Our 6 nights in the city were actually the first part of a 3-week holiday, but since Barcelona and Greece have no particular connection other than our presence, (!) I’ll post that report separately.
“Just the facts”, first:
WHERE: Hotel Balmes, 216 Mallorca, in Eixample district. Excellent spot for us, comfortable room, good bathroom, safe location near sights/transport, but away from holiday (see below) crowds and noise. Cost €123/night for a twin-bed room, (over our usual budget) but that was as good as it got for a 3* during the holiday week.
WHEN: last week of September
WHO: 2 middle-aged Canadian friends. I’m going to refer to my companion as N, since I’ve found that typing “my friend” starts to seem bizarre after a bit, rather as if she was my imaginary friend!
WHAT: We visited Sagrada Familia, two other churches, Park Guell, Casa Batllo, La Rambla, MNAC, the Palau de la Musica Catalana, Tibidabo, and took a trip to Montserrat. We also wandered, café-ed, and enjoyed some of the La Mercé activities. Here’s a link to some pictures:
Now some details, for those interested:
GETTING AROUND was easy. We caught the Aerobus from the airport to Placa de la Universitat, only 6 blocks from the hotel, and caught it back from Placa Catalunya when we left (the stops are different coming & going). The Metro was amazingly cheap – the T10 gave us 10 rides for €10, which we could share by passing the ticket back as the second person entered the wicket. Metro was clean and well-signed. And we did a lot of walking, which is one of my favourite holiday pastimes.
We prebooked our ticket and tower entry for Sagrada Familia, and were glad to escape the very long lines at 10 a.m. We had picked the Nativity Tower, and enjoyed the view and the chance to peek out at the construction as we walked down. The church itself was breath-taking, especially the height, light, and the facades. The effect of the stained glass on the white stone is wonderful. So is the blue Spanish sky through the centre, but I believe that’s where the central spire will go—if you are planning to wait until 2030 or so to visit!
We also visited S. Maria del Pi, since its 14th c. gargoyles (flying pigs!) and its name caught our eyes when wandering through the Gothic quarter. Sadly, Pi means pine tree—it’s not dedicated to mathematics—but it does have a spectacular 10-metre rose window. The glass is reproduction though, since it was destroyed during the Civil War.
Santa Maria del Mar is striking in a totally different way: extremely high Gothic arches, totally bare above eye level since the interior was burned by the Republicans during the Civil War. I had just reached the point in the Barcelonan novel “Cathedral of the Sea” in which the workers hoist the keystone to the first arch—almost unbelieveable to envision for this height. It has some interesting reliefs showing the guildworkers who built the church, and a copy of the Madonna of Montserrat (since we didn’t see the original—see below).
The cathedral was our only disappointment in Barcelona. Not that it looks disappointing, the exterior is magnificent; it was our timing. We considered it on Sunday, but discovered that since there are about 6 services during opening hours (it’s closed during the afternoon), you can only see the back of the nave, you can’t get to the cloister or choir. So we left it to our last day, which was Sept. 24th, the La Mercé holiday, not realizing that there would be services every hour that evening, as well. We did go in to get a glimpse from the back. I was a bit surprised to find the mass (which would have been about the 5th that day) fairly packed—looking at churches which had been burned out by Barcelonans during the Civil War didn’t lead me to expect a lot of Catholic devotion here—but apparently things have changed.
If I had more time (yes, we were there 6 days, but there’s a lot to see!) I would have spent a day on Montjuic. I didn’t get to see the gardens or the Miro museum. We did visit MNAC (Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya), and three hours isn’t enough time to see even that thoroughly. Since we knew we would collapse in a stupor if we tried to cover everything, we concentrated on the medieval (for me) and modern (for N). There is a fair bit of English signage, and the medieval section has a marvellous purpose-built area to display some 13th c. frescoes as they would have been arranged in the church where they were painted.
Of course, Gaudi could be a reason to visit Barcelona all by himself. On our first evening we walked past Casa Mila, and the Block of Discord, where Casa Batllo vies for attention with the work of several of Gaudi’s contemporaries. We decided one of the houses would be a priority, and a second would depend on time available. Casa Batllo was our first choice, and we never made it inside Casa Mila, so I can’t speak on preferences. The audioguide for Casa Batllo is detailed (VERY detailed), but it is well organized and worked smoothly, so that we understood the history and design of the house. It is truly remarkable; I have never before seen a house in which every detail, from the external facade to the laundry room, was designed by one man with an original vision of how a house should be arranged. I wondered about the owners, who had a spacious and unique showplace, but whose own tastes don’t seem to have been considered in any detail. I suppose it was like buying Alexander McQueen shoes—you wouldn’t spend that money unless you liked the style.
Palau de la Musica Catalana is a concert house built in 1905 by Domènech i Montaner, one of the architects who shares the Block of Discord. We didn’t get to a performance, sadly, but we did take the tour (we got tickets in the morning, for a 2 p.m. tour). Absolutely stunning! The stained-glass skylight that dominates the orchestra, and the sculpted & painted & mosaiced musicians who make the stage so amazing. Not to mention the staircases, the light fixtures, the organ, the ceilings—VERY worth the time.
VIEWS & RAMBLES:
We walked down La Rambla several times as we headed to and from various sights. We didn’t see any of the famous pickpockets (though no doubt they were busy, considering the crowds), but we enjoyed the southern end, with the human statues, Columbus monument, and harbour views. It varied from busy to blocked, during parades/events.
We walked through La Boqueria Market, which has pretty well every kind of food you might want, from a rainbow display of candy, to mountains of seafood, to two different colours (I keep meaning to google the difference) of tripe. Oh, and a nicely displayed calf’s head, complete with eyes. Well, I wasn’t planning to eat right then, anyway.
Barceloneta beach is easily reached from the Barceloneta Metro station, so we took a walk along the boardwalk one evening, admiring the W hotel (which must have amazing views from all sides), the soft sand, the calm water, and the giant ferris wheel, along with a dozen other rides of the “tilt-a-whirl” type, which we thought were probably a travelling show, there for the holiday. There are a number of small restaurants / bars with seaviews, also.
We had several strolls through the Gothic quarter—well, partly they were caused by the fact that it’s very easily to become geographically challenged in those maze-like stone alleys! However, it was impossible to mind taking the longer route, since every street was unique and interesting.
Park Guell is popular for the Gaudi mosaics, the meandering benches and the famous lizard by the entrance. Having read that it was a considerable hike from Lesseps Metro station, we opted instead to go up to Vallcarca Metro. It was still far lower than the park (to the west, rather than south like Lesseps), but there are a series of escalators (just follow the signs from the station) leading most of the way up, so it wasn’t terribly strenuous. The added bonus was that we entered the “park”, just below the Three Crosses (Turó de Tres Creus)—and started off with mainly locals sitting on benches or strolling, with great views out towards the seacoast. No crowds until we wandered down towards the Hippostyle and the benches. It was fascinating, but the entrance was so crowded (it was Saturday, which may have contributed) that it was hard to really enjoy it.
Tibidabo: N is a fan of sweeping views, so we took the Metro to Av.Tibidabo, the tram (€4.70 return), and the funicular (€7.70 return) up to the top of Tibidabo Mountain, which is the highest point in the city. Note: if you want to try this, do not ask Google how to get to the top of the mountain—it will tell you to walk 2 km straight up from a train station. Fortunately, we double-checked with the amusement park’s website! The tram dates from the amusement park, built around the turn of the century—by which I mean 1900! So transport buffs probably ride it for fun. The amusement park is truly retro : they have an original airplane ride from the 1920s, and a merry-go-round, but the place was full of toddlers squealing with delight, so not every child is Disneyfied! Then overlooking the rides is the Church of the Sacred Heart (yes, I took a picture of the juxtapostion). The church is a bizarre combo: two churches, a neo-Gothic chapel of grey stone perched atop a neo-Romanesque crypt church of reddish-brown stone. And the Romanesque church has a Byzantine/Modernist interior decoration. Well... there are some lovely details, but to me the whole thing looked better from the bottom of the mountain. However, the views are unmatchable—the city, Sagrada Familia, Monjuic, the Mediterranean, all spread out before you.
LA MERCE HOLIDAY:
We had never heard of this festival before booking; in fact, I discovered its existence when trying to figure out why hotel prices were higher during the week we wanted! Since our flights were already booked, we agreed we would have to “suck it up”. Well, it turned out to be the most delicious beverage! September 24th is “La Mercé”, but the whole surrounding week is full of special events. Keep in mind that there were dozens of concerts (every square seemed to have a temporary stage), three nights of fireworks on the beach, countless parades—so we only saw a little. People come just for the festivities, but we also wanted to see the regular sights! However, what we saw was amazing.
The “Giants” are huge (maybe 3-5m high) characters—everything from medieval knights to 19th c. politicians—that are carried through the streets (we saw a couple of the carriers switching over, it must be very hot and tiring under those skirts!) by an organization (anything from a church group to a soccer club) which sponsors them. They appear as part of a parade which also includes small bands, dancers, and costumed groups. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely! We saw three of the parades, and were lucky enough to be just leaving S. Maria del Mar as one came past, which meant we had a elevated view of the whole thing.
We also saw the traditional Catalan folk dance, the Sardana, in the cathedral square. A small orchestra plays on a platform, while random groups of locals form circles and dance in the square. It’s a circle dance, and the circle can be any size—while we were watching, an elderly woman came up to the circle closest to us, pulled apart two peoples’ hands, and joined in.
The Castellars were absolutely amazing and terrifying. We determinedly pushed our way close enough (Placa S. Jaume was blocked) to see as groups formed their human towers. I had read about this in the online La Mercé site, but I couldn’t really envisage it. Well, as I said the square is blocked with spectators, and the groups perform one at a time. A group of men form a square on the bottom, and others stand around them providing support, because all the weight is on these men. Then the others start crawling up on the shoulders of those already standing —a couple levels of men, 2-3 levels of women, then children (!) on top, the littlest ones, maybe 8 or 10, wearing helmets. (I can’t describe it adequately—use Youtube!). As each group rose above the first few levels, the crowd noise turned to loud “shhh-ing”, until the top level had been reached, then the supporters of each group broke into loud cheers. We had no trouble with the “shhh”—we couldn’t decide to be awestruck or aghast as the 10-year-olds climbed high above the stone square.
This was a very pleasant daytrip to a site which combines scenery, religion, and history-- except for the train ride. We bought combo tickets and took the train from Placa Espanya, then the cable car up to the monastery (thanks to YK’s clear advice). The train was standing-room only for 55 minutes, both ways. You would probably have a chance of a return seat if you took the rack-railway, rather than the cable car, as railway passengers get on one stop closer to the mountain. However, the cable car gave spectacular views and was quicker. We enjoyed the boys’ choir—although they were completely invisible to us, standing along the side aisle of the basilica. We were a bit put out with our fellow visitors, many of whom walked out as soon as the choir stopped singing, while the priest was finishing the service (it was only another 5 minutes, people, have some manners!) The basilica itself is quite impressive, our sandwich lunch (we didn’t go for the full-meal ticket) was surprisingly reasonable for a place where there are no alternatives. We didn’t see the Black Madonna whose existence is the reason for the pilgrim visits (we waited 20 minutes, realized the line would take another 45 min., and neither of us is Catholic), but we did take the Saint Joan funicular to the mountaintop (more spectacular views) and enjoyed a walk along the shortest trail, to the Hermitage of St. Onofre. The trip also gave us a chance to see more of the countryside around Barcelona.
CLOSING REMARKS: N and I agreed that Barcelona is a marvellous city. The architecture is delightful—not just spectacle like Sagrada Familia, but throughout the city. It’s a great place for walking, and the weather in September was perfect: warm and sunny, but not tortuously hot. One surprse, in retrospect, is how prosperous it felt. As I said at the top, this was part of a two-part holiday, and Greece was the other half. Greece and Spain are reported as the economic crisis zone of Europe. Greece certainly felt like an economic basket case, especially Athens. Barcelona, on the other hand, could have been New York, as far as high-end stores, clean streets, and well-dressed locals. Service staff were generally pleasant, and most spoke some English. Restaurant prices were quite a pleasant surprise (not that we were eating at Tickets), but even a meal on La Rambla was both tasty and reasonably priced. Our best restaurant finds were around our hotel in Eixample.
Last words: GO! Definitely go to Barcelona!
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