Wednesday, August 4, 2010

European stop 4: Barcelona, Spain

After about a week and a half in Italy we arrived in Barcelona, our first stop in Spain. During our travels we experienced our first and thankfully only European workers strike. We were flying out of Venice on Friday, July 9. We planned to take a bus from the Piazzale di Roma stop to the airport. This would have been free as it's included in your vaporetto pass, but of course for four hours on that day the bus drivers were either striking or celebrating their union solidarity during the time we needed to get to the airport. So, we sacrificed 40 Euros for a short cab ride to the airport and were happy not to have to deal with that kind of major service disruption again while on our trip.

The good news, though, is that during our trip three of the eight cities we visited we'd classify as big cities -- Rome, Barcelona and Madrid -- and of these three, Barcelona was definitely our favorite!

Total time in Barcelona: 2.5 days, 3 nights

Money-saving tip:
If you're going to be in Barcelona for three days or more, you should definitely purchase the T-10 metro ticket, which allows you 10 rides on the metro system.

Confortel Almirante
C/. Via Layetana No 42
Price we paid per night: $124
Location: This hotel is in the perfect location for a tourist in Barcelona. It's one block down from the cathedral (note: this is not the same as La Sagrada Familia). It's also just a couple blocks from the Jaume I metro stop and just a couple blocks off Las Ramblas. We were really happy to be staying here on Via Layetana, which runs parallel to Las Ramblas, rather than on or directly off of Las Ramblas itself.
The cathedral, one block away.

Room: Our room was simple, spacious and modern, definitely trying to appeal to the 20-something crowd.
Breakfast included?: No.
Service: This is the area in which this hotel fell short of our expectations. When we arrived on Friday afternoon, Matt decided to take a shower before we went sightseeing. After running the water for all of 15 seconds, the shower stall nearly began to overflow because the drain was clearly clogged up. So, on our way out, Matt alerted a nice receptionist of the problem, and she said that because it was a Friday evening no one would be able to look at the shower until Saturday at 9 a.m., and she said if it couldn't be fixed they would immediately move us to a new room. This seemed reasonable for us. Well, surprise surprise, no one showed up Saturday morning, so we went sightseeing again (this time, quite smelly) and returned around 1 p.m. to discover that no one had come to our room. At this point Matt demanded a new room with a working shower. I was disappointed that the hotel did not follow through with this relatively important bit of maintenance, and then it did not appear to have even made a notation on our account indicating that we needed either service or a new room. We should not have needed to demand a new room -- it should have been readily offered when it was clear the problem wasn't solved.
The offending shower
Internet: Free Wifi in all rooms. The Wifi worked quite well -- fast and reliable.
TV: Reasonably sized flat screen TVs with good station variety.
Overall assessment: This was the last of the three hotels we selected on our own without the help of our travel agent, Cindy. Of the three hotels we chose, this is no doubt the best. If it had not been for the shower incident, I would only have positive things to say about this place. That aside, though, this is a very reasonably priced hotel in a great location, and overall it exceeded my expectations. I just recommend the hotel invest in some Draino.

As I get ready to share everything about our Spanish food, let it be known that I absolutely love tapas. If I was forced to choose one type of food to eat every day for the rest of my life, it would be tapas. So, as we made our way to Spain, I was prepared to eating nothing but tapas, and I believe I succeeded in that goal.

El Jardi
Location: near the Boqueria market off Las Ramblas
Genre: tapas bar
How we found it: After walking around for too long looking for a restaurant that wound up being closed, we found this place.
What we ate: shared several tapas: gazpacho, shrimp, tomato toast, patatas bravas, a tortilla espanola and our first taste of tinto de verano (Spanish summer wine).
Total cost: $50
Overall assessment: This tapas bar has excellent ambiance, situated in a quaint, enclosed garden. The food, though, was not as good as many of the other tapas we had during our time in Spain. I was not upset with our food, but I was not thrilled with them, either, and the gazpacho was the worst I had on our trip (and I ate a lot of gazpacho!).

La Boqueria
Location: in the middle of Las Ramblas
Genre: exceptionally large market with dozens of vendors selling fruit, vegetables, seafood, meat, olives, cheeses, juice, candy, dried goods and some tapas/prepared food stands
How we found it: If you walk along Las Ramblas, you can't miss it!
What we ate: We visited La Boqueria on two separate occasions -- once for a snack, and once for breakfast. Between these two trips we ate homemade potato chips, cod fritters, fresh juice of coconut, strawberry and pineapple, a bag of cherries and two pastries.
Matt is loving some amazing cod 9 a.m.
Total cost: Well, I lost count of this one and paid in cash, but I can promise you that you won't break the bank here.
Overall assessment: Better than a grocery store, this is a visually stunning place to walk around and grab a few snacks (or maybe even a complete meal!) while you're at it.
Note: Closed on Sundays.

Lonja de Tapas
Location: in La Ribera near the Picasso Museum -- Placeta Montcada 5
Genre: Tapas restaurant
How we found it: Walking around
What we ate: shared a pitcher of sangria and several tapas: patatas bravas with a wonderful aioli sauce, grilled calamari with garlic and parsley, a salad and mussels.
Total cost: $54
Overall assessment: This restaurant is part of a local chain of tapas bars, and it certainly knows what it's doing, from the food to the decor. This was one of the best meals we had in Spain. I'd highly recommend everything we ate with the exception of the mussels, which needed more seasoning.
Placta Montcada 5

Location:  in La Ribera, again near the Picasso Museum
Genre: Pintxos
We were in Barcelona on the night of the World Cup final between Spain and Holland, so for this meal we had to eat quickly while standing up before scouting out a bar where we could actually see a TV (where are all the giant HDTVs when you need them? Answer: in America). So, we had our first experience with pintxos in this bar.
What are pintxos? This is another type of bar food, smaller than tapas. The pintxos we ate, and most of the ones we saw in Spain, are appetizers served on a piece of bread with a toothpick in the middle.
How are pintxos served? Pintxos are in large plates on the bar, and you walk up and serve yourself as many times as you'd like. You keep the toothpicks from each pintxo so at the end you can settle your tab.
How much do they cost? Pintxos usually cost 2 Euros each.
What are some examples of pintxos? We ate some excellent pintxos -- salmon with onion and dill; goat cheese with hot sauce and pistachios; jamon with hot pepper; a croquetta of bacon wrapped around shrimp and cheese (possibly the greatest combination on earth).

From my experience, sightseeing in Barcelona is laid back but full of visual interest. Most of the fun of Barcelona is simply admiring the architecture of this city, so I don't have too much to say that the pictures can't say on their own.

Gaudi's Park Guell
Price: Free
Be sure to spend a late afternoon or evening exploring this public park that's unlike anything you've ever seen.
Tip: If you take the metro to visit Park Guell, get off at the Vallcarca stop instead of the more-popular Lesseps stop. By doing so you'll find yourself taking a series of escalators located in the middle of the street (I kid you not) and you'll start your tour of the park near the top, making it easier for you to make sure you cover the park in its entirety. In particular, you won't be able to miss the outstanding view from the outlook with the three crosses.
In the distance, see the escalators you'll use to ascend to the near-top of Park Guell.
Walk up the narrow rocks leading up to the outlook with the three crosses, where you'll have some excellent views of Barcelona and Park Guell.
Get inside Gaudi's mind, or at least admire his crazy genius.

Museo Picasso
Price:  9 Euros (adult ticket)
Of all the museums and historical sights we visited during our trip, this was undoubtedly my favorite spot, perhaps because I've loved Picasso since I studied him in depth during my sophomore year of high school, but also because this is a really user-friendly museum. Especially amazing is the gallery devoted to Picasso's study of Velazquez's Las Meninas. Nearly 300 years after Velazquez created this masterpiece of Spanish art, Picasso spent the better part of a year creating over 40 paintings, each studying the masterpiece from a different angle.
Tip: No need for an audioguide or iPhone app here. This museum moves chronologically through the artist's life and is exceptionally well marked, with plenty of explanations printed on the walls in English.
Inside the museum's courtyard.

La Sagrada Familia
Price: 12 Euros (adult ticket)
This Gaudi cathedral is still a work-in-progress, but the construction-zone vibe does not take away from the unbelievable nature of this modern creation.
Tip 1: Unlike all cathedrals and churches we visited in Italy, in Spain there is not the same emphasis on covering your shoulders and wearing knee-length skirts. Still, while no one will force you to cover up, it's a good idea to show respect by not showing too much skin.
Tip 2: Take the elevator up one of the cathedral's towers (2.5 Euros per ticket). You may take the elevator back down, which is what I would recommend if you are not keen on heights. We walked down the stairs rather than taking the elevator back down, and although we enjoyed the walk and views, it's definitely a little frightening to look down the middle of the spiral staircase and see how far you have to go (or how far you could fall!).

Day trip: Montserrat
Montserrat is a mountain with unusual rock formations, a monestary and a national park outside Barcelona. It's one hour away by train.
Tip 1: There's no need to buy your train tickets in advance. The train leaves 18 times per day and there's plenty of seats available.
Tip 2: The train will let you off at the bottom of the mountain, so you'll need to know before you depart how you plan to ascend the mountain. There are several options, but I recommend the cable cars for the unique experience. If you choose to take the cable cars, you'll need to get off the train at the Montserrat Aerie station.
Tip 3: The trails in the national park are not easy. In fact, they're more steep-rock-steps than trails, the kind that make you want to turn around after 30 minutes of strenuous hiking on a hot summer day, or maybe that's just me.
A couple views from the hike...
Fun fact: The basilica at Montserrat houses the 12th-century wooden sculpture of the Black Madonna, who is the Catalonian patron. Pilgrims wait in a long line to see the statue each day, and many people leave gifts and light candles for the Madonna.

Next up...let's fly to Sevilla, Spain and visit our favorite city of our entire European vacation!

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