Note: Since I haven’t been very fastidious about updating this month, here’s an online version of the Barcelona feature that I have in City Pages this week; content which is not otherwise available online. We will return to our regular programming soon enough.
Ask most people around central Wisconsin what an ideal getaway might look like at this time of year and many will start with the weather before quickly turning to activities, amenities, art and culture. Toss in friendly natives, great food, eye-popping architecture and a beach on the sea a bit south of the south of France with far more to recommend it by way of traveler economics and you would have the beginning of a postage stamp picture of Barcelona, Spain.
Founded during the Roman Empire and festooned with Art Nouveau buildings between the late 1800s and World War I, the port city of Barcelona is the place where Columbus returned triumphantly after his first voyage to the New World, Picasso learned to paint and Salvador Dali was born. Antoni Gaudi defined Catalan Modernism more than a century ago with what is still today some of the world’s most creative architecture. Barcelona encompasses all of that in a thriving European city of 1.6 million, where people see themselves far more as Catalans than Spaniards, embracing a unique culture that even includes its own language.
The climate is pleasant and roughly comparable to Atlanta, though a few degrees warmer in the winter months and a few degrees cooler in the summer, with less rain. While it receives its share of tourists and has a thriving hospitality trade today, Barcelona labored under the harsh right wing authoritarian regime of Spain’s infamous dictator, General Francisco Franco, from 1939 until 1975. Ground was quickly recovered with the return of democracy after Franco’s death and by 1992, Barcelona was hosting the Olympics. Spain was among the first wave of countries to replace its currency with the Euro more than a decade ago and while economic issues have loomed large in recent years, Catalonia and its capital have fared better than Spain, overall.
We’ve used the winter holidays to travel for years because it’s been a time when we could consistently carve out time. Overbooked planes and airport SNAFUs has become an annual media cliché’, but that is not as true of international travel. The proof has always been in favorable airfares that tend to prevail from November through early March, with little interruption. When Delta opened a new route to Barcelona in 2012, it created an opportunity to cash in miles at the minimum level for a European destination, but we noted that even as this is being written, a trip from CWA in late January could be booked for around $180 less than to Paris. (Speaking of Paris, many people have seen some of the convoluted routings that can appear when trying to book an award ticket. But when one our options included a 22-hour layover in Paris on the way home after an hour and 20 minute flight from Barcelona arriving at noon, we snapped it up in a heartbeat.)
The favorable comparisons didn’t end there. For around $140 a night, we were able to book a spacious apartment featuring a kitchenette and a balcony overlooking La Rambla – Spain’s most famous street and a hub of activity around the clock. We had initially thought we might want to cook up some of the offerings from the incredible public market a block away, but a little experience with the comparatively low dinner tabs soon saw us letting others do the preparation and the dishes.)
Overall, Barcelona is an easy trip for even novice European travelers. The airport is stunning and simple to get around. Choose a hotel near an Aerobus stop and you will be whisked in from the airport for less than $7 and your 25-minute ride will give you a quick orientation along the way. (You won’t be waiting, since buses depart every five minutes for most of the day and they’re only 10 minutes apart during the slower times.) Once you’re in the city, a 10-trip metro ticket that you can share with companions is less than 10 Euros — about half the cost of buying single-journey tickets.
Dense and compact, Barcelona is one of the most walkable cities that you’ll ever find, but if you want to move a little faster under your own power, bicycle rentals are plentiful and reasonable. An interesting aspect is that the city is filled with extremely narrow streets where one would have a challenging time taking even a modestly-sized car, making it especially inviting to explore by foot or by bicycle. We thought about renting scooters, but not too long. Instead, we spent nearly four hours bicycling on paved, palm-studded pathways along the Mediterranean coast that would have been largely closed to us on motorized vehicles.
What to see
I’ve never considered myself an architectural tourist, but it is an inescapable aspect of Barcelona. From the most extensive collection of subterranean Roman ruins anywhere to a glistening modern seafront along the Mediterranean, Barcelona is historic and contemporary at once. But Gaudi’s work is a must-see for anyone who visits the city. At the top of many lists would be the surreal and still incomplete Sagrada Familia, where Gaudi spent the last 14 years of his life supervising construction and he is buried in a crypt there. Only one of the church’s unique, multiple spires was completed at the time of his death in 1926 at the age of 73, when he was struck by a city tram. Work crews and cranes still labor on the project today, nearly 130 years after it was begun. The massive, iconic edifice draws 2.5 million visitors annually, truly defying description with its sheer complexity.
While Sagrada Familia was Gaudi’s last work and it has been carried on by others since before the Great Depression, it is only the beginning of what he gave to Barcelona. Casa Mila, which is more commonly known as La Pedrera, is an 8-floor apartment building constructed around two courtyards and there are few, if any straight walls in the structure. Completed in 1910, it featured underground car parking; something fairly visionary when you consider that the Ford Motor Company was only three years old when construction on La Pedrera began. For 16.50 Euros, visitors can tour the building, including the incredible rooftop and its Star Wars-looking sculptured ducts and chimneys called espanata-bruixes (witch scarers.) In Gaudi’s world, a courtyard was not simply that, but a “light well” allowing each apartment to be illuminated from the interior of the building as well as by the windows on the exterior side. Molded balconies flourished with eclectic, leafy wrought iron work to complete the other-worldly motif.
A final Gaudi masterpiece that is worth its admission is Casa Battlo, which was actually a renovation of an existing building. Its iron balconies have been compared to masks in a carnival procession and the over-the-top roof features not only the signature Gaudi treatments for chimneys and ducts, but a colorfully tiled “dragon’s back” portion said to symbolize the legend of St. George. Casa Battlo was declared part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site acknowledging Gaudi’s work as ‘an exceptional and outstanding creative contribution to the development of architecture and building technology which anticipated and influenced many of the forms and techniques that were relevant to the development of modern construction in the 20th century.’
Best of all, the notable works of Antoni Gaudi are only the beginning of a long list of treasures in a city that has meticulously preserved so much of its history, while harmoniously blending in new elements as time goes by. The palatial grounds and fountains of Montjuic, topped by the stately Palau Nacional and the site of the 1992 Summer Olympics are as splendid as any you’ll find and the waterfront developments in the port where Columbus returned mix modern improvements seamlessly into the city’s historic Old Town. Palms and citrus trees with miles of sandy beaches that are completely open to public access finish the picture of a place with a little something for everyone.
What to eat
Spain is well-known for tapas and these menus are available in many different establishments, including restaurants that are dedicated to this Spanish tradition and many bars. There are certain popular items and signature offerings at some places, but tapas are really whatever they happen to be. It’s not a matter of certain ingredients or a style of cooking. Tapas dishes can be hot, cold, raw, deep-fried, grilled or roasted. While often featuring meat or seafood, it can also be vegetables. It is also not simply an appetizer.
The story has it that tapas began as something to cover glasses in bars to keep bugs from getting into the drinks and it evolved from there. Today, tapas courses need not be quite so functional and so they can be whatever the chef has in mind, but they retain the tradition of being small courses. The best advice was from a server who said to think of a tapas course as a “half meal” and that turned out to be about right. We enjoyed shrimp, calamari, octopus, chicken, small salads, potatoes and more as we made our way around a few of the many tapas outlets. As a major port city on the Mediterranean, seafood is particularly popular and it is as fresh and fabulous as it comes. Tapas are the best way to eat in Barcelona because they provide the opportunity to taste a wider variety of foods without investing too much risk in one particular offering. (That’s something that I’ve wished I could do back home on more than one occasion.) A typical meal for two with wine and dessert regularly fell between 55 and 65 Euros; less than what we see in Paris by perhaps 30 percent. Unlike France, gratuities are generally not included.
We also enjoyed some excellent food in al fresco restaurants surrounding the Mercat de Sant Josep, which is Barcelona’s fabulous public market, also known as La Boqueria. This is a place for food and it doesn’t fall short in any aspect. Fresh seafood, produce, wines, candy, meats, bakery, mushrooms, sausages, olives; La Boqueria literally has everything from soup to nuts. This market is colorful, vibrant, noisy, crowded, compact and completely authentic, with not a single souvenir vendor in sight.
One item that has numerous vendors is something that must be akin to the national food of Catalonia, jamon iberico. It’s an aged ham that has some similarity to Italian prosciutto. It comes in three different grades that start on the low end at a price per pound higher than lobster and it goes up from there. All jamon iberico is made from black Iberian pigs and the grade is largely determined by the diet of the pigs, the curing and the reputation of the maker. The highest grade ham is from free-range pigs that are raised along the border with Portugal and dine on acorns during the weeks before they are harvested. The ham is cured for several years, removing much of the moisture.
At the La Boqueria and other places where jamon iberico is served from the whole ham, the meat is shaved in paper-thin slices. The black hoof remains attached to show customers that they are getting the real thing and not simply some random domestic farm animal. It is very flavorful and a staple in many tapas recipes. A little goes a long way and that’s a good thing because it’s so pricey. But in Barcelona, the stuff is everywhere, including little packages with a few shaved slices in even the smallest grocery stores. It makes a great sandwich on a fresh baguette and it’s easy to see how people get used to having it around. (Very little true jamon iberico ever makes it out of Spain to the U.S. – not even the jamon-flavored Ruffles potato chips that we found in the grocery store.)
As for what to wash that all down with, beer is popular, just as it is almost anywhere in western Europe. Sangria, a punch-like drink made from wine, fruits and some carbonated water or fruity soda, is something that you need to try. It’s tasty and a great way to make use of heavy red Spanish wines — (although I wouldn’t do this with a nice bottle of Bordeaux, any more than I would pour Coca Cola into Cognac.) But my personal favorite beverage in Barcelona is cava, which is Spain’s version of champagne. It is inexpensive and very well done. (You can get it here at home in many outlets and the most common I’ve seen is Freixenet, which you’ll find in a black bottle among the sparkling wines. It’s a tremendous value and interestingly enough, that one maker of cava puts out more volume than all of the champagne makers of France put together.)
What to watch out for
Barcelona is famous for pickpockets and other property crimes of snatch-and-run variety. People need to secure their valuables in a far more conscientious manner than what is typical in central Wisconsin. Leaving your laptop, Ipad, digital camera or cell phone on a restaurant table is asking to have these things stolen. This not a place to keep your wallet in your back pocket, drape your purse strap over one shoulder or hang a bag on your chair in a restaurant. (Personally, I like jackets with interior zippered pockets.) Don’t wear backpacks or fanny packs, as a matter of routine. Skip the fancy jewelry and watches. Keep things like passports, extra credit cards, excess cash or anything else you don’t have a real need for back in the hotel safe. I’ve never lost a nickel in dozens of trips to Europe, but a typical day in Barcelona includes hundreds of thefts and tourists are a prime target. Ignore people who ask for change, directions or anything else. Stay away from hookers, (which are legion in this long-time seafaring town and sometimes fairly aggressive.) Understand that while the Spanish like to stay out late, it may not be your best move if it means navigating your way home down narrow, lonely streets. By remaining alert and avoiding situations that could make can you a target, you can enjoy your trip with far less risk than you will experience by being naïve.