March 2 – 29, 2016 (Spring)
Currency: Euro (€)
Cost of living: High
Expensive, demanding, and oh-so-crowded, Barcelona is hardly an ideal nomad destination. But one of the most overtouristed places on the continent is popular for a reason – there is simply too much to see and do in this outsize coastal city. Its popularity makes it well-connected and cheap to fly in and out of, though competition for increasingly scarce (and contentious) lodging made this one of our pricier stops. Still, we enjoyed the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience a different side of life in the second city of Spain (first city of Catalonia).
Where we stayed
We had a noticeably harder time than usual finding an Airbnb↗ that fit our budget in Barcelona. In addition to the city itself being fairly expensive, housing especially is at a premium (in part due to excessive numbers of tourists pricing out locals). We ended up booking a small two-bedroom apartment in the Poble Sec neighborhood, wedged between the touristy Gothic Quarter and Montjuic. The Aerobus↗ delivered us to Plaça Espanya, an uncomfortable and sweaty 20-minute walk from the apartment. Nowhere in Barcelona is completely tourist-free, but our neighborhood certainly felt more local and less overrun than La Rambla or the waterfront.
The plum location, in walking distance of everywhere, was even sweeter with one grocery store directly across the street and a Lidl just a couple blocks further. Unfortunately, the location was about all the apartment had going for it. Our first impression when we were let in was the musty sewer-meets-basement smell. We learned the pipes were lacking in U-bends; the persistent odor was sewer gas emanating from every drain. Attempts to suppress the spread, for example by covering the shower drain with a weighted plastic bowl, were only partially successful. We resorted to venting the air though open windows, even on too-chilly days.
The larger of our two bedrooms had enough closet space to absorb our clothes and backpacks, the second just enough room for a bed. Both bedrooms faced the street and had the only sizable windows in the apartment, meaning the rest of the living space was interior and dim. At some point during our stay our bedroom developed a sickly sweet smell that came from nowhere in particular. The vents? The walls? The mattress? Or maybe it was just a side effect of the teeth-rattling construction taking place elsewhere in the building (yes, another month of debilitating construction noise).
Our galley-style kitchen had minimal counter space and little room for storage. We often used the table for prep space and stashed food in whatever corner was free at the moment. At least until we found (and dispatched) a giant cockroach under the washer, then most of the food disappeared into the fridge or sealed bags. Otherwise, the facilities were sufficient, though without a microwave or kettle, coffee prep was more of a chore than it needed to be. We fashioned a standing desk by hoisting a nightstand onto the TV stand, and switched off between that and the kitchen table for workspace.
When not indoors – which, given the above issues, was as often as possible – we preferred to get around on foot to appreciate the picturesque, pedestrian-friendly boulevards. Barcelona is famously well-planned and easy-to-navigate. Aside, of course, from the tangled mess of the Gothic Quarter, where we got lost more often than any city before or since. We did use the metro once, though we would have enjoyed it more if we’d thought to buy a ten pack of tickets (which saves more than 50% over the single-ticket price) and used it more often. Uber is not available in Barcelona. Taxis are quite common, but we didn’t avail ourselves of their services.
What we did
Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, or MNAC, quickly became our favorite attraction. One of the great perks of traveling the way we do is the freedom to match our schedule to availability, weather, and best of all, deals. Admission to MNAC is free on Saturday afternoons, and we visited multiple times in order to take it all in, unrushed. The Palau Nacional, the building housing the museum, is justification enough to visit. It looks like a longstanding palace or important government office, but was actually built to house the 1929 International Exhibition. Apparently due to be torn down afterward, it was so beloved that it underwent reconstruction to become a permanent city fixture instead. Inside, massive galleries span the breadth of Catalunyan art. From religious icons painted in the 11th century right up through sketches of the Spanish Civil War and Joan Miro. The first floor of one wing dedicates itself to murals from churches around the region, the space formed into pillars and vaults so the paintings are preserved in the same shapes as they were in situ. The religious art from the 13-15th centuries was especially interesting; lots of skeletons and supernatural battles. Of course, the more recent paintings and sculptures were the most fun (is that Bill Hader?). Getting to see it multiple times reinforced a connection that made the place feel more personal to us than usual. It helped that even on a popular day, the museum’s vast wings never felt crowded.
Behind our apartment, a sprawling series of parks contained Montjuic Castle and the 1992 Olympic Games venues. The gardens are perfect for getting away from the crowds and offer stunning vantage points for photographing the city from above. La Sagrada Familia and the long, cutting Av. Diagonal helped us orient ourselves and make sense of the sprawl below. The castle dates back to the 17th century, though it was expanded and rebuilt over the years. We had fun exploring the fortifications and taking in views from the roof, but the dark history of the place (serving as a place of imprisonment and torture by several regimes) clouded the experience a bit. Its cannons have even been turned on the city itself from time to time, a symbol of protection being bent instead to oppression and occupation. On the opposite side of the hill are several of the main facilities from the ’92 Summer Olympics. Unlike many of the more recent venues, Barcelona built their grounds to be used and enjoyed well after the games had gone. The Olympic Stadium is named for Catalunyan President Lluís Companys, who was executed inside Montjuic Castle. We are too young to remember the games in detail, but the condition and beauty of the park was inspiring nonetheless.
The Maritime Museum is one of the lesser-known gems of the city. We even might not have thought to visit ourselves, except that the Barcelona Beer Festival was held there on our first weekend in town. We swung by and sampled beers from across Europe, including a favorite brewed with juniper tips from Latvia’s (sadly, seemingly-defunct) Eridan Brewery. The building piqued our interest, though, so we doubled back the following weekend to check out the museum. It was handily also free on Saturday afternoons. The museum is housed in the restored former Royal Shipyard, where galleys were built. Long, arched vaults with wooden ceilings show the size the ships could reach. The John of Austria, a reproduction of a naval flagship, fills one vault and looks fearsome even today. Smaller boats occupy other corners, along with navigation instruments and weapons. The old maps were also particularly interesting; it is amazing how long it took us to puzzle out the shape of the continents before satellite imagery.
Towering above the skyline, the most unmistakable sight in Barcelona is La Sagrada Familia. Under on-again/off-again construction since 1882, work was very much on during our visit. While the admission fee was steep at about $20 per person, we decided we needed to do more than just admire the outside. The next available time slot was a couple of hours away, so we headed to a nearby bar and sipped sangria while we watched the cranes hoist future bits of church around. The exterior already boasts an amazing amount of detail. The Nativity facade is oldest, ornately decorated with flora and fauna from the tree of life (and a little bit of death), but darkened from more than a century of weather. The Passion facade stands in stark contrast; angular, almost skeletal sculptures strike a sobering profile as they depict scenes from the crucifixion. (The third facade, Glory, is still under construction.) The exterior is imposing, but inside is truly breathtaking. Gaudi took his design elements from nature and mathematics; he wanted it to reflect the beauty of all creation, as well as the stories of the Bible. The results are incredible. We felt like we were back in the Pacific Northwest, hiking a great natural cathedral of trees. Regal pillars and soaring canopy grew all around us, only constructed of dazzling white stone and bathed in a kaleidoscope of color. We’ve seen a lot of beautiful buildings and churches in our travels, but none were so moving as this.
Finally, we made sure to check the rest of the tourist boxes, from La Rambla, through the ancient Gothic Quarter, and on to the trendy waterfront of Playa de la Barceloneta. Many tourists spend their time in these spots, drinking, shopping, and being surrounded by each other. The least fun is definitely La Rambla, a wide walking/driving street that connects the Christopher Columbus monument to Plaça de Catalunya. Both sides offer commerce of all kinds, and the pedestrian-only median is full of tobacco stands, buskers, beggars, and way too many people. The architecture is amazing of course, and La Boqueria market delights with sights and smells. Still, we mostly tried to cut across it and on to calmer corners as quickly as possible. We tend not to pay much mind to fear-mongering warnings, but on our first stroll through La Rambla we witnessed two women chewing out a teenager who had attempted (unsuccessfully) to snatch one of their bags and another woman reporting a pickpocketing to a police officer. Most amusing were the people selling knockoff and stolen goods on blankets along the curbs – once word came down that the patrols were getting close, a dozen seller’s rugs would get snatched up into bindles, and a dozen grown men would disappear down alleys or into the bushes. In the Gothic Quarter, we thought about visiting the Picasso Museum, but the hours-long line always drove us off. It was enough to wander the narrow, winding streets and the narrower, windinger alleys. The artificial stone canyons had a knack for confusing our GPS and frequently led us down the wrong path, so we got plenty of opportunity to explore. Easily the most relaxing of the three was the waterfront. For a city so close to the Mediterranean Sea, we sometimes felt a little landlocked. Getting out to the beach was a refreshing treat. It was intriguing to look out over the water and sail a mental ship to the not-so-distant shores of Africa.
Food & Drink
This was our third month in a row of where a new city meant higher food prices. Our nearest grocery was Condis, just across the street. Lidl, Dia, and Carrefour Market were also within comfortable food-toting distance. A little further was the Sant Antoni Market, a premier spot for vegetables, fish, and meat. Since the main market building was being remodeled, the vendors squeezed into a makeshift replacement on an nearby street. There we discovered some truly inspiring seafood and strawberries and enjoyed the more local vibe compared to La Boqueria. Barcelona’s best deal, though, may have been the half-kilo tray of (quite good) tiramisu that was just a couple euros at Lidl. Try as we might, we have yet to find a similar product on offer at any other Lidl.
Due to higher prices at restaurants (Thailand and Malaysia really made eating out in Europe feel like a splurge), we cooked almost all of our meals at home. Do not cry for us; this was no great sacrifice. Once again, we were surprised which ingredients stand out as exceptional here or there. In Lisbon, the eggs blew us away. In Barcelona, it was the chicken itself. It boasted so much flavor and texture, we almost couldn’t believe it was the same critter, and we leaned heavily on it for our recipes. Some of our favorites were paella (spice mixes to get us started were ubiquitous in Spain, though we later perfected our technique making it from scratch) and handmade tapas. Oftentimes the simplest meals – a bit of seared tuna, some rice, and a glass of wine – were the most memorable.
We didn’t completely miss out on the local dining experience, though. Tapas, pintxos, and montaditos bars dotted every street, and we had to see what the fuss was about. Apparently they are not all created equal – tapas are standalone snacks, pintxos are the same but served open-face on a piece of bread and speared with a toothpick, while montaditos are small snack sandwiches. On Calle de Blai, we had our pick of the sort of tapas and pintxos you write home about for only a euro or two apiece. Sliced ham, cheeses, grilled veggies, and olives all appeared in a wide variety of combinations with or without bread. A little less authentic was 100 Montaditos, which was nonetheless popular with college kids for their lunch specials. Whole plates of bite-sized sandwiches could be had for ten euros or less.
Cured pork is another local specialty. Jamón serrano, and especially jamón ibérico, can be aged for years and is priced accordingly, sometimes up into the hundreds of dollars per kilo. The marbled melt-in-your-mouth texture is probably worth it to a connoisseur, but we stuck to cheaper and still incredibly delicious varieties. The ingredient is so ingrained in the local culture, every chip brand had at least one ham-based flavor.
Since we were in Barcelona for Easter, we looked for the chocolate rabbits that are traditional in the US. It turns out Catalonia prefers chocolate chickens, which, when we thought about it, do go a lot further to explain the logic of Easter eggs.
After Portugal redefined our expectations with its delicious $3 bottles of wine, going back to $5-6 bottles in Barcelona seemed exorbitant. And that was for the low-to-mid shelf stuff, which quite honestly, did not impress. We did have great experiences at small wine shops, however. One very pregnant proprietor took the time to draw us a map of the local wine regions and make recommendations. Good wines did exist, just… outside our price range. I guess we got what we paid for, it’s just that that was disappointing after we got so much more than we paid for in Lisbon.
Aside from stumbling onto the incredible Barcelona Beer Festival when we first arrived, the beer scene was not much better. The local favorite son is Estrella Damm, a plain and forgettable lager. Supermarkets and pubs didn’t expose us to anything from smaller producers. We did make a stop at Biercab, consistently rated the best craft beer bar in the city. Their menu was very heavily weighted toward US and Belgian brewers; good stuff, but on the expensive side, and not exactly what we were looking for in terms of local flavors. In retrospect, there is actually a decent craft beer scene in the city, but we didn’t get a chance to enjoy it.
Stuff of interest
For mobile data↗ we used Vodafone; SIMs with 1.5 gigs of data and a few minutes of talk time were $16 each.
We knew very little Spanish before visiting, but were shy about using it anyway as many locals preferred Catalan (another Romance language that nonetheless differs in significant ways from Spanish). The most important phrases (hello, thank you) are similar enough that we could at least exchange pleasantries.
Not content with normal nuisance birds like pigeons or gulls, Barcelona is swarming with parakeets. They’re very pretty, but can make quite a racket.
Our visit coincided with the 2016 Democrats Abroad primary. This group makes it easy for expats and international travelers to participate in the primary process, with a single point of contact and its own delegates. (The Republican party does not have a similar organization, though individuals can sometimes remotely take part in elections in their “home” states.) We jumped at the chance to perform our civic duty. Results from our polling location were similar to the group’s international average, overwhelmingly favoring Bernie Sanders (70% to 30%).
What we learned
A stop in Barcelona lined up perfectly for us – good flights, good weather, lots to see and do. But the lackluster accommodations and pushiness of the city soured on the experience a bit. We’re glad we went, but we’re in no great hurry to return.