Seen from Placa Espanya at Night
We were standing on La Rambla, the wide, tree lined, main promenade through the oldest section of Barcelona, Spain on our second day in town. We got in a little late from Paris the night before and didn’t have time to do much except unpack and fill the refrigerator with groceries and spend a little time getting familiar with our new neighborhood.
La Rambla is the most famous street in Barcelona and perhaps all of Spain. It runs for about 1 kilometer from the Columbus statue that overlooks the old harbor to Placa Catalunya, the central plaza that serves as the hub for all the spoke-like streets of Barcelona. On this day, La Rambla was crowded with a huge number of vendors, all of which are selling either roses or books. Women are standing in long lines at many of the booths to buy signed copies of books from the authors who are doing a brisk business. Men are waiting in line to buy roses, most of which are red, although some are white or blue.
It’s still quite early in the afternoon, but the crowd seems to have doubled since we arrived an hour
before. Within another 30 minutes it has doubled again. The lines are long at all the vendors and it is getting quite difficult to make our way down the street. We have heard that La Rambla is always busy but this is really crazy. We look down the streets that run perpendicular to La Rambla and they are now jammed also. It seems like it must be a major holiday, but it’s April 23rd
and a Wednesday afternoon and this seems more like New Year’s Eve. This can’t be normal!
We finally find out that this is Sant Jordi’s Day (St. George’s Day in English). Not celebrated in America, but easily the most romantic day in Barcelona. The legend is that St. George slayed a dragon for a fair maiden and in commemoration, men in Barcelona now give their best girl a rose. Women give men a book. The book has less to do with St. George and more to do with the fact that the romantic writers William Shakespeare and Cervantes died on April 23rd
. More than half of the books sold in Barcelona are sold on Sant Jordi’s Day.
One of the
Magic Fountain of Montjuic
fun things about travel is discovering holidays celebrated in other countries that are different than your own. This holiday took us by surprise and even though it was quite crowded, it made our first day out in Barcelona very interesting.
We have a small apartment in a very nice part of town just a short walk from Placa Espanya. The Placa Espanya area was developed around the time of the 1929 Exposition (like a World’s Fair). The area was further developed during the Olympics in 1992 and is very nice. The old bullfighting ring (bullfighting is illegal in Catalonia now) that dominates the plaza has been re-purposed into a nice shopping plaza with many restaurants on the roof. We are walking distance to the national art museum of Catalonia (Palau Nacional), the Magic Fountains of Montjuic and the main area that hosted the Olympics in the Montjuic area of town.
Barcelona has kind of taken us by surprise. Having just come from Rome and Paris, we expected to have a bit of a letdown in the beauty department. Too be honest, we are a little shocked at how beautiful this city is. The streets
Gaudi designed neighborhood
are clean, well lit and tree-lined. Sidewalks are wide and bicycle paths are everywhere. Benches are plentiful and placed in prime locations to view the springtime gardens, fountains and statues located nearby. The architecture of the buildings is incredible with ornate balconies and grand entranceways. In the old parts of town (Barri Gotic, El Raval, La Ribera and El Born) the narrow alleys lead past ancient churches and under low arches. Quiet plazas seem to be around every corner. Small restaurants place tables in the plazas and serve delicious Tapas, red wine or Sangria to well-dressed international and local travelers.
Getting around town is a breeze with plentiful busses and an excellent Metro. We have a bus stop outside our apartment and a Metro stop a block away. There are large grocery markets in town but most fun are the excellent bakeries, butchers or vegetable markets in every neighborhood. Like Paris and Rome, Barcelona has many unique neighborhoods. You can easily trace the development of the city, literally from the Roman era through the Renaissance and up until today.
It doesn’t take long to find out that while you may have arrived in Spain,
you are most definitely in Catalonia. Flags and banners are present in most squares and from many balconies. After struggling with language somewhat in Italy and France, we were excited to be able to use our poor Spanish and at least be able to read signs and find directions again. While everyone here speaks Spanish, most signage is in Catalan not Spanish. Catalan is a unique language that is somewhat a cross between French and Spanish. Luckily most signs around tourist sites are in Catalan, Spanish and English and most people speak some English too.
Unlike some of the other popular European cities, Barcelona has 5 km of wonderful beaches. The old seaport village of Barceloneta is located just off of La Rambla and is host to one of the most popular beaches in town. A wide walkway runs along the beach all the way from Barceloneta to the area where the Olympic Village was located. The beaches are filled with volleyball players, bicycle riders, sun worshippers and many people just enjoying the many seafood restaurants along the way. Benches line the walkway and provide excellent views of the sunny Mediterranean Sea.
are not forgotten here either. Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro spent significant amounts of time here and both have museums dedicated to them. Long lines can be found on Carrer Montcado in the La Ribera neighborhood every day waiting to get into the Picasso Museum. The National Art Museum of Catalonia is located in the palatial Palau Nacional located in Montjuic. The museum was built for the 1929 Exposition and is a work of art in itself especially when lit at night. It is located just uphill from the Magic Fountains of Montjuic which feature colorful fountain displays nightly in summer that are choreographed to music. This is by far our favorite thing we have seen in Barcelona.
Music is everywhere, from musicians playing in the metro and tiny alleyways for free all the way to wonderful concerts played in the stunningly ornate Palau de la Musica Catalanya. Even jazz clubs can be found near Placa Reial not far from La Rambla.
Architecture reached new heights in Barcelona also. Antoni Gaudi designed many fantastical buildings in Barcelona and helped create the modernist style he is famous for. We visited Casa Batllo close to town
and took a short Metro ride to Parc Guell to view his interesting designs. Of course his most famous work is the gigantic, unfinished basilica called Sagrada Familia in the La Eixample neighborhood. All of these are jammed packed with visitors and have long lines. We have of course seen Sagrada Familia from the outside (it would be impossible to not see!), but have yet to brave the long wait times to get inside.
Barcelona has so far proved to be a wonderful surprise. It is truly a beautiful city that should be high on anyone’s list of places to visit soon. We still have a couple of more weeks here and look forward to seeing more of this great city.
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