A Weekend in Barcelona

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30 November 2001

You should have seen the look on my wife's face when she realised where we were going.

It was her birthday, the 10th anniversary of the beginning of our relationship, the 5th anniversary of our engagement, and I had been planning this for weeks. All I had told her was that I was bringing her somewhere, and not to make any plans. I kept the pretence going all morning that day, even during our first connecting flight to Dublin. It wasn't until the departures area in Dublin
Airport that I finally had to reveal all. That characteristic big grin appeared over her face signifying complete approval!

We arrived in Barcelona El Prat Airport towards sunset that afternoon. It was a short walk to the train station and when
we arrived, a train was waiting and ready to leave. One of the things you learn about Barcelona's trains is their punctuality. They arrive and depart on time, always, no matter what. We got an early lesson about this as the train doors nearly took my wife's leg off when she was trying to get in. Bruised but undeterred, and thankful we didn't
have to make our first journey in Spain wedged in a doorway, legs flailing in the wind, we decided, wisely, to wait for the
next train.

The journey from the airport to Sants station in Barcelona must be one of the dreariest in Europe. The train takes you past miles of disused warehouses and high-rise high-density apartments with generous amounts of spray-painted walls and fences thrown in for good measure. Considering what is said and written about Barcelona, this was a surprise to me, but it only serves to drive home the message that often where there is wealth, there is also plenty of poverty.

After arriving in our hotel on Plaza Espanya I realised that I had made my biggest mistake of the weekend. Although I had brought a camcorder, I had neglected to bring a battery for it, and I ended up going on a wild-goose chase around the city over the next two days trying, vainly, to rectify the problem. Even though I bought a replacement battery, it was uncharged and nobody would charge it for me. We ended up buying a disposable camera instead!

Plaza Espanya is an enormous roundabout intersection just at the bottom of Montjuic, the famous hill overlooking the city, and site of the 1992 Olympic Games. Two huge portals, similar to St. Mark's Tower in Venice, guard the avenue leading up to the impressive Palau Nacional, and the bullfighting arena, the Placa de Toros, looms out over another corner of the intersection. It is a 10 minute train journey from there into the centre of the city.

On our first night there, we caught a metro to Plaza Catalunya, the centre point of the city. From there, we fought our way through the crowds in the main shopping area and we accidentally discovered the Eglesia Del Pi area that night, a
charming oasis in the middle of the bustling crowds. We continued on to Portaferrisa until we arrived at La Rambla, and we sat down a short time later for a very nice meal in the Fonda restaurant on R. des Escudellers. Not to let the night die too
early, we walked back to our hotel, stopping off for a quick beer in one of the many tavernas on the way.

1 December 2001

As I have said, Barcelona is a city of contrasts. Its old town, the gothic quarter, is a maze of tiny streets and alleyways, arranged in an almost chaotic manner. However the Eixample district, starting north of Plaza Catalunya and stretching in all directions from there, is a model of grandeur and regularity, similar to Paris or Washington with its grid layout, perfectly symmetric blocks, and grand diagonal boulevards.

On our second day (after a further attempt to rectify the camcorder hiccup) we began our journey in the old part of the city, the Ciutat Vella. We got lost in the tiny streets (avoiding the occasional pickpocket) until, quite unexpectedly, we came across an old cloister containing a beautiful pool and mossy fountains. White ducks with nut-sized bumps on their head swam and socialised as tourists swarmed around them, taking photographs. An even greater surprise was awaiting us when we went through an adjacent door and accidentally stumbled into the Cathedral of Barcelona... a magnificent gothic cathedral, and one to rival the greatest in Europe.

After the Cathedral, (and a brief but fruitless shopping expedition) we ended up in Café Zurich on Plaza Catalunya, where we were entertained by a street comedian who made fun of passers-by at their expense, often without them even noticing. To me, this is the essence of a city-break... the ability to have a laugh, drink beer and eat a sandwich at midday while watching the world go by.

The walk down La Rambla brought us first of all to La Boqueria, the open market selling all sorts of fish, meats, flowers and cheese, to mention a few. It reminded me a lot of a similar market in Cork, only much bigger. We continued on, past the
bird stalls and flower stalls to the lofty Monument to Columbus, covered ironically, in pigeon droppings from head to toe. (The name 'Columbus' translates to 'Dove' in Latin). From here we took a tourist bus (the first of this type of transport I have ever taken, and very likely to be my last (buses and me don't see eye-to-eye) which brought us around the attractions to the east of the city and ended up back in Plaza Catalunya.

Our night-time excursion was something of an unwanted adventure. A good friend had advised me to go to Casa Leopoldo for a meal, but she had warned me that it was in a bad area, and therefore to take care. My wife and I decided to go into town early to do more (relatively fruitless) shopping, stopping off in a few local tapas bars for a beer or two. On the map, we could see that we were close to Leopoldo's so we decided bravely to walk there. The advice of my friend turned out to be more than true. Even though the restaurant is no more than 5 minutes walk from La Rambla, the area is not a good place to visit any time of the day or night. We were very nearly mugged, and my poor wife's nerves were completely on edge when we arrived in the restaurant. She took a look at the menu and I could see by her face that it would be difficult for her to enjoy herself there under any circumstances, so we made our apologies and left, going back into town by a different way than that by which we came. We had a paella that night on Amaya in La Rambla, and we enjoyed it

2 December 2001

Barcelona is a big, bustling, noisy city, and truly a great city of Europe in all respects. If there were permanent cultural capitals, it would be in the top three. Barcelona is designed for living in with its relatively centralised shopping area, its many cafés and its works of art dotted throughout the city. It is an elegant mixture of the very old and the very latest in modern art, and only a few cities can make such a boast and get away with it! To say however that Barcelona is a friendly city is probably over-stating things a bit. I did not get the distinct impression that people would be willing to go out of their way for tourists, and I felt a bit like a product, as opposed to a person. Then again, Barcelona gets a lot of tourists, and I have seen the same glazed looks from service people in other tourist-infested cities, so my criticism here should be seen in context.

Our last day was spent along the sea front, culminating in a dash to the Sagrada Familia, the famous modern/gothic-esque church designed by Gaudi, but not completed, and nowhere near completion. It is an inspired work... intricate, inexplicable and quite overwhelming. One paella later, and we were on our last run to the airport.

All in all, Barcelona worked out well for us. It was a great place to visit and an easy place for a weekend trip, although, of course, more time would have been appreciated in order to see the sights and the museums.

To sum it all up...

I would recommend:

  • Getting a three day metro ticket - the metro in Barcelona is hyper-efficient and it takes you to the main sights around the town quickly. Look out for pickpockets, though.

  • Lunch at the Café Zurich, if you don't mind the rushed service too much.

  • A leisurely stroll around the Catedral and the Gothic District (Ciutat Vella)

I would not recommend:

  • Wearing any ostentatious jewellery or looking at maps too much around the town. Tourists are the main prey of pickpockets. They mainly work in twos, one to distract you with flowers or whatever, while the other goes to work on your valuables.

  • The tourist buses. Freezing my butt off while listening to a faulty cassette recording is not my idea of fun!

  • Going there without a camcorder battery...

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