I am so pleased that Barcelona is our first stop. I would hate to have arrived in this city after five months of looking at ancient buildings and cathedrals and not appreciate the history it has to offer. As it turns out, we have really only scratched the surface so far. We are staying in El Raval, just around the corner from La Rambla and at the end of our side street is Gaudi’s Palau Guell. You simply couldn’t get much closer to the action and still get a night’s sleep (with the help of ear plugs). Talk about being in the heart of the things!
If you want to know what happened on our first day in Barcelona then click here and read “Day three”
La Rambla is probably Barcelona’s most famous street. It is a broad boulevard running from the ocean up to the Eixample district, and separates Barri Gòtic from the El Raval. I initially thought its name must stem from the broad pedestrian thoroughfare that runs up the middle, however, apparently it relates to the fact that it was once a river bed.
There are stalls selling cheap trinkets, postcards, maps of Barcelona, Gaudi books, and necklaces and wrist bands. These are interspersed with art stalls and blokes who do amazing portraits and caricatures in less than ten minutes. In amongst all this are al fresco restaurants with deals for Sangria, tapes and pizza or Paella starting at €9 (though the prices seem to go up for dinner). They’ve really got Spanish cuisine covered!
But the place has a wonderful feel. La Rambla is lined with Plane trees (Sycamore trees?) and old buildings, some dating from the 15th century. Every side street is a narrow alley coursing through row after row of majestic old stone buildings; the wider streets are also lined with trees. It’s breathtaking; romantic!
The thoroughly modern port and marina are flanked by superb old military, naval and port authority buildings. And standing right in the middle is Columbus, pointing to the new world atop a 20-metre column.
Moored on the foreshore is the Santa Eulalia, a beautifully kept Barcelona Maritime Museum schooner. The clear blue water with the schooner and the marina in the foreground and the palm-fringed shoreline with a backdrop of an almost endless row of those magnificent buildings really is spectacular.
I fear my vocabulary simply doesn’t contain enough adjectives to describe the look and feel of Barcelona.
La Boqueria is the home of Mercat de Sant Josep, a huge fresh food market. It has successfully merged catering to the needs of tourists and locals alike. The market is bedlam, a bit like fresh food markets the world over. Paul has his first Spanish meal here (breadstick, serrano ham and cheese) and here we provision for the next few days. We bought incredibly cheap fresh fruit and veges and cheese, expensive jamon serrano (dry cured ham), and an obligatory bread stick. The locals chat and buy their supplies; the tourists summarily ignore the ‘no camera’ signs on some of the stalls. We fall into both categories.
Plaça de Catalunya
The Plaça de Catalunya is a huge square (about 30,000 sq metres) at the northern end of La Rambla. Considered the centre of Barcelona, it is the place where the old part of Barcelona (Barri Gòtic and El Raval) meets the 19th century Eixample. Statues, fountains, gardens, monuments, people and pigeons all vie for space in the expanse of paved open area. At times the pigeons outnumber the people, at times it is the other way around. People feed the pigeons, children run through the pigeons to send them into a flurry of beating hearts and wings, and other people occupy the garden chairs, chatting, reading, contemplating or just taking it all in. Despite the huge numbers of people who flock to the square at any time of day it never feels crowded; it is an excellent place for some people watching and quiet contemplation, and it is a refreshing respite from the closeness and chaos of La Rambla.
Via Laietana is a major thoroughfare that forms the eastern border of Barri Gòtic. To the east of Via Laietana is the El Born area which includes the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar (the church of Our Lady by the sea), the Museo Picasso de Barcelona (Picasso Museum), and the Palau de la Musica. Our target tonight was the music hall. We had promised ourselves a little culture while in Barca, and a performance by Spanish guitarist Xavier Coll seemed appropriate. We found the box office and purchased our tickets for next Wednesday’s performance.
The coast between Barcelona and Santa Susanna is dotted with beachside settlements. We have come up here to collect our tickets for the F1 race this weekend. The water is clean and clear from turquoise to deep blue, and the sand, a cross between coarse sand and tiny pebble; unlike the fine sands of SE QLD, it is very easy to remove from damp feet. But at this time of year the water is still bloody cold and we decided it was sufficient just to dip our toes in the azure Mediterranean (a must do after travelling 17,000 km).
Santa Susanna is a strange combination of campsites, van-sites and cabins on the beachfront separating the row of luxury hotels from the Mediterranean. It felt like a seaside retirement village.
Our tickets in hand, our feet dry and reshod after our foray into the Mediterranean, we boarded the train back to Barcelona. As I said, the coast is dotted with small townships and as we passed we saw people sailing, swimming, sunbathing au natural, walking along the beach, or playing a form of boules. We also saw many rundown or boarded up buildings and a lot of graffiti. We got the sense that this place had seen its heyday, and perhaps hadn’t recovered from the aftermath of the 2008 GFC.
For someone from a country whose oldest permanent building is just over 200 years old, Barcelona’s medieval district is jaw-dropping.
We headed east from our base on Union Street and started a more-or-less random ramble with our ultimate goal, the cathedral. Our wanderings took us first to Plaça Reial, a picturesque square surrounded by 19th century buildings, and home to Gaudi’s first commissioned works, the lamp posts by the fountain in the centre of the square.
Our next stop was Plaça de Sant Jaume, home to the Catalunyan and Barcelona’s governments, then up the Carrer del Bisbe (under an ornate overpass that reminded us of Venice’s Bridge of Sighs), to the cathedral.
From the cathedral we went in search of Plaça del Rei. This square is bounded by the 14th century Palau Reial (Royal Palace) and the Museu d’Historica which houses the entrance to what are apparently the most extensive subterranean Roman ruins in the world. This is where we spent the next couple of hours.
It was past 6pm when we emerged from the Palau Reial, the exit to the ruins. With almost three hours till sundown we continued a relatively aimless wandering around Barri Gòtic. We took a brief sojourn for coffee in a back-alley café and then wandered back to the front of the cathedral and through the market stalls selling second hand goods from cheap paperbacks to opera glasses and flamenco dancer shawls. A busker was playing guitar and, by design or by chance, an elderly couple were waltzing to the music. It was a charming spectacle that had drawn a large, and appreciative crowd.
Heading west by yet another route, this time along La Palla, we found ourselves in the Plaça del Sant Josep Oriol. One side of the square is flanked by the southern wall of the Esqlésia de Santa Maria del Pi, a Gothic church built in the 14th to 16th centuries. It isn’t a pretty building, but the stained glass is quite spectacular. The front of the church faces the Plaça del Pi and boasts a large rose window above its entrance. Unlike the cathedral, this church wasn’t spared during the civil war in the 1930s, and most of the stained glass was smashed during the ransacking. It has since been replaced.