Barcelona Travelogue

In which our hero and his lovely wife drink wine and eat chocolate.

Introduction

In April 2007, Laura and I went to the Barcelona area for 10 days. We had wanted to visit Spain for a while, but the trip was prompted by our friends Angie and Eric moving to Spain a month before. We spent a few days in Barcelona, then headed to the Costa Brava for a glorious 3-days side trip, then spent the rest of the time back in Barcelona, with one ill-planned trip to the Penedes winemaking region. It was a wonderful time!
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Barcelona

The flight was fine, evening to evening. We popped out of the Barcelona Metro at the Lesseps stop on the L3 line, 20 feet from a pastisseria (check out the spelling on that -- Catalan is great, kind of like a Spanish-French fever dream) where Angie was doing some reading. It was kind of surreal to see a good Seattle friend sitting in a cafe in another country when we hadn't traveled there with her.

Eric was still stuck in Britain wrapping up his visa troubles, so we didn't get to see him (much) on this trip. Their place is nice, in a quiet neighborhood nicely located on the green (L3) metro line. We hauled out the jars of peanut butter that we had brought for Angie (not available in Spain, apparently) and she enjoyed the bounty.
Much-loved peanut butter
That night we went out on the town to the Placa del Sol for crepes and drinks. We had no trouble staying out late during our trip due to the time shift, but mornings were kind of brutal.

Next day, we bought tickets on the pricey double-decker tourist bus and made a loop around the north of the city. That was about enough of that, so we got off and walked down Avinguda Diagonal a bit, until we came across a troupe of tumblers. Then we sat down to a nice tapas lunch in a place on the Passeig de Gracia.
Circo jump Circo tower Tapa Tapa
Next we checked out one of Gaudi's buildings, La Pedrera (Casa Mila). This one has a crazy wavy roof -- we took the audio tour, but really it was all about the roof. You could see the Sagrada Familia from there.
Pedrera Pedrera balcony Arch Sagrada Familia
So that's where we headed next, the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's unfinished gigantic church. There's sort of a nature theme going on there, lots of representations of trees and plants and fruit and stuff. The outside is pretty astounding in its complexity. We rode up the lift and got some nice views around the city from up inside the modernist landmark.
Sagrada Familia hug Sagrada Familia canopy Towers through tower window
Next we took the metro abajo (downtown, toward the water) to Port Olimpic, where we caught that silly tourist bus again. Seriously, that bus is lame; it sounds great in theory, but in practice there's a huge line to get on it at most of the stops. Anyway, we took a less-popular loop by the water. Then we walked around the Barri Gotic and into Els Quatre Gats. Literally "the four cats". Figuratively "not many people". Historically a hangout for artists like Picasso. It's a good thing we're such shockingly attractive people, because the host found us a seat right away, even though he was turning away everybody else. The meal was quite nice, especially the manchego. Then Angie headed home and Laura and I headed to the Rambla and drank expensive bad beer.
Tourist bus Quatre Gats doors
A word on beer in Barcelona. The vast majority of beer drunk appears to be from a company called Damm. The name is kind of amusing, but it gets to be a pretty grim amusement right quick because the beer is pretty joyless. There are multiple types of Damm, representing variations on the central theme of mediocrity. There's also San Miguel, which could be an interesting contrast but isn't. Stella Artois makes the occasional appearance, like the guy at the party who you wouldn't normally hang out with, but who you end up talking to anyway because everyone else there is kind of a tool. Occasionally an enlightened institution will serve a Belgian or two, usually Leffe.

The best thing you can say about beer in Barcelona is that the wine in Barcelona is fantastic.

We started the next morning right, with tortilla (yummy potato omelette) sandwiches in a cafe near the metro, amid clouds of cigarette smoke that I don't normally associate with breakfast. Laura and I were on our own today, since Angie had class. We headed to Montjuic via metro and funicular. Montjuic is a big hill right next to the water, possibly so-named because it used to house a Jewish cemetery. We strolled through a beautiful garden to Montjuic castle and poked around, enjoying the view. Later, Matilde and Jaime told us that the locals don't go to that castle much because that's where Franco carried out some nasty punishments, but luckily we didn't know that at the time.
Viny castle Montjuic castle view Circles at Montjuic
Then we tried to go to the Joan Miro museum on Montjuic, but it was Monday. Monday is "everything is closed" day in Barcelona. Angie had warned us that night clubs and things would be closed, but we hadn't realized that the city is nearly as shut down on Monday as it is on Sunday. So we went back down the funicular and over to Placa Colon to get our obligatory picture with the Columbus monument. Then we walked out to Port Vell, stopping for a pricey glass of cava (Spanish sparkling wine, which generally varies from decent to fantastic). Then we walked in circles around the La Ribera neighborhood for a while and got some tapas.

This was Sant Jordi's Day, meaning that the entire population of Barcelona was actively involved in either buying or selling books or flowers. The tradition is that men buy women a rose (which for some reason has a stalk of wheat with it) and women buy men a book. Laura got me El Codigo DaVinci, on the reasoning that being in Spanish might actually make it worth reading.
Laura Columbus Barcelona street Decent beer
We headed back to Angie's to get away from the Rambla crowds, then we walked 15 minutes from there to Parc Guell, which is this wonderful Gaudi confection that started as a bizarrely conceived housing development. After that failed, it was turned into a park which includes Gaudi gingerbread-looking houses, an honest-to-Osiris hypostyle hall, and the longest bench in the world. It's amazing, so you get lots of pictures of it. After that we headed down to Diagonal and met our friends Matilde and Jaime, who live in Barcelona, for pintxos. Pintxos ('peenchos') are like tapas but with toothpicks. You get a plate, and then you reach over people's heads to grab little sandwiches from plates on the bar. Each sandwich has a toothpick, and you pay by the toothpick. The places they took us were great, and local enough that we got some glares for speaking English. It was good to see those guys again! We finished the evening at a bar called Berlin, whose name is a bitter irony because the only beer available was Damm.
Gingerbread house Guell dragon Park Guell and city
Guell halo Guell swoop Shot with Matilde & Jaime

Costa Brava

Next was our 3-day trip up to the Costa Brava. The Costa Brava is a beautiful stretch of coastline northeast of Barcelona. It's known for beautiful small towns and, increasingly, tourism. We headed all the way out to the easternmost part of the coast, the Cap de Creu (Cape of Christ, I think), which is a national park on a peninsula shaped a bit like an eastward-pointing maple leaf.

We got a pretty early start by taking a bus to the airport and picking up the rental car. Driving in the Barcelona area really isn't that bad -- nothing like Greece. The roads are wide enough and well-maintained and the drivers follow a pretty strict set of rules about when to pass. We headed up the AP-7 freeway to Girona, a pretty big provincial capital with some medieval goodies in its old town. Girona is a thriving modern city, though, so I had to deal with some pretty serious traffic to get us parked close to old town. We walked around, starting with the cathedral. Then the "Arab" baths and a walk around the old city walls.
Girona cathedral Arab bath, Girona Girona town walls
Back in the car, we navigated out of the city via a series of roughly 700 rondas (roundabouts). We made our way out to Cadaques, a beautiful town on the coast, ronda by ronda. One odd thing we noticed in this region was that, several times, we saw a woman sunning herself on a folding deck chair by the side of the road, with nothing else nearby. Only one obvious explanation comes to mind, and a brief internet search seems to confirm it. Anyway, the last part of the drive was hilly and the views were breathtaking. We got into town and parked at the BlauMar hotel, a 5-minute walk from the center of town. Our room had a great view of the town.
View from our hotel room Cadaques view from hotel Cadaques evening
Cadaques reminded us a bit of villages in the Greek islands, lots of white and not a little blue. Everything was phenomenally pricy, so our eating was pretty low-key there. There really wasn't much going on -- middle of the week, off season -- so I'm glad we weren't there for the nightlife. I chatted with the hotel staff a bit and we worked out a plan to hike over to Salvador Dali's house in the little town of Port Llegat and then continue on through the national park to the lighthouse at the tip of the Cap de Creu.

So, next morning, that's what we did. First, though, we stopped in town and hit the museum, which was hosting an exhibition of photos by some American dude who hung out with Dali in the 60s and 70s. They were pretty amazing -- Dali was a crazy guy, and he was good at looking crazy.

Then we stopped at a bakery and got two absolutely perfect cheese-and-tomato baguette sandwiches and munched them as we walked over the hill to Port Llegat. Dali's place is pretty cool. He had a ton of money, and he collected cool stuff and had plenty of artist friends to give him cool stuff. The pool area is a triumph of kitsch.
Dali House, Port Llegat Hall of the Bear Dali's kitschy pool area
So we continued on through the Cap de Creus, about an 8-mile roundtrip to the lighthouse and back. The trail was good and the views were wonderful -- sea and olive groves the whole way.
Autophotography Laura the Enchanter Lighthouse and water
It was a magical hike. A bit warm, but not too sweltering, and the views from the lighthouse area were especially fantastic -- tons of coastline. We ate a great meal of tapas at the restaurant by the lighthouse, then hiked back to Cadaques.
Laura at the lighthouse Damon on the rocks, CdeC Restaurant Cap de Creu
The next day we got out early and drove up to Port de Selva, another small coastal town. Not much going on there, so we drove up the mountain to the monastery of Sant Pere de Rodes (Saint Peter of Rhodes). It's big and imposing, with a commanding view of the area, started in the 10th century and newly restored. We explored the whole place; great views back down to Port de Selva.
Damon with Sant Pere Monastery bell tower Big port view, vines
Then I decided I just had to hike up to the top of the hill, where a ruined castle overlooked the monastery. Great decision. The whole of Cap de Creu was laid out before us, and lots of pretty farmland, too. We bummed around the pretty ruins for a while.
Laura arch-haloed Castle, arch Castle, Cap de Creu
Then we drove down the mountain and over to Figueres, birthplace of Dali. We entered the zoo that is the Dali Theater-Museum. Dali designed the whole experience himself, so there's lots of unexpected stuff. My favorite is the Abraham Lincoln thing. Eventually we had to get away from the crowds, so we checked out an exhibit of jewelry that Dali designed. OK stuff. The standout piece for me was a heart made of rubies that actually beats. Then we had a lunch on the placa. Check out this shot of two buildings that are being held apart with beams while a building in the middle is rebuilt. Then back on the road to Barcelona, through some pretty ugly traffic.
Dali Cadillac Dali Lincoln Buildings held apart

Back to Barcelona

Back at the airport, the cash machine dispensed cash for the person ahead of us after they had already walked away and vanished into the crowd -- after a failed frantic search for the person to try to return the money, we couldn't do much but take it. Free money! So we splurged on dinner at Los Caracoles (The Snails), which was fantastic -- monkfish, catalan beans, salt cod, excellent wine, flan and chocolate cake. We finished the evening at a bar where we actually appeared to be the only tourists.

We started Friday off by taking the subway to the bus to the funicular to the top of Mount Tibidabo (which, oddly, has an amusement park). Kind of a letdown; the views were fine, but we'd seen just as good from Montjuic, and there wasn't much to do but snap a picture and get back on the funicular. Then we had lunch and got some very rich xocolata amb melindros (liquid chocolate; the melindros are kind of like spongecake, and preferred to xurros in Barcelona for dipping. Except by me, I prefer the xurros).
Tibidabo Funicular Windy Tibidabo

Then we tried to go to the Picasso museum in the Ribera, but the line was around the block, so we decided not to kill the afternoon on that. We had some nice wine at Vinya del Senyor near the Esglecia de Santa Maria, then we went to the chocolate museum. Interesting old-world perspective on the acquisition of chocolate from the New World peoples. Turns out the Spanish have been drinking their chocolate for quite some time. Neat sculptures and chocolate art, too -- my favorite was the chocolate Dali. We bought half the tasty contents of the gift shop and wandered back to the Rambla, where we checked out the big market -- wonderful! I bought some olive oil, olives and manchego, which made a great snack back at Angie's. Then we went to a brewery down by Diagonal. The house brews were lackluster, but the staff were friendly and they plied us with fantastic Belgian beers!
Xocolat Dali Heaven and hell 666
The next day we caught the train out to the town of Vilafrance de Penedes, which our book said was the best place to start a wine tour of the region. Crappy, crappy book. Here's the thing -- there are two towns you can take the train to in Penedes, Vilafranca and Sant Sadurni d'Anoia. In Vilafranca there's a wine museum and not much else wine-related. In Sant Sadurni there are dozens of places that sell their own cava, a veritable paradise of cava -- but they all close by 1PM on the weekend. The tourist office in Vilafranca, apparently out of spite, also withheld this information.

So here we were whiling away our morning in Vilafranca, while, unbeknownst to us, we were missing all our tasting opportunities in Sant Sadurni. The wine museum was fine -- kind of cute with silly wine-related dioramas and some neat wine-related art. Then back on the train and off 10 minutes later in Sant Sadurni. You already know how this story turns out, but it started off great; we saw tons and tons of cava places as we walked into town. Actually, the first place we stopped at, Jaume Giro y Giro, was open, and they served us some wonderful cava. I chatted with the lady doing the serving for quite a while; she was from Chile, and I cound understand her quite well. The rest of the day, though, was a complete bust, wandering around SS looking for cava. One proprietor was actually very rude about the whole thing, demanding that we buy a bottle of his overpriced, under-good cava. Bah. Back on the train.
Museum courtyard Jaume Giro y Giro Damon in a vineyard
Back in Barcelona, though, the evening was quite nice. We went to a comedy show in a total expat place -- the comedian was Scottish, and I hardly heard any Spanish in the joint. We found a nice absinthe bar to wrap up the night.

On our last day in Barcelona, we did some things we'd already done, but better the second time around. We went to a place called Dulcinea for the best xocolata amb xurros (and melindros) that I can personally imagine. Then we walked around the cathedral and saw some people performing the rather low-key, somber National Dance of Catalonia, whose strictest rule seems to be that your face can betray no expression. Then we went to a bar for tasty, tasty pintxos and cava. Angie went home and Laura and I hit an expat bar for beer and cider, then I tried some lovely horchata.
Xocolat and Xurros Traditional dance of Catalonia Us eating pintxos
Then Angie joined us again and we hiked up to Parc Guell for a fantastic picnic of wine, bread, olive oil and cheese. Back at Angie's place, we discovered we had a 7-hour layover in London the next day and made plans to meet up with Eric! Then, for our last meal in Barcelona, we headed around the corner from Angie's place and had some tapas with an Indian twist (how many places in the world can you get patatas bravas and pakoras?).
Picnic, Park Guell Us in Park Guell Angie in Park Guell

Denouement

That's pretty much that. As planned, when we got to Heathrow we took the tube into the city and met up with Eric for lunch and a couple of pints at some decent pubs. It was good to see him, and too bad we didn't have more time to do stuff in London.
Eric Pint

Musings

We had a really great time. The sense of history in Barcelona is immense. I think I could really enjoy living in Barcelona, if I were as adventuresome as Angie and Eric and could think of something to do there for a year. Being able to speak Spanish helped a lot, I think -- the locals seem to have enough languages to learn already without wasting their time learning English.

The Catalan cuisine isn't really our speed, but the tapas (a relatively recent intrusion, just the last 7 years or so) definitely are. I like a culture that respects its chocolate so much. And its wine -- the cava in particular is something to experience. Shame about the beer.

No one wears hats. The exceptions to this rule, all seven of them, wear baseball caps.

Some tips for the Catalonia tourist: