Tuesday, October 15, 2013


The year 2013 had been a whirlwind for us.  It began with a wedding in May when Inna and I tied the knot in sunny Las Vegas.  And it ended with a funeral in July when my 92-year-old mother exited the stage.  We spent August and most of September emptying Mom’s large home overlooking the Severn River, put the old house on the market, and two days later we flew to Barcelona for a 12-day Royal Caribbean Mediterranean Cruise.

After flying all night our jet descended through the wispy fog shroud hanging over the grey pinnacled crags of Montserrat and I was instantly reminded of my old home in the Canyonlands of the American Southwest.  I saw this as a very good sign.

As we banked in over Barcelona and made our sweeping final approach from the sea there was hardly any traffic on the major highways below or activity at the port where many tankers sat at anchor.  It was eight o’clock on a Wednesday morning and there didn’t seem to be any rush hour underway by land or by water.

Barcelona is hemmed in by sturdy, Appalachian style mountains to the north and sits in jam-packed splendor at the edge of the sparkling Mediterranean Sea, with majestic Montjuic rising on its western flank like a green beached whale.  Container cranes line the harbor like giant yellow birds and bright striking buildings rise into the air like skyline monuments.  All around is color and ancient history.
Barcelona's artsy glass airport was pretty empty and easy to navigate, even after not sleeping all night.  And Customs was a breeze.
After picking up our luggage we found a number of convenient ATM’s near the baggage area where we could get some Euros.  This is the best way to get the local currency when arriving in a foreign country.  You can be sure you are getting the guaranteed lowest exchange rate and with no additional service charges, assuming that you are using an affiliate of your bank.  That means you get top dollar and only pay your bank's service fee – usually a couple of bucks.  The withdrawal limit was 300€, about $405.

We followed the signs to the Aerobus in front of the main terminal and after paying 6€ per ticket, we were on our way into Barcelona in a nice bus with some noisy German men on holiday.

It was still foggy, but the clouds were starting to burn off.  Given our close proximity to the sea, it was humid and a bit muggy.  It felt like our hometown of Annapolis.  The temps this time of year fluctuate between a high of 80 and a low of 65.  With high mountains, a warm sea, and a year round temperate climate, Barcelona has the best of all worlds.

On the drive into town we passed luxurious palm trees and tall pampas grass waving in the breeze.  There were many small parks and large public art pieces on almost every corner.  They had even turned the cellphone towers into shining works of modern art.

We had made a three night booking over the Internet at a place called Hostal Live located along one of the city's busiest boulevards, Gran Via Corts de Catalones, with its stately sycamores and bike trails.  It was an outstanding choice and I recommend it highly – great location, near restaurants, landmarks, the Metro, Ramblas, the Old City – and the staff couldn’t be nicer or more knowledgeable.

The one thing that’s a bit confusing about Spain is all the different names they have for streets – Gran Via (Big Street), Via (Medium-Sized Street), Ronda (Don’t know), Av.(Avenue), Trave de (Not sure, maybe travel way), Pg. (Passage?), Calle (Street), Rda.(Road?).  Even the Spanish dictionaries can’t explain what some of these curious words and abbreviations mean.  When you look at an address on a business card or brochure, you usually have no idea how to figure out where the hell it is.  Here’s the address for the hostal where we stayed after our cruise: Hostal Apolo, C/Lafont, 1 – 3 Principal, 08004 Barcelona – Espana.  Say what?

And it’s easy to get lost in the many Catalonic variations – Catalanya, Catalunya, Catalunyo, Catalon, Catalones, Cataluna.  You say potato, and I say patoto.  I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but from a tourist standpoint, they all seem pretty much the same, and cause endless confusion.

The bus dropped us off a few blocks from our hotel and after checking into the brand new Hostal Live, and getting directions from our English speaking and very hip daytime manager, Adriena, we sleep-walked over to the Placa de Catalunyo, where a giant fountain adorned a beautiful square filled with locals, touristas, and pigeons.  This is where you can purchase tickets for the on-off tour bus known as the Barcelona Bus Turistic.  We bought a two day pass for $46€ each.  On-off busses are always the best way to get a good overview and perspective when trying to figure out a new city.

After being warned repeatedly about pickpockets, I managed to drop my wallet on the ground as I was fumbling in my “travel vest of a million pockets” and the nice people in line behind us picked it up and handed it back to me.  So much for pickpockets.  Many tourists have been scared into wearing their day packs on the front like they are carrying a baby.  Now, I'm not saying you should go around oblivious to your surroundings, exposing your valuables to the world, but you don't need to obsess.  And you probably could get jacked up in Baltimore just as easily as you could in Barcelona.  It also helps to take a little nap after flying all night and landing in a foreign country before you venture out for some sightseeing.  Everything goes better when your brain is working properly.
The Turistic bus features three lines – the red (west side), the blue (east side), and the green (sea side).  That first day, we took the red line, sitting on the top and letting the warm Barcelona sun bake our sleepy brains. 

The first thing you notice about Barcelona is how clean it is.  There is virtually no trash.  It is amazingly tidy and people are always sweeping, dusting and wiping the glass of their shop windows.  And even though many people smoke, there are very few butts on the ground.  They actually have little street sweepers and the yellow-suited drivers periodically get out and shampoo the streets.  Giant plastic trash and recycling containers are strategically positioned along every main street and people carry their trash out to the curb.  Barcelonans work hard to make their city shine.
Barcelona is a City of Balconies – wrought iron like in New Orleans, stone, wooden, they come in all shapes and materials, and almost every home has one.  Most balconies are adorned with plants, and many have either the Spanish or Catalonian flags which are both yellow and red and look pretty much the same.

Near the end of the red line tour, we skirted the edge of the Old City and were completely blown away by the Gothic Cathedral and museums.  This part of town is comprised of a rat maze of twisting narrow streets filled with small shops and eateries – no cars – and only small utility vehicles are allowed, other than on the perimeter streets.  It’s pack it in, pack it out.
For a city of 1.6 million people, there is a surprising lack of congestion.  It is definitely crowded, but not the usual honking parking lot, like in D.C. or any other major metropolitan area in the U.S.

There are several reasons for this.  First off, many of the streets are one way, thus avoiding the dreaded left hand turn that repeatedly stops an entire lane and causes accidents.  This promotes a safe and steady flow of traffic.

The second and main reason for the lack of gridlock is that Barcas are not wedded to the automobile.  And the cars you do see are all very small, like Mini Coopers, Puegots, Fiats, and VW's.  There are no SUV's or pickup trucks.
Everywhere you look there are scooters, bikes, skate boards, electric bikes, Segways, kids scooters, and roller blades constantly zipping by.  And the bicyclists and scooters haul ass.  Spanish life may be slow, but put a Spaniard on anything with wheels and they are off to the races.  You really have to pay attention to where you are at all times so you don't get flattened.  I have never seen a place where skateboards are actually a popular form of transit.  People of all ages are foot pumping around the city on their long boards – even some in business suits and carrying brief cases on their way to work.

There are as many bikes as cars in Barcelona and the red and white bicing bike share bikes are parked in large computerized racks everywhere you go.  They are super popular and used by people of all ages.  A yearly pass only costs 40€, making it the most convenient form of transportation around.

You see helmeted businessmen in suits and women dressed to the nines, riding scooters.  As in all metro areas, parking is at a premium, but most of the parking spaces, and even sections of sidewalk, are taken up by scooters, not cars.  And watching the traffic flow is a total hoot.  The scooters all bunch together at each traffic light and when the light turns green they all burst forward in a mad dash, jockeying for position like little water bugs.  And contrary to what you might have heard, most of the scooters are not loud and noisy.

The public transportation system is heavily used and there are lots of modern and efficient busses filled with all sorts of people, running up and down the main drags.  Busses are not just for the poor in Barcelona.

The Metro is spotless and efficient.  We bought the T-10 pass which gave us 10 trips for 10€, and it was definitely the way to go.  They had the neatest thing I have ever seen on a subway to help you figure out where you are going.  There is a panel in each car that lights up at each station when you arrive so you know where you are without having to get your audio cues from the conductor, who you usually can’t understand.  And while the underground train has individual cars, there are no interior doors, so you can easily walk through to the adjoining car if the one you got on is too crowded.

Like the city streets, the Metro stations are amazingly clean, mainly because they have plastic hanging bags on attractive wire frames for trash in order to eliminate odors and stains.  And, of course, attendants are always sweeping and mopping.

Barcelona is divided into neighborhood sections, and each can take days to truly see.  One of the premiere areas to visit, and the only place we just had to get off the bus to check out that first day, was Montjuic, which means the Mountain of the Jews.  It got its name because of the large Jewish cemetery along its crest.  Montjuic is like a candy store of neat places to visit, including the Olympic Stadium and St. George’s Palace indoor sports complex, the Pueblo Espanol (Spanish Village), the Juan Miro Museum, the Ethnological Museum, the Archaeology Museum of Catalonia, the Montjuic Castle, the National Palace (Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya), the Magic Fountain (with colorful light shows each evening), expansive gardens and trails, and a funicular that runs from the top of the mountain all the way down to the harbor.

After completing the west end circuit of the city, we got off the bus at our original starting point and began walking up the Passeig de Gracia toward the Block of Discord in the upscale Eioxample Shopping District.  This part of town is world-renowned for having some of the city’s wildest buildings designed by its five Modernismo masters:

                 Lluis Domenech I Montanar’s Casa Lleo-Morera

                  Joseph Puig I Cadafalch’s Casa Amatler

                          Enric Sagnier’s Casa Mulleras

                 Marcel-li Coquillat iLiofrui’s Casa Bonet

And Barcelona’s – dare I say the earth’s – most audacious architect, Antoni Gaudi’s Casa Batlo and “La Pedrera” Espal Gaudi.  The word gaudy, which means too bright or heavily decorated, derives from this flamboyant Spanish architect who to this day stands as a beacon to nonconformity.  And given that he spent most of his time working in Barcelona, his treasures dot the city like bright jewels.  The audacious buildings along the Block of Discord represent different modernistic approaches from the early 1900s, and clash with one another like dueling sculptures or crazed works of art, often appearing to be melting into surreal shapes that defy description – or gravity.

Shopping is big business in Barcelona and there are several commercial hubs wrapped around the most popular points of interest where you will find fancy shops, selling the best of the best – Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Chanel – the whole pantheon of shopping gods.  You can definitely shop ‘til you drop in Barcelona.

While checking out the splendid architecture and the finely decorated balconies we happened upon what we came to affectionately refer to as "Tapas Street" at the upper end of the world famous Ramblas pedestrian byway.  It was a tree-lined street with a linear park running down the middle where people strolled in the twilight.  Barcas come out to play when the sun goes down and walking the dog and socializing is a big part of the evening ritual.  Women and lovers walk arm-in-arm and young parents push strollers while seniors sit on benches sharing the latest juicy gossip.

The first two nights of our stay, we ate tapas (small plates featuring local delicacies like anchovies and all things pork) at several of a zillion outdoor cafes that lined the leafy boulevard.  A dinner for two cost about $50.  Good wine was $5 a glass and a bottle of San Miquel beer about the same.  Sangria was $21 a pitcher. 
Food is more expensive in Barcelona because waiters are paid a fair wage and are not dependent on tips.  And Barcas seemed to take genuine pride in their work no matter how menial.  There are very few immigrants, so the Spanish aren't dependent on cheap foreign labor to do their dirty work.  They pay more for what they get, but in the end, I think they get more than they pay for.

Our first day in Barcelona was all jet lag and sleepy fascination.  But by our second day we had already developed some lasting impressions of Barcelona.
Barcelona is a splendid place to visit or live.  It has an easy-going feel.  It is busy but without the stress.  The warm – but not oppressively hot – climate creates a laid-back atmosphere, and the Barcas are exceptionally friendly and soft-spoken.  It is a remarkably quiet city for its size.  One rarely hears a honking horn, a police siren, or loud voices.  There is a smooth jazz feel to the place that makes you want to snap your fingers to the undulating rhythms of the city.  It is a very diverse place with people of all colors and nationalities mixing in their happy-go-lucky daily dances.  People don’t dress fancy, but they have an eclectic sense of style.  The abundant fruits and vegetables are grown locally without chemicals.  And the beer and wine are tasty and reasonably priced.  The cultural attractions are never-ending, what with art gallery parties that flow out into the street every evening, flamenco concerts, museums celebrating all facets of the human existence, public art, pretty parks, and every recreational opportunity imaginable.  Barcelona is like one, big vibrant family that welcomes all comers with open arms and a big smile.  It is by far, the finest large city on earth that I have ever visited.
And we were just getting started.


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