Barcelona 2011

Stefanie Weisman
Barcelona journal

2/8/11:
We landed in Barcelona in the late morning and took the train to the Passeig de Gracia stop in the city. The airport’s very close to the city and the train fare was less than two euros. Overall the train system here is quite good, though it was a slow ride. Our hotel was about a 10 minute walk from the stop. It’s called the Europark hotel, though Rob kept calling it the Eurotrash hotel – just for fun, not because it was trashy or anything. It was actually an extremely nice hotel. The room was clean and comfortable, with everything done up in black and white. The bathroom had an extra large sink and a shower with good water pressure, which you almost never find in hotels. We had two balconies – one facing the street and one facing the courtyard. They had blown up old (18th century) texts in English and lined the courtyard and one wall of the bathroom with them, which was an interesting touch. I found out that the text in our bathroom was from the biography of the man who created a stocking loom. The people at the front desk were polite but not very friendly. I feel like that characterizes most people we met in Catalonia.

Rob and I took a nap for a few hours, then walked to the Sagrada Familia, which was a few long blocks away. We passed a lot of cute-looking bakeries on the way and got a black and white cookie in one of them. Barcelona is filled with bakeries and candy shops and small supermercats. It was dark by this time and La Sagrada Familia was lit up by spotlights. It was much more impressive than I thought it would be. There was a bronze figure sitting between the towers and I didn’t know if it was Christ or St. Peter. Later I found out it was Christ Ascending. There were huge cranes over the towers because they’ve been doing construction for over a century.

We started to walk towards Las Ramblas to find a restaurant for dinner, but Rob wanted to go to Barceloneta to get seafood. We took the metro and walked through the narrow streets of Barceloneta, some of which had no street lamps and were completely dark. We came across a square with a Renaissance style church and a few restaurants. We passed by the windows of one of the restaurants and saw some people eating a heaping plate of shellfish, and eventually decided to go in there. The restaurant was called Can Ganassa. There was a soccer game playing in the back room. It was a real hole-in-the-wall type place, but the food was very authentic and fresh. We ordered the same dish we had seen in the window, which was a mariscada for 2 people. It was amazing how many sea creatures were on the plate. There were calamari, prawns, razor clams, oysters, crayfish. They were grilled, I think.

Mariscada in Barcelona


I was a little overwhelmed, but I made a good meal of the prawns and some crayfish. Their meat was very nice and mild, not fishy at all. I had to take the heads and shells off the prawns. We finished everything. Rob told the waiter it was “Fantastico,” and the waiter corrected him and said, “Estupendo.” For dessert we had the Catalan version of crème brulee and a chocolate pudding. They were so-so. French crème brulee is much better. Later on I felt like the prawns were swimming in my stomach.

2/9/11
The next morning we set out for La Sagrada Familia. We got breakfast at one of the local bakeries: a (thin) Iberian ham sandwich, a black and white croissant, and some cream-filled doughnuts. La Sagrada Familia in the daylight really blew us away. I was impressed with Subirachs’ sculptures on the Passion façade, which is where you had to enter. They’re very stark and affective.

Pontius Pilate on facade of Sagrada Familia


The interior was even more amazing. I had never seen pictures of the interior (I think it was only finished in 2010), and it was like nothing I had ever seen before. It was a kaleidoscope of light, colors, and shapes. The vaulting and columns were completely original. There was a beautiful oculus/ skylight over the apse with a golden triangle that represented the Trinity. The columns had glass in their capitals. There were glass keystones in the vaults, too. The columns branched out like trees. Even the abstract stained glass was impressive.

Sagrada Familia vaulting


Sagrada Familia golden oculus


I don’t know why more modern architecture can’t be like this. Most modern buildings are so ugly and plain. It doesn’t have to be like that. It’s crazy to think that this church is only half complete; the main portal isn’t even open yet. On the other side of the church was the Nativity façade. This was mostly done in Gaudi’s lifetime and was in a completely different style – very ornate and flowery. It was just as impressive as the Passion façade, but in a different way. This side emphasized the youth of Christ and was covered in vegetal and animal decoration. The turtles and chameleons were especially eye-catching. I think it’s the most beautiful church I’ve ever seen. I wonder if this is partly because I didn’t know what to expect, and because it’s so unique. We also walked through a museum attached to the church.

We then walked over to Las Ramblas. Rob really didn’t like it here, because it’s so touristy and crowded. It’s full of memorabilia shops that all sell the same things and whose vendors are very aggressive. There was an outdoor shop selling chicks and rabbits, and we didn’t know if they were for pets or to eat. There were also a lot of human statues that were quite creative. There was one guy with two heads, two guys without heads, Charlie Chaplin and some other movie stars, a guy sitting on a toilet, and a guy in a golden suit that was made to look like it was blowing in the wind, with the guy in mid-stride. I took some pictures of him and gave him some money, and he did a little dance and ended by wiggling his fingers at me as he froze again. The architecture in Las Ramblas is beautiful, with a lot of upscale, ornate buildings and old churches.

We found the Mercat de la Boqueria, which has an impressive colonnade around it. It’s lively, but some of the things grossed me out – lambs’ and pigs’ heads, hooves, and tongues, dead pheasants and rabbits, etc. I wanted to try some tapas but the bars here were crowded and I couldn’t figure out how or what to order anyway. I tried to order a bomba (which seems to be a potato dish) at one of them, but he didn’t understand what I was saying, and when I pointed to the thing on the menu he said they were out. Rob got some brie cheese which he liked but which I thought was disgusting (but I never like brie). They had seafood, candy, chocolates, and fruit stands. We got a fruit salad from one. It was okay but not great.

We kept walking and along the way I saw a candy store selling life-size chocolate shoes. We found the Maritime Museum, but when we went to the ticket booth they said the museum was closed for the next two years. We walked into the entrance to the museum, which is in the medieval shipyard building (Drassanes). The building is an impressive example of medieval secular architecture, with great rounded arches. They had two exhibits there, but you had to pay to see them.

We walked down to the pier and I saw a green bird gathering nuts from a palm tree. I later found out that this was a monk parakeet, and that there are lots of them in Barcelona. They apparently are descended from some pets that escaped in the 1970s. I always pay attention to the bird life of a city, and this made me happy. We walked down to the Columbus Column, then around the marina, over a bridge, and around a shopping mall on the water.

After this we turned around and walked back through the old city. We passed some medieval walls that had been built on top of the Roman walls and saw the façade of the Gothic cathedral. Then we found what we had been looking for – the Museum of the City of Barcelona. We went underground on an elevator, which took us to the remains of the Roman city. This included a fortification wall and tower (composed of rubble, cement, and tablets and slabs that had been reused), a laundry, a dyeing facility (which included a vat that was stained blue from the indigo dye), a fish-sauce factory, a winery (with imbedded clay containers for the wine), an early Christian church, and a slightly later bishop’s residence that was built on top of a Roman house with a fine mosaic floor. On top of this was a royal palace for the count of Catalonia or something like that. We saw the medieval chapel, but the great hall was closed. The outer courtyard of the palace is very pretty, with a tall loggia structure full of rounded windows. Near this site is a building that contains the agreement between Columbus, Ferdinand and Isabella regarding what Columbus was entitled to, signed here before he discovered the Americas. We only saw a reproduction of this. They were playing the New World Symphony in the background.

After this we wandered around the Gothic Quarter for a bit. In a lot of the passageways, you could see the Roman brick with the medieval structures built over and around it. We made our way to Santa Maria del Mar, which is very dark and austere. It’s in the early Gothic style and contains a black Madonna. They played medieval choral music in the background, which adds a lot to the atmosphere. The altar contains a statue of the Madonna with a model of a ship at her feet. The church is beautiful and impressive, but is pretty much the opposite of La Sagrada Familia.

At this point it was night and all the attractions had closed, but we couldn’t have dinner because the restaurants don’t open until 9 pm. We went into a tapas bar and got potatos allioli and mushrooms with pork. I realized that I don’t like tapas. I thought allioli would be olive oil, but it was a thick sauce like mayonnaise. The things were okay for the first few bites, but after a while I got sick of them. We went back to the hotel and took a nap because we were exhausted. When we woke up we weren’t hungry because we had eaten the tapas and didn’t feel like going out so late at night, so we skipped dinner. Rob said that before coming to Spain he thought he was going to like eating a late dinner, but that he had changed his mind. I agree. It certainly doesn’t fit in with my schedule.

2/10/11
I got a chocolate-bread roll from a bakery for breakfast. I was also very dehydrated, since the water in Barcelona tastes disgusting and I hadn’t been drinking much, so I drank a lot of Rob’s orange juice. We took the metro to La Barceloneta, which used to be a slum but now is cleaned up and has a lot of character. Rob got some plain chicken, pasta and french fries from a fast food place. We walked down to the beach where there’s a nice promenade lined with palm trees. Everything in Barcelona is very clean. There’s almost no litter on the beaches, there’s very little graffiti, and we even saw a train station getting scrubbed clean. I walked down to the water while Rob ate his food. I was mainly looking for shells, but didn’t find anything interesting. The water was cold, and nobody was in the water except for some guy on what looked like a surfboard with a sail. I saw what I think is Gehry’s Golden Fish in the distance. It’s very pretty for a city beach. The weather throughout our trip was in the 50s and sunny – perfect walking weather.

After this we walked up to the Catalonian History museum, which is in Barceloneta. It’s a very well done museum, with interesting interactive and multimedia exhibits and artistic dioramas. The lower level of the museum, which focuses on pre-modern history, was interesting, but we kind of lost interest when we hit the modern section. There were lots of school groups in the museum and they got to try on costumes for each period of history. The museum has recreations of a full-size Roman boat, a medieval farm, a medieval tower and chapel, a Roman room, paper-mache people from different periods, medieval weapons and knight’s armor, a horse you can sit on, rooms from different decades in the 20th century, a reconstructed air raid shelter from the Spanish Civil War, dioramas showing rebellions and protests, etc. I was struck by the fact that in the late Middle Ages, after the Black Death hit, the population of Catalonia was only about 200,000.

We then walked up to the Palace of Catalan Music. The outside is very pretty and full of mosaic work, though it’s a little hard to see from the narrow street. I was upset that all their English tours for the day were sold out, but I decided to take a Castilian Spanish tour so I could see the interior. While we waited for the tour, Rob got a cornetta (sp?) from a bakery, which he loved. It’s like chocolate-covered vanilla ice cream in a cone, but it’s not cold like ice cream, just rich and creamy. Then we went on the tour. I could understand most of what the tour guide said. The main hall was beautiful, though not as impressive as La Sagrada Familia. I was a bit surprised that people had rated this as the number one Barcelona attraction on Tripadvisor. The hall has a lovely stained glass ceiling in the shape of an inverted cupola, statues representing Catalan music and Beethoven and Wagner coming out of the proscenium, and statues of women playing different instruments coming out of the stage. There was more mosaic work on the columns. The tour guide pressed a button and the organ played for about a minute. She said that the acoustics were so good that every seat in the house can hear the music equally well.

We then took the metro to Park Guell, though we got off at a stop that was pretty far and had to walk a long way uphill. This part of the city is much more modest and plain than the center of Barcelona. There were a lot of cacti and yucca plants near the park. When we got to the park, Rob went into a space-age WC with doors that whooshed open when you inserted some coins. I really enjoyed the park. There were flocks of the green monk parakeets all around, and I kept seeing little birds that may have been hummingbirds. I also saw what I think is a magpie. And of course pigeons and seagulls, but I don’t care about them. We walked up to the top of the mountain, where we could see La Sagrada Familia and the Torre Agbar, though it was kind of hazy. Gaudi’s cavernous stonework was everywhere; Rob said it reminded him of The Flintstones. We kept crossing paths with a group of nuns in blue habits who were sucking lollipops. We walked back down the path and saw Gaudi’s little pink house, which had cute mosaic towers/ chimneys and garden walls covered in more mosaics. Throughout my trip I had wanted to buy some mosaic work as a souvenir, but all I could find were cheap reproductions.

We walked down the path to Gaudi’s hypostyle hall, where a duo (cello and violin?) were playing classical music. There were some people selling crafts on blankets on the ground, and I bought two glass necklaces (they were 2 for five euros), one of which is shaped like a fish. I’m pretty sure they weren’t made in Spain, though — probably China. Then we walked up the stairs to the main plaza, with a serpentine bench covered in mosaics. It was very pretty and colorful, with a great view of the city and the gingerbread-like houses at the entrance to the park. We saw a workman breaking up whole ceramic tiles to resurface a part of the bench.

Me in Park Guell


Then we walked down to the lowest part of the park, which has the famous Gaudi mosaic sculptures of lizards/ dragons. There was another duo there playing some interesting music. One of them played the violin and the other was playing an instrument called a hang, which consists of two metal plates with indentations for different pitches, and which looks like a UFO. It has a very bright metallic sound. I got his card – he’s British and his name is Daniel Waples. The instrument is produced in Switzerland. I was having a nice time, though Rob was getting bored. After this we left the park and sat on a bench to try to find a place to have dinner. As before, all the attractions were closing, but we still had a few hours to kill before we could have a real dinner. We walked south from Park Guell with no particular destination. Rob liked it because he felt this was the “real” Barcelona. In one plaza there were some children watching a marionette show where the marionettes were playing a punk rock concert. There were several groups playing soccer in the streets. We came upon a nice-looking tapas bar/ restaurant that had apparently been there since the 19th century. We went in and asked for hot chocolate, but they were out. We got snails, “filled” (rellenos) eggs, and a plate with assorted tapas. We didn’t know until they brought them out that the eggs were filled with tuna. I was so sick of seafood. The snails are so-so, but I can’t keep eating them. The assorted tapas were more seafood, olives, pickled stuff, potatoes – nothing I like. Plus they sit around all day. I don’t see why people like tapas so much.

After this we walked down the Diagonal Avenue (in the Eixample) and passed Casa Mila (La Pedrera), and some other interesting buildings. We went back to our hotel because we still had some time to kill. After a while we found a restaurant near the hotel called Rene that looked inviting. This restaurant was more gourmet than the others and was a fusion of Catalan and international food. We got three half-portion (racion) dishes: a dish with mushrooms and Catalan sausage, pasta with foie gras filling, and Beef Wellington. Unfortunately, when I ordered the mushroom/sausage dish I didn’t say the whole thing and I think the waiter thought I meant that I didn’t want the sausage. So I never got to try Catalan sausage. The dish had a fried egg on top of the mushrooms instead, which was pretty good. The Beef Wellington was especially good.

2/11/11
For breakfast we stopped in a bar/ diner on the corner next to our hotel. I got scrambled eggs, toast and orange juice, but the scrambled eggs were horribly salty. The food was expensive, too. Rob and I were sick of Spanish food at this point. Then we walked to Casa Batllo. It has a very high entrance fee (I think 14 euros for students?), but it was probably my second favorite thing in Barcelona after La Sagrada Familia. I love all the curved lines and glass and mosaics and swirling ceilings. There’s so much attention to detail. Again, I don’t know why more modern architecture can’t be like this. I wouldn’t hate modern art so much if it were actually aesthetically pleasing and took some talent, like Gaudi’s work. Inside the building is a tiled shaftway with a skylight that helps with ventilation. There was also a room with chairs designed by Gaudi. In the upstairs rooms, used by the servants, the arches look like whale ribs. The roof was magnificent, with mosaic chimneys, the roof with dragon or fish scales, etc. Again, I had never seen anything like it. His work is so unique.

Exterior of Casa Batllo


After this we took the train to Girona, which is about an hour and a half away. We were sitting next to a group of noisy American college students who kept saying “dude” and talked about their frats, surfing, buying shoes, etc. When the ticket agent came by, they didn’t have the right tickets, and one of the guys had to ask the others where he was going (Figueres). When Rob and I got off the train at Girona, I said to him something like, “I’m so glad we’re finally away from those stupid Americans,” and two guys (I’m pretty sure they were Spaniards) gave me a funny look.

It took about 15 minutes to walk to the old city. We stopped at a tourist information office to get a map and directions. I was amazed at how medieval everything looked. I think Girona is the largest intact medieval city I’ve ever seen. Rob and I agreed that the tour guide books don’t do it justice. We walked over the bridges and saw all the orange and yellow houses facing the river (which was a pretty pathetic river).

Girona

The side facing away from the river looks much more medieval (no paint). We passed a lot of medieval churches and towers. Coming up to Girona Cathedral was amazing, because you enter the plaza from a very narrow Roman/ medieval alleyway, and all of a sudden you see this enormous white square building with a Baroque façade up a long flight of stairs. There was originally a set of Roman stairs leading up to a temple in the same location. The cathedral was completed in 1733, but much of it is medieval. We went in and took the audioguide tour. The inside is amazing too. It’s one of the highest churches I’ve ever been in. It also has the widest nave of any cathedral in Europe. We later found out that the vaults had been built over the roof of the earlier church, which was then dismantled. It has an ancient altarpiece and bishop’s throne attributed to Charlemagne. We then walked through the cloister, with ornate capitals and a floor that’s covered in tombs. We also went into the Treasury, which has the famous Beatus manuscript and the one-of-a-kind Creation tapestry.

After this we walked around the Roman/ medieval walls, which provide amazing views. All the streets around here are narrow, winding and steep. We found the Arab Baths, which are actually Romanesque Christian baths and very unique, but unfortunately they had already closed for the day. They have a lot of nice shops in Girona – much nicer than in Barcelona. I got a hand-made bowl with a flower decoration and a magnet with a Jewish star. When I went to the lady to pay, she called me “La Morena” – the dark-haired one. I liked that. But then, most people in Spain are morenos, so I don’t know why she singled me out. I’m sure that when most people saw me, they assumed I was Spanish. Next we went to the Jewish Museum in the Call, or Jewish ghetto. The building used to be a synagogue. The museum didn’t have too many original artifacts. Most of the things were reproductions, except for the massive tombstones from the Jewish cemetery. There was also a medieval mikvah in the upstairs level and a Jewish star in the tiles of the courtyard. Girona was a center of Kabalah in the Middle Ages. We stayed until the museum closed. Rob said if he had known how interesting Girona was, he would have tried to get there earlier. Oh, and for some reason, the “youths” of Girona made us feel uncomfortable. They kept giving us odd looks.

Then we went to the Museum of the History of Girona, which was closed in the middle of the day but which reopened in the evening. This museum was pretty interesting. It had a lot more authentic artifacts than the Jewish Museum. It used to be a monastery, and in the bottom level was a room with a lot of niches where they used to put dead monks to dry out their bodies (they would sit on top of drains), and when they were desiccated they would put the bodies out on display. It was pretty creepy. They also had part of a Romanesque cloister and, most importantly, a Roman mosaic showing a chariot race in the Circus Maximus, with a Catalonian man who was the victor of the races. As usual, we became less interested as we got to more modern history. Apparently Girona became a center for paper manufacturing. From the top of the museum, we had a wonderful view of the cathedral at night.

As usual, we had a problem finding dinner. We couldn’t stay till 9 pm because we wouldn’t finish in time to make the last train to Barcelona. We wandered around for a while, but there were only tapas bars and restaurants selling pizza and hamburgers. We went to the only restaurant that was serving Spanish food at that time, which we could tell was a real tourist trap. But it was only twelve euros for a three course meal. For the first course, Rob got snails (again!) and I got a tortilla, which is a Spanish omelette (eggs and potatoes). They were okay. It also came with cheap wine. For the main course, Rob got rabbit and I got Valencian paella, which is paella with pork and seafood. Rob’s rabbit was cold (it tasted like chicken), and all the rice in my paella had a fishy taste, so I didn’t like it. The pork was bony and unappetizing. We got ice cream for dessert and they gave it to us in little cardboard cups, like you would get in a supermarket! It was pretty bad.

When we got back to Barcelona, we stopped in a supermercat and got some food for tomorrow. We had to get the little chocolate-covered biscuits called Filipinos, because of the name. I later found out that some Filipinos had filed a protest over this name, which they thought was derogatory. The biscuits were tasty, though.

2/12/11
We actually got to the airport with some time to spare, because the trains were so efficient. Slept a lot on the flight and got back to Newark without incident. Overall I really liked Barcelona, and Rob liked it more than he thought he would, but I think it would be pretty boring without Gaudi. He really makes the city. My only complaints are the food and the fact that they speak Catalan and not Castilian Spanish.

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