When EZ and I awoke the morning after our first night in Barcelona, we were offered a spread of croissants, cherries, and coffee fresh from the percolator.
“The Spanish don’t really do breakfast,” JH said. “It’s just coffee and a pastry.”
FB had left earlier in the morning to teach his class, and JH had already eaten his non-breakfast, so EZ and I sat at the dining table and quickly filled up on some carbs and caffeine for sustenance. Then we got ready and set out to meet up with GS and NR before our explorations began.
As JH led EZ and me through his neighborhood in the Old City, I soaked in all the small details that marked this street, this city, this country, as different from what I was used to back home. When I visited Peru last year (check out my blog post here), I was enamored by the over-embellished street lights and gargantuan slides at the playgrounds. Here in Barcelona, the dumpsters were the first thing that popped out to me.
Curved, colorful, and cartoonish – these dumpsters seemed more fun and less disgusting than any I’d encountered back in the U.S. Even more impressively, they were segregated not just by trash and recycling, but by different types of recycling. One for paper, another for plastic, and another for glass. America, we need to step up!
As we walked, I noticed the roads were narrow (nobody drives SUVs around here), with tall buildings looming on either side – small businesses on the ground floor and apartments up above. Geraniums and other plants spilled over most balconies, with flags waving down from others.
JH pointed out an apartment designed by Antoni Gaudi, a Spanish Catalan architect in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who became famous for his whimsical sensibility and integration of ceramics, stained glass, and ironwork. Gaudi’s mark on Barcelona was significant – he is famous for several residential buildings, the outlandish Sagrada Familia church (more on that later), and Parc Guell, among other contributions. I also have a sneaking suspicion that the word “gaudy” was originally a snide reference to Gaudi, although I consider most of his works charming (does that mean I have gaudy tastes??). The particular apartment building we were passing was crowned with what looked like Christmas trees made of grapes, rainbows, and fancy foyer tiles. Ok, so maybe not one of Gaudi’s most inspiring works, but interesting nonetheless.
JH also drew our attention to intricate ironwork on another building. Elaborate ironwork was a celebrated feature of medieval Catalan architecture, and Barcelonans attempted to create a sort of “renaissance” of this type of cultural gothic style in more modern times.
Of course, in the Gothic Quarter, many original medieval buildings remained intact. But before we could reach the Gothic Quarter (Barri Gotic), we had to face….dun dun DUN…La Rambla.
La Rambla is basically the Spanish equivalent of Hollywood Blvd, or Champs Elysees. A wide boulevard full of tourists, along with touristy restaurants and souvenir shops. The center of La Rambla boasted a crop of pavement cafes, where tourists languidly sipped on oversized sangrias under sun-bleached umbrellas…with a sigh, JH lamented that this center was once occupied by a thriving bird market (wait, what?). I couldn’t spot a single local.
EZ, JH, and I stepped into the café off La Rambla where we were supposed to meet GS and NR. Unfortunately, since we could only contact each other when we were in a building or area that offered Wi-Fi, there had been some communication challenges. GS and NR were no longer at the café, likely because the café lacked Wi-Fi and they couldn’t receive our messages there. We waited for a bit, then strolled La Rambla while keeping an eye out for them and attempting to make contact at street pockets with Wi-Fi, which remained spotty. Finally, it was deemed best that we continue with our exploration of the Gothic Quarter, as GS and NR would likely come to the same conclusion, until both parties secured enough Wi-Fi to set a new meeting place and time.
Ah, the trials and tribulations of technology abroad!
The Gothic Quarter felt like a step back in time, with its medieval-style stone structures, labyrinth of narrow cobblestone alleyways, and quaint community squares. One of the more popular sites was the gothic Barcelona Cathedral. Although the façade was beautiful with its tiered doorframes, window embellishments, stone carvings, and serrated steeples, it wasn’t authentic. JH informed us that the neo-Gothic façade had been constructed in the late 19th century, long after medieval times, as part of the gothic renaissance.
My favorite part of the cathedral was the gargoyles. These were not your average grotesque monsters; no, these were unicorns and elephants and lions, among other alluring beasts. Yet they kept a vigilant watch over the cathedral, as well as any demon gargoyle ever has. And they also served another purpose back in the day: water drains. That’s right; in past centuries, rain and other water runoff spouted out of the gargoyle mouths and onto the streets below. How delightfully vile!
JH didn’t take EZ and me inside Cathedral Barcelona, which was crawling with tourists.
“It’s nice, but I’ve always found the interior architecture a bit clunky,” he told us. “I’ll take you somewhere even better.”
And so we ended up at Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar, which was practically deserted. But the interior was indeed very lovely. JH pointed out how the slim, elegant octagonal columns lent the illusion of a higher and narrower space than what actually existed, how their slenderness created a more intricately ribbed, arched vault. In comparison, he noted, the columns at Cathedral Barcelona were stumpy and primitive.
Unfortunately, I was so busy admiring the interior of the church that I forgot to take pictures. Oops! Here’s one from Wikipedia, so you get an idea.
Our tour of the Gothic Quarter continued. We wandered through crowded squares with a central fountain and an assembly of palm trees, bordered by impressive municipal buildings.
We snaked through cute little passageways that JH said were once lined with an assortment of unique local shops and cafes. Sadly, they have all been replaced with major retail chains. Where handmade crafts were once sold, there is now a Sunglass Hut.
We passed through the Jewish Quarter (El Call), a cluster of old buildings and a maze of shadowy alleys. In earlier centuries, a sizable Jewish community lived there and prospered in trade and money lending. That is, until anti-Semitism began to spread in the 13th and 14th centuries, led by the Catholic Church and the monarchy. Attempts to convert the Jews to Christianity escalated into outright violence. In 1391, riots erupted throughout Spain, reaching Barcelona in August of that year. The Jewish Quarter was attacked. Hundreds of Jews in the Jewish Quarter (thousands of Jews in all of Barcelona) were murdered or forced to convert, spurring many of the remaining Jews in Barcelona to flee the city.
A chill swept through me as JH gestured toward a wall in a seemingly innocuous courtyard. The wall was riddled with bullet holes. It was a haunting remnant of the appalling attack on the Jews. Rather than plastering over the wall or otherwise restoring the building, the city had decided to leave the ravaged wall as a constant, quiet reminder of the lives lost.
After our exploration of the Gothic Quarter, the three of us walked across a sunny plaza near the rail station, still searching for a place where we might find a Wi-Fi signal. Finally, we managed to make contact with GS and NR, scheduling a lunch meetup at Mercat de San Antoni (where FB would also join us).
Mercat de San Antoni (San Antoni Market)
Mercat de San Antoni is a fun indoor marketplace replete with butcher blocks and stalls for produce, cheese, and other food items. By the time JH, EZ, and I reached the marketplace, it was just starting to wind down for siesta. However, an outdoor seafood restaurant attached to the market, on Villa Rael street, remained open.
FB, GS, and NR had already arrived. Reunited at last, we all sat down at the table and ordered drinks. JH and FB proceeded to order an array of appetizers.
While everyone else ordered seafood entrees, I was in the mood for steak and potatoes (in this case, steak, potatoes, artichoke, and tomato). And I ate every bite…remember, I’d just done a lot of walking! We were all pretty pleased with our dishes…we knew JH and FB wouldn’t lead us astray! They have impeccable taste when it comes to wining and dining.
After lunch, EZ and I headed back to the apartment with his uncles for coffee while we waited for GS and NR to check out of their hotel and join us. I had an interesting conversation with FB about the use of feminine and masculine word forms in French and Spanish. He explained how some words were attributed a gender based on their direct relation to the gender (un garcon – a boy, une fille –a girl), others based on their energy or distant connection (une maison –a “domestic” and hence “feminine” object), and still others based on completely random whims (une voiture). Language can be fascinating.
When GS and NR arrived, they took the places of JH and FB, who left Barcelona to head to their house in the countryside. With the apartment now to ourselves, our group of four promptly left it in favor of more exploration. Onward!
Cathedral – Take 2
Our group stopped at the Tourist Office to pick up a Barcelona Museum Pass. The pass would be a good deal if we managed to visit most of the art museums covered by it (spoiler alert – we didn’t!). That afternoon, we planned to check out the Picasso Museum.
But first – the four of us had yet to see the interior of Cathedral Barcelona. As this was a big tourist attraction, we figured it was worth a look. We wove our way back through the Gothic Quarter, but became a little confused as to the exact location of the cathedral entrance.
We found ourselves in the cloister, a pleasant garden-courtyard shaded by verdant trees and the surrounding vaulted stone halls. Thirteen white geese floated placidly atop a green pond, near the fountain. Well – mostly white geese. Some were smeared with their own filth…which seemed a bit unholy. But there was a holy aspect to them – 13 geese were always kept in the cloister to represent the age of the patron saint of Barcelona when she was martyred, killed by the Romans.
After peeking into dim candle-lit rooms where you could pray to certain saints of choice, we wound around the cathedral and finally found our way inside. The interior was impressive, but not in the airy, elegant fashion of Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar. As JH had mentioned, the columns were a bit thicker, the vaulted ceilings somewhat ungainly, the atmosphere darker and more medieval in feel. But it was still striking in its own way.
Once we were satisfied with our exploration of Cathedral Barcelona, our group left the Gothic Quarter in search of La Ribera, another part of the Old City, where we would visit Museu Picasso. As we crossed a plaza, we noticed a few street corners occupied by women in short and tight red dresses, six-inch heels, and *gaudy* makeup (teehee). They stared into the crowds, their eyes casting lines of invitation, fishing for potential customers. It was 4:00 in the afternoon. Broad daylight.
“Isn’t it a little early for Women of the Night?” I asked.
“Women of the Afternoon,” NR amended.
“Eveyone’s just on their way to museums right now,” GS said, baffled.
“Maybe these hookers specialize in the museum crowd,” EZ suggested.
We continued on our way to the museum (obviously not taking the bait).
Along the way, we encountered a range of street art adorning the industrial doors of closed shops (no entry fee required to peruse these pieces of art!).
As we approached the museum, EZ suddenly stopped in his tracks.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Did you see that place? You’d love it,” he said to me, retracing his footsteps to an adorable little bar that the rest of us hadn’t noticed. “I think we all need a beer to prepare ourselves for Picasso.”
“That’s a grrreat idea!” NR declared. We were all in agreement.
The ambience of the bar was indeed one that I loved (EZ knows me so well). Cute and cozy, with shelves of books everywhere and delightful album art on the wall. Soothing music, the singer warbling in a smoky voice. Alas, I forgot to note the name of this bar. But, dear reader, perhaps you, too, will stumble upon it on your way to the Picasso Museum.
We took our beers (Estrella Damm brand, brewed in Barcelona) to the table just outside the bar. Here, we relaxed for a bit…we were beginning to learn that frequent breaks like this would be necessary for the amount of walking we did on this trip.
Once we’d mellowed out sufficiently, we continued on our way to the museum. It was a lovely rustic building built of sand-colored stone bricks, accented with potted plants. The current exhibition was fascinating: an exploration of the relationship between the works of Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali. Though Picasso is known for his Cubism and Dali is famous for his surrealism, there are shocking similarities between some of their works, whether it be subject matter, the curves of a certain line, or flirtations with specific color palettes. The comparable pieces of art from the two artists are displayed side by side, and you fully appreciate just how much Picasso influenced Dali. For certain pairs of works, I couldn’t distinguish which artist created which piece unless I looked at the sign; their artistic sensibilities blurred together in these instances.
The other exhibits were also interesting, studying Picasso’s formative years and the transformation in his works throughout the years until he perfected the Cubist style for which he is revered. All in all, an enjoyable perusal. As we got ready to exit the museum, we were also lucky enough to catch a glimpse of costumed people running past us down the hall and bursting onto the courtyard balcony for some sort of performance piece. It felt strange to be behind the scenes, watching their backs from the balcony window as they faced the crowds. Or, should I say, surreal?
It would be a long walk back to the apartment. Luckily, NR had a brilliant idea.
“Guys, I have a brilliant idea,” she said. “What if we make our way back via bars? We can bar-hop our way back to the apartment, so it won’t feel like a long walk!”
We all agreed that this was a brilliant idea, and immediately popped into the bar closest to the museum: Café Sabor. We were greeted at the door by a life-sized cardboard cutout of Prince in a sparkling gown. Just beyond Prince, a crowd of local guys were gathered around several tables, gazing avidly at the TV screen on the wall.
“Is it a soccer game?” GS asked.
No. It was not a soccer game. It was something better.
What is Eurovision, you ask?
I asked the same thing. EZ enlightened us all: “It’s the European version of American Idol. But way bigger. Like an Olympics for musicians. Singers representing different countries compete, and callers vote for their favorites.”
The four of us snagged a table, ordered drinks (Estrella Damm was again the only beer available), and watched the spectacle unfold. Soon, we found ourselves cheering for Israel’s charismatic male singer and his male backup dancers (they were like an adorable 90’s boyband), and admiring the haunting voice of Latvia’s songstress. We spun a running commentary of each singer’s performances, identifying both the strengths and flaws. Just like the locals, we’d become engrossed in the Euro sensation. The bartender even provided us with bowls of popcorn, enhancing the cinematic experience.
By the time we were done at Café Sabor, our group had worked up an appetite. Our next stop was Can Cisa (Bar Brutal), a wine and tapas bar that had been recommended to NR. This was clearly a very happening place with a chic yet funky vibe. Scribblings and sketches marked the walls, along with mounted marvels such as giant fish heads, pig heads, and mermaids (all fake, obviously). We sat at rustic wooden tables in front of a giant sketch of an octopus. Yet, all the food was served beautifully, with the design and precision of an upscale restaurant. The tapas were delicious, although not the most filling of meals.
For our next bar, we decided to stray off the beaten path a bit in order to avoid the tourists. After winding through dark alleyways and somewhat fearing for our safety, we found ourselves at Bar Mercaders. This place was so local that we had to speak Spanish to the bartender. The ambience at Bar Mercaders was artsy and moody, with dim colored lighting and walls decorated with intriguing paintings, posters, and drawings. Once again, we were served Estrella Damm when ordering beer…as a Barcelona brew, this was often the only beer offered at Barcelona bars…perhaps as a tribute to nationalism or city pride? Anyhow, it was relaxing to sit and sip on our beers while listening to bluesy crooners and interpreting the clever meanings behind some of the art.
After Bar Mercaders, our group met some roadblocks (that is, closed bars). When we finally found one that was open, it was the underwhelming Cheers, a tourist-laden Irish pub that played American hits from the 70’s. This was the first bar we encountered whose beer selection extended beyond Estrella Damm, so we took advantage of this to enjoy some lagers and Guinness. But we made it quick.
We had to stroll back to our neighborhood before finding the next open bar right across the street from the apartment: Stereo. Although tiny, this bar was crowded and the bartender was friendly. The backlit liquor bottles lent the area a colorful glow. However, the lighting from above was a little too bright for a bar.
There weren’t too many other bars open nearby. We were a bit baffled by this; sure, it was late at night (1:00 am, maybe 2:00), but we had heard Barcelonans stayed out much later. Then we realized it was a Thursday night. Perhaps the streets would be more alive the next night.
Since our internal clocks had not completely caught up to Spanish time, we gobbled up some kabob wraps from one of the only dining establishments still open, A La Turca. Just what we needed to ease us into sleep.
To read the previous post about my first night in Barcelona, check out: Spain Trip: Bewitching Barcelona – Day 0.5