Wednesday, May 6, 2015

April in Barcelona

Isn't it usually the other way around? Everyone wants to go to Paris in April. But not me. As soon as I knew I was headed to Paris, I made plans to visit Barcelona. It was right up there with London on my must-see list for my first round of sight-seeing in Europe. I had major sticker shock when I tried to find transportation from Paris to Barcelona... who knew this route was so expensive?! So when I found a 100€ RT ticket on Ryan Air, I jumped at the chance to finally get to see that sparkling, sultry, spirited sister city. (Say that five times fast!)

As most of you know by now, when I travel to a new city, I jump head first into being immersed in its culture. I want to learn the language, dance to the music, talk to the locals, and eat the food. No chain fast food or Holiday Express hotels for me. I want the unadulterated experience. So I was very blessed to be traveling to Barcelona with my beautiful Spanish friend, Sara, who is also an au pair in Paris. We stayed at one of her friend's apartments for our visit, located in the hip, youthful, and affordable Gracia neighborhood.

We walked a total of 45 miles in Barcelona, covering all the major sites and making many laps on Las Ramblas--the crowded main street that makes the city feel like a small town all dressed up. I think it is so important to walk in the cities you go to visit, to avoid subways and buses and taxi and actually see the little details that make a city what it is. Hear the buzzing of locals in action, feel the rhythm of their feet hitting the sidewalk along with your own. It's the only way to be swallowed up in such a short amount of time.

Our first day route took us past Casa Milà, Casa Batlló, Plaça de Catalunya, La Boqueria Market, Plaça Reial, El Gotic, Columbus Monument, and finally Barceloneta Beach. We ended up going to La Boqueria market twice a day while we were there, it was so good and inexpensive. We tasted cured hams and cheeses and chocolates and Spanish strawberries and fruit juices called zumos. Following the advise of other bloggers, we stuck to the booths in the back and found the prices wonderful. I had a pumpkin, cheese and nut empanada that was to die for. It's also where I tasted my first ever paella, the traditional Spanish dish everyone has to try when they come to Spain. Now that I've had it, I can see why. Plaça Reial was my favorite square to people watch in. And El Gotic reminded me much of Le Marais in Paris, with its tiny streets and tucked away boutiques and eateries. But for more affordable shopping, I would stick to Garcia.

Our second day, we were abruptly awoken at 8:30am by the sound of someone running a jack-hammer into the bedroom wall beside us. Nothing so disconcerting as feeling like you've been placed in the middle of bank robbery heist first thing in the morning. It turned out to be construction on the roof that somehow carried all the way down to our apartment. Our hostess told us it had been going on for a year. Face to palm.

Not deterred at all, we finished our breakfast (bowl of milky coffee with cereal poured over), and headed out to that famous view of Barcelona from Park Guell. The lines for tickets was a half an hour, and we couldn't get in for a few hours anyway, so we booked our tickets and headed up for a must lesser-known view. Now, I will have to say, this was by far my favorite part of the trip. Taking winding stairs into ghost-town streets, no road signs to help, asking directions from these three amigos on the way.... all worth it at the top.

I could have spent all day gazing on this glorious city. But at last we headed back down for a quick bocadillo (sandwich) before climbing back up to Park Guell. After paying 8€ to get into the tiny park, we were surrounded by the incredible Modernist art of Antoni Gaudí. The intricacy of the mosaic pieces, the spattering of expression in needless places, the unapologetic energy of the colors, the groovy curves of his rooftops... I think they call it falling head over heels. My gypsy soul leapt awake from dormancy living amongst the stunning but predictable Haussmannian apartments in Paris.

After this we walked down to the famous church, La Sagrada Familia, which I admit I found a bit disappointing, so wrapped up in construction as it was. I would need to make a return visit once the building was complete. Obviously.

That night we went out for tapas, little tasting dishes common in Spain in place of a three course dinner. We had pan con tomate (bread with olive oil and freshly crushed tomatoes), croquetas (spinach, mushrooms, and heavenly cod deep fried and oozing with bechamel sauce), stuffed peppers, two kinds of tortillas (more like a quiche than a tortilla as Americans know it), and my favorite-- patatas bravas (fried potatoes drizzled in two creams, one like ranch and the other, something sweet and spicy). We rounded out dinner splitting a cheesecake topped with raspberry sauce and rich dark chocolate brownie served with a puff of whipped cream. Is your mouth watering? Mine is just remembering.

The next day, Sara left for a few days at home in another part of Spain, so Barcelona had me all to herself. We started the day at La Boqueria, of course. The rest of my day I dedicated to El Gotic and Barceloneta. Nothing gets me like boutiques and beaches. Perhaps most of my time was spent meandering and taking photos. Those kind of days are my favorites.

I meant to be adventurous and try something new, since I despise double dipping restaurants on the same trip. But when I finally got home at 10pm to unload shopping bags, shake off sand, and grab something to eat, those patatas bravas were calling my name again. I'm not even sorry. Sitting alone in a tapas bar off to one side afforded me an incredible view of local life, and I stayed for a couple hours drinking in the scene of friends kissing and coming and going. I managed a "mucho gusto" when the server asked about the food, very proud of myself until I realized I had just told him it was nice to meet him. Will I never get these languages straight! Thankfully he just smiled and continued clearing the table.

Now, I had every intention of going salsa dancing during my stay in Barcelona. But as it turns out, Monday-Wednesday nights are not hot salsa nights in this sizzling city (amateurs). I couldn't find a salsa club close enough to dance in before catching a 4am taxi ride to the airport. My parents are probably happy about that. I hailed one of the numerous taxis buzzing around in the dead of night, and watched as the driver whisked my luggage away into the truck, ran to the door, then whisked me away to the airport at 120 kph. I didn't even mind him running a few dead red lights when the taxi ride lasted 17 minutes exactly.

It felt like as soon as I got there I left, but such is the life of a traveler. Though I'm not in Barcelona to stay, I'm taking a bit of that boho, rebellious spirit back with me to Paris and now wherever I go. I guess there's a bit of Gaudí in all of us. 

Stay tuned for my upcoming adventures in Istanbul! (Upcoming as in, I'm publishing this post, then getting three hours of sleep before leaving for the airport.)

Clearing up a couple misconceptions about Barcelona I was told before I came:

You will get pick-pocketed. I never once felt afraid that I might be pick-pocketed while I was there, even at night or walking alone. True, I'm now accustomed to keeping my bag secure at all times since living in Paris, but I think this is just an overhyped stereotype.
It's rowdy and unsafe at night. As a female traveling alone, it's inevitable you will have to be out and about in a city by yourself at night. And you should always exercise caution. But like any city, there are good parts and bad parts. And staying in the good parts and sticking to well-lit areas, I had no trouble at all in Barcelona.
It's full of flamenco dancers and bull-fighters. Okay maybe this was just wishful thinking on my part. But Barcelona's culture is mainly influenced by her region Catalonia more than her country of Spain. In fact, I didn't realize the strength of the revolution taking place in Catalonia for independence from Spain until I went. Exciting times to be around. But while you may see little statuettes and dancing shows in the touristy areas of town, neither bullfighting nor flamenco dancing is true to the Barcelona experience.

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