On Friday, November 18th, I ducked out of work after lunch and promptly hopped on a plane to Barcelona for my first official vacation time as a European resident. Five months after leaving South America, the Spanish came flooding back into my brain and mouth before my feet were even on the ground.
From the airport to the hostel it was an hour’s journey during rush hour, enabling a dynamic first taste of the city. That night I went for a long walk to take in my chosen neighborhood for the weekend, Villa de Gracia. The bohemian area was transitioning from the work week to the weekend, most easily observed by the circles of students playing the guitar and singing in Plaza de Sol, one of the most popular meeting points.
The following morning my friend Yousef arrived, jet-lagged and haggard from a red eye from New York yet nevertheless full of energy to begin his own European escapade. Almost instantaneously we took off to explore the city, opting to move on our own two feet by taking the Passeig de Gracia directly into the city center.
One of the city’s main arteries, our meandering route crossed directly in front of two of the city’s most popular tourist sights. Case Batallo and Casa Mila are both apartment buildings designed by Barcelona’s most famous artist, Antoni Gaudi.
A few more minutes of strolling brought us to Plaza de Catalunya, which heralded the transition from the well-planned avenues of the Eixample neighborhood to the twisting alleyways of the ancient city center. The plaza itself was a tremendous sight, replete with beautiful structures on all sides, impressive statues, and a wide central area absolutely packed with pigeons.
Our path continued across the plaza to Las Ramblas, perhaps the most famous street in Barcelona. Cutting diagonally from the plaza directly to the Mediterranean Sea, the wide avenue was packed with exactly what you might expect from any shopping experience in a developed country: McDonalds, Nike, H+M, and all the other popular brands. Yet halfway down the street we turned straight into something decidedly Spanish, La Mercado de La Boqueria.
The market was an onslaught to the senses: fruits of every color were stacked to the ceiling, pungent whiffs of fresh seafood assaulted our nasal cavities, and each stall was staffed by boisterous salespeople shouting for our attention.
For me though, the highlight was the introduction to jamon serrano. Entire stalls were devoted solely to cutting off thinly sliced Spanish ham of every single cut imaginable.
Our long jaunt continued towards the apex of the city, where we suddenly found ourselves looking out at the shimmering waters of the Mediterannean. Thousands of masts and dozens of luxury yachts stood in our view, as the port of Barcelona serves as the resting home for a wide variety of sea-faring vessels.
Despite the late autumn weather, a long evening walk along the boardwalk yielded pristine views of the city’s expansive waterfront property, gloriously empty beaches, and the deep blue water of the sea.
As the sun descended across the hazy horizon, navigated our way through the ancient seaside neighborhood of El Born to catch the FC Barcelona game. Despite the visitors from Málaga being severely outclassed, the hometown favorites were missing two of their playmakers, Messi and Suarez, leading to an eventual 0-0 tie and leaving the fans lamenting to lament what could have been.
On Sunday we replicated the Saturday vibe by sticking to our itinerary of having no itinerary at all. Instead, we set off to explore the vast city on foot, starting off with the staples: coffees and croissants.
First up we tackled the uphill climb to Park Guell, another creation of Gaudi’s creative mind. Following a personal rule of having no straight lines in his works, we wandered through the outdoor wonderland equally amazed by the intricately designed structures and the broad sweeping views of the entire metropolis.
Amongst the tourists in the park, local artists flourished: musicians played a diverse array of instruments, peculiarly painted crazies, posed like ridiculous statues, and bubble blowers provided endless fun for any children in sight.
Sunday afternoon meant the stores of La Sagrada neighborhood were mostly shuttered, but Barcelona isn’t known as an artist’s haven for nothing. Each closed tienda is just another canvas for creative expression.
Yet the one sight we sought after was anything but closed. La Sagrada Familia is one of the most impressive combinations of architecture and artistry in the world. Still under construction after OVER A HUNDRED YEARS, another one of Gaudi’s creations comes to life with haunting visions of Biblical lore on both the front...
...and the back.
In peering at the massive structure from all possible angles, we decided it was impressive for both its scale and its detail, a feat not easily replicated in modern or technologically advanced structures. The symbology would take an entire textbook to decode and the physical construction of the building may take another three decades to complete, but without any perspective we were still duly impressed.
After a long session of sitting and staring with our jaws agape, we continued towards Barcelona’s own Arc de Triomphe. However, the impressive structure paled in comparison to the parade of humanity stretching out for hundreds of yards in front of us.
Musicians, rollerbladers, jugglers, and even a puppeteer controlling kermit the front playing the piano (yes, really), all beckoned us forward down the wide and beautiful passageway leading directly into the Parque de La Ciutadela.
After questioning its existence, it was here that we found the urban green space ideal for passing away a weekend afternoon. Families, hippies, and tourists all converged to cover the park with their unique vibes, making for an excellent amalgamation of cultures, activities, and languages.
We soaked in the experience as much as possible before our stomachs beckoned us towards the first tapas experience of the trip. In a dimly lit yet incredibly popular restaurant, Yousef and I indulged in modern twists on classic Spanish delicacies: anchovies soaked in tomato sauce, patatas bravas, homemade meatballs that disintegrated in our mouths, and eggplant alongside a scrumptious grilled burnt goat cheese.
Monday morning we sat down for some planning and instantly discovered all the museums were closed, so we instead set off to discover a couple off the beaten path alternatives. Another long walk across the Eixample led us to the Mercat dels Encants, a complete jumble of antiques, electronics, and cheap essentials. It’s difficult to overstate the chaos of this flea market, so I’ll just equate it to a fictional equivalent: the Hogwarts Room of Requirement. Whatever you want in life, from past or present, you can probably find in Encants market.
After strolling upon the maze of stalls on the ground floor and finding ourselves utterly flabbergasted by the contents, we worked our way along to the second floor, which provided prime ground for creeping on the scene below. Eventually we ended up enchanted by the comings and goings of one particular stall.
In lieu of any form of organization, the owner had simply scattered all of his positions across the floor. Newspapers, magazines, ancient family photos, and books in multiple languages were simultaneously stepped on and haggled over, as prospective buyers came and went with the wind.
For lunch we did some research on the fly and navigated our way to La Cova Fumada, a hole in the wall restaurant that lacked a sign yet instead provided the familial nature any traveler hopes to encounter. The tiny restaurant was packed to the brim with locals and bustling with waiters bringing loads of fresh tapas dishes straight from the tiny kitchen.
Even the menu was a relic from decades past: a simple chalkboard highlighting the dishes of the day. The menu predominantly centered around fresh seafood, so we let our waiter make a few choices for us and sat back with a jug of wine to take in the atmosphere of this unique location.
For me the most memorable dish in all of Barcelona was this perfectly tender grilled octopus, served on a bed of pureed potatoes and topped with a spicy paprika mixture. The chewy octopus meshed perfectly well with the silky texture of the puree to ensure a heavenly response from my taste buds.
Finally on Tuesday morning we made some room in our schedule for one of the city's most popular cultural sights. The Picasso Museum does not only highlight some of the author's finest works, it also takes the visitor through the development of Pablo Picasso's life.
As we wound our way through the exhibits, the progression from skilled craftsman to insane genius was more than obvious, capping with a fantastical variety of cubism and surrealism.
Upon exiting the museum it was only a few short hours until our flight back to Amsterdam, where Yousef and I spent the rest of the week exploring another country together, this time on my home turf.