On Day 6 (Saturday), we headed to Paris’ Orly airport (hooray for avoiding Charles de Gaulle!) to fly to Barcelona. It was a quick two hour flight. The easiest way to get to or from the airport in Barcelona is the AeroBus (A1 or A2 depending on your terminal), which goes to Plaza Espanya and Plaza Catalunya. We took the bus to Catalunya and switched to the Metro to go to Barceloneta for our “hotel”, Residencia Campus del Mar. We actually stayed in a university dorm, which also rents out single and double rooms on a daily basis. Our room was the largest of the trip (yet cheapest, at ~80 euro), and included a small kitchenette. It was about a 10 minute walk from the Barceloneta metro station, and about a five minute walk down to the beach (through some narrow streets with several bars and tapas places).
At the hotel, we met our friend Gal, who was stopping in Barcelona for a few days to travel with us before going on to a wedding in Italy. Our first afternoon we fell for a tourist trap tapas restaurant near our hotel, where the waiter convinced us to try the “menu del dia”, which included several courses of mediocre meat and seafood. Afterwards we wandered around La Rambla and the Bari Gotic. La Rambla was packed with tourists from near and far. The gothic quarter’s old crooked streets were also fairly busy, but we were able to find a place to sit in a plaza to enjoy the afternoon. Later we found our way to La Catedral, where we sat and listened to spanish guitarists and opera singers.
Amazingly, we were able to keep to a true spanish schedule, and only headed out to find dinner around 8:30. We went to Taller de Tapas, an excellent tapas restuarant. We had patatas bravas, croquetes, pan con tomate, chorizo, and smoked beef. And a few bottles of wine. It was all quite delicious, and deifnitely worth returning to. The waiter was helpful and spoke good english. Apparently there are several locations, including one on La Rambla (we went to the Comtal location). It turns out that this is the same restaurant as Megan and I had been to on our previous trip in 2007. We loved it then, and we loved it this time too!
Our plan the next day was to take the cable car up to Montjuic, a large hill on the side of the city that hosts several museums, gardens, and the olympic park. However, we changed our mind since we didn’t think we would have enough time at one of the musuems that was closing early because it was a sunday. Instead, we headed back to La Rambla to try to visit Palau Guell, a townhouse mansion built by Gaudi for one of Barcelona’s richest familes (it is free on Sunday, but they only offer tickets at a few times; we got ours at 3PM). The house has spectacular architecture, and the audioguide did a good job explaining the sights. I would have liked to learn more about the history of the area and its inhabitants–we overheard a walking tour in the street explain that the area used to be Barcelona’s red light district, but that by building a magnificent mansion in the middle of it, Gaudi and Guell hoped to clean up the area. The home was incredibly ornate, with intricately designed wooden ceilings, tilework, stone columns, etc. It is also the only home I’ve been to with its own mini-church and (not-so-mini) organ. The home is also quite large, and the tour took us from the carriage house below (lined with wooden bricks to deaden the sound), up to the roof which was topped with typical gaudi curves and domes.
For dinner, we headed to Casa Delfin, another excellent tapas restaurant (which apparently is owned by the same group as Taller de Tapas). We had a mix of tapas and main dishes, including slow roasted lamb and a beef stew. I had the stew and it was excellent. Our waiter was kind enough to help us practice our spanish, even though his English was clearly far better than our Castellano. I would definitely recommend returning! It is a little less classy than Taller de Tapas, and felt a bit more authentic.
On Day 8 (a Monday), we took the train to Montserrat, a monastery in the mountains about one and a half hours from Barcelona. It is easily accessible from the Espanga metro stop, from which you can buy a combined ticket including the train to the mountain and either a funicular or cable car ride up to the monastery. It also includes additional funicular rides higher in the mountain to the various walking trails.
We arrived at Montserrat just in time to rush into the basilica to hear the boys choir, which sings daily at 1PM (do the kids go to school?). It was nice, but the place was packed with noisy people, so we could only huddle around the door. We bought some cheese and wandered partway up the hill to a scenic overlook to have a picnic lunch. The location is quite beautiful. The mountain is covered with strange looking rocky outcroppings that make it look un-earthly. The monastery has a large complex of building nestled between two ridges, from which you can walk, funnicular, or mountain climb up to a set of trails among the peaks. Scattered throughout the area are several other old church buildings, which make the area very picturesque. We rode the St. Joan funicular up, and then walked for about an hour down to the Flats de San Michel and eventually back to the monastery. We had planned to hike down by the Sacred Cave, where shepherds once found an image of the Virgin Mary, but the paths aren’t very well marked, and we weren’t sure how much time it would take. Instead, we bought some chocolate at the gift shop and rode the cable car back down to the train.
You can take either a cable car or funicular up to the monastery, each leaving from a different (but well named) train station. The cable car is definitely more scenic, but the funicular has the advantage of getting you back down to the rail line earlier in its route, dramatically increasing your chance of being able to get a seat. Unfortunately, we were not so lucky, and ended up standing for the 1.5 hours back to Barcelona. We took the second to last train (leaving around 6PM) and got to be amused/annoyed by the loud antics of a gaggle of teenage spanish girls for much of the ride.
For dinner that night we headed to Taverna Can Margarit in the Poble Sec area. Unfortunately, we reached there around 7:45…. far too early for a restaurant in Barcelona to be open for dinner! We ended up having to wait until 8:30PM before they opened. We were all exhausted and foot sore though, so sitting on some nearby steps and watching young spanish hudlums was fine entertainment. When the restaurant did open, we were first invited to taste some of the house wine. The waiter pointed us to some small glasses and some big casks of wine, and left us to ourselves! The wines were nice, including one very strong white that tasted more like a liquor. For dinner we had some of their small plates (asparagus, sliced meats, manchego), but unfortunately none of it was that exciting. For the main course, however, we had their braised rabit, which was truly delicious. It was indeed a rabit (including half its head, teeth, and brain), but perhaps the best parts of the dish were the incredible carmelized onions and roasted garlic. I ate about 12 cloves of garlic, which in retrospect may have been a mistake. Sorry Megan.
On Day 9 (Tuesday), we took a different cable car, this time from Barcelona’s port up to Montjuic. This provides a nice view of the city along the way, and costs 11 euro. Montjuic is filled with gardens and paths to various museums and a castle. We walked to the Fundacio de Joan Miro, and observed some strange modern art. As modern art museums go, it was fairly good, but that isn’t really my style. The fountain spewing mercury was pretty neat though.
Afterwards, we walked down the mountain through some pretty, terraced gardens. If we had been smart, we would have brought another picnic lunch along. Instead, we hungrily headed towards la Boqueria, the main market just off of La Rambla. It is packed with people and stalls selling fruit, meat, fish, and various snack foods. We bought some empanada type tarts and some fruit juice, which made a nice meal.
In the afternoon we took the metro to La Sagrada Familia, the most impressive church / alien fortress I’ve ever been in. Started early in the last century, Gaudi’s architectural masterpiece still has a ways to go before it will be finished. However, there had been significant progress (at least on the inside) since Megan and I had visited it in 2007. At that time, the nave was empty rough stone, while now it is filled with decorated columns and beautiful stained glass. We ooh’d and ahh’d before taking a trip up one of the towers, followed by a claustrophobe’s nightmare down the winding staircases.
Luckily, we had planned ahead and bought tickets online, which meant that we were able to immediately enter the church grounds. Others were not so lucky, and the line wrapped around two and a half sides of the (very big) church. There was no line at all for those with online tickets!
After getting our fill of soaring columns and parabolic arches, we headed to a fine wine store where Gal purchased some undoubtedly delicious (and expensive) wine. We also visited their specialty food store and bought some manchego cheese, dried chorizo, and serano ham—ever so delicately sliced off of an aged leg. We took it home for a very quick dinner before heading to the Palau de Musica de Catalonia, for spanish guitar concert. The concert hall was extravagantly decorated with scultpures and mosiac tiles. Unfortunately, while our box seats gave us an exceptional view of the stage and the performer, they were very tight on leg room. I resisted the urge to put my legs over the lip of the balcony as we listened to a range of songs, some classic guitar pieces plus others by Bach and Mozart. The guitarist was able to make amazing noises out of his guitar! While others (*cough* Gal *cough*) thought the encore piece, (classic spanish guitar melodies periodically interrupted by the themes of pop songs) was too cheesy, I thought it was pretty awesome.
On Day 10, we reached the part of the trip which was why we’d actually come here — Megan’s conference. Gal left for the next leg of his trip to Italy. Megan spent her days at the conference center while I worked in our dorm and visited some researchers at the Barcelona Super Computing center.
On our last day we headed back up to Montjuic so that we could walk through some of the gardens we had missed. We visited the old fort which looks over the sea port to repel invaders, but also provides a good view of the city (and in fact the fortress was mainly used to imprison political dissidents for a while). Currently, it provides excellent views, as well as the opportunity to imagine you are firing the cannons at the gigantic cruise ships parked in the harbor below.
Overall, our trip gave us a great taste of three different cities and three different cultures. We look forward to exploring them all more thoroughly in the future!