Barcelona – February 2011

20 Oct

Barcelona is a city I cannot seem to get enough of, a city where I always find something and somewhere new to try.  How could I say no, then, to an American Airlines flash sale that would bring me to the beauty that is Barcelona for a mere $270USD (taxes included) roundtrip?  I couldn’t.  I booked and sent the info to my friends certain someone else would jump on the deal.  Not so much.  I am not quite sure from what mental issues these friends suffer, but to pass up a chance at Spain for less than half of normal airfare is plain nuts. I would find someone to take the bait or, as I have done numerous times before, I would go it alone and enjoy every minute of my freedom.

Being that I just returned from South America in January, I could only justify this trip if I did it over a holiday weekend, so as not to take too many days off from work.  I choose President’s Day weekend and I found someone who doesn’t need a holiday weekend to justify travel.  Enter Chris, my retired friend from London.  I couldn’t ask for a better compadre for this short adventure.  As I have mentioned before, Chris is the perfect wingman, completely laid back and just generally fun to hang out with wherever we are. He has nothing better to do these days anyway.

I have been to Barcelona a few times.  Each time I have stayed in a different area of town.  This time would be no different.  I found a deal on one of the hundred travel sites I receive emails from on a daily basis.  There is almost always a deal to be had.  If you look hard enough, you will find one.  My search brought us to Mur Muri (http://www.murmuri.com/).  This is a modern boutique hotel on Rambla de Catalunya in the Eixample district. The area immediately surrounding the hotel is quiet compared to hotels near La Rambla, yet full of fashionable, upscale shops and restaurants and only 1 block from Passeig de Gracia, the central avenue in Barcelona’s heart. La Rambla was great when I was 25.  Now that I am oh so grown up and sophisticated (cough-cough), this area is perfect. The hotel is within walking distance to La Rambla, Diagonal Avenue and Sagrada Familia and only a few meters from Gaudí’s major works. It is also extremely close to transportation.  We took the train from the airport to within a block of the hotel, which was very quick and easy (for one of us).

Looking back at the itinerary I created before I left for this trip, I see that I did almost nothing on it.  This is the beauty of vacation.  You don’t have to do anything if you don’t want to do it.  Sleep until 2:00pm?  Why, yes I think I will.  Have a drink at noon on Thursday?  Cheers!  To have someone who travels in a similar, if not the exact same manner as you, is priceless.  Chris is one of those people.  I don’t have to worry about being by his side 24-7.  He doesn’t gripe about walking too much or stopping in too many shops, etc. We come up with a general game plan and then see what happens.  It is all so chilled and laid back, the way vacation is meant to be and since the Spanish people are the epitome of laid back and relaxed, there is no choice, really, but to follow suit.

People kill themselves on vacation trying to fit every single thing into a few days.  They are missing the point.  The idea is to relax and take it in, to live in and enjoy every moment, not run from place to place checking off a list.  I can understand wanting to do that because you think you will never get back.  The truth is that if you allow yourself the time to connect with a place and the people, that place becomes like a magnet.  Having just a small taste of what a city has to offer and truly savoring that taste at a relaxing pace is a sure way to guarantee you will return. 

Friday, February 18

Upon landing in Barcelona, I made my way to the train for the short trip into town.  Passeig de Gracia is 2 stops from the aiport on the RENFRE train.  It is cheap and easy.  Naturally, I exited at the wrong place and found myself a bit turned around when I reached street level.  I took a seat on a sidewalk bench and looked around for any signs or landmarks I would recognize as I puffed on a cigarette and sipped my Diet Coke–breakfast of champions!  It took a few minutes, but I got my bearings and I started walking in the right direction.  I walked just around the corner to Passeig de Gracia.  Had I looked at a map closely, I would have been at the hotel in less than 5 minutes.  BUT, dopey me did a quick glance, saw the words Rambla and Catalunya and thought I knew where I was going.  Afterall, I had been here before.  I was like a local.  Ha! What a jackass!  I walked all the way down to the top of La Rambla at Plaza de Catalunya.  At this point, I am beginning to sweat, getting frustrated and being Bitter Betty to anyone dumb enough to get in the way of me and my rolling duffel bag.  After several scowls and snarls at passers-by and random mother-f’ers flying out of my mouth as I walked in a few circles, I finally gave in and popped into another hotel for directions.  The kind front desk receptionist took pity on the road-weary, distressed traveler in front of him and pointed me in the right direction. I was on my way to Mur Muri.

I towed my bag up Rambla de Catalunya.  At this point I was tired, sweaty and just ready to sit down.  Block after block I trekked.  Did I mistakenly land on the El Camino de Santiago? This was definitely beginning to feel like a pilgrimage, only I wasn’t looking for God. I was looking for address 104.  It felt like the address numbers went up by only 2 numbers per block.  I started at 1, so in my mind I walked 50 blocks; In reality it was about 5. After what seemed an eternity, I finally reached my destination.  The good Lord tested me and I passed.  I was rewarded for showing grace and dignity in the face of adversity (cough-cough) by being given the keys to my room even though it was only noon at this point.  I could take a hot shower and get out of my sweaty clothes!  As I said, this would have been a less than 5-minute walk from the train station.  I somehow turned it into an hour.

Showered and changed, I met up with Chris, who arrived shortly after I did, in the lobby of the hotel. It was now time to head out and take in the sights, sounds and smells of Barcelona.  We wandered down Rambla de Catalunya to La Rambla.  It is amazing how much quicker and pleasant that stroll is when you are not somewhat lost and lugging a bag behind you .

This was Chris’ first visit to Barcelona, so we were going to try to hit a few of the highlights.  We walked through Mercat de la Boqueria, one of Barcelona’s oldest markets selling all sorts of fresh food and flowers.  Locals wander the market for fresh food to cook that night.  You are wandering the market to get a seat at one of the pintxos (tapas)bars to enjoy some of the freshest food with a cold beer, cava or wine.  Patience, my friend.  Patience is key.  Every single time I have been in this market every seat at every tapas bar is full.  You have to play it like you would at any other bar in the world.  Stalk someone who looks like they are close to wrapping up and get in position to pounce on their stool.  You know how it works.  All of your hard work will be rewarded, I promise.

After that patience lecture, I have to now admit that we were not.  Correction.  Chris was not.  I wasn’t fussed either way, but since it was his first time here we should have waited.  At this point he was just hungry and wanted a snack or two and since most people do not eat dinner until 10:00pm, we had a long way to go before another solid meal.  We wandered a bit further down La Rambla and into Plaza Real where we pulled up a chair in the sunshine at one of the many tables circling the plaza.  Chris ordered several tapas dishes and I ordered vino tinto.  For a February day, this was an unusally warm one, so we lazed at our table taking in the scenery and soaking in the rays of the sun.

After our snack and sufficient sun time, we wandered the narrow, maze-like streets of Barri Gotic and El Born.  We wandered into the cathedral and also had a peek at the cloister area where we found the Well of the Geese.  After watching them waddle around a bit, it was time for us to waddle on down to Plaza de Santa Maria, a small square behind the church Santa Maria del Mar, to meet a friend of a friend of Chris’.  

We met Ernesto, a tall, thin, brooding artistic type, at a place called Bubo ( http://www.bubo.ws/).  I have been to this spot before and I was not bothered a bit by going to the same place twice.  This sweet shop/tapas bar has some of the most delectably beautiful desserts I have seen anywhere in the world.  This is true eye candy.  Each creation is like a little gem. They taste, though, even better than they look.  Truly out of this world.  Order a glass champagne or a coffee to have with your chocolate sponge cake with bittersweet chocolate truffle and raspberry compote or one of the many other heavenly desserts.  Apropos that it lies in the shadows of a church.

We enjoyed our beverages and treats at an outside table listening to Ernesto’s tale of woe.  He was telling us about his recent breakup and the situation he finds himself in now.  Drama.  I love it!  This story was followed by the one explaining his broken arm.  It seems Ernesto had one too many and crashed his bike.  No, not a motor bike, an actual bicycle.  Somehow he crashed, flew over the handle bars and now finds himself with a cast for the next 10 weeks.  This, we would find out later, is the reason he no longer drinks. I decided immediately that I liked this guy.  He is interesting and quirky and does dumb stuff while drunk.  I was going to get along with this guy famously! I was sure he would show us some interesting and quirky things when we met him later that night for drinks and dinner.  With our plan made for the evening, Chris and I headed back to the hotel to relax and change before heading out.

We met Ernesto at Banker’s Bar in the Mandarin Oriental (http://www.mandarinoriental.com/barcelona/dining/bankers_bar/), a cleverly designed bar with old safe deposit box doors and other authentic items to fit the theme. Chris and I had, what else, Cosmos.  Ernesto had a non-alcoholic beer.  After 2 drinks, we wandered off to dinner.  Ernesto lined up Restaurante Noti (http://noti-universal.com/), a retro chic restaurant offering modern European cuisine where his friend, Elena, runs the front of house.  Elena showed us to a table at the back and offered us some cava.  How could I refuse?  I like this place already!  After a quick look at the menu, we all ordered mains only and we all ordered beef.  The meal was good as was the atmosphere and service, but I wouldn’t say it was spectacular and for the price it should have been.  After we finished our meal, it was time for some fun.  Little did I know what Ernesto had in store for us next.

We wandered a few blocks to Bailen 22, an infamous address, I have come to find out, in Barcelona.  Bailen 22 was a strip club back in the day before a neighborhood group had it shut down.  After multiple reincarnations it is now Cafe Berlin, a burlesque club.  Ernesto had promised this was not a gay club, but you could have fooled me on this night.  We watched the incredibly camp show, which thankfully ended about 20 minutes after we arrived. After a few drinks Ernesto left us to our own devices and carried on home. A DJ started playing and the club started filling up with 99.9% young, gay boys.  There were a few other females there, but I do not think there was one straight male.  C’est la vie.  This would be Chris’ night.

We made out way toward the dance floor to check out the selection for Chris.  As we scoped the joint, Chris got pulled out to the dance floor by a woman Ernesto had introduced to us a bit earlier.  Wacky, but I would expect nothing less from my new eccentric friend. After a few rounds on the floor, Chris returned to the bar, where a conversation was struck with a cute young man.  We chatted with him for a bit and there seemed to be some chemistry, but then he did the forbidden–he lit a smoke.  That was it for Chris.  The promise of the evening went straight down the tubes.  Chris will not date a smoker.  That is probably his #1 rule when it comes to potentials.  Multiple drinks in, zero men for me and one smoker and we were ready to call it a night.  Better luck tomorrow!

Saturday, February 19

After a nice lie-in, Chris and I headed out to take in some sites.  Sagrada Familia was first on the list, but we would need food first.  We stopped in a local coffee shop along the way for a muffin and tea.  We grabbed some water on the way out the door to rehydrate from the prior evening’s festivities and made our way to Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece.  It never ceases to amaze me, this peculiar, spectacular architectural wonder.  I could spend a day here, exploring the intricacies of the design inside and out.  Chris, on the other hand, could not.  We walked around the outside and he shot a few pictures.  He was ready to move on to the next stop on our itinerary for the day.  Hilarious!  He didn’t even want to walk inside.  What??  I understand he is not the least bit religious, but that is not the point.  This is a UNESCO heritage site.  This is amazing architecture.  This is something he doesn’t give a shit about, so on we go.  I’ve seen it already, so I don’t argue.

The weather started turning on a bit on us and, let’s face it, we were hung over.  We decided we could save time and ourselves by taking the hop on/hop off bus tour.  We hopped on at Sagrada Familia and made our way to Park Guell.  This is one place I never managed to make it to on past trips, so I was excited to check it out.  It did not disappoint.

After climbing a very steep hill, we made it to the entrance which is flanked by two buildings Gaudi built.  They resemble large gingerbread houses.  Everywhere you look you can see Gaudi’s work with one exception: Gaudi’s house, which was designed and built by someone else.  From the “bird’s nests” built into the sides of the mountain to the roadways resembling aqueducts, this place is a Gaudi fantasyland.  This guy was truly an architectural genius. It is all somewhat psychedelic looking, which makes me wonder what he was on when conceiving his building plans.  Photos taken and jewelry purchased, we were off down the hill to hop back on our bus.

It was getting colder and rain clouds were moving in, yet we thought it would be a good idea to sit up top in the open air.  We passed several stops, including Palua Reial and Camp Nou.  It is not clear to me now, but after Camp Nou we got off the bus and tried to walk to the Red Line (we were on the Blue Line).  Clearly, this is something everyone does because when we got to the stop there was a huge line.  Chris and I decided to skip it and walk to one of the stops farther down the line.  It was good to get up and stretch the legs, but we soon found ourselves walking around a very quiet residential neighborhood where absolutely nothing was open.  Dehydrated and lacking sleep, I would have paid a pretty penny for a Diet Coke and some Pringles to tide me over until dinner.  No such luck.

We made it to some really out-of-the-way bus stop and had to wait about 20 minutes for the next one to pick us up.  Once again we went up top.  Why??  I have no idea.  The ride back from here would take us to absolutely every corner or Barcelona that we hadn’t already seen.  We were on that bus for at least and hour and a half.  Freezing and now getting wet from the rain, the bus finally made it to Plaza Catalunya after the sun had gone down.  That is a seriously long bus ride! Tired, hungry and wet, Chris and I broke one of my cardinal rules while on vacation.  We went to McDonald’s for lunch/afternoon snack/dinner.  We hadn’t eaten since early that morning and we only had a small muffin.  We were feeling tired and beaten, so good greasy food was the immediate answer.  Those golden arches were absolutely calling us in and at this point it had started pouring.  It was easy and we knew it would satisfy.  After our gluttonous McDonald’s feast, (someone had 2 quarter pounders) we made our way up Rambla Catalunya to the hotel.  Time for a hot, hot shower and a serious nap.

Showered and refreshed, I met Chris in the lobby bar where we had–you guessed it–a Cosmo before heading out in the neighborhood.  Since we both ate enough for the entire day in one sitting a bit earlier, this was going to be a cocktail only night.  We headed for the Dry Martini Bar (http://www.drymartinibcn.com/TotPresentació.htm).  This was a place on my original list and it was close to our hotel.  This is an old-school boys club with bartenders in white coats, serving drinks on silver trays to businessmen sitting in green leather chairs.  The clientele would be smoking cigars if smoking wasn’t now prohibited.  This is definitely an older crowd, but the cocktails were worth the trip.  Chris ordered one of the specialty martinis and I ordered a Cosmo-type drink with some fresh puree in it.  Holy Hannah!  Those drinks were potent, but yummy.  I had a sip of Chris’ and almost choked on the strength of it.  When he tried to argue that mine was just as strong as his the bartender was quick to correct him and let him know that his cocktail was at least 2x the strength of mine.  He was already on #2.  We decided we should gracefully exit before we were unable to do so.  One more of those diabolical cocktails and we may have been on the floor.

We headed to another spot on my list, Hotel Omm (http://www.hotelomm.es/loungeBar-en.html).  The hotel has a trendy lobby bar and lounge.  It was crowded when we got there, but not overly so.  We were unable to get a prime spot at the bar, so we grabbed a table along the side and place our order for–wait for it–Cosmos!  This was a primo people watching spot.  As we chatted over several rounds of drinks and scanned the crown for potential victims, the place was really filling up with all sorts of well-heeled people of varying ages.  Thankfully this wasn’t a teeny-bopper crowd.  To our very pleasant surprise we learned of a night club within the hotel in the basement level.  How did I miss that detail when researching?  C’est la vie.  The important thing is that we found it. By the time we did, it was pretty jammed.  We managed, however, to squeeze in at the bar right in front of the DJ.  The bartender took an immediate liking to Chris, which was perfect.  We never had to wait for a drink and he even bought us a few.  The DJ’s girlfriend ended up moving in next to us and the next thing I know all three of us are dancing on our own mini dance floor we boxed out for ourselves.  The bartenders were dancing behind the bar right along with us.  Suddenly, out of nowhere, this guy appears on my righthand side practically on top of me.  He began chatting me up and about 5 minutes into the conversation, he clearly decided he liked what he was hearing because he just went in for a kiss.  What??  In the middle of a bar?  Craziness, but harmless and fun.  My new friend, Eduardo the sailing instructor, and I went upstairs for a smoke and some quieter conversation.  His English was really excellent and the conversation was very nice.  After a while in the fresh air, we headed back down to the dungeon for some more dancing and debauchery.  Chris left me there with our new friends in pursuit of some “much-needed sleep” (yeah, right) and I proceeded to talk and dance with Eduardo into the wee hours of the morning.  I finally met a tall, dark and handsome man.  How much do sailing instructors make??  Looks like I am missing one of the key attributes for which I am searching. Oh, well.  There was the possibility of  free sailing lessons and a good deal more. We made a real connection and it was lovely. What a great night!  Could we repeat it for our last night?  Time very soon would tell.  It was now 6am.

Sunday, February 20

As I said, it was now 6am.  Eduardo and I said our goodbyes and Chris was just walking in the door.  Heading home my a$$!  I love it!  Well done, Chrissy.  Sleep, please.

After a fairly long nap, I pulled myself together for the afternoon and desperately needed food.  My co-pilot wasn’t feeling quite as energetic, but I convinced him food would make him feel better.  We headed out in search of steaks.  We wanted simple and close, so nothing on my list was going to do.  We wandered down La Rambla and went into El Raval.  Why I cannot say.  Oh, yes I can!  I just remembered that there was a bar on my list that was in that area.  Described as one of the oldest and most genuine places still open in the city.  We went in search of it and when we found it we burst out in laughter.  The place was quite literally crumbling to the ground.  I think they are closed for renovations.   Obviously, heading in this direction was a mistake. There are so many great places in the other direction and Raval is a bit dodgy.  We found ourselves in what looked like the dodgiest part and quickly turned around to get out.

After about 10 minutes of walking and a Diet Coke break for me, we were now on the “right” side of Rambla and in front of a place called Los Caracoles (http://www.loscaracoles.es/index1.htm).  I ate here the first time I was ever in Barcelona and have very fond memories of it.  I have read many reviews saying it is a tourist trap and that may be true, but it is an atmospheric restaurant that, in a way, resembles a fun house with all of the steps and different rooms in the place.  The decor is reminiscent of the time it was open, 1835, and I found it quite cozy.  The menu is vast and everything we had was good.  The servers are a bit curt, but efficient.  After telling Chris all of this, he wanted to keep looking.

Somehow, we made it down some dark, narrow street until we were on top of a place called El Paraguayo (http://www.e-paraguayo.com/).  Chris said this was the one.  I was hesitant, but agreed.  Nothing about this place from the outside was inviting whatsoever.  After walking in, I had the same feeling.  The decor is God awful.  As a matter of fact, decor is a kind word.  We were one of 3 tables in the place, so we got very prompt attention.  I was a bit nervous to eat in the place, but Chris was excited by everything about it, especially the menu. I guess I was just being a bit snobbish, which is usually his job.  This is one of those small family run joints that are all about the food and nothing else.  Decor doesn’t matter if the food is good. We ordered a bottle of wine and our steaks.  Chris had his morcilla as an appetizer and was in heaven.  We were transported back to Argentina for a couple of hours.

After dinner we had a wander.  Party boy was feeling the fatigue from his all-night festivities and a cold was coming on.  We stopped in to a bar called Cafe Schilling (http://www.cafeschilling.com/cafe/default.htm), which had a mixed crowd of locals and tourists.  We ordered drinks and scanned the room for potential people to chat.  The atmosphere in here was good.  I could have chilled here for a few hours, but about 5 minutes after the drinks were on the table Chris had to wave the white flag of surrender.  The mind was willing, but the body was completely unable.  He had shut down.  He left me with his Cosmo and headed off for the hotel.  I wasn’t ready to retire on my last night in the city and my new friend, Eduardo, was going to email if he could get back from his client dinner meeting down south, which he was hopeful he could.  I was going to stick it out a little longer in hopes that he could too.

I moved from our table to the bar in hopes of striking up a conversation with someone to kill time waiting for Eduardo.  The only available chair was next to a couple that were very into one another at that moment in time, so there was no chance of chatting with them.  I decided to finish my drinks and head down the road to a familiar spot, the Irish pub called Molly’s Fair City (http://travel.nytimes.com/travel/guides/europe/spain/catalonia/barcelona/29121/mollys-fair-city/nightlife-detail.html)

I entered Molly’s, a familiar spot from previous trips.  It is a typical Irish bar with multiple levels and Guinness flowing.  This is always a good spot to meet expats and football fans.  The atmosphere is typically very lively with music cranking. On this particular night, it wasn’t very crowded at all.  I pulled up a stool and ordered a harp.  The two gents next to me didn’t wait long before they struck up conversation with me.  They were also Americans from the west coast.  Beer and conversation flowed for quite some time, but still no word from Eduardo:-(  I continued hanging with these two guys.  We were having a good time and suddenly they got really weird.  It was time to go for sure.  Eduardo clearly wasn’t going to make it and I couldn’t hang with these clowns any longer. I made a run for it and took a cab back to the hotel.

Monday, February 20

My flight was at 12:40pm, so it would be an early departure from the airport.  Chris and I wandered over to Passeig de Gracia to grab a bite before I headed for the train station.  This time it really would only take 5 minutes!  We pulled up to an outdoor table at a restaurant on the street.  It was an average place, but did the trick.  Chris and I rehashed the weekend and had some good laughs over our foolishness.  That is what these weekends are all about.  I headed out for the airport and Chris headed back to the hotel to rest up before his flight.  Good time had by all.  I met tall, dark and handsome and we actually stayed in touch for a bit, but what’s the point, really.  I am not moving there and he is not moving here.  Clearly, that would go nowhere.  He is now a distant memory like the trip, but a good one for sure.  Next time I am going for the full package-tall, dark and handsome rich man. 

As I said, Chris and I never made it to most of the places on my list, but no matter.  We made it to places that weren’t on my list and that I would definitely go back to on another visit.  The places I missed will have to wait until next time, and there will be a next time. Every time I make it back to Barcelona I discover a new area, new shops, new restaurants and I am pleasantly surprised. The city is an old friend, but a friend  that is constantly growing and evolving, revealing qualities and attributes that I have never before seen.  To think of Barcelona as merely a place to see Gaudi architecture and stroll La Rambla is to cheat the city as well as yourself.  Barcelona’s layers are many and you will be rewarded for digging for the deepest of them.

3 Responses to “Barcelona – February 2011”

  1. John Gambler October 20, 2011 at 6:42 pm #

    Thats my girl,keep it up.

    • kellian70 October 20, 2011 at 8:08 pm #

      I am catching up. Next up Asia, London, Vienna and Italy along with some NY adventures.

      • Peggy August 30, 2014 at 1:25 pm #

        Keep it coming, wrtrsie, this is good stuff.

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