Barcelona - A Catalan Gem, November 2018

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November 23rd 2018
Published: November 21st 2018
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Talk about zero dark thirty – my flights out of McCarran started at 12:35am to make connections in Minneapolis and New York – things were going well until my first connection at MSP – everyone had boarded for JFK and we are ready for takeoff, when our captain tells us that a snow storm, ice pellets and a blizzard just hit the New York City area and we are delayed. So we sat at the gate in Minnesota for over an hour (I promptly went to sleep), and finally we leave. Arriving at Kennedy some 90 minutes late, the place is virtually a “whiteout” – snowing like crazy, bitterly cold and flights delayed and/or cancelled in every direction – the place was a zoo! I made my way to the Delta Sky Lounge in terminal 4 to take up residence until my flight to Barcelona was called. And it only got worse from there. First, I had a 5-hour layover at Kennedy which I spent in the Sky Lounge, and as it got closer to the 8:35pm departure time, I headed for the gate. Then the fun started….. it had continued to snow heavily the entire afternoon which caused major havoc throughout the entire airport, and so the delays began. Long story short, we had a total of 4 delay announcements, approximately once an hour, and finally the flight cancellation at 3am the next morning (keep in mind by this time, I had been up and awake for close to 48 hours and was fast approaching exhaustion level). Delta immediately rebooked me on a flight departing at 5pm the same day, but now I must spend the next 14 hours back in the Sky Lounge, and with the hundreds of other stranded passengers, no doubt I will be snoozing on the floor! Ain’t travel just grand? LOL…. So far, the only bright spot in all this, is that the snow has turned to rain and Delta is keeping the lounge open around the clock…..bring on the bourbon before I collapse!

Finally after a couple more minor time delays, a special flight is arranged with the original crew and all of us stranded folks are boarded and in the air the next night…..I have been in these same clothes for more than 3 days now. I probably smell like a goat and given the chance, my clothes would probably walk themselves to the latest laundromat, but at least I’m finally enroute to Europe. Landing two hours late in Barcelona, I find my pre-arranged shuttle transfer and am checking into the Hilton by 10am…. all I need now is a hot shower and hours upon hours of solid sleep to feel human once more.

For this trip, I’ll experience the essence of Catalan culture by staying at the Hilton Barcelona hotel, ideally surrounded by leisure, shopping and culture - located on Barcelona’s main diagonal boulevard. Maria Cristina Metro station is located just 600’ from the main door, just 10 minutes’ drive to/from the city center, and about 15 minutes from the airport – doesn’t get any more convenient than this. They put me into a king executive suite on the top floor and spending the last ounce of energy on a shower, I fell into bed for 6 hours of blissful and much needed sleep. I went to check out the Executive Lounge around dinner time – what a fabulous place that is. Wine and cocktails by the boatload and a selection of canapes to satisfy hunger…. but after an hour and 3 glasses of a decent white wine, that comfy bed was calling my name, loudly.

A short introduction:

A gothic and modernist marvel on the Mediterranean Sea, Barcelona is quirky, cosmopolitan and effortlessly cool. This city breathes life, from chefs foraging for fresh produce in street markets at the crack of dawn, to party-goers leaving pulsating nightclubs around the same time. Stop for a minute and discover Barcelona’s real charm in small details: hidden courtyards, light catching Sagrada Familia’s turrets, all coming together to make this Catalan capital, one of Spain’s most livable and lovable cities.

Start with a leisurely saunter down the tree-lined La Rambla, dipping into the Barri Gotic’s maze-like alleyways to reach Santa Maria del Mar Church. Antoni Gaudi left his fantastical stamp on the city in the twirling spires of La Sagrada Familia Cathedral and sculpted greenery of Park Guell. Do not miss the Picasso Museum displays of his early sketches and Blue Period masterpieces and later, join the locals for some sun on Barceloneta Beach or maybe seek some shade in Montjuic’s Gardens. La Rambla is exactly 1.2km long and nearly everyone who visits Barcelona walks along it. Originally laid out in 1766, following the contours of the medieval city walls that had bounded this part of the city since the 13th century. Locals took it to their hearts immediately as Barcelona, a city of narrow, winding streets, the Rambla was the only space where everyone could stroll and spend their leisure time. Because of its central location, the Rambla became a meeting place for all the social classes. Gradually, leisure and cultural attractions found the perfect location here; the convents disappeared, and florists and newsstands set up their premises. This human river with its street artists, tourists and locals, who still come here for a stroll, provides a journey through this microcosm of contemporary Barcelona.

Enter thru the iron gates of La Boqueria Market to find the city’s best grazing. Here shopping for Iberian ham, glossy olives and creamy goat cheeses is the only morning activity you need, before lunch at any of the yummy seafood bars. Barcelona’s real party begins at midnight, so do like the Barcelonese – take an evening paseo (stroll) and discover intimate bodegas, jazz clubs and tapas bars in the Barri Gotic and Placa Real neighborhoods. In trendier El Born area, DJs spin everything from disco to tangos and summertime means cocktails and people-watching at Garcia’s squares or enjoying fiestas at Vila Olimpica’s beach bars. Looking for something more upscale? Consider putting on your best finery and attending concerts at Palau de la Musica Catalana or listen to an operatic aria at Gran Teatre del Liceu.

A little bit of history:

The area around present-day Barcelona was certainly inhabited prior to the arrival of the Romans in 218 BC, but by whom is open to debate. Pre-Roman coins found in the area suggest the Iberian Laietani tribe may have settled here. As far back as 35, 000 BC, the tribe’s Stone Age predecessors had roamed the Pyrenees and begun to descend into the lowlands to the south. In 1991 the remains of 25 corpses were found in El Raval – they had been buried around 4000 BC. It has been speculated that in those days, much of El Raval was a bay and that the hillock may have been home to a Neolithic settlement. Other evidence hints at a settlement established around 230 BC by the Carthaginian conqueror (and father of Hannibal), Hamilcar Barca. It is tempting to see in his name, the roots of the city’s own name. Some archaeologists believe that any pre-Roman town must have been built on the hill of Montjuïc.

In 711 AD the Muslim general Tariq landed an expeditionary force at present-day Gibraltar (Arabic for Tariq’s Mountain). Barcelona fell under Muslim sway, but they seem not to have been overly impressed with their prize. The town is mentioned in Arabic chronicles, but it seems the Muslims resigned themselves early on to setting up a defensive line along the Riu Ebro to the south. Louis the Pious, the future Frankish ruler, retook Barcelona from them in 801 AD.

Now it’s time for me to “take” Barcelona as a tourist and discover this incredible city for myself. I have a city map, an assortment of sightseeing material and, according to the concierge, the nearest HOHO bus stop is a 2-minute walk from the hotel entrance. Winter time the buses run from 9am to 7pm and each of the two routes (west and east) takes approximately 2 hours to cover. Prices range from 30 to 40 euros ($34.25 to $45.67) for 1- or 2-day tickets, with generous price reductions for kids and seniors. Purchase online and you get at least a 10%!d(MISSING)iscount. This city also boasts an outstanding Metro system which runs until midnight every day except for Friday (until 2am) and Saturday (24 hours). It is clean, safe, cheap and easy to use, and for most, it is the preferred method of transport around the city. Consisting of has 6 lines, plus the funicular railway to Parc Montjüic, they are marked by colors and numbers. Barcelona's metro and city buses accept the same tickets, which can be bought as single ride, ten-trip pass, a one-day unlimited pass or an unlimited monthly pass.

Words of Wisdom, if you’re here over an entire weekend, start thinking about your Sunday now, especially where you’re going to eat. The Catalans have managed to preserve the idea of Sunday as a day to spend with family, so outside of the main museums, the town is closed all day. If a restaurant takes bookings, it’s probably already sold out - if it doesn’t, you can expect to queue for quite a long time. Be prepared to have lunch at 3pm and dinner at 10pm, this is after all, a European/Mediterranean lifestyle. Portions are immense, and Catalans really take time to enjoy where they are and the food being consumed. You can enjoy shopping until 9pm or even 10pm in some places, especially the many mega-malls located around the city.

If Barcelona has a patron saint, it has to be Antoni Gaudi. Born in 1852 in the Auvergne region of southern France, he moved to Barcelona in 1868 to study. Between 1875 and 1878, Gaudí completed his compulsory military service in the infantry regiment in Barcelona as a Military Administrator, however most of his service was spent on sick leave, which enabled him to continue his studies. He studied architecture at the Llotja School and the Barcelona Higher School of Architecture, graduating in 1878. To finance his studies, Gaudí worked as a draughtsman for various architects. In addition to his architecture classes, he studied French, history, economics, philosophy and aesthetics. His grades were average and he occasionally failed courses. When handing him his degree, the director of Barcelona Architecture School said: "We have given this academic title either to a fool or a genius. Time will show." Gaudí, when receiving his degree, reportedly told a friend with his ironical sense of humor, "they're saying I'm an architect now." As time has shown, Gaudi is considered a genius when you view his accomplishments such as the Sagrada Familia, where he was buried in 1926 following his accidental death after being run down by a streetcar. After his death, Gaudí's works suffered a period of neglect and were largely unpopular among international critics, who regarded them as baroque and excessively imaginative. In 1936, during the Spanish Civil War, his workshop in the Sagrada Família was ransacked, and a great number of his documents, plans and scale models were destroyed.

My first glimpse of this magnificent structure was from the top deck of the HOHO bus….it simply takes your breath away. Through a century-plus of off-and-on construction and still unfinished, it has become the icon of Barcelona as much as Eiffel’s tower in Paris or Michelangelo’s dome of St. Peter’s in the Vatican, drawing so many visitors that it’s often booked a day or more in advance. Gaudí's work on the building is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in November 2010 Pope Benedict XVI consecrated and proclaimed it a minor basilica, as distinct from a cathedral, which must be the seat of a bishop. The Basilica of the Sagrada Familia is a monumental church devoted to the Holy Family: Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Construction began in 1882, based on plans drawn up by the architect Francisco de Paula del Villar, and Gaudi was commissioned to continue the project in 1883. The Temple has always been an expiatory church, built only from donations. As Gaudi said: "The Expiatory Church of the Sagrada Familia is made by the people and is mirrored in them. It is a work that is in the hands of God and the will of the people." Tips for visiting this icon: (1) buy tickets online to skip the huge queue, which can sometimes be up to 2 hours long; (2) when you're buying your entrance ticket, spring for a ticket to the tower too - the views over Barcelona are amazing; (3) the audio guide is high quality, and I would recommend it. It explains the entire history of La Sagrada Familia in an easy and understandable way, and (4) there are less people in the morning, between 8-9 am, giving you more space to explore.

But just a couple of miles distant (a healthy walk or a few stops on Barcelona’s efficient metro), stands the building that started it all for Gaudi as a 31-year-old beginner architect, where he first demonstrated his genius for synthesizing global architectural influences, creating living spaces that are at once comfortable, practical and impossibly ornate. Welcome to Casa Vicens, opened to the public in 2017, more than 90 years after his death. It pops up on a nondescript side street in a nondescript Barcelona neighborhood like a peacock might emerge from a flock of pigeons. It might be the most unremarkable setting for a UNESCO World Heritage site that you’ve ever seen. A local critic, Robert Hughes, says Casa Vicens was “meant to evoke a caliph’s pavilion set in an oasis.” When it was built, the house was on the city’s outskirts, and it was set in lush, expansive gardens, only fragments of which remain. Today it is hemmed in and loomed over by bland apartment blocks, mostly built during the Franco era, that occupy most of the former garden space.

Gaudi’s third claim to fame is the Unesco-listed Park Güell which is where Gaudí turned his hand to landscape gardening. It’s a strange, enchanting place where his passion for natural forms really took flight and the artificial almost seems more natural than the natural. The park is extremely popular, and access to the central area is limited to a certain number of people every half-hour – book ahead online (and you'll save on the admission fee). The rest of the park is free and can be visited without a reservation. Park Güell was created in 1900, when Count Eusebi Güell bought a tree-covered hillside (then outside Barcelona) and hired Gaudí to create a miniature city of houses for the wealthy in landscaped grounds. The project was a commercial flop and was abandoned in 1914 – but not before Gaudí had created over a mile of roads and walks, steps, a plaza and two gatehouses in his inimitable manner. In 1922 the city bought the estate for use as a public park. The steps up from the entrance, guarded by a mosaic dragon/lizard (a copy of which you can buy in many downtown souvenir shops), lead to the Doric Temple. This is a forest of 86 stone columns, some of which lean like mighty trees bent by the weight of time, originally intended as a market. To the left curves a gallery whose twisted stonework columns and roof give the effect of a cloister beneath tree roots – a motif repeated in several places in the park. On top of the Doric Temple is a broad open space whose centerpiece is a tiled bench curving sinuously around its perimeter. With Gaudí however, there is always more than meets the eye. This giant platform was designed as a kind of catchment area for rainwater washing down the hillside. The water is filtered through a layer of stone and sand, and it drains down through the columns to an underground cistern. The spired house over to the right is the Casa-Museu Gaudi where he lived for most of his last 20 years (1906–26). It contains furniture by him and other memorabilia. One-hour guided tours in multiple languages, including English, take place year-round and cost 7 euros (plus park admission) – be sure to pre-book online to avoid disappointment – it’s a very popular tourist spot. The walk from Metro stop Lesseps is signposted. From the Vallcarca stop, it is marginally shorter, and the uphill trek is eased by escalators. Buses #24 and #92 drop you at an entrance near the top of the park.

The weather has not been kind to yours truly since my arrival – it has rained on and off every day with brief sunshine breaks – not really cold, maybe mid 50’s overall – but when it rains, it makes it feel much cooler than the mercury says it is. The skies are overcast with heavy, dark grey cloud banks and a stiff breeze disturbs the tree-lined streets. As each day of my stay has a rain forecast, I don’t leave the hotel without my trusty umbrella. Not very conducive to obtaining great photographs, but such is life. I work with what I have. Finally a day with sunshine, blue sky patches and no rain – there is a weather god!

I spent a very pleasant couple of hours at the evening cocktails and canapes event which kicks off at 6pm, in the executive lounge. Always red and white wines available along with a small selection of brand liquor bottles. Last night the food included a delicious paella loaded with almonds and raisins. Usually 5 or 6 dishes are available, along with a cheese board, cold cuts platter and an array of cold salads. Who needs to buy dinner when goodies like this are on offer? I was surprised to see at least 7 other passengers from the JFK snow fiasco also staying here.

A second day without rain so immediately after breakfast I once again made for the nearby HOHO bus stop to do further city exploration. Barcelona really is beautiful. The architecture is simply stunning; the massive amount of graffiti has been lifted to incredible street art and there are enough construction cranes to build an entire new town. Even the Sagrada Família has half of its structure covered with scaffolding and is supporting three massive cranes, as work continues. Gaudi’s influence can be seen just about everywhere here. Building facades with his magic touch stand out from surrounding edifices…..especially his treatment of chimneys….so distinctive. Some of the most interesting and startling architecture is to be found on rooftops – I personally love the gargoyles sitting atop the post office building at the harbor – looks a lot like Notre Dame in Paris. But one of his most famous and probably greatest works must be Case Mila, which is popularly known as La Pedrera, constructed between 1906 and 1910. The exterior stone façade suggests the movement of waves, interspersed by the wrought iron of the multiple balconies. An exhibition of Gaudi’s work is on the main floor and a complete reconstruction of an apartment of that era can be viewed up in the attic. On Passeig de Gracia you’ll see hexagonal paving stones designed by him, and the magnificent street lamps and benches that line the avenue. Casa Batilo with its roof of colored ceramic scales, is one of the most charismatic buildings in the district and is one of Gaudi’s most characteristic works. The highly original façade is topped by ceramic tiles, to emulate fish scales in a rhythmic sequence that is intended to resemble the backbone of a dragon.

For many years Barcelona lived with its back to the sea, which allowed the beaches to become very run down, affected as they were by industrial facilities or by the presence of small shanty towns. The construction of Villa Olimpica allowed the recovery of the seafront creating a pleasant esplanade or boardwalk, which runs parallel to various beaches. Behind Bogatell Beach lies Pobleou cemetery, the first to be built outside the city walls, in 1775. Here tourists can view the large funerary monuments and sculptures from the late 18th and 19th centuries. Close by is the Maritime District – a former fishing district – established in 1753, on land reclaimed from the sea. This neighborhood was constructed according to specific criteria, with uniformed and ordered streets and with houses mainly occupied by fisherman and sailors. This is the ideal location for any tourist who seeks traditional seafood, paella and shellfish – the promenade here boasts some of the best restaurants in the city. The Palau de Mar or Sea Palace is the only remaining building in the old port of Barcelona, where the former general trade stores were located. The late 19th century building was restored just prior to the 1992 Olympics, becoming a diversified space with several restaurants on the ground floor, below the History Museum of Catalonia. This museum takes visitors on an interactive journey thru the history of this region, from prehistoric times thru present day.

My final stop of the day was the Gothic Historical District, which includes a number of streets with medieval buildings which are situated around the cathedral. This is the heart of the old town which bears the marks of its history, its buildings and current urban landscape. There are traces of the ancient Roman colony “Barcino”, the remains of which can be seen in the basement of the Barcelona History Museum.

Riding the HOHO bus back to the Hilton later in the day, I decide to investigate the shopping mall at the bus stop. Avenida Diagonal is one of the widest avenues in the city. Designed in the mid-19th century, it crosses the entire city diagonally until it reaches the Mediterranean. The most famous international brands have their shops in this area, and it is home to a concentration of office buildings, hospitals and shopping centers, among them is L’llia Diagonal built in the 1990s. As well as being a large commercial center with more than 170 stores and restaurants, it includes two 4-star hotels, 2 schools, a sports center, dance hall and even a conference center. Identical to many stateside malls, this shopping center is a pleasure to stroll around and many of the brand stores have very familiar names. I spent a couple of hours wandering around until, glancing at my watch, I realized it was cocktail time in the Hilton lounge…..I hot-footed it back and started pouring chilled white wine!

Barcelona is now the number one port for Mediterranean cruise ships, thanks to the construction of new moorings at the renown World Trade Center at the end of the Barcelona Docks. This large urban complex, evoking the shape of a boat, is a major city business center housing many offices, a conference and convention center, restaurants and a luxury hotel. It is from here I’ll set sail in a couple of days, headed out into the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean once more. I’ve enjoyed my time here immensely but am ready for the next part of my current adventure to begin. Covered a great deal of this incredible city over the past 9 days, but probably missed a lot as well…..such is life, I can always return…. not as if the city is going anywhere, right? Adios Barcelona, Hola…….my next port of call! Cheers……

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