The peak travel holidays are over. The tourists have come for the summer and left by fall, but we’re still here. And we’re thankful for it: The streets are less crowded, the flights are less filled, the lines are shorter.
That all makes a late fall visit ideal timing for Barcelona, and a welcome reprieve from the cloudy and gray winter of Northern Europe. Barcelona is a Mediterranean city only 2.5 hours southwest by plane with warm dry weather, blue sky and longer days (sunset in Barcelona is 5:30pm compared with before 4pm in Berlin these days). We’ve been to Spain’s northern coast during the summer and it was great. Although it’s hard to compare the places we’ve been, a combination of several aspects just makes us happy to be in Spain: the people are sweet and kind, the weather is great, and the food is unique to each region and never disappoints.
On a practical level, it’s incredibly cheap to travel there because of low cost airlines and a local relative with an extra bedroom. For example, a $40 roundtrip flight (not a typo) brought us each to Barcelona from our separate cities where, for the first time, we met in a new city for the weekend. The food in Spain is also cheap relative to European prices (which in most countries are still lower than the states for produce and restaurant meals, by the way) with a lot of fresh seafood, and a priority on fresh local ingredients leading to great flavors.
There are also several aspects about Spain that we enjoy and connect with on a more personal level. It’s easy to feel welcomed and at home in Barcelona, a warm and friendly culture – not unlike Germany – that seemingly emphasizes the celebration of life and embodies our same beliefs: surround yourself with friends and family, enjoy great food, get out and socialize as much as possible.
(well, most of the time)
In the same spirit, we’ve spent a lot of previous trips visiting our families spread out all over the US. But, this was our first trip visiting family in Europe. We flew to Barcelona to visit Ted, Allison’s relative, and Leo, his wonderful partner, who have been living there for several years now after moving from San Francisco. Ted is a retired dentist who now has the privilege of spending his days at his leisure, which is not hard to do in Barcelona. Leo is a Brazilian rock star, literally, the lead singer of the rock band Soul Dealer, which performs around Barcelona and Europe. They are an amazingly warm, funny, generous couple and made our stay exceptional.
We would have liked to visit for longer, but with only the weekend for this trip, instead of visiting the many museums with works from Picasso, Dali, or Miro, we settled on a gastro-tour and urban hike with a couple of Gaudi’s architectural highlights and parks sprinkled in. When traveling in general, there are several choices to make about how to spend your time: museums, shopping, dinning, outdoor adventures, or just relaxing and catching up. We watched many people spend their time frantically running around pressured to see everything possible within given amount of time like they’re desperately trying to find something but aren’t sure what it is exactly. But there is never enough time in life and in travel. It goes quickly I’ve heard; one day you wake up and too much time has passed. Counterintuitively, I am learning that so much of seeing a place is not in running around trying to see the sights, but rather, connecting with the people you’re with and hoping to have an experience of culture. Maybe that’s true in life generally.
Of course, living in Europe we feel less pressure to see everything in a weekend. Instead, we are following Ted’s advice to “travel like you expect to return.” Brilliant. I admit that we’re especially partial to this style trip when we visit big cities. For us, what better way to spend a weekend than eagerly trying new dishes and wandering around through old narrow streets and alleys?
I arrived late on a Thursday night, but still within the limits of dinnertime for Spain, which begins around 9 or 10pm. Leo had prepared an assortment of delicious tapas and we ate and talked until late in the night. I woke up on Friday just in time for my 11am tour of the Sagrada Familia Basilica, which is luckily close enough that you can see it out the window of the apartment.
The Sagrada Família is one of Gaudi’s many legends. Together with six other Gaudí buildings in Barcelona, part of la Sagrada Família is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, dedicated “to Gaudí’s exceptional creative contribution to the development of architecture and building technology”, “having represented el Modernisme of Catalonia” and “anticipated and influenced many of the forms and techniques that were relevant to the development of modern construction in the 20th century”.
Although he began working on it in 1883, when he died 1926 less than a quarter of it was complete. It has remained under construction ever since, passing the midpoint in 2010 when the pope consecrated and proclaimed it a basilica.
I took the organized tour, and afterwards continued to walk around and take it all in. There were couples and kids everywhere taking photographs, but I was in a reflective mood. Here to put the church to use for something other than an iconic backdrop for instagram photos. Here to meditate maybe. It’s been under construction for 100 years, now with an anticipated completion date of 2026, the anniversary of Guadi’s death. He was run over right outside of this church one night while crossing in front by a trolley, and buried here. It was his grand masterpiece. He lived on the grounds during construction and now it’s his permanent home.
I noticed a tourist with a selfie stick in one hand alternating with a DSLR camera hanging around her neck trying desperately to capture every inch of this basilica. She quickly moved over the marble floors swinging back and fourth in chaotic circles trying to capture everything in images. She’s trying to capture a dynamic structure, an attempt to photograph a church that will be changing for years to come. Maybe she’s trying to make sense of it all – an impossible venture. Like trying to retell a dream that was so vivid and lucid but comes out jumbled upon rendition. The Sagrada Familia is some sort of psychedelic trip, right out of Alice in Wonderland. It looks like a sand castle construction of a cathedral. Almost like it’s melting. This place was built for effect and it’s best experienced in person with both eyes open.
The cold stone benches than run three quarters of the length of the church offer a good opportunity for that. I found a good lonely spot about halfway down, along the southeast wall. On a bright early December day, just past noon now, the beautiful orange, red and yellow pane glass windows on the other side, dotted with purple, are illuminated by the low sun this time of year, colors falling onto the white and black speckled marbled columns. These bright colors warm the cold marble columns. The reds represent the soft light of the sunset. Behind me, the greens and blues represent the early morning light of the new day. To my right is another exquisite wall of paned glass with purples, greens, and blues.
(Photo credit: Matt Feldman)
The tall columns of the interior rise and split like the trunks of a tree. The jagged edges on the ceiling resemble overlapping leaves of a canopy (Some great additional pictures here). I know I am awake, but in this moment it feels like a dream. Gaudí’s original design calls for a total of eighteen spires, but even with its current eight, it’s a powerful sight. The custom-made cranes are the highest structures today, but that will change over the next few years, when the towers representing the apostles, evangelists, Virgin Mary, and Jesus Christ will rise above everything else. I finally motivated myself to get up and walk around some more. I took the elevator up to the top of one of the towers and climed the narrow stairwell back down. On the way out I pass the carved wooden confessionals and make a mental list.
Allison arrived late on Friday night to another homemade tapas dinner and wine, which turned into another late night of talking. The next day, under a Mediterranean blue sky, we began our urban hike, an expedition in search of an expression of culture through food, with Leo and Ted as our guides. We didn’t know exactly where we were going as we started out each day, we just knew we wanted see the highlights, and the details of where we walked and stopped along the way were made up as we went. This day, we all walked the 3 miles or so to the old town center. We passed the Arc de Triomf, built as the entrance to the World’s Fair in 1888, located on the car-free Passeig de Lluis Companys. At the end of this palm-lined walkway we reached the Parc de la Ciutadella where we grabbed a quick espresso and rested for a bit. It’s always a sign of good things to come when the espresso in a random café in a park is fantastic.
We continued on to the old gothic part of town for a leisurely lunch. Lunch involves one of the best things about Spain: typically restaurants will have a “menu del dia” (menu of the day) which consists of a three course meal with a few items to choose from for each course, and beer or wine and espresso afterwards, for the incredibly reasonable price of around 10 euros on weekdays. The dishes are distinct because of the Catalan culture which also has its own distinct language that sounds like a mixture of Spanish, Italian, and French. Barcelona is in the Catalan region of Spain that recently attempted to separate from the mainland politically. Barcelona is situated along the northeast coast of Spain, pinned between the ocean, a couple of rivers, and the foothills of the Pyrenees. Settled by the ancient mariners of the Mediterranean, the Phoenicians and Carthaginians. The Romans arrived in 1st century B.C. and many ruins still remain, especially in Tarragona, about an hour down the coast. The Goths eventually came, and then the Moors in the 8th century before they, too, were pushed out by the Franks. A fractured Spain continued until a consolidation of power through marriages led to fear over which heir would inherit which empire, and resulted in a war between Madrid and Barcelona. In the end, Barcelona fell to Madrid and became a state of Spain.
Walking along the city streets felt like we were chasing these ghosts from the past. Unlike Berlin, which underwent a large re-building of the city in the 1950s after the war, Spain was somewhat insulated from that during Franco’s rule. As a result, there are still many beautiful old rectangular buildings all over the old town of Barcelona, with smooth or carved stone façades and long wooden shutters over each window that open to a small balcony for each apartment (There is a whole instagram account dedicated to these facades). It’s hard to capture the scale in a photograph with the narrow stone streets, but it was a great backdrop to enjoy good food and good company. I long for places like this, because you can taste the past in the food. I was told long ago that love is an act, not a feeling, and that’s apparent in the Spanish meals. Long lunches shared with family and friends are the norm. Leo took us to a new place that he’d been meaning to try and it was excellent. The expectations for the rest of our trip had been set, and it only got better.
Dinner turned into a delicious mix of empanadas from a small storefront amidst the cobblestones, and warm fresh churros from a favorite local xurreria, dipped in Leo’s special homemade hot chocolate (pure cream and chocolate). Afterwards, we met a friend from Barcelona who had been an exchange student in Atlanta, and he taught us how to drink like a local. Not in terms of quantity (though the Spanish can definitely hold their liquor), but from a strange vessel that looks like the offspring of a kettle and a bong. It takes a little bit of practice not to look like a fool spilling it all over your face.
We got up early on Sunday to hike to Parc Guell, another Gaudi institution sitting high on a hill over the city and made up of fantastically shaped structures, wavy benches, and gingerbread houses come to life. As we walk uphill towards the park, we followed a little boy dribbling a soccer ball with his right foot, effortlessly weaving past strollers, pedestrians, dogs, and old women along the sidewalk. Today, they are all just faceless defenders hopeless in their attempt to prevent his advancing.
From there we headed to the hipster Gracias neighborhood for a long lunch that could only happen in Catalonia. It started with a bottle of Cava split between the three of us, and the seasonal specialty of calçots, which are green onions charred over an open flame. The waitress brought out a pile of about twenty 12-inch-long onions on a clay plate, and Leo instructed us to squeeze the bottom and pull off the blackened outer layer, then dip the smoky innards into a freshly made sauce of tomato, almond, breadcrumbs, garlic and olive oil. This turned out to be an amazing mix of flavors. Then came a huge platter of grilled fish and meat (lamb, rabbit, and chicken) over potatoes and tomatoes, dipped in garlic aioli and a nice fresh chipotle sauce.
Two hours later, we headed back along the buildings, now painted in a pink hue by the fading sun, and made our way to the main shopping street in Barcelona. This area is beautiful at night during the winter, with all of the Christmas lights aglow and spontaneous street performers playing melodies in the background. Because shopping in Barcelona is cheaper than Berlin and Geneva, Allison was able to get boots of Spanish leather.
It was a very scenic flight back to Berlin as I flew along the Mediterranean coastline of Europe, over northern Italy, and along the Swiss/Austrian border. But as we flew past the Alps, the thick and low cloud sheet appeared again and I knew then that I’d be in need of another weekend getaway to Barcelona before winter was over.