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Trip Report LONG Trip Report Barcelona & Costa Brava June 2017

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We spent a week in Barcelona and 6 nights on the Costa Brava. I am posting this on Fodors and on TripAdvisor since I received so much help from both boards.

Special thanks to KJA and others for TR’s and advice.

To be of help to others, I will address those questions that I had for planning this itinerary. . .and that happen to be the same questions asked so often by others on these boards. All mentioned sights, restaurants and hotels can be easily found on TripAdvisor. I won’t go into great detail about well-known sights that can be found in any guidebook, but will explain about some lesser-known sights and give logistical information. Please excuse any misspellings – I don’t take any notes and am doing this from memory.

First, about us: We are an “older” couple, well-seasoned travelers, physically fit, who can walk long distances and don’t speak two words of Spanish and even less Catalan. I had not been to Barcelona since Franco was in power. It’s changed. The trip was planned for our particular travel style that does not include packed days or early mornings, some of this made up for by never sitting down for lunch. It was also designed for some R&R the 2nd week.

It was a GREAT trip and – if I do say so myself – our (my) planning worked out pretty perfectly. Barcelona is an ideal city for tourists, as evidenced by the thousands and thousands there on any given day. Easy to get around by walking, metro or cheap taxis. Some observations: the people were uniformly friendly and every rest room was clean and had paper. The weather was ideal in early June – high 70’s and low 80’s, low humidity, and no flying insects. And it cooled down at night.

With this in mind…..

Trip preparation: We bought Rick Steves Barcelona and I also photocopied pages from other guidebooks in the public library. We like Rick Steves because of his walks, his “hand-drawn” maps and his “at a glance” description of major sights with opening/closing days/times.

We both read “Cathedral by the Sea,” which we highly recommend. It’s a lovely novel about medieval Barcelona and the creation of the Cathedral Santa Maria del Mar. It reminded us how miserable the time period was for most people and also enhanced our enjoyment of the city and that particular cathedral. My husband read “Homage to Catalonia” and we both read up on our Spanish Civil War history. My husband read “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and we both watched the movie.

TIP: My husband highly recommends “Ulman City Maps2Go” app, with one map free. This has a detailed city map for Barcelona with location tracking and can be used offline. It was a great help for walking around Barcelona.

How many days in Barcelona and what area to stay?

We found 5 or 6 days to be perfect for seeing many sights in a leisurely fashion. Barcelona is a city to savor – spend time soaking in the atmosphere and eating tapas. Add in the medieval and moderisme sights and it’s worth the time. For those who don’t have the luxury of this many days, your days will just be fuller!

We were thrilled with our choice of accommodations just on the edge of the Gothic Quarter. We stayed at the Catalonia Portal d’Angel, ideally located 2 minutes south of Placa de Catalunya on a pedestrian street. This allowed us to essentially walk just about everywhere – and we did. We highly recommend the peaceful terrace rooms overlooking the courtyard/pool for quiet as well as some extra space since the room itself was quite small. The hotel was immaculately clean, the staff efficient, the bathroom spacious enough with an excellent shower over the tub. Limited space for clothes and luggage, but we made do. We had one breakfast there that was adequate but expensive. Many bakeries nearby and I finally got smart and bought yogurt at the El Cortes Ingles department store supermarket in the basement and stored in the fridge. Tried to have churros for breakfast at Churreria Leitana but this well-regarded place had handwritten “hoy cerrado” signs every time I tried. We highly recommend Catalonia Portal de L’Angel, especially the terrace rooms which are an oasis in the middle of the city.

I am sure that people enjoy staying in L’Eixample, but we preferred the narrow alleys of the Gothic Quarter. By being this close to Placa Catalunya (without being right on it) we had the best of both worlds since we could get to both neighborhoods within minutes.

Day-by-Day itinerary including what has to be booked in advance:

We sketched out our days based on advance bookings, sight closures and geography, but also allowed for some spontaneity.

Our first night we ate at Casa Lolea (the original location, not the newer location inside the Yurrban Trafalgar Hotel) and this was one of the best meals of our trip. This was also our first experience with pan con tomate (they serve the “deconstructed” version) and can’t wait to make this at home! Recommend booking in advance. I emailed them before we left the US and this was a great first dinner.

Day One – Gothic Quarter

We used Rick Steves Gothic Quarter walk that can be downloaded to MP3 player or podcast on phone. Printed out 2 copies of the walk map from his website that took us from Placa de Catalunya down through the Gothic Quarter and gave us a great introduction. (If we hadn’t had two other walking tours planned we probably would have taken the highly-recommended RunnerBean Gothic Quarter tour.) This took us several hours including stopping at the Santa Caterina market. We didn’t quite have time to visit Santa Maria del Mar so we put it off for another day so we could do the guided roof visit. But this would make a nice end to this day.

We joined a 5 p.m. Taste Barcelona tapas and wine tour that was 5 hours and took us to various neighborhoods. This was a great introduction to Catalan food, with a bit of Catalan history thrown in and definitely helped with orientation to the city. I thought it was a bit pricey at $105 per person, but it was very well done. We had standout tapas at La Flauta. The tour is recommended as a good introduction and must be booked well in advance in high season.

Day Two – Gaudi Day

This day had to be planned in advance because it included Park Guell and Sagrada Familia. Everyone asks how far in advance to book….it depends on season and timing. I watched the official websites leading up to our trip to get an idea how quickly they booked up and bought these tickets the week before.

I had gotten great advice from the wonderful destination experts on TripAdvisor (thank you!) about the downhill walk between Park Guell and Sagrada Familia, so we booked in that order. We booked 11 a.m. Park Guell tickets and took a taxi to get there. (I had read that it is a long, uphill walk from the metro and we were conserving our energy for the sights.) Yes, I felt it was worth it to see the Monumental Zone. Please note: it gets VERY hot up there, even when the temperature isn’t THAT hot. For earlier risers, I would recommend going much earlier in the morning, especially during the summer. After the Monumental Zone we walked through some of the adjacent park. But like much of Barcelona, there are a lot of uphill climbs that limited how much we saw in the heat. I would say we were there an hour. YMMV.

We wanted to walk through the neighborhood of Gracia and this was ideal on the way to Sagrada Familia. We booked 2:30 p.m. SF tickets to give us plenty of time to walk, although since it was during siesta we didn’t get to see the shops and ‘village life’ of Gracia. Very nice walk to SF with a stop for empenadas at a local bakery.

We chose the audio guide and did not purchase the tower tickets. Tip: go to the basement museum first and watch the short video. This was a great introduction. What can I say? Gaudi sites are special and both the park and SF were great. Happy to report they have made significant progress on SF since my 1974 visit!

We spent just over an hour at SF and added a “bonus” sight to the day: Hospital Sant Pau is now known as Sant Pau Recinte Modernista and a HIGHLY recommended 10-minute walk from SF. There is a particularly nice coffee house/café right in front of it for a hot chocolate or snack break. If you haven’t heard of this google it and learn a bit about it before visiting. We spent an hour or so walking around and it is really special. English language tours are only offered at 11 a.m., but they did have some descriptive materials. Taxi back to hotel. (again, we could have taken metro – but taxi easy and cheap after a long day)

I think dinner that night was at Casa Alphonso which had one of the single best starters of the entire trip – some aubergine and goat cheese crisps. Other than that, not particularly memorable…but we really never had a bad meal. Or maybe that was the night we ate at an Argentinean restaurant…..there are many and it makes for a nice break for something a bit different.

Day Three – Jewish Quarter, La Boqueria and Santa Maria del Mar

We had a particular interest in the Jewish Quarter, “The Call,” and booked in advance a 2-hour guided tour with Barcelona Dreaming. (Urban Cultours probably offers a more in-depth tour, but the timing didn’t work out and it was more expensive.) Barcelona Dreaming offers weekly group tours in addition to private tours. There isn’t much left to see (after all, Jews haven’t been there in any numbers since 1391, with final expulsion in 1492), but we could not have found some of the remnants on our own, and certainly not a recently-uncovered mikveh in a furniture store! This part of the Gothic Quarter is definitely the most picturesque, as long as you don’t think about the horrible things that happened there during medieval times.

Some other nearby sites rounded out that day including the very touristy, but wonderful, La Boqueria market where grazing for lunch is highly recommended!

English tours of the rooftop of Santa Maria del Mar are held most hours from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. so we joined one of the afternoon tours. I am a sucker for cathedral rooftops – the roof of the Milan cathedral is one of my all-time favorite sights. This one isn’t quite that memorable, but it was cool to be on the outside of the stained glass windows and have an expansive view of Barcelona.

Day Four – L’Eixample

We took Rick’s L’Eixample guidebook walk and it was a good start for this lovely neighborhood. It got us off the main streets and to visit a local market (can’t recall the name!) where he claims there are no tourists…and there weren’t! Nice to pick up some fruit and munchies. Then the big choice of what houses to visit in L’Eixample. We settled on Casa Battlo which was phenomenal. From research I knew that if there was a long line, I could just go on my phone to their website and order the “skip the line” tickets – thus avoiding booking in advance. We were lucky and in mid-afternoon there was no line. Absolutely loved this visit….and made us appreciate Gaudi even more.

For something a bit different we went to Casa Amatller next door and I have to say we were disappointed. It was nice to be away from the crowds, and it’s a very interesting family story, but the house did not float my boat. However, the hot chocolate/coffee house (open to the public) is a definite winner – and some of the best hot chocolate of the trip. In hindsight, would have preferred to go to Casa Mila (La Pedrera) in addition to Casa Battlo because we weren’t really Gaudi’d out. However, the exterior of La Pedrera was still a treat to behold. Sorry I missed the roof.

Day Five – Palau de la Musica Catalana, Picasso Museum and Castellers

There were no concerts at the Palau de la Musica that interested us, so we booked a guided tour. This turned out to be the hardest to book as originally the website showed no tours offered for two of our days in Barcelona. I emailed through the website and turned out it was a mistake and they were offering some tours on those days. (sometimes it pays to ask!) We were thrilled that we booked this as it is definitely the most beautiful interior in Barcelona and fascinating to see.

Another question that had come up on TripAdvisor was the advisability of seeing castellers. I have to admit that I had not even heard of this and had to look it up! There are websites that give the times and locations of castellers on weekends and so we left time between the Palau and the Picasso Museum for a 20-minute walk to a park where they were “performing.” On the way we came across a wonderful festival we enjoyed walking through in Parc Ciutadella. I am so glad we saw the castellers – it was really a highlight. It was billed for 12 noon and we were probably there watching from about 1 to 2 p.m. I definitely recommend catching them if it works out when you are in Barcelona.

The Picasso Museum has recently changed its Sunday afternoon free ticketing procedure and I happened to learn about this on TripAdvisor Barcelona forum and it doesn’t seem to be widely-known. Starting 4 days before Sunday (so presumably on Tuesdays) you can book a free entry time after 3 p.m. for Sundays. You just pay 5 euro for audioguides if you want them. We easily booked 3:15 p.m. and had no wait and free admission. Seeing Picasso’s talent in his early years was striking, but I can’t say that this was one of my favorite museums – still worth seeing.

Our last night in BCN before leaving for Costa Brava we ate at Viana, very highly rated on TA and recommended on many of the boards. We had booked in advance by email as reservations are essential. While the food was very good, it did not stand out and eating on a quiet square at a more local place might have been a better bet.

Before I move on to Costa Brava, I will include our final night in Barcelona that came the following week. While we had wanted to get a return flight in the afternoon to avoid a 2nd visit and “one night stand” at a hotel on our return, it wasn’t possible. SO, after our wonderful 6 nights on the Costa Brava we returned to BCN for one afternoon/evening and night.

I will call this: Day Six – Montjuic (even though it wasn’t on a consecutive day)

We chose a different area for our final night after returning from Costa Brava. It was further off the tourist track in Poble Sec (at the foot of Montjuic) at the quirky, but very nice Hotel Brummell. This turned out to be a great choice as we had left Montjuic for our final day, which was a Sunday, and also for its proximity to returning the car to Europcar at Sants train station (the downtown location is closed on Sundays), proximity to see the Magic Fountain at Placa de Espanya and ease of getting to the airport the next morning. Hotel Brummell would be a good location for those who want to be in more of a residential area and don’t mind walking an extra 20 minutes to just about everything. The area did feel much more like the “real” Barcelona, the hotel was immaculately clean, had a fantastic shower and they were very helpful.

Montjuic was a bit hard to maneuver and you really need a plan….and by the last day of our vacation we were plum out of plans! The Miro Foundation is only open until 3 p.m. on Sundays so that was our first order of business. I can’t say I’m a big fan, but it was nice to see. However, the uphill walk and directions on the mountain were generally very confusing. We probably would have done better to consult the guidebooks more carefully. We didn’t have time for the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, but enjoyed the walk down toward Placa de Espanya where we visited the CaixaForum thanks to Rick Steves suggestion. This moderniste masterpiece is best viewed from the terrace with exact directions of how to find it in his guidebook. There are even descriptions in English available at the terrace.

From there we decided to backtrack by taxi (rather than face another vertical walk) to catch the cable car from Montjuic to Barceloneta, something we hadn’t researched but intrigued us once we saw it. We were fortunate to have only a short wait – and the views are gorgeous – but it is also expensive. While we had no interest in the beach when we got to Barceloneta, everyone else did on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon and it was impossible to get a taxi back to our hotel. We walked more than half way to Poble Sec before finally finding an available cab.

We wanted a casual tapas dinner for our last night, so the hotel suggested La Plattileria just down the block and we were very happy there at what felt like a real local place, with a few outside tables. It was a short walk to the Magic Fountain where it’s not that the show is so spectacular, but it’s quite “the scene” with hordes of people – both tourists and locals.

Next morning, quick 7:15 a.m. cab ride to the airport and since we were connecting in Zurich (part of Schengen area) on our way to Los Angeles the departure was very easy with no passport control. We allowed 2.5 hours from leaving the hotel until flight time which allowed us a leisurely airport breakfast. We could have cut it closer, but this was a comfortable amount of time. Those going directly to US or other non-Schengen areas may need more time.

What would I do differently in Barcelona: See BOTH Casa Battlo and Casa Mila, eat more Crema Catalana for dessert, eat even more churros than I did, and definitely order Crema Catalana ice cream every time I saw it – and be bold enough to ask for a little extra of the burnt topping!
Costa Brava:

After 6 nights in Barcelona we moved on to Costa Brava for some combination relaxation and sightseeing. We rented a car through Autoeurope (always works well) and the local vendor was Europcar. Easy to pick up car at the downtown location on Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes. While we had google maps on our phone (and unexpectedly GPS in the car) we were still glad we had a paper map of Costa Brava for orientation and double-checking.

In researching where to spend our time in CB I came across the area of Llafranc/Calella de Palafrugell/Tamariu – three villages off the high rise/package tour path. We wanted a nice hotel with somewhat of a “resort feel,” meaning it had to have someplace with sunbeds and umbrellas. Since most of the hotels in these villages are beachfront without much grounds, we ended up at a perfect spot: Hotel Blaumar in Llafranc, AKA “a little bit of paradise.” This area turned out to be perfect.

Camino de Ronda paths were between the villages and I really enjoyed almost daily walks between Llafranc and Calella de Palafrugell. Tamariu was a bit far so I never saw it! Calella is larger than Llafranc and a bit more “quaint,” although both are absolutely beautiful. And the walk from Calella south from the Hotel St Roc towards the botanical gardens is as beautiful a walk as anywhere I have ever seen, complete with a hidden beach cove with aquamarine water. (Tip: don’t try to walk all the way to the botanical gardens.) Hotel Blaumar is a less than 10-minute walk downhill to the beach and a 15-minute walk uphill on the return. There is both a “goat path” or road for the walk. The last part is quite steep, but do-able for anyone in reasonable shape. The rooms are a bit Laura Ashley, but large, immaculate, with lovely terraces and great showers….and OH THE VIEW!! The breakfast was also very nice and served outside. Did I mention the view??? We could not have been happier with this choice of hotel or area.

We divided our five full days into relaxation days and “day trips.”

Day trip one: Dali home in Port Lligat and Cadaques (2 hours each way). The Dali home MUST be booked in advance and it was quite interesting to see. As others report, the road into Cadaques is very twisty and windy and so we timed our visit to be back on the road before sunset to avoid the worst part of the road at night. I was not taken with Cadaques as much as expected, perhaps because the villages where we were staying in CB were just as beautiful. We did have a lovely dinner in the outside patio at La Sirena in Cadaques. In hindsight, wish we had gotten an earlier start and added the Sant Per de Rhodes Monastery or the drive to Cap de Creus. Honestly, I felt it was a lot of driving time just to see the Dali house and Cadaques. But I think this is a minority opinion. It was a lovely day nonetheless.

Another day we visited the Dali Museum in Figueres followed by an afternoon/evening in Girona. This was a great day. We were lucky that there was no line for the Dali Museum on a June weekday around 11 a.m. but it was very crowded inside. Parking easily available at the structure across from the museum. Then we drove to Girona to spend the late afternoon/evening. (Tip: Don’t make the mistake of trying to drive in the old Jewish quarter – park, as we finally did, near Placa de Catalunya and just walk across the river.) Climbing along the medieval walls and seeing the old Jewish quarter (“the Call”) were very interesting. I recommend a visit to Girona’s Museum of Jewish History to get some understanding of the importance of Girona and the tragedy that befell the Jewish community there (and throughout Spain).

It’s a real foodie town and while we hadn’t booked ahead to any of the hot and trendy restaurants, we had our pick of many great ones around the old Jewish quarter. We ended up at Brots de Vi because they had an outdoor table available and it was great – but am sure we would have been happy at many others.

Another late afternoon from Llafanc we ventured to close-by medieval towns of Peratallada and Begur. Peratadella is quite beautiful, carved out of rock, surrounded by a moat. However, it was so empty of people that it seemed like more of a movie set. We then drove to Begur, which is extremely lively and filled with people and enjoyed dinner and wandering around.

The remaining time in Llafranc was spent reading, sunbathing (under umbrellas) around the hotel’s small infinity pool (the view!) and taking those wonderful pathway walks overlooking the sea and staring at the view. We aren’t beach people, but there are plenty of them around.

Our dinners in Llafranc were both excellent: one night at the beachfront La Llagosta (wonderful monkfish) and another night on the Chez Thomas patio (everything was good). In Calella we ate almost on the sand at Sol I Mar – another great monkfish and some season fried fish. Really, hard to go wrong with the wonderful fresh fish and seaside dining. Ice cream places abound for dessert in both villages, with La Croissanterrie Ice Cream in Llafranc having probably the best Crema Catalana ice cream of the trip.

Really enjoyed this part of Costa Brava and highly recommend it for the combination of relaxation and sightseeing. Did not see any other Americans on this part of the CB and were actually asked by an Irish woman how we ever came across this gem. (Thank you, TripAdvisor.) What would I do differently for this part of the trip? Stay longer, perhaps? We were NOT ready to leave this beautiful, relaxing place.

Hope this was helpful for those planning similar trips. I am happy to answer any questions.

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