Friday, 12 February 2016

A long weekend in: Barcelona

10 years after visiting Barcelona as a young and naive teenager, Alexander Litvinenko is once again making headlines, and I'm returning to the Spanish city older, wiser and with a taste for Rioja!

28-31 January 2016

There is no one place, person or food that is solely symbolic of Barcelona; it's a city of contrasts from the street layouts to the cultural identity, all of which I was excited to explore and re-discover over a long weekend what made the rest of January remotely bearable.

Arriving in the city, it was easy to hop the Renfe train to Passeig de Gracia. We were staying in the Avenida Palace Hotel on Avinguda Gran Via De Les Corts Catalanes which was perfectly located to explore the city by foot, or to catch a metro to almost anywhere in the city.

Top Tip: Get the €9.95 T10 metro card, valid on the metro, bus and other lines including the train from the Airport. It gives you 10 trips so is useful if you’re only there for a few days and cheaper than the tourist ticket. It's also transferable so a group of up to 10 can travel on one card.
Dropping our bags off we headed out to make the most of our time in the city, starting with a walk through Placa De Catalunya and La Rambla. 10 years ago La Rambla was a busy mix of street artists, flower stalls and vendors selling anything from jewelry to live animals. Today, the flower stalls seemed to be all that was left, which I was happy about on behalf of the poorly treated animals, but it was a surprise to see what was once the beating heart of Barcelona so quiet.

Next to La Rambla, the historic centre of Barcelona, the Barri Gothic, was next on our list to explore. Starting with Placa Reial, a colonial square with palm trees erupting from the stone slaps around a fountain. From here, the streets turn narrow and wind amongst themselves opening onto hidden squares and courtyards. I love Rome, and the Barri Gothic had a very similar vibe, which was the first contract by comparison to the grid layout of much of the rest of the city.

After passing the Barcelona Cathedral and antique market, we stopped for a lunch of Tapas and Estrella at P Tapas. A green mountain of padron peppers, chorizo and croquettes enjoyed alfresco! Work was a million miles away.

Once we'd checked in and taking a much needed power nap (did I mention we were up at 2am?) we started our evening at El Nacional. El Nacional is a converted garage which now features 4 restaurants and 4 bars, all with a individual style. Walking in was like entering no restaurant I've ever been to before. The glass conservatory was dotted with palms and potted herbs which you knew were destined for the dishes we were about to eat. Inside, what looked like a converted 1920's lift shaft welcomed you and set the tone for the evening; El Nacional had the vibe of a market with all the intimacy of a private opening found at each bar.

The cervesaria was fully stocked with Estrella, including a delicious double malt, which we enjoyed with toasted flatbread with tomato, olive oil and salt. Deciding to stay for dinner we opted for tapas and finished the evening at the vine bar for a glass of cava. This place was like nothing I've seen before and it took all we had not to come back every night!

Day 2

With a good nights sleep in us we were up and out early for our first full day in the city, and headed to the holiest of holies for football fans everywhere - the Nou Camp. Stadium visits have become part and parcel of our European City break, having already visited Stadio Olympico, San Siro and Juventus whilst in Italy, but even I knew Nou Camp was special. And it didn't disappoint. The museum was packed with history, trophy's and interactive features, and the stadium was as impressive and colossal as I'd been told.

Back in the city, Gaudi's modernist masterpiece Casa Batllo was next. This was one of my favourite sights from my trip 10 years ago and I was excited to discover it again. There's a free audio guide which I recommend you pick up. It features lots of augmented reality about the rooms which is really engaging, but keep your focus off the screen and on the rooms you are in. We look at screens enough all ready.

Casa Batllo is inspired by the sea, which is probably why I like it so much, and the rooms flow into one another with changing textures and colours. The patio felt like a beach on shells and sea glass worn smooth by the passing of time in contrast to the swelling seas of the inside.

After pulling ourselves away for a late lunch and re-charge, we headed to the only place to be and be seen on a Friday night in Barcelona, El Born. This vibrant and historic neighbourhood is a more authentic and lived in version of the Barri Gothic, with locals filling the bars and restaurants from the end of the working day to the small hours. Sagardi tempted us in with its wine menu and montaditos piled high on the bar.

Spanish snacking: Montaditos are sliced of bread with anything from cheese, ham or tuna on top and a stick through the middle. You ask for a plate when you order your wine, pick your montaditos (or pintxos) and keep the sticks. When you ask for the bill, hand in your plate and you are charged accordingly. Each are around €2.

El Born is also home to Santa Maria Del Mar, a beautiful church which appear from no where in the mess of streets. Inside it was quiet and contemplative, but most interesting to me were the skull and crossbones on the floor. I presume these are symbolising someone buried here, and in addition to the skulls were also scissors and different apparatus. Mesmerising all the same!

Day 3

One thing I had a strong memory of from my previous visit was the Sagrada Familia and I was excited to see how the notorious Cathedral had developed over the last decade. 10 years ago I managed to capture one stained glass window of the whole interior, and I must admit I wasn't prepared for what would great me this time.

Entering through the Nativity Facade, we were welcomed by joyous carvings and a celebration of the world in sculpture. Everywhere you look is another part of the story. Walking inside, I had memories of the scaffolding and protective sheets leaving only a small area to explore before taking to the towers to enjoy the view, but today we entered an enormous cavern illuminated by the sunlight streaming in through countless stained glass windows in every colour of the rainbow. The floor to ceiling columns looked like trees and the whole space had the atmosphere of being inside a shell to me; clean, calm and the the bright world just outside. It was a beautiful experience and I couldn't have expected to see a more different version. In contrast to the Nativity Facade, the Passion Facade was harsh and angular, and accurately portrays the pain and sadness of the crucifixion story.

Continuing our Gaudi experiences, we spent the afternoon at Parc Guell after finishing at Sagrada Familia.
Top Tip: Buy your entrance ticket to Parc Guell at the Lesseps metro station (card payment only) then spend and free time at the park cafe enjoying the view.

After tackling the steep walk to the park and getting our ticket we grabbed a baguette in the sun, doing our best (failing at times) to avoid the pooping birds in the palm trees. Exploring the gardens was a delight, with each small corner filled with musicians filling the warm air with music. I wish I could have stayed all afternoon. Once inside the monumental zone the spirit of Gaudi came to life with mosaics and hidden treasures created from the rocks.

We spend our last evening in Barcelona at the dreamy beach side in Barcelonetta where summer never ends and the cocktails pour easily. In addition to the sea front, Barcelonatta is also home to some of the cities best seafood recipes and (where we ended up) FOC. FOC specialises in South American food, and sitting at the bar with a glass of wine and a hand full of tacos, we both excitedly got to talking about the adventures we have coming up this year. There's nothing like a trip to help you gain some perspective on what's important in life

Day 4

Packing up at the end of any trip is always bittersweet. I feel sad to be leaving but revived for the break and re-motivated. Our last day in Barcelona was no different.

A late flight meant we still had time to enjoy the day, and we walked to the park via the Arc De Triomf. The park was full of locals and visitors running, partying and generally having a lovely morning. I love catching glimpses of local life, and seeing the yoga classes, joggers and even a group doing tai-chi on a mild January mornings is a true testament to the healthy living ethos of the Mediterranean.

En route to collect our bags from the hotel and make our way to the airport, and despite the overwhelming impression that Catalan is the one true identity of Barcelona, we stumbled across a nationalist demonstration against the governments plans to annexe Catalonia from Spain.

Just when you think you have a place figured out... Like I said, a city of contrasts (and I love it!)