old man ushering us to a table (after a short wait). We weren't sure what to order, and unfortunately they were out of the first two fish choices we made. So by process of elimination we ended up with a tortilla espanola, some rough cut fries, and a plate of calamari. The calamari and fries were decent but nothing special, and only the tortilla was particularly interesting. It's a classic Spanish dish, not at all like the tortilla a Californian associates with the word - it's actually an egg-and-potato omelette, soft and savory. So overall we were a little disappointed, although the experience of being there with all the boisterous locals was rewarding.

Later, we sat outside the Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar and ate gelato from a place called El Born Minyo on the edge of the placa. We tried this Catalan caramel flavor that was very creamy and delicious, and a nicely balanced rum-raisin concoction (at least we thought it was rum, there were definitely raisins in it!).

1 Euro juices at La Boqueria
On Saturday, we headed to La Boqueria, the famous and very crowded central market. We would have probably sat at this one seafood counter for lunch, but it was so slammed with customers that we ended up just having wine and cheese at a slightly quieter wine bar and ham shop on the edge of the market. We also ordered pan (bread), and what came was a baguette sliced into small pieces and brushed lightly with tomato and olive oil, so that the top of the bread appeared red from the juice of the tomato and the few flecks of it left behind. Very simple, but a nice, light flavor. I think this is what you might call "Catalan toast" in English. After this, we walked around and picked out some nice fat cherries and dried bananas to take with us to the beach. We also tried one of the well-known juice stands at this market. A strawberry mango mix was very sweet and refreshing, less acidic then we expected.

That evening, we followed another recommendation to a sushi restaurant not far from where we were staying. Ikkiu, on Calle Princesa, was small and informal, with a couple of nice waitresses who spoke pretty good English. All of the tables were full, but we were able to sit at the bar. Since seafood in Barcelona is supposed to be great, we had high expectations for the sushi. Perhaps the fact that we didn't see any Japanese people working here should have been a sign that it wouldn't be up to the standard of fantastic sushi in California, but we were hoping to be surprised, especially since our friend had said the maguro don was incredible. And indeed, the maguro itself was delicious and melted in your mouth, apparently marinated for extra flavor. But the bed of rice underneath it was definitely nothing like Japanese rice and had been overdressed with soy sauce. A flying fish roe sushi was good, but again taken down by the rice inside. It would only be worth going back for the maguro, as sashimi perhaps!

Outside Can Mano
We were on a mission to sample small plates at a couple of places, so even though it was midnight we headed over to restaurant named Cerveceria Catalana. It was very popular and a lot fancier than anywhere else we'd gone. Here we tried the national dish of patatas bravas - fried potatoes with spicy tomato sauce and alioli - and a plate of small, lightly seasoned clams. Both were good, if a little overpriced.

For our last dinner on Sunday, we decided to go to Mercat Princesa, because it looked interesting and we'd been walking past it every day since it was directly across from our building. It's a big modern place, set up like a market with counters serving different specialty tapas, both Spanish and international. Some of the counters were closing, since it was late, and we weren't in the mood for Italian or for more ham products, so we sampled some more sushi and another variation of patatas. It was a great looking place but the food was just ok, so we'd probably only go back for the dessert counter, which looked tantalizing.

The Sights
Exterior of La Sagrada Familia
In a city that seems inexpensive, we were shocked at the prices of some of the tourist sights, or surprised that some had prices at all. For instance, La Sagrada Familia costs 14 euros each to even get close to, and another 5 euros on top of that to go up one of the towers. These prices don't include audio guides or a visit to the museum. Pretty hefty. I wonder if this is because of cost of the never-ending construction (it's scheduled to be finished sometime in the 2020s, close to 150 years after it was begun).

Toward the skylight above the altar
La Sagrada Familia is worth the money, however. The exterior is more intricately decorated than you even imagine, covered in organic forms of trees and leaves, animals, and religious figures. Only certain parts were finished - the other sections are standing but waiting to be decorated. The interior is breathtaking. When we walked through the doors, we were expecting it to be in the same style as the outside. But, in stunning contrast, inside is straight out of an idealized sci-fi future vision of a cathedral. The vaulted ceilings are taller than most cathedrals, and the smooth, clean pillars soar upwards in a way that enhances the effect of height. The eye is drawn to the top by the rushing, converging lines, and light is channeled to the ceiling, creating a natural focal point.

The grand entrance at Parc Guell
Something that has recently changed is the fact that the city now charges an entry fee to the most interesting bit of Gaudi's Parc Guell. Not so long ago the whole park was free. Now you have to pay 8 euros for the privilege of getting close to the famous buildings and to sit on the snaking tiled bench. You can walk around in the greener parts of the park and up the trails on the mountainside. Up there, we saw locals hiking and walking their dogs, photographers shooting engagement pictures, and an artist sketching. It is magical and well worth you time to walk the paths of the free area. We entered the paid area a bit late in the evening so there weren't too many people and we were able to spend some quality time with Gaudi's designs and really appreciate them. They are beautiful and light-hearted, and a joy to see. But, they really should have kept it free to all, and focused on generating revenues through merchandise, concessions, and guided tours, or stuff like that. It's sad to think that Barcelona residents can't even use a big chunk of the park Gaudi designed for them without paying.

The line for the Picasso Museum (free day)
The Picasso Museum is right around the corner from where we stayed, inside a complex of old buildings on a very narrow pedestrian-only street. We were lucky enough to be there on the monthly free day (every first Sunday), so the only price we had to pay was waiting in a long line for about an hour. We were very glad that we didn't have to pay the normal entry fee (from 11 to 14 euros each), because the collection was surprisingly small. The permanent exhibit begins with a great, in-depth survey of Picasso's earliest works as a young teenager when he attended art school in Barcelona. This part of the collection takes you year-by-year through his remarkable development as a young artist. In fact, the narrative is so compelling, that when it abruptly stops and skips decades forward to his post-Cubist work, we felt confused and let down. We had to walk around and check the map to make sure that we hadn't missed a section. But unfortunately, this museum doesn't have much at all of his most well-known periods. Those works are in Paris and elsewhere. Aside from seeing the surprisingly advanced and mature paintings he created when he was only a pre-teen, the chief highlight was a collection of Picasso's re-interpretations of Diego Velazquez's Las Meninas. In 1957, he painted 58 responses to this classic painting, from tiny studies of individual figures to giant re-imaginings of the entire piece. He donated the entire suite to this museum in the 60s, and it's clearly the best reason to go here.

At Parc de la Ciutadella
Parc de la Ciutadella is also near where we stayed. This park was built in 1877 (about 30 years before Parc Guell) and has a historic zoo, museums, and other buildings, as well as lots of green space defined by paved paths. There's also a big, gorgeous fountain which we were intending to come back and see but we ran out of time on the trip. The park connects to the Arc de Triomf, a big red-brick arch in the style of the famous arches of Paris and Rome. However, unlike those built for specific memorial purposes, this arch was built in the 1880s to be the main gate of the Barcelona World Fair. The most unique thing about this arch is that the broad Passeig de Lluís Companys leading up to it is lined by large, very ornate lamp posts that are exceptionally pretty, especially at night.

While walking to a restaurant, we stumbled on one of the apartment buildings that Gaudi designed. It was late, but the entire building was brightly illuminated to show off the curving balconies and towers, and thus it stood out sharply next to all of the darkened buildings around it. Gaudi's shapes are playful and fantastical, and clearly must have inspired the designers of Disneyland.

The facade of a Gaudi apartment building
Barceloneta beach and Mar Bella beach were the two beaches we sunbathed on, and they were both great. We were warned that Barceloneta beach was packed with tourists (which we generally don't like), but we really enjoyed our time there. And Mar Bella beach is a little further from the center, but no less populated. There was so much life on both of these beaches - families playing in the water, people playing volleyball and other games, surfers and paddle-boarders, groups of young friends laughing and drinking, and couples kissing on the sand. The water was beautiful and the breezes were warm. There was a positive vibe, happy and relaxed. People were not irritated with each other or competing for space. It was crowded but there was no negativity. We turned a few heads in our bathing suits, and I don't think it was because of our smoking bodies, but rather the blinding whiteness of our skin next to the deep brown tans of everyone else. We felt as though we were surrounded by locals who lived on that beach, but we would hear American English accents and know that they were tourists, which showed that no matter if they've grown up there or have been there for 2 days, they were settled in and joining in the joy and relaxation. Since Mar Bella beach is a little further and edged by a big parking lot, it doesn't feel as connected to the city and is more of a classic beach scene, and the sand is significantly finer and smoother. Barceloneta beach extends out from a boardwalk that is fronted by restaurants, shops, and bars and just a few meters from the Barceloneta neighborhood, so it feels very much like you can just step from the city onto the sand. And there is a lot of activity - there was swing dancing on the boardwalk on our first day, and live Capoeira the next.

One boyfriend spent an hour burying the other, before putting sunglasses on him and laying down beside him

The City and the Atmosphere
We were pleasantly surprised to find that our Airbnb place was in the historic El Born district. All of the streets are very narrow and most were carless, and the buildings were very old. The closest experience we've had to being here was walking the tight streets of Venice, although without the canals, of course. We were right next to the imposing Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar and a nice open placa lined with restaurants and bars. The rest of the city varies between old buildings and newer construction, medieval streets and broad modern boulevards. Lots of benches and outdoor tables encourage people to sit outside, so there's always the sound of conversation and people having a good time. The laid back cultural vibe is infectious, and the good weather is relaxing. It seemed like everyone was just trying to enjoy life.

We arrived at the perfect time to catch this light,
and then it was gone
A view from our balcony

Epilogue: The Trains

We found that nothing in Barcelona really runs on time. The Metro is relatively reliable, and the buses are pretty frequent, but the posted times or those on the web seem more like suggestions than hard timetables. But it's fine, we got around in the city without too much trouble. The regional commuter trains, on the other hand, were pretty awful. They are what you use to get to and from the airport, so it made that part of our trip difficult. On Friday afternoon when we arrived, the C2 train from the airport to the city center stopped about halfway and we sat there for over 40 minutes. There were a few brief announcements (in multiple languages, thankfully) just saying that there was a problem on the track ahead and that they were working on it. But we never knew what happened. The local commuters on the train with us seemed really frustrated, and when we arrived downtown there were hundreds of people in that station who had clearly been waiting for this train that whole time.

Early Sunday morning we went to catch the C2 in the other direction. We'd studied the timetables and planned carefully to make sure we'd have enough time to make the single connection and still make it to the airport on time for our flight, even if there was another train delay. We boarded the train at the station, but after about 10 minutes it still hadn't left. There were no announcements and no change to the departure signs on the platform. It was before 6 am, so the station was almost empty, and it took a while before we saw anyone to ask. The guy just kind of shrugged and told us that no, this train wasn't
going to leave and that our train was actually on another platform. We ran over there, but that train's departure time was too late to make the connection. So we ran outside and grabbed a taxi to take us to the connecting station which was just a couple kilometers away. It was a good decision - the taxi got us there on time and we were able to get on an airport train. But, it was the last train we could have taken and still made our flight!

And one final tip... in Berlin, Google Maps will give you very precise and reliable transit information in the Directions section, with accurate timetables and good suggestions for which U-Bahn, S-Bahn, and bus lines to take. It's great for when you're out and can just check your phone for directions without a worry. In Paris, Google basically has given up trying to figure out the Metro and bus system and pretty much chokes on any of your search requests. In Barcelona, by contrast to both of those cities, Google confidently returns search results with lines, times, and everything. The only problem is that once you actually get out on the street they are completely wrong. Lines and buses that Google suggests turn out not to be running, there is somehow no information on the regional commuter trains at all, and every departure time is wrong, often by a lot. So, just a warning - don't rely on your Google Maps app alone to get around. But relax - you're in Barcelona, after all!

More photos!

Barceloneta Beach

Can Mano

At Parc de la Ciutadella

Outside of La Sagrada Familia

Dr. Seuss staircase

Inside La Sagrada Familia

The stained glass is remarkable

Every inch of this place makes a statement

Rahsan looking like a bad ass

"En el nom del Pare I del Fill I de l'Esperit Sant"
Light fills the basilica from the floor to the vaulted ceilings


Awaiting the addition of stained glass

The ceiling was in itself captivating

God watches over you like a gargoyle. Or Batman.

Again, it's difficult to describe how alien it is there, beautiful but dangerous

The view from one door to another

Forest and canopy

The unfinished clear windows with their pure white light wait to be devoured by the vibrant stained glass 

At Barceloneta Beach

Translating the Catalan menu at Ikkiu


Courtyard of the Picasso Museum

A young lady of Avignon

At La Boqueria

Mercat Princesa
Mar Bella Beach

Built-in throne, one of several

A flyer at one of the back entrances to Parc Guell, protesting the privatization and poor management of this formerly free public space
Parc Guell

Barcelona laid out behind us


One of the staff members told us that this Gaudi house was not worth the hour wait in line

A Gaudi apartment building

Another view from our balcony