Catalan Calling..

30 Jun

For me, it’s always important to get my bearings in a new city – not just my north, south coordinates – but also the general layout of the land, so to speak. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get the hang of this half way in to you’re trip. At most other times, it happens when it’s time to pack your bag and head back! You then end up spending a good part of your return journey, and some of your first few days home, mulling over maps and having several ‘aha’ moments! Well, at least I do!

So, in Barcelona, I was rather pleased at our decision to make it up to Tibidabo at the end of Day 1. Sitting just shy of 1700 ft above sea level, Tibidabo is the tallest mountain in Serra de Collserola, the range that forms the city’s natural northern boundary, and expectedly so, offers the best views of the same. Once there, you have plenty of time to discern the geographical make up of the city, while savouring a chilled Estrella Damm!

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About a half-mile down along Av. del Tibidabo is Frare Blanc, an imposing structure by architect Joan Rubio which is today El Asador de Aranda, a Castilian restaurant which serves some succulent Lamb Chops (amongst other things) in an amazing setting!

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Barcelona is dotted with several small hills, most of them to the north of the city – like Tibidabo – and some, like Montjuic, to the southwest – such that you’re never in short supply of good vistas! The city’s skyline, however, is nothing to boast of and has little to offer by way of observation decks. Probably the best of them all is the one inside Gaudi‘s most celebrated, and yet incomplete work, Sagrada Familia!

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Although unlikely to be completed till 2026, Sagrada Familia is possibly the best example of the Modernisme (Catalan Modernism) period and Barcelona happens to the place where the movement was born! Gaudi, Montaner, Cadafalch, Rubio and Sagnier – all products of this movement and some of the men responsible for putting Catalonian architecture on the European map!

A lot of their refreshingly bold work can be admired in a short half-mile stretch along Passeig de Gracia, which soon became my favourite thoroughfare in the city!

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Las Ramblas, on the other hand, was my least favourite! Not just because it was full of over sized and loud tourists from across the Atlantic, but because the tourism trade there has been almost entirely taken over by Pakistanis! Now, for the record, I have absolutely nothing against them per se, but unfortunately, on the Ramblas, they’re represented by the worst of their lot – uncouth, in-your-face young men, with a foul mouth spitting out the worst expletives ever!

Walk west into El Raval and it only gets worse – even the tourists disappear at that point! If you’ve ever wondered what a dodgy neighbourhood looks like in a European downtown, this is it!

Walk east instead, and you will be rewarded by the old town’s (Ciutat Vella) Gothic Quarter or Barri Gòtic – a labyrinth of quaint alleyways, which, after a few hundred feet of walking, invariably open up to a welcoming little Plaça, complete with Tapas bars and Cafes – Europe at its best!

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But Barca isn’t only about its Tapas – seafood figures equally on the culinary scale here and if you don’t mind stretching your wallet just a bit, Barceloneta is the place to go! Try anything you like but don’t miss their salted, smoked Cod – it’s the one to get!

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The restaurant is humongous but their open air section overlooking the marina at Port Vell has limited seating, so if you fancy your meal with a view, head to any of the seafood eateries on one of the city’s four beaches. The further east you go, the less crowded they get! Platja del Bogatell is one such, where we found Escriba, a seafood restaurant with guaranteed views.

If it’s your first time on the beaches of Spain, as it was mine, you could be in for a little – or big as the case may be – surprise! Prudes beware for this is nudist territory, out-and-out! Thankfully, Bogatell beach has less of the male variety of nudist, so it’s really not that bad 😉 And at the end of the day, people watching is fun, especially when no one seems to mind!

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Across the big pond, in Miami, posers tan by day and party hard by night. It’s much the same in Barcelona, except the Catalonians don’t do it to be seen; it’s simply their way of life! To see just how Barca puts every other city on this planet to shame when it comes to partying after hours, a trip to Port Olimpic is in order, preferably around 4 am!

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Eating, drinking and partying don’t necessarily cost you an arm and a leg in Barcelona. Am not sure if it had anything to do with the much-devalued Euro at the time of my visit, but I certainly found the city to be a lot more affordable than others I’ve been to, or heard about in Europe! Taxis, for example, are surprisingly inexpensive, even when compared to NYC!

The only thing I found to be rather steep were admissions to any of the attractions! A ride on the Port Vell Aerial Tramway costs over 12 Euros, the cable car on Montjuic is completely overpriced, the admission to Sagrada Familia is steep to begin with and then you pay them a couple more Euros just to go up the elevator – a little absurd, if you ask me!

Some words of advice – unless you’re a die-hard FCB fan, a tour of Camp Nou is really not worth it – its self-guided but not particularly self-explanatory! On the upside, entry to the Picasso Museum is free after 3 pm on Sundays!

And while you do have to shell out Euros to visit most of Gaudi‘s works, luckily, Parc Güell is free! Purpose built in the early 20th century to cater to the upper echelons of society, the park today is freely accessible to both tourists and locals alike!

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Talking of which, the locals in Barca aren’t quite as friendly and warm as one would expect from the Spanish – and certainly less so than some of the countries they colonised – read most of South America! To be fair though, that could be akin to what one hears of the States – that Americans are a friendly lot – and then you arrive in the Big Apple and are taken by complete surprise!

That said, it would be wise to expect a culture different from what you may have seen of or heard about Spain. Catalonians (Barca is a part of the region of Catalan) not only speak a different language but also consider themselves vastly different from the rest of Spain! And despite boasting the most diverse population in the country, and being one of the most visited cities in Europe, Barca is surprisingly not very tourist friendly! In Barcelona, bilingual at most times implies Catalan and Spanish! The Picasso Museum is a prime example of this, where exhibits appear to be captioned at the linguistic whims of the curator! So if you think knowing Spanish is going to win you any favours, think again! It’ll probably only get you past the nearest Salida – sorry, Sortida 😉

What’s most important, however, is to enjoy Barca for what it is and enjoy it the way the Catalonians do – through good food, many a drink and great company! In a city where late lunches seamlessly blend into endless dinners, our last meal together was no different.  Los Caracoles in Ciutat Vella was the chosen venue, and much like our group, wasn’t in any way short on charm or character!

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For a city that blends the grace of Paris with the rustic, and the fun factor of Amsterdam with the ocean – all of that for less (Euros!), and with mild winters to boot – its easy to see just why Barcelona is such a hit with the rest of the world!

A full set of Barca pics can be seen here.

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