We understand completely that three days isn’t enough to fully see a major international city. At the same time, if you have the chance to go to Barcelona for only three days – go! It’s still enough time to see a lot of sights, eat a LOT of food, and completely fall in love with the city (all of which we did). Barcelona offered up all our favourite things with style and colour. It’s a wonderfully cultural destination with an abundance of fabulous architecture (most notably the surreal and astonishing buildings by Antoni Gaudi), shops and museums, street life, and most importantly it is a food-lovers paradise.
Our very first night we searched out something local with good reviews and ended up at the small but happening restaurant Tapeo. It was easy to pick a winner as we were staying in the trendy El Born district with its old stone buildings and narrow winding streets, chock full of buzzing tapas bars. Tapeo is one of the best of the bunch with innovative and delicious tapas. Our standouts were perfectly-cooked sweetbreads, rich patties of pig’s trotters, braised leeks with olive pate, and tender squid stuffed with a mixture of softened peppers and tomatoes. Dessert was our first (but not last) taste of Crema Catalana – a Catalan style creme brûlée, quite soft and custard-y, with orange zest and nutmeg. And to think we only had to wait 10 minutes for our seats at the bar to enjoy such a feast! Just enough time for two small Alhambras on tap while standing at the barrel outside the door.
We stumbled our way back through the dimly-lit alleyways, full, fat, and happy. Managed to find our doorway among all the other tiny gated doorways, and then realized the one drawback to our lovely little Airbnb find: the five flights of incredibly steep and narrow stairs to reach the front door. Somehow the climb hadn’t seemed to take as long in the light of day, before a few ice-cold beers and glasses of Spanish wine.
The apartment was quiet despite being in a bustling area and we slept soundly in anticipation of exploring the city the following day. And explore we did. The best way to see any city is on foot, and we leveraged that advice to do only the most minimal preparatory research – trusting our instincts and the magic of the city itself to guide us to all the wonders that lay in wait. Museums in Barcelona are to be found on every street corner and there is a dedicated museum for every taste: Picasso, chocolate, film, mammoths, and contemporary art to name just a few.
Ross being a serious history buff had only one museum in mind that was an absolute must: the History of Barcelona Museum with its 4,000 sq meters of excavated roman ruins. Our visit found us walking a series of pathways beneath the modern day pavements, ambling through 2,000-year-old fish markets, wine cellars, laundries, and bath houses. Barcelona has been a human settlement for at least 5,000 years, but it was the Romans who really put it on the map as the town of Barcino, a walled city with a thriving fishing industry. The coastline has changed since roman times; the ruins we were visiting were under the middle of the Gothic quarter, but 2,000 years ago they were oceanfront. Hence the manufacture of the condiment garum, made from decomposed fish, salt, and other spices. Yum.
After the museum, Ross’ appetite for history was satiated, so we set about exploring aimlessly. We’d already had a bit of that in the morning, since it had taken us about 5 tries walking in circles and a stop at the cathedral to even find the bloody museum. But with the whole old town at our feet there was so much more to see, so we soldiered on… after a quick tapa and beer of course. We spent the rest of the afternoon meandering through the historic neighborhoods of El Barri Gotic, La Ribera, and El Born; a highly recommended way to spend a Sunday. Our stroll was punctuated by window shopping, yoga pics in front of famous landmarks, more fabulous tapas, and a lovely glass of rosado for Alicia.
Who knows how many miles we walked that day, but it was enough to warrant a siesta before heading out that evening for dinner with some friends of Alicia’s at Cachito’s restaurant on La Rambla, one of the main streets of downtown Barcelona. Once again, the tapas just kept rolling out of the kitchen, as did the sangria, and we found ourselves thankful for the brisk walk home in the cool air before struggling our way up the infamous apartment steps.
After our lazy Sunday of relaxed wandering, we were ready for a productive Monday of sightseeing. We had to start with Sagrada Familia, undeniably the most famous building in the city, a massive Gaudi statement that’s on everyone’s must-do list. We pre-purchased our tickets online and we were glad that we did when we arrived to find a line of hundreds of tourists snaking around the perimeter. After just a brief, self-satisfied wait to get in the gate, we armed ourselves with audio guides and cameras, and took on the spectacle at hand. The building of the church wasn’t actually founded by Gaudi, or even started with Gaudi as architect, It was founded in 1881 by Josep Maria Bocabella who was a bookkeeper and the founder of The Spiritual Association of Devotees of St Joseph. But by 1883 Gaudi took over the design of the project, at a mere 31 years of age. Antoni Gaudi is known for his unrestrained use of color and bold shapes, so much so that the English phrase “gaudy” is taken after him. His love for nature is also easily apparent in his works; his borrowing of natural mathematical ratios and structures lends his buildings a natural, fluid, and spacious feel. The interior of Sagrada Familia is all about light and space. The soaring white ceilings are supported by columns made to resemble trees in a forest: each one hewn from a different type of rock depending on the load-bearing requirements so that the “trunks” vary slightly in color. Two thirds of the way up, the columns start splitting out unevenly, like real branches, and at that point the columns are studded with irregular lumps, reminiscent of knots in wood. The vast walls are filled with sumptuous stained glass windows in an abstract rainbow of hues. There are no scenes depicted in the windows, rather Gaudi left the mesmerizing effect of the colored light to create a mood of contemplation, inspiration, and sanctity for the viewer. The building would certainly not be the same without all of the stained glass, which is still being installed. (Although construction begun over 130 years ago, completion of the project is not expected until the middle of this century.) A local architect has been given task of interpreting Gaudi’s decades-old instructions, and I daresay he’s doing a fabulous job. Our words could never adequately describe such a monumental structure. The pictures don’t really do it justice either, but we’ve included one of our favourites to tide you over until you get the opportunity to see it for yourself.
Our next stop was the building commonly considered to be Gaudi’s most creative work, the Casa Batllo. To this day it is a privately owned building, however you can tour many of the more interesting features. The theme of the building is water, using just about every shade of blue imaginable, even to the intricate mosaic facade, with hardly a straight line to be found on the interior. The ceilings and window frames undulate in soft curves, and the wavy glass of the central staircase (of course surrounded in blue tile) gives the impression of being submerged in a peaceful lake. The rooftop continues the mosaic theme with fanciful chimneys and a shape crowning the front facade that onlookers liken to the spine of a fish or a dragon, the sides covered in multicolour tiles like scales. The overall effect is magical, like being utterly absorbed in the mind of the artist.
As foodies, we could hardly resist the nearby Mercat de Boqueria. The city’s largest open market where we encountered rows upon rows of stalls selling every treat imaginable: fresh-squeezed juices and coconuts, a plethora of local and exotic produce, cured meats, towers of cheeses, tubs upon tubs of olives, gourmet chocolate truffles, and Ross’ definite favorite: stall after stall of fresh seafood on ice.
After a mixed seafood grill at the market and a leisurely tapas dinner in an outdoor square close to our apartment, we were as enchanted by the city’s cuisine as we were by the architectural and cultural gems. We would’ve loved to stay longer but that night was to be our last for this trip. The following morning, we took in a few more sites close to home, vowing all the time to come back and explore the enticing restaurants and shops that materialized around every corner, down every hidden alley. Before we knew it, it was time for a quick taxi ride back to the airport to pick up our rental car and start our road trip.
The first leg of the trip was quite short, as we drove only a few miles to the beach town of Sitges, almost a suburb of Barcelona, to visit Alicia’s friends Kaley and Ben who have just moved there. We ate lunch by the beach and had our first true Spanish paella of the trip (delicious). After a quick walk down to the shoreline and a dip of our toes, it was time to carry on for the first long stretch of driving: 5 hours from Sitges to Alicante where Ross’ brother and his family were vacationing.
Alicante and the surrounding area is a section of Spain that doesn’t always feel much like Spain, due to the high numbers of British and Northern European tourists that vacation here. You’re just as likely to find bratwurst or fish and chips for lunch as more traditional fare, but we managed to find quite a nice seafood paella for our one meal out. We had a lovely afternoon at the beach with Ki and Erin, some games in the pool, and a delicious braai. As always, it was great to spend time with family, but before long it was time to wind our way south to Granada where the majestic Alhambra awaited us.
Despite enjoying our time hanging out with the family, we were excited to immerse ourselves back in Spanish culture, and Granada was the perfect place to do it. Packed to the gills with cobbled streets, whitewashed buildings with red tile roofs and wrought iron balconies, authentic tapas on every corner, all under the shadow of the mighty Alhambra perched high on a hill overlooking the city. Of course, all that culture comes with a price, as we found out when we tried to navigate our Renault Clio through those charming, tiny streets. Finding our hotel stumped even our trusty satnav, which kept trying to send us down pedestrian-only walkways and through public squares. It wasn’t until an enterprising little old man with a motorbike and a toothless grin pulled up beside us and led the way that we managed to finally arrive at our destination (to the tune of a few euro coins of course). Thanks to off-season rates and the depressed Spanish economy, we had managed to score a £200 per night hotel for £60 a night: Hotel Hesperia is lovely and perfectly located to explore the old parts of the city on foot (thank goodness).
That night we explored a bit of the old town, which was romantically lit by hanging street lamps, and fuelled up on tapas, fried fish, and beer (Alhambra of course) so we would be ready for our adventure up the hill the following day.
Though the old town has its charms, there’s no other sight in Granada to compare with the Alhambra. It is an imposing and regal fortified palace overlooking the city of Granada. The building’s history is quite complex, with each conquering lord, sultan and king stamping his own structural and decorative mark. Although the original fort was built in the later 9th century, most of what is seen in the Alhambra today dates back to the Moorish Nasrid dynasty a few hundred years later. But the Nasrids were hardly the only rulers of the Alhambra; the Christians took over in 1492 and now the awe-inspiring site successfully reflects and blends Moorish, Christian, and local tastes. The most impressive piece of Christian architecture in the complex (and Ross’ favorite) is the Palace of Carlos V, invoking the roman coliseum and Spanish bull rings with its impressive two-storied circular courtyard of massive stone columns and open sky. Most of the other truly stunning sites are of Nasrid origin; their geometrical complexity and ornate and detailed artistry are something special to behold. Carved walls and ceilings, lace-like wooden window screens, soothing fountains, and intricate gold and wood inlay create an unforgettable spectacle.
We saw a couple taking their wedding photos in the courtyard of the Lion Fountain (Alicia’s favorite) and couldn’t even blame them for holding up the line of tourists – what a unique and memorable experience. Six hours at the Alhambra was barely enough to take it all in: the architecture, decoration, gardens, historical trivia, archeological sites, and massive fortifications would take days upon days to explore in full. Sadly, with our tourist pass, we only had until 6pm. Nonetheless we left with culture and history oozing from our pores and smiles on our faces, but with tired legs and hungry bellies.
After a brief siesta at the hotel, we ventured out refreshed and determined to find the best Friday night dining that Granada had to offer. Ross had done a bit of research, so we set off to find a fancy-shmancy restaurant (with no prices on the website) somewhere near city hall. Luckily, we were foiled again by the circuitous streets and we ended up instead at a little local gem called La Borraja. We were the only tourists in the place and there’s no English menu, but the joint was packed. We hadn’t been sitting long when an amuse bouche arrived that was basically a pot of basil-infused cream cheese. Any restaurant that recognizes cream cheese as a dish in and of itself is a winer in our book, so we set about weighing the pros and cons of various delectable sounding dishes for the rest of our meal. Fortunately they were all large tapas size – perfect for sharing but not overly filling. In the end, we decided on starters of fresh ceviche served on lime wedges, and slow roasted eggplant with arugula, shaved Parmesan, and toasted pine nuts. Our mains were a succulent duck breast marinated in honey and cardamom with mole poblano sauce and tender grilled octopus on a bed of cabbage and mashed potato. After four dishes, Ross was still peckish (to the surprise of absolutely no one) so we ordered their take on patatas bravas – fried and stuffed with cheese – and some pork ribs with chipotle sauce that turned out to be the best dish of the night. Three hours later, after crowning the meal with a scrumptious cheesecake and two glasses of Pedro Ximenez sherry on the house, we were ready for bed, even while the rest of the city partied into the night for Halloween.
The following morning broke crisp, clear and sunny. We concluded our visit to Granada with a swift breakfast at a little restaurant near the Cathedral, followed by a peek inside the Cathedral. It was as most cathedrals are – big, spacious, majestic and ornate.
Our faithful satnav did a better job of getting us out of Granada than it did getting us in, so that soon we were racing along the highway to Cordoba and a date with its amazing mosque.
Once in Cordoba we parked up, grabbed a city map from a local hotel and walked our way down to the riverside and towards the mosque. We stopped off for freshly-squeezed hippie-made juice and then walked across the bridge to some or other tower where we had been advised to visit the museum before visiting the mosque.
The museum was hilariously bad. We were given giant earphones that made us look like low-budget Princess Leia impersonators. They played spontaneously as we walked from room to room, but they were faulty, constantly cutting in and out during the narrative. They played music and sounded Muslim calls to prayer but failed miserably to tell us anything of consequence about the tower or the nearby mosque. Fortunately, the mosque itself was more impressive.
In fact, it’s not just a mosque, but is know as the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba. In the last two thousand years, the site has morphed from a Roman temple to Janus, to a Visigoth Catholic Church dedicated to St. Vincent in about 600 AD, to a half-church half-mosque, to a full mosque, and back to a Catholic Cathedral. The phase from 784 – 987 AD when the full (and highly impressive) mosque was constructed comprises most of the building we see today. But there’s no doubt of its current Catholic allegiances, with giant gold cruciforms and paintings of the life of Jesus around every corner. Like so many other sites we saw on our trip, it was a fascinating mixture of influences that could only be produced by centuries of occupation by different cultures. Not something you can see in just any corner of the world and well worth a visit.
All in all, it was an unforgettable experience, and the perfect amount of adventure and indulgence before heading to our Spanish “home” at Suryalila, the Andalucian yoga retreat where Alicia teaches a few times a year. Suryalila and the surrounding countryside boast a multitude of their own charms, but we’ll save that for another post…