Travelling, Arriving, and Exploring
It is the middle of January, and my much-awaited first trip of 2019. I realise on the way to the airport that it has been SIX WEEKS since I last left the country, and it really feels like a long stretch, with the world’s weirdest Christmas behind me. Sailing through security and settling in for the first early-morning coffee, I absent-mindedly start to scroll through photos on my phone. I become suddenly overwhelmed with thankfulness for the experiences I’ve had over the last few months – the people I’ve met, the places I’ve been – and find myself almost moved to tears. I blink them back and shrug them off; it is not the first time I have found myself crying at airports, and I am sure it will not be the last. It feels like the perfect time to write down some thoughts and I settle into what I have found to be the perfect people-watching spot. If you find yourself flying from gates 1-20 in Birmingham airport, make your way to the Costa coffee shop opposite the book store – there is a row of outward-facing stools at a counter which allows a perfect snapshot of every person passing through.
After breaking through a thick, grey sky to land, I make my way to the Aerobus stop. This bus runs from 5:00am until half-past midnight, 365 days a year, taking around 30 minutes to get to the city centre. A return will cost you €10.20 and can be bought online at http://www.aerobusbcn.com/en/fares , or at the bus-stop. There is a bit of a queue (and the cold snap that has gripped every part of Europe means a shivering wait), but buses are arriving every five minutes. Settling into a (thankfully warm) seat, the journey begins. I have to say, the drive from Barcelona airport to city is particularly uninspiring. Passing block after block of high-rise flats, you’d be forgiven for thinking you had been transported back to the Midlands and were on your way to Coventry city centre. However, the roads and buildings gradually give way to the city I have glimpsed in guidebooks. Alighting, I find my hostel just five minutes from the bus stop. This time, I am not travelling alone, and my friend is already waiting in the foyer. She has been travelling all night and I discover her, head in hands, dozing at a bar table. Agreeing that we are both ravenously hungry, we gaze longingly at the bar menu whilst resolving instead to wait the twenty minutes until check-in, drop off our bags, and find somewhere more authentic to eat.
Pre-warned about the tourist-trap restaurants of Las Ramblas, we wander into a side street and pick a suitably local-seeming place. I order a wonderful vegetable paella. Later in the trip, I will learn that you should never eat paella in the evening, unless you are partial to eating leftovers from other’s plates… whether this is true or not, my lunchtime dish was delicious and, hopefully, leftover-free. We linger a long while over extremely strong sangria, aware that the first afternoon is slipping away, but enjoying sitting, drinking, and talking, in the unique way you can only when in a bustling, foreign city. Eventually, our desire to see the sea wins out, and we wander South for some cold pictures on the sand, quickly scoping the opening hours of the cable cars (we have missed them), before diving into another side-street bar for more generously-served alcohol.
Attempting to Pub Crawl
This Friday night, we have booked a pub crawl. After a quick change at the hostel – the tickets insist we “dress to impress” – we find the meeting point, eagerly anticipating meeting the 50 to 100 other travellers that reportedly attend these events every night. Arriving at the bar and checking in with the disinterested rep sat innocuously in the corner, we realise that the population of the bar is, in fact, three. That is including ourselves. And the rep.
Not to worry, we say, in our best British manner, I’m sure more will arrive! This will be a great night, I’m sure! Sipping our first ‘free’ drinks, we are pleased to see that four others, at least, arrive. They join us before we are herded (if six counts as a herd) to the next bar. There is no denying here that the free shot has no alcoholic content whatsoever, and it is the same in the next bar. Our rep wanders off repeatedly and there is no sign of the crazy good times (or free T-shirts!) that we were promised upon parting with our €19.99. We make a snap decision to make a break from her. Yes! It is a revolution – we will plan our own bar crawl! We will find the most fun and vibrant pubs and clubs that Barcelona has to offer!
It turns out that Barcelona is a big and sprawling city. Unless you know where you are going, and have a plan, you can find yourself wandering for what seems like miles between bars – time enough to continually sober up and wonder whether you should have stayed with the lacklustre rep. 15,000 steps later, we finally find the club that one of the Brazilian backpackers in our group promised, yet we had started to doubt existed. Grimacing at both the €15 it cost to get into Otto Zutz (I will now concede that this is not too terrible, especially considering the entry fee includes a drink) and the sounds of Spanish R&B drifting out from the dance floor, I wonder whether my aching feet will allow me to dance at all. They do, and we have fun, but who should we see at the bar when we decide it’s time to start the long trail home? The pub crawl rep, of course.
Picasso, Gaudi, Independence, and Tapas
On Saturday, I leave Maxine asleep and somehow get up early to start the day. Despite the sore feet and lack of rest, I am glad I did. Walking through Las Ramblas, I am acutely aware that the lack of crowds on the street is likely to be unique to this time of day, and take the chance to wander along it and its side streets, with the whole stretch almost to myself. I am on my way to the Picasso museum. Full of works from the very beginning of his career and spanning a huge range of styles, I absolutely love it. The building itself is stunning too; it is the kind of space that makes you want to stop and contemplate for a while. Picasso seems to follow me around when I travel; there seems to be an iconic piece to view in any city I am in, yet this is definitely my stand-out Picasso experience so far, of course. Tickets can be booked in advance online at https://entrades.eicub.net:8443/muslinkIII/venda/index.jsp?lang=3&nom_cache=PICASSO&property=PICASSO&grupActiv=1 and require that you select an entry time slot. Admission plus an audio guide is €17. Check the website calendar before booking, however, as there are a small number of midweek ‘free admission’ days made available, although you will still need to reserve a ticket.
Several postcards now purchased in the shop, I meet up with Maxine again and we set about our masterplan to fit in as much as we can during the remaining daylight hours at our disposal. We purchase multi-use metro tickets and quickly consult our maps to plan a whistle-stop Gaudi tour, aware that the only way to see the things we want to is to zip about underground between tourist attractions. Like the majority of European metro systems (London excluded!), Barcelona’s is clean, reliable, and not overly crowded (although bear in mind this observation is made at potentially the lowest ebb of the tourist season, on the coldest weekend that Spain is likely to see for the entire year). A 10-use ticket costs €10.20 and is great value for exploring the city. We take in the iconic and as-yet still unfinished Sagrada Familia, together with other impressive Gaudi gems, including Casa Battló, and also manage to fit in a pleasant and leisurely – as has become our Barcelona way – lunch at a cafe called ‘Cheese and Cake’ (the name is deceiving – there is a myriad of vegan and vegetarian options). A hurried metro ride back to the Gothic Quarter means we make it to our 15:00 walking tour just in time.
We spend a wonderful three and a half hours walking the Gothic Quarter, learning about the Catalonian quest for independence, together with interesting stories about daily life and traditions within the city. I had booked the tour with ‘Free Walking Tours BCN’ – the guys with the purple umbrellas you will see waiting around in Plaça Catalunya – and would love to be able to recommend them to you. However, about halfway around our tour, we start to wonder whether the umbrella of our guide was more blue than purple, and suspect that we have been sneakily stolen from our intended tour group by a rogue tour provider. A quick consult with two others in our group confirms this, but we don’t mind. Our guide, Patrick, is entertaining and knowledgeable, and even joins us all for tapas afterwards.
My flight is, unfortunately, scheduled for early the next morning, and after Tapas and drinks, it’s time to head to bed. I’m aware that a lack of planning, daylight, and time means that I am leaving many things undone. Maxine has another day in the city and vows to fit in as much as possible, and to take pictures, so I satisfy myself with living the remainder of my Barcelona dreams through her, and adding the Catalonian capital to my list of must-return-to destinations.