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Trip Report Barcelona & Mallorca: Bon Dia

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This TR is embarrassingly delayed. . .seeing that we enjoyed our trip to Barcelona, followed by several days on the island of Mallorca, in early October of 2010. Our reason for posting now is that we received some valuable information from Fodorites, which we really appreciated, and want to share a few ideas which we thought might be helpful to others who are planning a trip. Both Barcelona and Mallorca have their own unique beauty, and are wonderful to experience
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Our trip was initially plagued by threats of a general strike in Spain, set to take place on September 29, the day we were due to arrive. And indeed, the threat turned into reality, delaying our departure by a day, requiring us to fly a very inconvenient itinerary, and causing other inconveniences. However, we were determined to put all that aside during our trip, and had a wonderful experience, albeit cut a bit short. We were glad that we had purchased trip insurance, but, upon our return, had to spend considerable time dealing with the company. So, after all that hassle, we filed our trip notes, got busy with life at home including planning our next trip, and didn’t get on with a TR.

Rather than do a day-by-day report, we thought we’d highlight some of our favorite experiences.

1. Location of hotel: After much reading and obsessing, we were so glad that we had decided to stay in the Eixample area. Our hotel, the El Palace, was-on Gran Via de Les Cortes Catalanes (locally referred to simply as “Gran Via”) . .two blocks from the main boulevard, Passeig De Gratia. This location was convenient to so many things: the Placa Catalunya, the main square of Barcelona, many restaurants, a train station, and main places of interest-all walkable from our hotel. Being near the beach wasn’t a priority for us in early October, although Barcelona has several miles of sandy, clean, and vibrant beachfront. This hotel was a bit of a splurge for us, but there are other hotels in the area which we would choose for a return visit.

2. First day arrival was mid-afternoon, with more than our normal exhaustion. Walking to Placa Catalunya, considered the main square of Barcelona, our decision to make the rounds on their HO-HO buses proved to be a great way to get an overview of the beautiful city and plan the spots which we wanted to visit in the following days. There were plenty of restaurants from which to choose for a late lunch and subsequent coffee stops along the way. (Needed to stay awake!)

3. Gaudi’s influence: Before visiting Barcelona, we had no interest, nor much prior knowledge, of the artist Antonio Gaudi. But after a week in this beautiful city, we grew to love his work, which is evident all over the city. Learning that he was an architect, engineer, as well as an artist, we quickly gained an appreciation of his great talent as we explored the city.

Gaudi’s crowning on-going masterful achievement, toward which he devoted 43 years of his life, is the cathedral of “Sagrada Familia”. Its beauty lies not only the gorgeous stained glass windows, but in the beautiful, uniquely-designed columns. It is distinctly different from any other cathedral we’ve visited. For those interested in visiting this amazing structure, we would really recommend getting tickets on-line beforehand to avoid the long lines. There are guided tours, which may have been preferable, but with our time schedule, we found that the audio tour worked for us.

Another of Gaudi’s works which we highly recommend is the “ Casa Batilo”, a home commissioned by the wealthy Batilo’ family in the early 1900’s. The exterior is enhanced with mosaics, glass, and ironwork, while the interior is filled with gently curved walls, doors, and colorful windows. We thought it was so beautiful and practical that it gave us the feeling that we could move right in and be comfortable. And its balconies, opening to the Passeig de Gratia, added to its elegance. “Casa Batilo" is a popular spot, so purchasing tickets ahead is helpful. Again, it was walkable from our hotel.

“La Pedrera” is another of Gaudi’s buildings, also on the Passeig de Gratia. Displays and models in “La Pedrera” show Gaudi’s understanding of architecture and design, and his focus on integrating functionality wih his art forms. He has clever ways of integrating and camouflaging building necessities like pipes, water tanks, ventilation systems, etc. We enjoyed this and found it very informative. However, if time were limited, we’d choose “Casa Batilo’ over “ Le Pedrera”.

Parc Guell, though a bit of a distance up the hill from the downtown, is unique. Originally intentioned as a residential, gated community, the
designers utilized the natural contours of the terrain. It’s a lush park of trees, terraces and interesting paths. The influence of Gaudi is seen with, among other things, tiled benches, ceramic-imbedded rock walls, and impressive overlooks. Gaudi’s house, which is within the park, was closed. But it would be of interest on a future visit.

4. Montjuic, a hill overlooking Barcelona, accessible by cable car, is home to many of the city’s museums. Some of the Olympic events of 1992 were held here. One especially nice experience we enjoyed was having lunch on the veranda of the National Museum of the Arts of Catalonia, MNAC. The panoramic views of Barcelona are outstanding from this point. On a sunny day it is wonderfully relaxing.

5. Montserrat, the Benedictine monastery located in the hills outside Barcelona, was well-worth a visit . The monastery, built in the serrated mountains outside of Barcelona in the 11th and 12th century, has a long, cherished relationship with the people of Catalonia. During the rule of the dictator Franco, from 1939 until the mid-70’s, when their Catalan language was forbidden, and their very culture was threatened, many Catalans were persecuted and executed. During this time, the monks of Montserrat provided a refuge for some of the targeted citizens and helped preserve the Catalan culture and language. Montserrat is also a boarding school for boys. It can be reached in a few ways which are well-publicized in Barcelona-train or bus combined with cable car and has funiculars to ascend to the very top.

On many days, the outstanding boys’ L’Escolania Choir, sings in the chapel of Montserrat. Check local schedules for dates and times, as they vary. In case you are interested in a visit, one tip we would share is to take a place in the chapel early. We had gone in about 45 minutes early to see the chapel, and except for people lined up to see the storied “Black Madonna”, there were very few people in the seats. But twenty minutes later, it was packed. We sat on some steps off to the side, and as more and more people came in, they stood in the aisle in front of us, of course, blocking our view. A follow-up note is that, although the choir was outstanding, the circumstances of the crowds meant that it wasn’t quite the inspirational atmosphere that one would expect. Overall, though, we thought the Montserrat trip was very worthwhile, and on a future visit we will return, having profitted from our first experience.

6. Other nteresting day trips: We chose a train trip to Tarragona, about one hour south of Barcelona; an area where Gaudi was raised. This ancient city has Roman ruins, including a Roman ampitheatre and an aquaduct, plus an imposing view over the Mediterrean, along with many restaurants and shops. We made this trip as a second choice to Girona, north of Barcelona, which would have included a night on the Costa Brava. When planning the day in Tarragona, we forgot to avoid Sunday, when most things were closed. Even the cathedral doors were locked. Another factor we had not known about: large numbers of students from neighboring towns returned to Barcelona on Sunday evening . Thus, the train was packed. . .no seats available. We stood in the open area connecting cars. . .(probably not allowed in the US). However, we did have an interesting conversation with some of the students. If we had it to do over, and what we might suggest for others who wish to do a daytrips from Barcelona, is to avoid having to return by train on Sunday evening. On our next visit to Barcelona, we will definitely include Girona. This is reportedly a beautiful Catalan city whose cathedral has the widest nave of any Gothic cathedral in Europe. And near Girona is the town of Figueres, where Salvador Dali was raised and lived in his later life, and where there is a Salvador Dali Museum. The trains to the towns mentioned can be caught at the Passeig de Gratia train station, again very near to our hotel in the Eixample district.

7. “Le Palau de la Musica”-Barcelona’s gorgeous concert hall. Instead of a tour, we chose to attend a concert. One outstanding feature of the Musica Palau is its stained glass dome-shaped ceiling, another influence of Gaudi. This hall is a work of art in itself, and it was a great experience to attend a concert there. Again, walkable from our hotel.

8. El Born district is the original city of Barcelona, currently home to interesting bars, restaurants, and stylish boutiques which we found most enjoyable. Most of the buildings in El Born, date back to at least the 14th century. Bario Gotic, its neighboring area, contains Roman ruins. El Born is the home of the famous Church of “Santa Maria del Mar”, where, in medieval times, the sea once lapped to the foot of the Church. We do not normally purchase souvenirs, but the narrow streets of El Born, with the many little local shops, enticed us to buy some beautifully handcrafted earrings and some lovely colorful bowls and mugs (both dishwasher and microwave safe. . .a “must” for us). El Born is also home to an outstanding Picasso Museum, which is composed of five medieval palaces linked together. Although we’re not usually “into” a lot of Picasso art, this museum detailed Picasso’s life and contained over 3000 of his paintings as well as ceramics. It proved to be quite an educational and interesting visit.

9. La Rambla (or Las Ramblas) is a tree-lined pedestrian street stretching from the Placa Catalunya to the Christopher Columbus stature near old port of Barcelona. It’s filled with pavement cafes, bars, and restaurants, kiosks selling everything from flowers to “souvenirs”, caricature/portrait artists, street performers, “living” statues, and multitudes of tourists. Apparently, a number of cruises originate from Barcelona, and La Rambla is a popular stop for the passengers, being easily accessible from the port. Some refer to the southern part, described as a seedy area, especially at night, and the northern part, closest to the Placa Catalunya. The La Rambla , complimented by a famous fountain and circular street mosaic by the Catalan artist Joan Miro, is considered the dividing point between north and south. During our initial planning, we almost chose “Le Meridien” in the La Rambla area, but upon visiting it, we were very glad we had chosen the L’eixample district. We did stroll the top portion and have lunch there. We think it’s an area worthy of exploration, just because it “is”; a great people-watching street. We were cautioned by a few of the merchants on the La Rambla to be alert to pickpockets, and we heeded their precautions. But we experienced no problems.

10. We’re don’t consider ourselves “foodies” and we normally do not plan our experiences around restaurants. We have our lists of favs, and if we happen to be in the area for our day’s activities, we try to have a meal at these places. A few restaurants (not gourmet) within walking distance of our hotel which we enjoyed: a great breakfast spot, on Passeig de Gratia, was “Que Que”, short for “Quasi Queviures”. While it has a sharp-looking interior, the weather was so delightful that we couldn’t resist sitting outside. A place for tapas which we enjoyed at lunch was “Cuidad Condal” . . .just two blocks down from our hotel. We also liked “Tapa Tapa” on the corner of Gran Via and Passieg de Gratia. Its menu includes a lot more than tapas. Near to the Palau Musica, in a little square off the Via Laietana, is a small Italian place, “El Raco.” There are so many restaurants & bars all around Barcelona, that it’s never an issue finding an interesting place to eat..and/or drink!

11. Something we enjoy in cities we visit, and Barcelona was no exception, is strolling the streets, enjoying the sights and stopping in the cafes. The Passeig de Gratia is an extremely beautiful tree-lined boulevard, with lovely residences, restaurants, bars, and stores for window shopping. The street lamps, with decorative ironwork, were anchored with ergonomically-designed cement benches imbedded with tiles which invited periodic rests along this lovely avenue.

We found the people of Barcelona to be very friendly, really appreciating it if you used a Catalan greeting or expression, (which we had to study before our trip), although the language most in use is Spanish. We took taxis on a few occasions, and found the drivers to be polite and fair. In general, there was a joyful atmosphere in the city, maybe affected by the wonderful October weather.

For those Fodorites planning a trip to Barcelona, we hope these notes will provide some helpful information. The city is full of art, culture, and fun. Barcelona has so many exciting things to offer, but after six days of city activity, we were ready for a change of pace. So we bid “Adieu” to Barcelona and boarded our Air Europa flight to Isla Mallorca, one of the Balearic Islands.

Arriving in the late afternoon, we checked into the Hotel Melia Athena in Palma, located on the waterfront. While the hotel was not our fav, it had a lovely view of the yachts in the harbor, and within 50 ft. of the front entrance was a long row of bars and restaurants. We stopped by the first bar, and checked our e-mail, made a lot more pleasant with sangria in hand. Over a nice casual dinner, we made plans to pick up a rental car the next day. One of our fav restaurants, “Crepe Suzette”, provided a wonderful breakfast spot overlooking the water. Following that tasty start, we took off in our car, and immediately felt that we were in “our element”. Except for visiting big cities, we really prefer having a car to give us flexibility. We enjoyed two days of exploration into the mountains on the western side of Mallorca, and were especially surprised at the delightful town of Valledemossa, former summer home of Chopin and his “companion” George Sands. We toured the home, and attended a “Chopin concert” in the local hall. There were many little streets for meandering, with an array 0f shops and restaurants. We purchased a small painting by a local artist. In addition to the town of Valledemossa, we enjoyed the gorgeous ocean views as we wound around the mountain roads, stopped at other tiny towns, and had delightful lunches in places overlooking the water. With a rental car, we could make numerous stops. Returning from our round-island trip the last day, we stopped in the downtown area of Palma, the capitol, saw the imposing cathedral, strolled in the town, and had a delightful dinner there.

Many go to Mallorca for its wonderful beaches, of which they have many. We, however, went in early October, not intending to use the beaches, but as a relaxing change of pace from Barcelona and as a finale to our trip. Others have described Mallorca as overrun or too commercialized. We, however, found it to be quite beautiful and a fitting ending to a delightful trip.

Having traveled in the past to Madrid and surrounding cities, as well as the Andalucia area, (in our pre-Fodorite days), we were eager to explore Catalonia and learn about the distinct history of that area. We would like to re-visit many areas of Spain, as we think it is a beautiful country filled with so much history, culture, and art. Our only issue is one which we probably share with many Fodorites; namely, too many places to go and not enough time. Our next visit to northern Spain will be a few days in Barcelona, followed by a rental car trip traveling the Costa Brava, through the Pyrenees, and over to San Sebastian.

A final note: Our flight home was through Madrid, and we initially gave some thought to stopping off for a few days there. As we were leaving Mallorca, having experienced a long spate of gorgeous, sunny days in Barcelona and on the island, it began to rain, and by the time we reached Madrid, it was pouring. So, in retrospect, we were glad that we had chosen to save a return to Madrid for a future trip.

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