The winter weather in New York messed with our travel plans a bit. Rather than heading to NYC in the afternoon on Friday 1/28, we went to Cincinnati early in the morning where we hung out for five hours before going over to JFK. We had a three hour layover there but still almost didn't make it. We sat on the tarmac for almost the entire time, waiting for a gate. It never opened. We went from the plane to the terminal on a bus where we ran to the Airtrain which took us to another terminal where we had to go through security again. By the time we got to our gate, the flight was boarding. That's not to say we took off shortly thereafter. We sat on the tarmac in this new plane for over an hour, awaiting the de-icing process. In all, we sat in planes waiting on the ground longer than we had been in the air between Detroit and New York.
By the time we got to Barcelona, we'd been up for over 24 hours.
I wasn't planning on doing a whole lot in Barcelona. Usually when Andrea and I go traveling we spend every other day taking local excursions while hanging out by the pool and reading on the others. Certainly warmer than Michigan, the weather wasn't quite warm enough to do much (outdoor) pool-dwelling (much less enjoying the legendary Barcelona beaches). Moreover, our hotel (the Hotel Rey Juan Carlos I) didn't really encourage much hanging out. The hotel restaurants (those open during the winter) had odd hours and high prices. Our room didn't have a fridge so there went stocking up on food during our stay. Fortunately, we had a few local restaurants where we could grab a bite in the afternoon when we finally roused (our body clocks just didn't want to adjust to the six hour time difference).
We did a lot more touristy stuff than I thought we would. On our first awake day, we headed downtown to the Placa de Catalunya where we bought a two-day tourist bus pass. We'd done the tourist bus thing in Philadelphia and NYC and found that the whole "hop on/hop off" thing agrees with us.
The bus took us to all of the "must see" places in Barcelona. All the stuff that you know you need to see to tell the folks back home like the Gaudi-designed stuff (Sagrada Familia, Park Guell, etc). We didn't get out out at Sagrada Familia as I was afraid that the church would collapse had I gone inside. We did hop off at Park Guell and enjoyed the sights until it started to rain. This was our only spot of bad weather, of course.
We saw a lot of Barcelona from the top of that bus. The tours are given in ten languages via headphones and recorded programs. I missed the constant banter of a human tour guide and being able to ask questions. The recorded guy was pretty dry and didn't give us any of the real dirt on the city. We used the bus to get us close enough to our hotel where we were only one Metro stop away.
The Metro system in Barcelona is great. It only took us a few trips to figure out how to tell which direction we needed to go (the final stop of the line in either direction indicates this). Each trip is € 1.45 but the price goes down with multi-day passes. We did ourselves a disservice by never figuring out all the different varieties of tickets available. We did too many "one-trip" tickets rather than just buying a five-day from the beginning. The Metro stops are plentiful and well-marked. By the third day we felt secure enough to head all the way across town to the Diagonal Mar mall (Americans going to the mall? Perish the thought!).
At the mall, Andrea shopped while I went to the movies. I wanted a Spanish cinema experience since the movie theater I really wanted to attend, Phenomenon, wasn't having it's next showing until after we left. The matinee for The Tourist cost € 8. I didn't bother with popcorn as I got in late and didn't want to miss anything. I got to see previews for a lot of movies that have come out and left theaters already in the U.S. I had been curious if the movie would be in English with Spanish subtitles or dubbed. It was dubbed. However, I really didn't have much problem following it. Having seen enough films, especially Hitchcock films, the plot didn't present any problems. And, it was nice just looking at the beautiful people on screen (Jolie and Depp), no matter what was coming out of their mouths.
I had suspected that language wasn't going to be a problem in Barcelona. While in Germany, more people knew English than not. I figured the same would hold for Spain and it did. Nevertheless, I still did my best to torment the natives with my horrible Castilian Spanish. Quite a few times I worked in Spanish while the person I spoke to worked in English with us meeting with understanding somewhere halfway.
Barcelona is a trilingual city. I found most signs/pamphlets/maps/etc written in Castilian, Catalan and English. I found myself flummoxed when going into stores where Catalan was the sole language on signs. I had no idea how to pronounce things as Catalan uses a lot of Xs and I didn't know if these should have a K sound or a Sh sound. I'll risk looking like an idiot when I say that Catalan looks a lot like a mix of Castilian and French.
One of the places with only Catalan signs was Dunkin Coffee (the European version of Dunkin' Donuts). Almost as soon as I attempted to order some coffee the girl behind the counter asked, "American coffee?" Yes, please. Give me some American coffee.
When learning Spanish one of the first lessons is the restaurant situation where you summon the waiter and order coffee. What the teachers should let you know is what to expect when the coffee arrives. I take my coffee with cream and sweetener. I would order "cafe con leche y azucar." I'd get a little cup of espresso to which the waiter would add an equal part of milk. Okay, no problem. But don't think that this is the ubiquitous "bottomless cup" that one finds in diners/coney islands around the U.S.. Each cup is going to cost you. And, man, didn't I get some weird looks when I ordered two or three cups with breakfast? "What, are you sleepy?" one waitress asked me.
As for that "American coffee"? That was the only time I got more than a demitasse of coffee. I got about sixteen ounces of espresso with just a touch of milk. Very bitter but it did remind me a bit of home. And, for the record, I was not about to go into any of the several Starbucks I saw in the city. I wanted coffee, not motor oil.
Just to talk about beverages for a few more seconds; be aware that the restaurants in Barcelona don't serve tap water with meals. All the water is bottled -- either with bubbles or without. This can add up when you've been programmed to stay hydrated.
Mealtimes in Barcelona proved to be a little challenging for us. Not the meals, but the times. Lunch starts around 1PM and lasts until about 3PM while dinner doesn't usually begin until 8PM or later. We went to one restaurant three times -- Maitea Taberna. The first time we thought they were closed even though we could see people inside and it was only 10PM (they're open until 12AM). We tried them again a few days later, arriving at 7PM. Wouldn't you know, that same door wouldn't open for us? Wouldn't you know that I was pulling on the wrong door? "Empujar" is the word for "push" -- another of the few signs that wasn't translated in English. The place was nearly empty at 7PM. When we came back two days later at 8PM we found that all of the tables had been reserved. Not to worry -- most of them were reserved for 10PM or later. We promised to eat quickly and give up the table. By 9PM we were cashing out.
Apparently, Americans don't linger too much after a meal. At least, we don't. Everyplace we went I found that I had to ask for the bill. "Me gustaría la cuenta, por favor."
Can you tell that we did a lot of searching for and eating at restaurants? Maitea was a favorite and very reasonable (great tapas at € 1.50 a piece when some places would advertise a bargain at four pieces for € 20). I also really liked La Bombeta. We got quizzed a bit by the people at the table next to ours as to how we found the place. It wasn't a scene from The Slaughtered Lamb but they were a little suspicious how tourists could have found a place for locals. I wanted to say, "Se llama internet." There's a sign on the wall, written in Spanish, that they don't speak English at the restaurant. By the time I got there (day five or six), I was comfortable enough to only speak Spanish and didn't see if the folks at the restaurant were just being ironic.
When eating around our hotel, we frequented El Pati Blau. The dishes felt a little upscale but the prices weren't. Even more than the great food, the staff here was terrific.
If you're dining in Barcelona, be aware that you've got to order some "pan con tomate" -- simple bread with olive oil and hint of tomatoes. It's cheap and delicious. Some places dress it up with anchovies or olive puree. I had some great pan con tomate at one place that I can't recommend overall as I got sick after I ate there. I haven't had food poisoning in a long time but I lost my pan, paella, and sangria a few hours after I had it. I blame the muscles.
I think my favorite meal of the entire trip, no matter how silly this may sound, was when we went to a market on La Ronda where we bought fresh fruit, ham sandwiches, apple tarts, and sangria. We took that all back to our hotel for a feast in our room. Delicious.
We walked up and down La Ronda a few times, making almost daily sojourns to the market for evening snacks or cheap fruit smoothies. I saw the market the first time from across the street at The Museum of Erotica. That's the only museum we went to in Barcelona. For € 8 (we got a coupon via the tour bus) each, we enjoyed the sights. Overall, the museum is a little uneven. The museum is set up to take the patron through a history of erotica. It starts with old phallic and earth mother symbols before going into far too many pictures of Kama Sutra reproductions. We then jump to 18th and 19th century dirty drawings. There's just a little bit of Playboy fluff before you enter a room of fetish photos and paintings. There are a lot of holes in the centuries and decades along with missing media. No Tijuana Bibles, no burlesque, etc. I won't say I'm an expert on porn, but I seemed to know more than was represented at the museum. Regardless, it was a nice way to spend an afternoon.
Looking back at this post, I see that I spent a lot of time talking about coffee, food, and the Metro. Really, that's all you need to know about Barcelona. The rest is gravy. See whatever tourist stuff you want to see. Do your best to speak Spanish if you can (I mean, it's just more polite to at least attempt the language). Wear comfortable shoes. And, above all, just enjoy it.
Big thanks to my pal Nick Kujawa for hooking us up with a lot of suggestions and info before we even left. All of it was very helpful.
For more pictures from the trip, click here.