A Weekend in Barcelona

I spent a weekend in Barcelona recovering from overeating in San Sebastian by… eating yet more tapas!

My flight was delayed so I got to Barcelona later than anticipated, and the airport is insanely laid out so it took me forever to find my bag. I managed to find the airport bus and paid €5.90 to get into the city centre. Then I caught the metro from Plaza de Espanya to Diagonal station.

A couple of quick tips about the Barcelona metro. Firstly, unless you know you won’t use it, pay €10.20 at one of the machines for a 10-ride ticket. Secondly, brace yourself for the steps, there are so very many steps. Thirdly, and related to the second point – wear layers; you will be roasting alive after a few seconds underground so you’ll need to be able to strip off!

I arrived late and with a horrible cold but I managed to get to the Generator Hostel in the Gracia district by about 10pm. There are lots of nice restaurants in the area but they were all really busy. I found a nice Japanese place and ordered duck gyoza, beef ramen and a beer then I went to a 24-hour pharmacy for some drugs and went to relax.

Barcelona Walking Tour

This is the worst start to a walking tour as the meeting place wasn’t the place that was where the tour actually starts. My 1:30pm actually starts at 2pm so I spent the first ten minutes marching through the city behind a tiny Spanish woman with an umbrella. Not sure why the start point wasn’t advertised as Plaza de l’Ángel, because that’s where I had to wait for another 15 minutes.

My Sandemans Walking Tour guide for today is Erik from Minnesota. He has lived in Barcelona for 10 years since he followed love here from the States.

The tour starts in the El Gothico, the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona, in the Square of the King – the place where the King of Aragon stayed when he visited this port city in his kingdom.

The palace in Barcelona is the place where, in 1493, Christopher Columbus docked after discovering the New World. This is where the first pineapple, potatoes and turkeys were eaten in Europe. Where the first tobacco was smoked, and also where the first syphilis was transmitted (possibly between Christopher himself and Queen Isabella as they both died from complication related to syphilis…)

History of Catalonia (in brief…)

Catalonia’s history is absolutely fascinating. It’s been caught in the middle of countless wars and has almost gained independence so many times. It came so close so many times but the independence movement has always been quashed by the new rulers.

Erik took us back in time for a brief overview of the region from the earliest recorded mention of a settlement at Barcelona. In 300 BC the Litani tribe lived here and called the place Barceno. The Romans took the city in 14AD. A wall was built to keep out the invaders from the North. Some of this wall still survives but not much. Eventually the Visigoths ruled most of the Iberian peninsula for about 300 years until the Moors (Saracens) took the region in 711AD. The Saracens pushed too far north east into the Francs territory and then the Francs pushed the Saracens out of France (under Charlemagne) and all the way past the mountains and Catalonia was formed as a buffer zone.

Wilfred the Hairy united lots of regions in the latter part of the 9th century and was responsible for initiating the repopulation of the buffer zone (Catalonia) between the Christians and the Muslims. It’s his golden shield (streaked with blood) that gives Catalonia it’s flag.

Catalonia was it’s own area and then it merged with Aragon province and became the Crown of Aragon. In the 1400s King Martin died in such a bizarre way. He decided to eat whole goose by himself and then tried to have a siesta. He couldn’t sleep so he called in the court jester and he apparently died of a combo of indigestion and laughter!

The 1500s was the European age of discovery. Mixture of taking boats and guns to colonize the planet and fighting war after war in Europe.

In 1700, the death of childless Charles II (unable to have children due to generations of incest!!) led to 14 years of the Spanish War of Royal Succession.

It was the French king’s grandson who was going to be crowned king of Spain and became Felipe V. Some people, including the Catalans, believed the union of Spain and France would be terrible, so they found a contender for the throne, an archduke in Austria, Charles III. Catalan invited the Austrian into Barcelona and there was a huge amount of fighting. The thirteen years of war ended in an agreement that Spain and France wouldn’t unite. This was ok for everyone except Catalonia who ended up being traded rather than set free. The 5,000 forces of Catalonia fired on a besieging army of 40,000 from 1700-1714. The 11th September 1714 was the day the rebellion was quashed and Catalonia ceased to exist. It was forbidden to write or speak in Catalan until 1976; it was an imprisonable offence to teach or speak. The current King of Spain is the same bloodline as the Philip that destroyed Catalonia. That is another sore point here.

Catalan Government and Independence Movement

The 7.5 million Catalans have a president in the presidential palace. Outside the palace there are three flags flying; Catalan, Spain and Barcelona. The Barcelona flag is crazy – it’s a mix of the Catalan flag with two St George’s crosses. St George is the patron saint of Barcelona and that’s why there are dragons all over the city!

Catalonian Independence Flag

In Barcelona you also frequently see a similar flag to the Catalan flag, but with a blue triangle and white star. This is the Catalan Independence Flag; modelled after the Cuban, Puerto Rican and Philippines flags. Some of the people here believe that they are under Spanish occupation and want freedom. There are also banners flying which call for the release of political prisoner – since the vote last year there have been politicians in prison and exiled under charges of sedition, embezzlement, inappropriate spending of public funds and fraud for an “illegal vote” in which the people of Catalonia voted for independence from Spain.

Opinions were so closely divided over Catalonia remaining with Spain that it was essential for Spain that no referendum took place.

Two weeks before the vote on 1 October 2014 (known as 1-O in Spanish media), everything was ready to go. Spain rolled in with 11,000 troops and confiscated all the voting materials and ballots. The voting material was prepared again but only 43.03% of the population voted. Over 92% of those voted for independence. There was a childish fight: after the referendum, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont stood up to declare independence, but about half an hour later Spain dissolved all independence of the region and the Catalonian president had to leave, he is still in exile. The Spanish government said Catalonia could have a revote for their parliamentary representatives and the parliament went from 65:70 pro-independence to 67:66.

The Born District

The Born district was always a wealthy merchant neighborhood. The crowning feature is the Iglesia Santa Maria del Mar, the building of which began in 1329. When it was built, the church was right by the sea but there was so much land reclamation that now it’s four blocks away. Initially workers were paid for their efforts but in 1348AD, the Black Death hit and led to the builders doing the work for free to get the work finished so god would protect their community. During the black Death the population in Barcelona dropped from 50,000 to 30,000. Entry to the Iglesia Santa Maria del Mar is free after 5pm.

I visited the church during the free hours and I didn’t spend very long there so I was glad not to have paid for entry.

The word “Born” in Catalan means “lance” and this place was famous for jousting in the 1200s-1400s. The oval raised area in the street used to be the jousting arena and the lampposts at either end would have been the starting blocks!

The lance outside Born Market

The red pole to the left of the market entrance is a giant lance.

Birth of Modern Barcelona

Barcelona won the bid in 1982 to host the 1990 Olympics. At that point the city was totally totally renovated. The authorities created 9 artifical beaches in the mid 1980s and Barcelona came from nowhere to become the fourth most visited city in Europe, after
London, Paris and Rome.

Barcelona Cathedral is a stunning neo-Gothic building from the front, and a classic gothic from the side. Open 8am-8pm. The free hours are from 8-12.30 and after that entry costs €7.

Barcelona Tapas Tour

I hopped on the metro back to the hostel for a quick turnaround and then went back to Plaza de l’Ángel to begin my Catalan tapas experience. I paid €20 for the tour which included 6 tapas and 4 drinks and I also got to meet some great people and get a tour of the Barceloneta district by the harbour.

Adrian from Venezuela led the tapas tour and he began with the legend behind the tapas…

In the 13th century there was a famine in Spain and an enterprising population that could not afford to eat realised that alcohol was a cheaper lunch option. The king decreed that to buy alcohol you also had to buy small amounts of food so that the people wouldn’t get too drunk, that’s how the bite-sized snacks were born. The name tapas was coined by the King when we was served his wine with a “lid” of ham, because “tapa” is lid in Spanish.

Pintxos in Barcelona

We started our foodie experience at a Basque Pintxos bar called Txirimiri which was nice. Nowhere near the pizzazz of San Sebastian but still nice. I had red wine and a couple of Pintxos. Then we all walked to El Nou Ramones where we tried tapas called Las Bombas, honouring George Orwell’s involvement in the Anarchist Movement in Barcelona and the book he wrote about the Civil War. La Bomba was one of my favourite tapas – a crispy coated ball of potato filled with bacon and served with a spicy mayonnaise.

Tasty tapas in Barceloneta

Segons Mercat was where we had most of our food; we were given some ciabattas, croquettes and patatas bravas.

Gaudí and the Barcelona Architectural Masters Tour

My Gaudí architecture guide is Leon. There are only five of us in the group and we have agreed to try and keep up with Leon during his passionate tour of the city while he tries to fit in Gaudí and just about every other modernist architect in the city.

Modernism was originally a satire form in theatre and literature. Modernisme is a bit different – that’s the architecture we are interested in.

The events which led to modernisme stretch back to when the Catalans backed the Austrians instead of the French claim to the throne, they were crushed for it. Seven fortresses were created with the cannons facing inward to stop the Catalans getting out.

When the walls came down the Catalans realised that they were crazy rich and they could design their new city. At the same time there was a cholera epidemic and the middle classes ran like wildfire from the epidemic.

Side view of Barcelona Music Palace
Music Palace

Music led modernisme and the newly designed Music Palace was where they brought back the Catalan language after it was banned for so long. The movement only lasted about 30 years and the first man just designed the building and brought in fine art designers for the detail.

Modernist facade of Barcelona Music Palace
Modernist facade of the Music Palace

The key beliefs and features of the modernisme artists were these – Architecture are art should celebrate industry and wealth, rebirth (nature), and your glory days. They were all staunch nationalists and hopeless romantics. Dynamic art. In Barcelona the modernist buildings all featured flowers and they are all either roses for St George or mulberries – the area had been completely covered in mulberry trees.

Gaudí was born the year before the medieval walls came down. He was a rubbish student. He wanted to be a draughtsman not an architect. He suffered from a rare form of arthritis that affected his life badly from his mid twenties. Because he was such a terrible student, his first design task was a lamp post. Then a bench. Then a fountain. Then his projects escalated in size from there; he designed Palau Guell, Park Guell and the Battlo (which is one of the most bizarre looking buildings in Barcelona).

I found a great article about Gaudí here.

Leon took us to the Block of Discord; a row of houses that just do not belong in the same town let alone a stones throw apart. This block is an example of where the families were trying to out-do each other. Each family would hire a competing architect and the designs just became more and more ridiculous.

Gaudí was commissioned to create the facade of House Battló and whilst it is pretty special and certainly intriguing, nobody actually knows what it is. It could either be a great carneval or it could be a portrayal of the story of St George. If we go with the St George theory then the roof is the dragon, the tower is the lance, the balconies are the skulls of the dragon’s victims and the pillars are the bones. Or the carnival theory gives the roof to be the hat of a jester and the balconies are masks. I don’t know which I prefer but the building is bonkers. I would love to call a place like that home. Gaudí was a joker or a d*ckhead; he never did exactly what he was asked, also in the house Battló, the woman of the house wanted a piano room for her daughter; Gaudí thought this was too decadent and he outright refused. She threatened to pull his contract so he conceded. He built a room for a piano alright… You can’t even fit a person in there with the piano. On the wall he hung a violin with a note “hope your daughter enjoys learning the violin.”

Casa Battló by Gaudí

The Sagrada Familia is Gaudí’s most famous project. Emerging from the metro to face this incredible structure with your own eyes is something you’ve got to do.

Here is the official website with lots of interesting information on the construction project.

The Sagrada Familia is one of the few things I’ve ever seen that even my eyes can’t do justice. A photo stands less than zero chance but I’ve included a few!

Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

The architecture of the building is fascinating; none of the Sagrada Familia’s pillars are straight, they are shaped like tree trunks. They are Gaudís attempt to integrate the golden ratio with god’s materials – he uses a different stone for each internal pillar according to the required strength rather than aesthetic.

Nativity Facade of the Sagrada Familia

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Credit to Kirsty Daniel for the interior photographs.

Gaudís death is super sad, in 1918 he lost pretty much everyone he ever loved to tuberculosis in the space of 6 months. He turned to some of his wealthy clients for help and at that point he learned that his clients were involved at the heart of the child sex trade in the city and that most of Gaudí’s wealth was tainted with blood. This broke the religious Gaudí and he poured the rest of his money into the Sagrada familia, which was just supposed to be a church in a neighborhood that lacked one rather than this incredible inspired masterpiece. He lived in the crypt practically on hunger strike for the last 7 years of his life and died a pauper.

The Sagrada Familia is nowhere near finished despite being under construction for nearly 140 years! The first stone was laid in 1882 and every time the team estimate the completion date it seems to slip by years. The current structural completion date is set to be 2026, with decorations due to be completed by 2032 but this is pretty unlikely. The 2026 aspirational completion date is driven by people wanting to complete the major building work for the 100th anniversary of Gaudí’s death! Which is sweet, however, there is just so much left to do; there is a road which needs to be moved and buildings which need to be demolished as the church expands to reach its full floorplan.

When it is completed it will be a cruciform church with 18 towers: 12 apostle towers, 4 evangelist towers (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) the Mary Tower and the Jesus Tower. When the church is completed it will be 172.5m tall, which is a few metres shorter than Montjuïc, the highest point around the city (Gaudí was not competing with God’s glory).

There is only one sculptor working pretty much every hour of the day on this project, a Japanese man called Etsuro Sotoo, so it’s not surprising that this project is going to take such a very long time!

I’ll definitely be back one day to check out the progress of this incredible work of art.

More Tapas

Colourful street in Barceloneta
Colourful street in Barceloneta

My tapas marathon part 2 began in Barceloneta at El Pintxo where there is a pretty decent selection along the bar for €1.95.

I kicked off with crabmeat and ham combo with a bit of caviar and a goats cheese with marmalade and walnut. Including a nice big glass of tinto de verano my bill came to €7.35.

Tinto de Verano and tapas in Barceloneta

Then I returned to El Nou Ramonet which served the “Bombas” last night. It seems a bit fancier now I’m here alone with the place to myself. For some reason they haven’t come back to take my order for a while…

So I ordered another Bomba and this time it was served in an awesome little jar with even more of the spicy sauce – delicioso. I had an enormous bowl of tinto de verano also and am now tipsy.

Tapas in Barcelona

I googled the best tapas in Barcelona (better late than never…) and now I am at Jai Ca. The food is a bit too expensive for me to be honest as I only want a taste but I’m going to get one of their famous seafood dishes. I do love calamari and I’ve ordered a half portion of it with another glass of wine. The squid was great. Certainly not the best I have ever had but absolutely great still and the wine was nice too, and in total it set me back €7.40.

Tapas in Barceloneta

As I was considering wandering towards the Arco de Trionfo I remembered that there was a rooftop bar near the marina so I tracked it down. You really do have to walk in through the entrance to the National History Museum of Catalonia to get to this fourth floor bar overlooking the marina and the city. It’s beautiful!! What a view. There’s even an area without tables so you don’t have to order a drink to enjoy the view.

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I wandered back through the Gracia area for the end of the festival and then went back to my hostel.

On my last day in Barca I headed on foot, via a cafe to Park Guell, up a nice big hill. Already roasting at 10am but it will only get hotter today. The park is really cool with spectacular views over the city, especially from the hill with three crosses.

I spent about an hour and a half walking around then I caught the 92 bus to the Alfonso X metro station and emerged in the city centre ready to track down Satan’s Coffee Corner. The place is really cool and it certainly knows what it wants.

Rules for Satan's Coffee Corner

You get a slip to fill in with your order and I chose ice cold apple juice and an americano.

I walked back to the hostel, collected my bags and then took the metro/bus to the airport for my flight back to Estonia.

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