It didn't take long to hear strains of Spanish guitar music in Barcelona; it happened our first morning while wandering the Gothic quarter. We followed the melody and emerged from a narrow lane onto a plaza, the Barcelona Cathedral suddenly looming tall up ahead. It was so quintessential it could have been a tourism commercial, but I'm such a sucker for those moments that it gave me a bit of a heart leap.
Like most visitors to Barcelona, Joy and I took a stroll down La Rambla. The people watching on the wide pedestrian boulevard was top notch; a global melting pot of languages, expressions and quirky fashion choices. They were mostly tourists like us, but a few locals were picking up newspapers or lottery tickets at newsstands, or choosing pretty plants at one of the few remaining flower stalls.
A lot has changed on the strip in the 25+ years since I first visited the city. The bird sellers so prominent last time were mostly absent, with just one vendor displaying a few swinging cages of sweet-singing fliers. Souvenir stalls have replaced the birds and flowers. And also rows of designer handbags laid out on blankets, presumably easy to swoop up in case of the need to flee approaching authorities.
The presence of street performers is one element that has remained. They've upped their games though, with elaborate insta-worthy costumes and attention-getting moves.
An unexpected treat was the food sampling along the way. We devoured churros con chocolate from a street vendor before heading into La Boqueria Market to see what goodies were on offer there. We ordered exotic fruit smoothies (pineapple-mango for me) bargain- priced at one euro. We stopped at a stand selling nothing but ham to sample melt-in-your-mouth jamon iberico before heading out to finish our stroll down to the waterfront.
"Give me a museum and I'll fill it" -Pablo Picasso
The rain in Spain fell mainly (and only) on the day we had planned an outdoor walking tour of Gaudi's buildings. A quick shift in plans for the morning took us indoors to learn more about another artistic genius at the Picasso Museum.
I hadn't realized how young Picasso was when he started painting (turning out some impressive canvases when he was only 14), or how many styles he'd employed. We saw examples of early traditional portraits, impressionist landscapes, Art Nouveau posters, still life paintings, some of his early cubist pieces, colourful carefree canvases from his time in the south of France, and creative ceramics, including unique vases shaped vaguely like birds.
And to think that was only one of eight museums in Europe focused solely on Picasso, let alone his works displayed in non-dedicated galleries. So. Much. Talent.
Our rescheduled walking tour was a whirlwind fly-by of Gaudi's greatest residential hits. In his early career, he made his living designing private palaces for wealthy Catalonians. Each is wondrous, unique and different from the work of any other architect in history. He wasn't the only practitioner of the style known as Catalan Modernisme, but he might have been the most prolific.
A life's work: Gaudi's Sagrada Familia
Gaudi's crowning achievement was every bit as wondrous as they say. Three massive facades represent different phases of the life of Jesus (Nativity, Passion, Glory) and twelve bell towers are dedicated to the Apostles. Every surface and portico is adorned with intricate carvings in a multitude of styles depicting biblical characters, symbols and scenes.
Inside are soaring columns of marble "trees" meeting at peaked arches high above to create a mystic forest. Serene multi-hued light streamed in through tall stained glass windows. Intriguing details were everywhere: angel faces, carved flower garlands, sculptures in high alcoves, and the crucifix of the main altar suspended under golden canopy.
It could take days or weeks to fully take in all of the symbolism and allegory. Of the countless churches I've seen across Europe, the Sagrada Familia has most captivated my soul, if such a thing is possible for a building. Every detail has meaning, and every element contributes to Gaudi's grand, passionate expression of faith with incredible creativity and ingenuity. I was awestruck.
Even though he toiled on it for over 40 years, Gaudi died long before his ambitious cathedral was finished. The work he started in 1883 continues, with the hope to complete it by 2026, 100 years after his death. I, for one, plan on returning to see its fully realized glory, should I still be on this earth.
Cable car panorama
One experience that was all too brief for the money and effort expended was the cable car from the top of Montjuic Hill down to the beach. First we had to get up the mountain, a 40 minute metro and bus ride.
After a quick peek at the hilltop castle and views out to sea, we walked another 15 minutes down to the cable car terminal There were some nice views of the city periodically through the trees.
On the way down, we stopped to watch a few minutes of a race where contestants could apparently use any form of wheels they wanted - skateboard, go-cart, roller-skates, whatever. They took turns hurtling down the mountain on a a roped-off section of road with steep hairpin turns. Hay bales lined the course, but I'm not convinced they would have offered much protection to any flyaway racers. Happily there were no crashes while we watched.
Finally arriving at the cable car station, we had to wait over an hour in line for our turn to ride down. At least there was a good gelato stand on hand -- a winning business location if ever there was one.
The views of the city, beach and coastline were quite spectacular on the way down. That is, whenever one could glimpse them them over the heads of the dozen other passengers crammed into the car, most of whom were middle-aged Italian female friends with a lot to say to each other, and loudly. And it was all over in a few short minutes.
We were deposited back on solid ground next to Barceloneta beach. The miles-long stretch of sand was hopping with people, vendors and "Chiringuitos" (beach bars). The crowd was younger than elsewhere, including a few rowdy stag and stagette parties. Testing the waters with bare feet felt brisk, to say the least. So it was up to one of the aforementioned bars for us, to sip sangria and munch on nachos while enjoying the views.
A few more things I'll remember from our time in Barcelona:
Getting a little too familiar with the source of our food: We were just digging into a dish of chorizo at a Catalan restaurant before noticing the legs of ham hanging from the ceiling, hooves and all. Then, the big-screen tv over the bar that had been showing videos of black Iberian pigs happily feasting on acorns in green fields suddenly cut to a shot of their fate at the hands of a butcher. Poor Joy had it right in her line of sight. Almost went vegetarian right then.
The whimsical exterior of the Palace of Catalan Music, designed by Gaudi's fellow Modernisme architect Montaner. I wish we'd had time to see more of his work, and attend a concert there.
The cab driver who casually shopped for golf clubs on his dash-mounted iPad while taking ill-fated shortcuts on pedestrian streets and also talking to his wife on the phone -- perhaps for advice on the clubs? He gruffly apologized and turned off the meter halfway through, quite rightly.
Feasting on pinxtos tapas at Sagardi BCN in the Gothic quarter, where dozens of platters were arranged on the bar. We helped ourselves to what looked good, then paid per toothpick at the end.
Daily "Happy Time" specials at our hotel, a most charming translation of Happy Hour.
Unfortunate restaurant videos aside, overall I have to agree with Freddie Mercury: Barcelona is pretty dreamy.