A Quick Tour of Southern France and Spain - Barcelona, Catalonia
Original: November 8-12, 2013
For the second leg of our trip, we took the TGV back to Lyon and headed to Barcelona by air, an Iberia Airlines flight ... the airline lounge in Lyon was closed for remodeling ;-(. (We qualified for status with Iberia Airlines through American Airlines, but Iberia Air is also now owned by British Air ... changes happening in the European Airline market)
When arriving at the Barcelona airport we had several options for transport to downtown Barcelona, but we took the train. It was very reasonably priced, and ran fairly often, about every half hour. It dropped us within about 4 blocks of our hotel. The price was about €7,60 to get the two of us into town.
We could have bought a Barcelona Card for 2 or 3 days that provided unlimited metro transport (and the train into town) and a discount or free admission into many tourist attractions. The two day price for a Barcelona Card is €34 each and €44 each for three days. You must buy these ahead of time, and pick them up at the airport or downtown at the tourist office. You can get some of the scoop on the Barcelona Cards here. We figured that we came out ahead compared to buying the card since we did not visit many of the free or discounted attractions that are included with the card... and we hadn't booked our ticket in advance.
When arriving downtown we had several options for local transport beyond walking. These included the subway, the hop-on-hop-off bus, and taxis. We took the subway, Barcelona Metro, and bought a 10 ride (T-10) ticket; 10 trip legs for the downtown area for €10 (now €10,30 with the 2014 rise). This is a 50% discount versus buying individual tickets and can be used by two people ... just pass it back to your partner across the turn-style. For our 3+ days in Barcelona we used 3 T-10 tickets totaling €30, but we also walked a lot.
In Barcelona we stayed at a very nice hotel by our standards, Hotel Barcelona Center. The hotel is relatively conveniently located about 4 blocks from the subway, but it is not in the center of the main tourist area ... a positive and a negative. Our room was very large with a king-sized bed. The hotel had a pretty good restaurant and bar; and a pool and workout room on the roof. One evening while waiting for the proper dinner time in Spain (8:00 pm) we had a bottle of Cava (sparkling wine) and some Tapas on the roof as the sun set ... an excellent Spanish experience.
The room was about €100 per night and included internet but not breakfast. The breakfast was a little pricey, but we were offered a discount at check-in that made it more reasonable, but still about €15. The breakfast buffet was definitely above average. We ate at the restaurant one evening for a very reasonable price ... more on this later.
When we arrived, the hotel front desk attendant recommended a lunch restaurant, Telefèric. We found the Tapas and wine to be very reasonably priced, a tad over €50 with plenty of wine for lunch. We also ate a very good breakfast here for under €20. Sitting at the sidewalk table was great, as the weather was perfect, and the sidewalk was set back from the main road. This restaurant was just a couple of blocks away from our hotel ... less than a 5 minute walk, and appears to be open 7 days a week for long hours ... including during siesta time and before 8:00 pm ... very important to know if you are an American tourist.
We started our sightseeing with a "free" walking tour. We've tried these types of tours at several places in Europe and have generally been pleased. This was a great way to get started as we were able to get the overall "feel" of the city, and then return to the areas interesting to us. Of course the free walking tour is not really free. You are expected to tip what you think the tour is "worth". For an average tour, I "tip" about €10 per person. For an excellent tour, I have tipped €20 each. This time we took the free walking tour offered by Travel Bound and it met at the Travel Bar.
Sign at Travel Bar
Roman Columns on Walking Tour
Civil War Memorial on Walking Tour
At the end of the tour we received a restaurant recommendation from the tour guide to a local restaurant in Port of Barcelona area called Can Ros (and if you don't read Catalan you might want to try here). The restaurant was probably not any cheaper than the restaurants that lined the water on Calle del Mar, but the food was excellent and the food in the "tourist" restaurants didn't look too appetizing. The specialty of the house at Can Ros is paella, so we had seafood paella, a dish with a mix of seafood, rice, and saffron among other things. Paella is priced dearly and our bill with Cava was about €60.
We found communication in Barcelona to be very easy. Almost all the signs are in Spanish Catalan, and English. We found speaking with people to be very easy, and most in the tourist areas spoke some English. Catalan is the co-official language (along with Spanish) of Catalonia; four provinces in Spain: Barcelona, Girona, Lleida, and Tarragona. The relationship of Catalan to Spain is very complicated and I'm sure I don't know all the nuances, but a referendum for Catalan to separate from Spain is to be held in the near future.
During our walking tour we were told that a fountain and light show was going to be held that evening at the Font Mágica. The show was free, was not overly crowded, and lasted over an hour. The show was very impressive. Think Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas ... for over an hour and with various forms of music interspersed. The fountain is in the Montjuïc area and is in front of the Palau Nacional Museum at the top of a significant hill. The view from the front of the museum is stunning.
Font Magica Light Show
More of the Light Show
Palau Nacional Museum behind the Fountains
Near the fountain at the bottom of Montjuïc was a shopping mall that was set up in a converted sports arena (or was built to look like one). It is appropriately called Las Arenas Shopping Centre. Nothing impressive inside but we ate at a restaurant on the top called La Botiga. The food was very edible and very reasonably priced. We had a very nice bottle of Cava for €11 and the total bill was €44.
Arena Shopping Center
Fountain View from Arena Shopping Mall
For a variety of reasons we decided to focus on churches this trip rather than the art museums. Barcelona has a lot of great art museums that are well known throughout the world. There is a 6 museum pass, Articket that one can buy for €28,50. This appears to be a steep discount. The museums inlcude:
Fundació Joan Miró
Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya- MNAC (above Font Mágica)
Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona - CCCB
Fundació Antoni Tàpies
Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona - MACBA
If the art collections are anywhere near as impressive as the buildings that house them, then this pass is well worth the price.
As I mentioned earlier we concentrated on Churches for this visit (and the usual restaurants). We visited three churches while in Barcelona:
We enjoyed all three of the Churches, but we took away different impressions from Santa Maria del Pi and Barcelona Cathedral than La Sagrada Familia.
The Church of Santa Maria del Pi and the Cathedral of Santa Maria were both very impressive Gothic Churches, just making the OMG rating ... when you enter the church and view it, your 1st reaction is "Oh My God". They both have their own story, but the part I took away was an interesting part of the Spanish culture relating to the Spanish Civil War around 1936. Both of these churches were heavily damaged in 1936 as a result of the civil war, but it is very hard to find that in the write ups. During our walking tour we visited one of the few memorials to the dead from the Civil war ...a memorial for several children killed from an aerial bombing. The memorial was a small plaque on a wall. The Spanish don't speak of the civil war, not sure if this is by mutual consent or because of the threat of law. Apparently, many of those who allegedly committed atrocities during the civil war are still active in government. This is a complicated part of the Spanish culture.
View From Santa Maria del Pi Cloister
View from Roof of Santa Maria del Pi
You can get more information and the hours for Santa Maria del Pi here.
The Cathedral of Santa Maria is no entry fee (at least in the am), but we spent €3 each for the elevator ride to the top. This is well worth the time and the extra euros. In the cloister are the 13 Geese associated with Saint Eulalia who was martyred at the age of 13 ... You can get even more information here.
We visited La Sagrada Familia twice. We first attended Sunday mass in the basement and followed up with an english language tour on Monday. Mass in the basement was very intimate and a very nice experience, but I have many mixed feelings about the Church in general.
La Sagrada Familia
Basement Chapel of La Sagrada Familia
3-D Printing and Modeling Facility
Crucifix at Entrance to La Sagrada Familia
View from Roof of La Sagrada Familia
Fruit on Roof of La Sagrada Familia
Main Altar La Sagrada Familia
The Church is a real engineering accomplishment that has pressed the bleeding edge of engineering for over 100 years of construction (yes, you read that correctly). It is a very impressive use of stone, cement, mosaics, modeling, and now 3D printing.
The style of the church is very unique and is called a mixture of Art Nouveau and Gothic by some. The main architect of the "minor basilica" is Antoni Gaudi. From what I have read, it looks like Gaudi is a god in the architectural world. The building is very unique with the colored fruit ornaments and unique structures ... very pleasant to the eye and seems to be very functional.
But there were several things about the building that "rubbed me wrong". To start, this is not really a church, it is not an official parish, the only masses are in the basement chapel, even though the sanctuary was finished several years ago. One can attend mass without an admittance fee, but visiting the rest of the church requires paying an admission fee. Bottom line, this is not a catholic community. It's a tourist attraction with a religious theme. I thought the art work interspersed throughout the church and the exterior walls was very good. Not Michael Angelo quality, but still very appealing.
I'm not sure why I don't have these feelings for the older churches and cathedrals that were probably built for the same reasons. Maybe I feel they didn't know better. Maybe, I drop the feeling because of the historical and artistic importance. This is just my two cents and isn't necessarily rational.
I'll wrap up this blog with a few more meals that we enjoyed (of course).
Barcelona had sidewalk cafes everywhere and we took advantage even in November. (it was a little cool but they all had heaters and we had our thick Irish sweaters). The locations we tried were all reasonably priced and offered various Tapas. Our favorite item was a cheese plate. Yes, a cheese plate, but with green cheese, a Gouda cheese infused with pesto ... very unique and very very good, especially when washed down with the great Spanish wines. We also developed a taste for the fish and ham croquettes.
A Street View with Sidewalk Cafes in the Back Ground
As I mentioned earlier, we ate at the hotel one evening, a good value and pretty good food. We decided to try it since we started to get a little tired of Tapas. When eating Tapas we ate more than our usual, but when eating Tapas, I never felt I had a "meal". This despite consuming 2 or 3X the calories of a normal meal. At the hotel, we had the fixed price menu for 17.50. I had Pumpkin soup and the pork medallions. The meal was good and I felt like I had had a meal.
On the last night we wanted a special meal, so we consulted the internet and then the front desk of the hotel. The choice was Da Greco, an Italian restaurant (or here for English). The food was EXCELLENT and was reasonably priced. We both ate the fixed price meal for €35 each. We started with Foie Gras shavings and crackers (Foie Gras has the consistency of butter), followed by 3 sampler plates of pasta, plus I got a 4th bonus. For the main course, Carol had the Dorado (a fish like Mahi Mahi) and I had a cold roast beef dish. I finished with tiramisu and coffee. The motif was very eclectic AND very elegant with several pieces of art work throughout the restaurant.
On our last day, November 12th, we headed to the train station via Barcelona Metro and then took the Renfe south ... the subject of another blog.
We left Barcelona wanting to return. This city has become one of my favorites in Europe, right there with Munich and Rome. We will return!
See You in the Pub!
Jet Lag Jack