Barcelona is an architectural wonder, a joyous mish-mash of ancient and modern styles all mixed together like an intoxicating cocktail. The city that gave birth to Miro and Gaudi is a city unafraid to experiment and celebrate its adventurous spirit.There is a uniformity to most towns, a particular style that separates them from other places. In Vegas, it’s the glitzy neon. In Washington, it’s the white marble and granite institutional buildings. In New York City, it’s the skyscrapers. In Barcelona, it’s the lack of cohesion, the unbridled free-for-all approach to architecture and life which separates it from every other city in the world.
Just take something as simple as shoes. Barcas are fond of wearing high top Chucks, but of every color and stripe – some even made of fine leather and costing hundreds of Euros. And when you see a childhood favorite worn with such a cool flair, you can’t help but smile. And in Barcelona, flat is back. Barcelona men prefer flat shoes to those with arches or heels. And women favor either sexy sandals or ankle boots of fine leather.
The clothing scene in Barcelona is equally flamboyant and expressive. They like to mix and match all sorts of fashions. The women are quite fetching and wear incredibly short shorts. And old people often dress like teenagers. Barcas are totally unselfconscious. They are a very attractive people who like to show a lot of skin.
Barcelona is very proud of its Catalan heritage. This manifests itself most joyously with their food. Thin crunchy bread with local ham and cheese is a popular snack and all sorts of flat bread combos and gooey pastries tempt you from every shop window. Spaniards definitely love their bread, pasta, and pork.
Fresh fruit and vegetables grown in Catalan make dining around Barcelona a real treat. Local oranges and lemons literally grow on trees. And the variety of yummy olives will thrill your taste buds to no end. I had no idea there were so many varieties.
Barcas are avid readers and there are book shops and outdoor tents filled with vendors hawking books all over the city. Down along Las Ramblas, the insanely popular pedestrian mall where any visitor to Barcelona eventually ends up, we accidentally stumbled upon the Book and Roses Festival, dedicated to the City’s patron saint, St George. Many of the books were in English which isn't a problem for the average Barca because English is mandatory in all Spanish schools and everyone – especially the younger folks – speaks at least a little English. And we found it very amusing to see that most of the written informational materials, from brochures to instructions, were also written in English, like the reverse of Spanish in the U.S.
There are many similarities between America and Spain. For instance, I am a big fan of electronic cigarettes and was pleasantly surprised to see that they are quite popular in Barcelona. And culturally speaking, Barcas are obsessed with their cellphones just like Americans. Billboards advertising the latest American movies could be found on buses, buildings, the Metro stations, and almost anywhere where Barcas gather. Nike sports paraphernalia is extremely popular, to the point where the larger outlets have their own security guards. And Barcas are utterly crazed when it comes to football, just like in America, and the Barcelona team has won their equivalent of the Super Bowl several times. So, sports totally rule.
No trip to Barcelona is complete without a stop at Sagrada Familia, Spain's most popular tourist destination. After designing Park Guell, Barcelona’s hallucinogenic urban garden in the center of town, Atoni Gaudi turned his attention to his greatest masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia Cathedral. Starting in 1915, he shepherded the construction of a grand house of God unlike anything else on earth, incorporating all the different elements of design he had employed during his meteoric career – Gothic, Byzantine, Oriental, Naturalistic – and utilizing every material he had ever worked with, from mosaics to trash.
During Gaudí's life only the crypt, apse and part of the Nativity facade were completed. Upon his tragic death at the age of 73 – he was hit by a tram on his daily walk to the Sant Felip Neri church for prayer and confession – his assistant Domènec Sugrañes took over the construction, followed by various architects who shared the master’s vision across time.
When asked how he felt about the fact that he would never see his gift to God completed, Gaudi replied, “Don’t worry, my client isn’t in a hurry.”
Words cannot adequately describe Sagrada Familia. It’s like the Grand Canyon of architecture. You cannot possibly imagine from the outside – which is overpoweringly out of this world – what it looks like on the inside. It is like no other religious cathedral in the world. I have seen some of the best – Notre Dame, Westminster, Ely, Durham, St. John the Divine, the National Cathedral in D.C. – but when I walked into Sagrada Familia and looked up, I literally gasped in shock and unconsciously stepped back in awe. It was like staring into the world’s largest gemstone from the inside out, and on such a monumental scale that my mind couldn’t fully comprehend.
As I stared like a child at the massive white stone pillars rising to the roof in the shape of sinuous trees it literally brought me to tears. I’m not a religious person, but I stood there crying with joy at the thought that Antoni Gaudi, one puny human being from some obscure Spanish village, could have dreamed up and then designed on paper something so amazing, and that artisans could spend several centuries lovingly laboring to make it come alive in all of its glory – were, in fact, still bringing Gaudi’s glorious vision to life (It is still only about half finished.). That feeling of sheer wonderment was overpowering. Several times I had to sit down and close my eyes. And for the first time in my life, I truly understood the extraordinary strength and commitment of the human spirit. That lightning bolt of shocking insight will stay with me until my dying day.
Later that afternoon we hopped the Metro down to the beach, exiting at the Paseo de Colon which runs along the trendy Moll d'Espanya and Port Veil waterfront area that got a dramatic face lift in 1987, before the summer Olympics came to town.
We bypassed the solitary W Hotel on the west end of the beach, towering into the air like a blue-silver air foil sail, and then ended up taking a little side trip through La Barceloneta, a working-class barrio that used to the fishermen's quarter. We walked its narrow streets, checking out some of the city's cheapest and best tapas bars and seafood restaurants bordering the beach that stretches for three glorious miles. We found it interesting that rather than the usual high rise beachfront hotels, the poor folks owned the apartments overlooking the sea.
The beaches, like almost every place in Barcelona, are ADA accessible. Wheelchairs are everywhere.
And environmental awareness plays a big role in the lives of most Barcas. There are little green signs along the beaches, promoting clean water quality for safe swimming. And while the beaches are always crowded, there was no litter. The beaches are for all of the people, and apparently, the people have a right – and a strong commitment – to a clean environment.
Barcelona is infamous for its "natural" beaches where people frolic in the nude. We chose Icària Beach where they wore clothes, but many of the ladies went topless just the same. Barcas are not shy.
Vendors roamed the beach, selling Majitos in cardboard cartons, advertising their wares excitedly like fishmongers.
The Mediterranean doesn't have waves like the ocean, so there is no surfing. But paddle boards are super popular and the flat water makes for easy paddling.
The Med was salty and cool. I swam about a quarter mile out to a bright yellow buoy at end of the long breakwater that was made from giant cubist blocks. Even their shoreline protection was artistic. The whole time I was swimming around, I only saw one aquatic critter, a small jellyfish. There are no dolphins, or sharks, or whales in the Med. It’s not a body of water where you will see big fish, other than tuna. And that fishery is in the tank, along with many others due to pollution and overfishing. Imagine trying to get all the nations bordering the Med – Europe, Africa, Middle East – to work together. It’s an impossible task.
Spaniards are famous the world round as champion sailors and there were many sailboats of all sizes racing just outside the harbor, including some odd J-80-sized sailboats with their colorful bows rising out of the water. There was a steady sea breeze and the spinnakers were flying in the sun like bright flowers. It was a familiar scene for a lad raised in the Sailing Capital of Annapolis, just a bit more exotic.
After a few hours in the sun without any sunscreen we sought shelter in the Museu d’Historia de Catalunya which sits at center stage on Barcelona’s waterfront, occupying the old General Trading Warehouse. Each floor of the gigantic brown stone structure takes you through a different period of time, from the Palaeolithic to the present. The first people to call Barcelona home lived in caves along the coast thousands of years before Christ and their ensuing evolution included tribal warfare, territorial violence, maritime conquest and commercial expansion, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Spanish Empire’s New World exploration and exploitation, the Industrial Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, and an unwavering reluctance to sit still and put down their weapons. As a thriving seaport on the cusp between Christianity and Islam, Catalan was attacked and occupied by the Romans, the Goths, the Normans, the Turks, the French, and countless royal marauders from all over Spain, each building on the bones and smoldering remains of those who came before, each temporary alliance invariably leading to more bloodshed and destruction. Their tortured history reads like 2,700 years of nonstop savagery. But curiously enough, by the end of World War II, they had mellowed and absorbed the blood of so many different cultures, that the people of Barcelona somehow miraculously transformed themselves into a modern model of civility and tolerance. And their fighting spirit has moved from the battlefield to the soccer field where Spain is the champion of the world.
Our last night in Barcelona was bittersweet because we were excited about our upcoming cruise but didn't want to leave such a lovely and charming city.
We were tired of tapas, so we roamed the side streets, looking for just the right place for our last supper. We couldn't agree on where to eat and finally stopped at an attractive outdoor cafe overlooking a busy intersection off the Avenue Roma. The restaurant servicing the outdoor tables turned out to be a little hole-in-the-wall joint called Restaurant Dana, run by a friendly Syrian family. And, much to our pleasant surprise, it served up the best meal we had in Barcelona.
Given the recent saber rattling madness surrounding Syria and the U.S., we couldn't help asking our chatty waiter what he thought about all this talk of war. He said, without hesitation, "Assad is done", and then moved the conversation to what he really thought was important. He showed us the ornate hookahs that the local Syrians smoke at 11 each morning. He let us smell a pouch of his favorite grape tobacco and got a kick out of my electronic cigarette which just happened to be loaded with a grape nicotine filter – no comparison to the giant hookah, of course.
All of the Syrians we met seemed hard working and incredibly gracious. They hated the dictator Assad but seemed to have no affinity toward the rebels either, and clearly bore no animosity toward America. They had made a new life in Spain, and Syria was a million miles away.
We ate an appetizer of large green olives and drank their sweet Syrian beer, followed by a lamb quesadilla dish called Arayas and an ensalada of spicy fried bread mixed with greens that were both simply out of this world. The owner surprised us at the end of our meal with two free desserts made of nuts and some tasty date filling.
We were in heaven.
A Mexican doctor and his wife and little girl sat down next to us and we struck up a conversation. They lived nearby and the doctor and his wife walked to work each day. We were interested in the cost of living. He makes 1,800€ a month – before the world economic crunch he made 3,500€ – and a very nice apartment costs 800€ a month and about 300,000€ to buy. Spain’s economy is still in shambles after the Great Recession; unemployment is stuck at about 25 percent and even professionals like doctors have a hard time making ends meet. As in America, husbands and wives both have to work in order to pay the bills. I guess times are tough all over.
Getting from our hotel the next day turned out to be quite the ordeal. We had been told that the green line on the Metro stopped at the cruise ship dock. So we humped our heavy bags up and down steep steps, switching from the red line to the green, wishing all the while that we had taken a cab, and figuring that we had at least saved ourselves some money. There was even a little cruise ship icon at the Metro stop where we got off so we figured we were on the right track. We climbed the steps of the Drassanes Station and were greeted by ol’ Christopher Columbus atop his pillar of stone. We crossed several busy streets that led us to the water. We walked for about ten minutes until we started to realize that there were no cruise ships in sight. And believe me, it’s pretty much impossible to hide a cruise ship. We finally came to some sort of ferry terminal where a nice fellow told us to hop a nearby blue bus for 2.50€ that would take us the remaining two miles to the cruise ship dock. Clearly, walking had never been an option.
The Royal Caribbean terminal seemed empty compared to San Juan and New Orleans, where we had departed on our previous cruises.
As we stood staring out over Barcelona from atop the twelfth deck of the Serenade of the Seas (the first ship we ever sailed on three years before out of Puerto Rico), I suddenly remembered the Egg Festival story we had heard about during one of our bus tours. During this annual religious ceremony, the Mayor of Barcelona takes 12 eggs to the nuns at an ancient convent near the Pedralbes Monastery, asking for good weather. Facing 12 days at sea, in three different countries, I prayed the ladies had done their job well.