If you were in the UK last winter, you’ll remember the rain that went on for months. By January I was googling cheap flights to get away for Easter weekend (there weren’t any). Copenhagen was looking like the best bet. I fancied making like Saga Norén – albeit without the puce overcoat, there are limits – and crossing The Bridge to Malmööö… But I couldn’t sell it to my husband, who kept mentioning Barcelona and sunshine. He’s been several times on business,, usual scenario stuck in a hotel, could be anywhere, no free time. But we’d been there together in 1990, on a three-week inter-railing trip round Spain. So long ago that they were digging the place up in preparation for the 1992 Olympics. I vaguely remembered having a good time but actually my most vivid memories were of day trips to Montserrat and the Dalí Museum in Figueras.
He was right. It was time to go back.
We only had three nights and although it would take at least a week to do Barcelona properly, you can do a lot in a short time because it’s so easy to get around. The airport is near the centre and public transport is excellent and dirt cheap –a T10 ticket for ten journeys costs ten euros. Hopping on the Metro helped us cover large distances and discover lots of different areas. It’s also an exceptionally nice place to walk around with elegant boulevards such as the famous Ramblas (contrary to the mean streets legend, getting your pocket picked is optional) and Passeig de Gràcia which have a wide, traffic-free strip down the middle for pedestrians, cyclists and watching the world go by from a café terrace.
Barcelona has so much going for it. There’s always something special about a coastal city – it has an attractive waterfront and sandy beaches. It has the kind of vibe you’d expect from Spain’s second largest city (population 4.25 million) and culturally it has a distinct identity and extra dimension as the capital of the Catalonia region. It’s Catalan first, Spanish second and there’s something fascinating about that duality, especially to a language nerd. Everyone’s bilingual but it’s a frustrating place to try and practise your Spanish (if you look foreign it’s assumed – no doubt rightly in 99% of cases – that you don’t speak Catalan and the default is always English).
It would take a long time to do justice to Barcelona’s outstanding museums and more than three meals a day to sample its culinary delights – we only managed to fit in a couple of the many restaurants I’d been recommended (if that’s not an excuse to return, I don’t know what is), most memorably a long lunch at the chic and delicious Les Quinze Nits in Plaça Reial. The tapas thing is a fun part of any trip to Spain but with three big eaters it was easy to blow the cost of a three-course meal and still be hungry afterwards. As for attractions, luckily a friend had advised us to book in advance online – on a holiday weekend the queues were huge. We opted to book something for the mornings and play the rest by ear. Much of the pleasure of a city break lies in drifting aimlessly, taking it all in.
Barcelona is famous for its modernist architecture and for the work of Antoni Gaudí whose stamp is all over the place. We stayed in the Castro Residence apartment hotel one minute from his best known legacy, the Sagrada Família cathedral in the Eixample district just north of the centre (you could see the pinnacles from the pool, which was magical). We were all wowed by the visit (with a good audio-guide). It was a surprise to learn that the cathedral was only consecrated four years ago when the interior was complete – a forest of pillars which are disconcertingly unvertical. Started in 1882, it’s still a work in progress and will eventually have 18 towers, financed by visitor income. We were repeatedly encouraged to ‘take a moment of reflection and meditation, whether or not you are a believer’ – not that easy surrounded by hundreds of fellow tourists.
When I think back to family holidays as a child, it feels as if the rhythm and pace of life have changed less in many other European countries than in the UK where (in cities at least) things are increasingly 24/7. On three of the four days we were in Barcelona, most businesses and shops were closed because it was Sunday or a public/religious holiday (although ironically it was business as usual with the crowds at the Sagrada Família). The shape of the Spanish day is a challenge for many foreign visitors, lunch being eaten well into the afternoon and dinner served past many people’s bedtime (although in reality you can eat whenever you want). The Spanish way suits my body clock perfectly, so I love it.
From the cathedral we wandered up through the arty neighbourhood of Gràcia, having a quick look around one of the city’s covered food markets, and from there it was a steep walk up one of the many narrow streets, Carrer Verdi, in search of a good view. The restaurant we were looking for was, you’ve guessed it, closed, so we ended up in a very simple café packed with locals on Travessera de Dalt. Here we did get to speak Spanish and I ate the most mouthwatering egg and chips de mi vida with not a pushy busker or hothouse rose vendor in sight. From the nearby Park Guëll, another of Gaudí’s wacky creations, there are stunning panoramas of the city and out to sea, and higher still to Tibidabo, which glows like a jewel after dark.
For the boys, the highlight was definitely the visit to Camp Nou, home of FC Barcelona. We were lucky because stadium tours don’t normally take place on match days (they were playing Atlético Bilbao but we couldn’t run to 100 euros a ticket). We got to go up in the press boxes – incredible views – and visit the museum which is impressive. The development of the club reflects the history of Spain and Catalonia through the Civil War and the Franco era and is interesting even if you’re not a big football fan. Two weeks later, I’ve still got the Barcelona Song (in Catalan) on the brain.
We all really enjoyed this trip. One thing is certain – I won’t be waiting another 24 years to return to vibrant, stylish Barcelona. And I’m sure Copenhagen, when we finally get there, will be wonderful.
I always write these pieces hoping you’ll share your travel tales. Have you been to Barcelona? Where else is good for a long weekend?