Barcelona – Day 1
From the chilled rural quiet of the #ARTCAVA vineyards, we braved the early packed city roads and perhaps our first full stop-start traffic jam, as we worked our way slowly to a western suburb of Barcelona called Colònia Güell. This small area, along with its connections to Barcelona’s favourite son Antoni Gaudi, also has a free aire for motorhome visitors, and is only a short walk from a station with regular trains into Barca city centre.
We happily bagged the fifth of the six spots available in the aire. We packed a bag with coats, water and lunch, and headed off to see the city. At the station ticket machine we bought a T-10 ticket to share, allowing us ten individual journeys on the metro and trams, five trips each. The first train soon arrived in the station, and before we could step forward the few metres to open the door it sped off again, leaving us bemused and disheartened. But a second train arrived soon after and we made sure we were on this one for the 25 minute journey into the Plaza d’Espaynua.
It was 22 years since my first, and only previous, visit to Barcelona, back in my student days. The city had no doubt changed in many ways, and where it had not I certainly had, so I was glad of the opportunity to retrace some previous haunts and see what latent memories, if any, could be evoked.
Plaza d’Espaynua formed our first glimpse of Barcelona, exiting into the bright sunshine under a deep blue sky. Our first images were of the Bullring complex, now a posh shopping centre, and of twin brick towers framing the formal approach to the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, sat high on the hill in the distance.
We walked east along shaded residential streets to arrive at the Centre for Contemporary Arts, a Richard Meier building conceived in his usual flat, curved planes of pristine white. We paused a little while, the sun warm on our faces, to watch skateboarders performing in the plaza outside.
We strolled slowly along the famous La Rambla, dodging the crowds and enjoying the buzz. We walked under parallel rows of neatly manicured trees to reach the Mirador de Colon and into the nearby Maritime museum for a quick look around the animated metal sea-creatures in their foyer. From here, we walked out along the promenade to Port Vell and around the adjacent marina, full with many very large boats. We marvelled at how, this late in December, the weather was just so lovely, and we felt privileged to be here. It didn’t feel Christmassy, as it would in the UK on December 22nd, and the 23 degrees made it feel more like a summer day stroll.
We walked back up into the gothic quarter, first passing through the Basilica Santa Maria del Mar, into the old streets full of hectic shoppers and buskers playing music, but not the Christmas music we’d be bombarded with in the UK. We passed the main cathedral, set in tiny streets with quaint restaurants. Timber Christmas market huts lined both sides of one main avenue, all heavily laden with hanging ornaments and Christmas baubles for sale.
We cut right through more back streets and narrow alleys, stopping briefly to pick up some snacks in a Panadeia before making our way to the tall, decorative red-brick built Arc de Triomf where we sat and enjoyed our lunch. From here we walked a long way north through the 19th square blocks of the Eixample district to visit Antoni Gaudi’s masterpiece, the Sagrada Família. Busy with traffic and scruffy shops, we endured lots of road crossings as we slowly zigzagged our way through the noisy streets. We queued for tickets and then, confusingly, had to leave the complex and re-enter by another gate on the opposite side of the block, adjacent to the main entrance of the cathedral.
It was slightly disappointing to discover that it is no longer permissible to climb the high towers via the tight spiral stairs, as I did 22 years ago. You now must take a lift to enjoy the view, with a separate ticket that doubles the price of the entry. Feeling you had earned the view and the adrenaline spike of the precarious climb was a large part of the appeal, so we didn’t bother. The entire building has moved on so much since my last visit, but it is still a long way to go to complete the full Gaudi vision. The planned completion for all aspects of the outstanding works is now set at 2026, so we hope to visit again in ten years or so to see it finally completed.
The central space has 36 main columns that all represent tree trunks, splitting off with multiple branches, each topped with wide foliage and leaf motifs that create the actual ceiling structure above. These ceiling leaves were only completed in 2010. Inside the cathedral was fantastically colourful, the quality of light like that in a real forest, warm greens, reds and yellows, quite unlike the cool sobriety of most medieval cathedrals. We marvelled for a long time at the changing light and moving shadows and how the light stone seemed to glow from within; it really is a wonderfully evocative space now, so much more so than before.
After much lingering, we visited the small schoolhouse and the adjacent museum. The latter space housed many original models, drawings and images, and we enjoyed a short video with an overview of the cathedral’s conception and build to date, with animations showing the extent of the works yet to be completed. With another pass through the main cathedral to soak up more of the softly coloured light, we headed out to view the exterior from the adjacent park, before hopping back on the metro.
We travelled only a couple of stops to nearby Casa Milà, known as La Pedrera, The Quarry, to have a quick look at another Gaudi designed façade. Following directly after the Sagrada Família was always going to be a difficult billing, and we were left a little underwhelmed on this occasion, although this could be attributed to sensory overload from a very busy, full day.
We continued further on the metro to Plaza D’Espanya and out into the Bullring, now a posh, glittery shopping mall, to pick up some provisions from a supermarket before catching the train back home. We relaxed and reviewed our day; a very good start, but we still had a lot of ground to cover. Mañana.
Barcelona – Day 2
We bought the same ticket and caught the same train as before, but this time we didn’t exit at Plaza D’Espayna but switched metro trains and headed up to Park Güell. We had a fifteen minute walk, hot and sticky work as mostly uphill, through quiet residential streets to reach the park entrance. We passed several headless men on the way, costumed performance statues looking for contributions. Again it had reached 23 degrees in the sun, a very strange but very pleasant sensation for December 23rd.
Park Güell was a free park on my previous visit, but now charges visitors an entry fee to enjoy the Gaudi portions. After navigating the confusing and inefficient ticketing mess, we finally got ourselves in to wander around. Even at this time of year and with the new charge, the park was overrun with visitors all fighting to take the same pictures.
We walked around and enjoyed the sun and the views, trying to avoid the crowds, but still got drawn in to take the same obligatory photographs; some days you just have to embrace being a typical tourist. We enjoyed some time on a shaded bench, just quietly watching.
We walked back to the same metro and headed south, first to see Casa Batlló which had been dressed for the Christmas season in polystyrene snowballs, then we walked back through Plaza Catalunya, meeting Peppa Pig on the way, to the central gothic quarter. We bypassed the busy Christmas markets, their last day today, and instead cut east, passing by the decorative Palau de la Música before pausing in a quiet square for lunch, where we watched a strange display of interpretive dance being filmed. From here we continued back to the Arc de Triomf, but this time we headed south to the Parc de la Ciuatdella.
We saw neatly pollarded trees, leafless with peeling bark and with new growth like slim fingers reaching for the sky, surrounding the pretty squares in front of the Parliament buildings. A full wedding party passed us, sat two by two on a long line of bicycle-powered rickshaws. It was a beautiful, clear warm day for it, they must have been pleased with the choice, as it looked much more socially interactive and interesting than cramming everyone into cars. We passed a giant statue of a mammoth on the shores of the central boating lake, before reaching the main fountain feature, where we paused for a while to watch the water and enjoy the sun.
From here we walked back along the main promenade to the Mirador de Colon, enjoying the light on the marina, and then wandered up La Ramba again for the final time. We caught the metro back to Plaza d’Espaynua where we hopped off to explore our final area. We passed between the tall brick towers to climb the hill, making good use of the external escalators to aid tired legs on the way, to the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya.
The views over the city and the hills behind were incredible, and we could point out many of the places we had so recently been. We could see Foster’s Communications Tower on the distant hills in front of us, and the curved hook of the Torre Calatrava tower behind. The high peaks of the Sagrada Família were easy to spot in the otherwise ordered pattern of the Eixample blocks. This was a fitting place to end our visit to Barcelona, with the brightly shining sun slowly setting over the cityscape below.