A few years back was our Honeymoon. We had a great trip, couple of nights in Barcelona along with some traveling across Morocco. It was my wife's dream to go to Morocco - and also to go to see Barcelona and a flamenco show - so it was with an easy glance at flight patterns that we decided that we could do both.
After a careful study of the price variations of dates and cities, and some discussion with my wife, we had agreed that we would go to Barcelona for a couple of days, then fly to Tangiers, travel to Chefchouan, then to Fes, spend New Years in Fes, and fly back to Barcelona for another two nights. On the first leg of the trip, we would see my wife's best friend and husband, who would stay at the same hotel we were in.
From the airport
We found our hotel with ease. There is a bus that costs 5 euros 90 one way, or 10 euros 20 two ways, from terminals 1 and 2 of the Barcelona airport to the city center, with stops at Placa de Espanya and Universitat, ending at Placa de Catalunya, which is the aortic heart of Barcelona, the primary arteries of Passeig de Gracia and La Rambla both stemming out of that plaza's ventricles. You can book bus tickets online here.
The hotel and Spanish night habits
Our hotel was called Pension Miami, located in the Raval district, about a 5 minute walk from Placa de Catalunya and 2 minutes from Universitat, right behind the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art. The rooms are tiny, but with nice touches of character, like carefully carved woodwork making a kind of mantel over the otherwise Spartan bed. The room isn't much bigger than the bed, the bathroom follows suit, and the Russian couple staying next door could easily be heard with every entry and exit, and one could take pleasure in their snoring while using the toilet with the window to the bathroom's sunwell open. Our bedroom window opened to another sunwell, so we had no view of the street - which after visiting Spain with my parents earlier in the year, I discovered was a wonderful thing. The Spanish don't start their partying until around 11 and finish up at 7 in the morning, every day of the week, and since typical Spanish bars are about the size of that Pension Miami hotel room, most of the partying happens on the street.
near our hotel
As soon as we arrived at the hotel, we met our friends, and immediately went out for a walk through the Gothic district. The Gothic district - so-called because of the Germanic influence on the cathedrals of the area - is a tightly packed district of narrow winding corridors and tall, five-story buildings. Many corridors can't fit even two or three people shoulder-to-shoulder, so that much of the area is pedestrian by default (and there are constantly plans to make more places only pedestrian). A walk through this large area can show you how people have been living in Europe for centuries. I've never really seen a place in Europe like it except for maybe in Italy.
Eating on the Rambla
First up was dinner, and while in Spain, I wasn't going to miss paella - a rice based dish of various sea creatures - which I had fallen in love with while traveling with my seafood-faring parents. This was my one culinary requirement. And we passed one restaurant serving it - indeed, as we'd later see, there are plenty of restaurants serving it - with a guy standing outside, inviting people in. We opted against it. Our friend's reasoning for her negative vote, "Restaurants that need someone on the street to convince people to come in can't be good."
on La Rambla
Normally I'd agree, especially where we live in Prague, where most restaurant workers in local places try to hide from customers. In Spain though, this seems to be the standard regime. It might be something carried on down from their Moroccan heritage, since the Arabs seem to have the same habit about getting people inside, as certainly nowhere else in Europe has this annoying habit of trying to invite people to come in - except maybe in certain, tourist heavy places. Outside of every restaurant stands a "tout", telling you about how delicious their food is, offering discounts, and often blocking your way with their menus and bodies so that you'd quit walking and come inside. Of course, for most people, this has the effect of frightening them off - like in our friend' case, and it would in my case too had I not seen the practice before.
in the Gothic Quarter
We ended up at a restaurant on La Rambla. I'm convinced that every restaurant on La Rambla is exactly the same and with somewhat poor quality. "But there are a lot of people in them," our friend protested my rambling on La Rambla while we waited for our food (it was strange that she was pessimistic about touts and yet not about tourist heavy areas).
La Rambla is the main tourist area of Barcelona. It's about a mile long street, which divides the old town of Barcelona with the newer area, "El Rival". I say newer area, but new in Europe's terms, which means about 700 years old. Back in the early days, only the Gothic Quarters were walled and the wall ran exactly at the edge of where La Rambla runs today. The suburb, or El Rival, was on the opposite side of this cleared pathway (defensive measures usually keep development and trees from the outside of walls, to make it easier to shoot people). In the 1400s, El Rival was walled in too, but the urban impression remained, creating a huge avenue running down the center of the city.
Anyway, enough about La Rambla and more about touristic nonsense. "Here's something I especially learned in Prague," I said. "Often the most touristic restaurants are the worst. This is because of what they have to compete on. You can compete on location, atmosphere, food quality, service, and probably a few other things. Touristic restaurants are competing on location and often atmosphere. Because they have the location, they know that the thousands of tourists in Barcelona every weekend are going to see their restaurant and come inside to eat, because it's easy, and they see other people in there - other tourists like them - and assume that because other people are there, it must be a decent enough place. But then, because the restaurant knows this, they don't really have to invest on the quality of the food or necessarily the service.
a square in the Gothic Quarter
"Every real estate agent will tell you that value is made from 'location, location, location', and for the lazy, uninspired restaurateur, this is absolutely true. They need the location, and the steep prices the location brings, to raise up profits, rather than a strong reputation for quality service and amazing food.
"Better then, I think, the restaurants that aren't located in the primary thoroughfares. Maybe you'll get an occasional restaurant competing on food quality in a touristic location, but then they'll easily get famous being touted on Tripadvisor or Lonely Planet, they'll up their prices or down their quality to make more money. But if you can find something just outside of super easy reach - like being on La Rambla - and preferably not having been on Lonely Planet for too long, then you'll find a restaurant that might be competing on food quality."
also a street in the Gothic Quarter
The food that night was plain, the paella uninspiring. And to be sure on our return path through Barcelona when we again ate at a paella place on La Rambla, I found the paella equally dull as my wife found her pizza pretty flavorless. This only confirmed my suspicions about the economics of restaurants.
As for walking on La Rambla, I didn't really see the fuss. As you can tell, I took more pictures of the Gothic Quarters, so go walk there. It's much more interesting and there are by far less touts and scammers hanging around.
The first on our tourist to-do list was Park Guell, which was an old Catalan noble family who had hired none other than Anthony Gaudi to design the property around his house. Gaudi built pavilions for events, a viaduct for walking, some statues, and some houses, including his own. Half the property - which is now a garden - was planned to be a subdivision of houses designed by the eccentric architect, but they never got around to starting the construction. After Franco took power, the place was turned into a park and Guell's home into a school, while Gaudi's house was turned into a museum.
looking out from Park Guell
The metro and getting there
Park Guell is easily reached from Placa Catalunya on the L3 metro line, getting off at the Vallcarca stop - don't listen to tourist guide books, they lie, the other stop has a lot of uphill walking. The metro in Barcelona - though the general plan of the metro is about as confusing as quantum mechanics - is fairly easy to use, since each station and line is fairly simple. Leaving the metro at Vallcarca, it's pretty easy to follow the signage to the Park. The signage takes one to a series of outdoor escalators that go right up the mountainside, making the ascent easy enough for even our fattest of friends.
another view from the park
At the park
At the top, one is confronted with going up the hill to the place of three crosses, or going downhill to the actual park. We decided to go up the hill, see the amazing overlook, then descend along the viaduct that winds down to the pavilions. The viaduct itself looks something like a mix between a prehistoric construction and the remnants of dinosaur fossils, built with crawling and sprawling vegetation in mind, perfectly molded to the sides of the hill. The viaduct utilizes the Catenary arch that Gaudi was famous for perfecting, which only increases the appearance and feeling that your walking through a graveyard of giant lizards, especially with how the viaduct winds its way down the hill like the route a snake might take.
walking along the viaduct
The viaduct ends at the pavilion, where also is located the official entrance to the park. Tickets are 7 euros 50 and can be purchased online at their website, or about a 100 meter walk away from this spot. It's probably best to buy it online, and then you can also buy the Gaudi House and Sagrada Familia ticket bundle and just hit all of this stuff without waiting, if you're good with your timing. The tickets operate on a time band basis, meaning the park sells a certain amount of tickets for a certain period of time, so that the crowds are never too large and you never really have to wait in line, especially if you purchased your tickets previously online. It's actually quite a brilliant system.
The paid area of the park includes as I said, the pavilion, a walk around the school and the backside of the entrance. It's probably actually not worth the 7 euros, since most of that can be seen from the outside almost as easily, and you can take your Facebook picture in front of the gates without actually paying admission. Besides all that, the viaducts, which are in the free area, are really the most impressive Gaudi-designed part.
The Maritime Museum
Last up for the day was the Maritime Museum of Barcelona, which looks far cooler on its pamphlet than it actually is - which is unfortunately all too often the case with touristic sites, the longer I travel, the more I wonder if I should just leave things in the grandeur of my imagination than being let down by the great weight of reality and universal insignificance. What I was imagining was that the shipyard-converted-to-museum would have a bunch of massive 17th century frigates on display that you could walk around on and pretend you're a pirate or fighting with pirates - I'll here admit that my mind never matured past the age of 12. But as we started walking around the Drassanes in the south part of Raval, I realized that there weren't any buildings there large enough to contain my dreams.
Outside had a little wooden submarine reminiscent of the Beatles song. You can't go inside, but you can look in the windows and see what's going on inside. In the museum, there is a large royal barge, but you can't go on it, you can only admire the view of the body of the vessel from below. Then there's a large collection of various types of small fishing boats and a section about cruise liners and pirates that has some pictures and lots and lots of reading. It took me a really long time to get through this part, because I end up trying to read everything no matter how not actually interesting the information is - don't get me wrong, the section on defending Barcelona from the dreaded Berber pirate Barbarossa (not to be confused with the Holy Roman Emperor) was actually quite awesome.
we all live in a wooden submarine
Also included is a small shipping vessel that's sitting out in the marina near the marina shopping mall. You get to go inside and all, but if you've been on a boat before, it's not that terribly interesting, except to take pictures at the wheel. For all of that it's 7 euros. To me it's worth it at that price, but then I'm a fan of history museums, from the life of quixotic writers to the maritime adventures of temporarily independent ports. But if you're only going to be excited by swinging on the ropes of the riggings - something I would have enjoyed a bit more - better to find a ropes' course somewhere. The past is dead, and reliving the past seems to be left to Renaissance Faires and Dungeons and Dragons.
on the boat