As we boarded the Barcelona metro, I was surprised to feel a pretty hard bump against my right calf, followed immediately by a hand seemingly dusting off the back of my jeans in that area. I started turning to see what that was about, only to feel someone else bump into my chest. I twisted back around just in time to see a dark-haired young man literally pulling his hand out of the inside left pocket of my windbreaker. He immediately put up his hands in a conciliatory gesture that I took to mean, “I can’t really explain why my hand was in your jacket pocket, so I’ll be leaving now…” and then he jumped off the train before the doors could close, joining his male accomplice, who my wife and friends said was standing on the platform and never entered the metro car. It all happened so fast that I was very lucky not to have lost anything, although I thought later that by declining to grab my sunglasses he might have been offering a fashion critique.
I don’t think of myself – at 6’3″ and 180 – as being a particularly inviting target for pickpockets, but my wife and friends said the would-be thieves could probably sense that I was the most easily distracted person in our group. I would have disputed that analysis if I could have found any holes in it.
Probably no more than an hour later, we were on another metro when I experienced a second unusual occurrence. A pretty young woman smiled at me and I smiled back – I am nothing if not polite. The metro car was quite crowded, and the closest pole for passengers to hang onto was totally occupied at and below shoulder height, so I reached up high. At that point the petite woman moved closer until she was essentially snuggled under my raised arm. The next stop was ours, so we hustled off and tried to figure out what had just happened. I ventured the opinion that the attractive fellow traveler had inadvertently fallen victim to my boyish good looks and animal magnetism. My wife and our friends were equally sure she was simply getting into position to pick my pocket. Their perspective was plausible, but I found their hysterical laughter in response to my interpretation of the event to be particularly cruel.
But even if I had been successfully “pick-pocketed,” I wouldn’t have held it against Barcelona, which is one of the world’s great cities. It has to be one of the liveliest places in Europe – or anywhere else. Las Ramblas, the broad avenue which we view as Barcelona’s version of the Champs-Élysées in Paris, runs roughly one mile, from the distinctive 197-foot tall Christopher Columbus monument just outside the port to the Placa de Catalunya at the other end.
Las Ramblas seems to be jammed elbow to elbow at any time of the day and night, with young people vastly outnumbering the rest of us. It is filled with restaurants, sidewalk cafes, bars, and hotels. There are street musicians, mimes and portrait artists in abundance. There are open-air markets where one can purchase flowers, plants, many different kinds of birds, an even wider variety of aquarium fish, and meat – with the legs and hooves still attached, which served as a stark reminder of why I need to transition from omnivore to vegetarian. Fortunately for me, there are also numerous ice cream/gelato shops. Some of the less family-oriented guidebooks talk about other things also being available for purchase on Las Ramblas, but I wouldn’t know about that. We did get some good advice about restaurants and cafes that were just off the main drag being just as good and more reasonably priced.
While we have found that Europeans in general tend to stay up later than Americans, we were determined to show these young Barcelonistas that we, too, could be party animals. And we did, indeed, hang with them on Las Ramblas, at least until 9 p.m., by which time everyone in our group had started to yawn. Perhaps it was the effects of the Sangria – I was afraid all that fruit would give us a temporary sugar high.
The first time we were there, in 1999, we had heard of Barcelona but had acquired very little knowledge about the area. We were in the city primarily to embark on a Mediterranean cruise which would bring us back to Barcelona a week later, and some friends had encouraged us to spend a few days there, so we did, at the very nice Princess Sofia Hotel in the university district. The hotel was within easy walking distance of a metro station, and the area was filled with students, restaurants and cafes. My wife, Lynda, doesn’t do breakfast, so John, Shirley and I found a little café just a few blocks from our hotel.
I was supposed to be our translator in Spain, thanks to my high school and college Spanish, which admittedly was learned in another century. I had read a little bit about Catalan, which is spoken in Barcelona and surrounding territories, but I figured it had to be close enough to Spanish to allow me to get by. I figured wrong! The first day I ordered cold milk in this café but they brought me a steaming hot cup of it instead. The second day I said slowly and distinctly: “Camarero. Leche frio, por favor.” The waiter nodded and went back to the kitchen. Within seconds he came through the kitchen door with my milk, and we could see the steam rising from the mug. My friends practically fell off their chairs laughing, but only until John ordered an omelet. The waiter brought him the biggest omelet we had ever seen, with a tiny fork that would have been suitable for use with a shrimp cocktail. We’re sure that the waiters were behind a two-way mirror watching us and laughing hysterically.
During the same visit, we ate at a restaurant just off Las Ramblas which specialized in paella, as many of them do in Barcelona. I ordered the seafood paella, not realizing I would have to forcibly extract those delicacies from their shells. It was muscles versus mussels, and the black bivalves took me two falls out of three, leaving me hungry and my dinner companions in stitches.
The most striking to us – then and now – of Barcelona’s many wonders is its architecture. The city’s most famous architect was Barcelona native Antoni Gaudi. Even though Gaudi died in 1926, his designs still look futuristic. To me, the buildings he designed, including apartments, look like surrealistic Salvador Dali paintings come to life.
Gaudí’s most famous work, and one that truly has to be seen to be believed, is the Sagrada Familia (Sacred Family) church, which he worked on from 1883 until his death, but was not able to complete. It is as much carnival as cathedral, with symbols ranging from saints to gargoyles and from tortoises to grapes – lots of grapes.
Rick Steeves, author of the “Europe Through the Back Door” series of travel guides, notes that “When the church is finished…a dozen 330-foot spires (representing the apostles) will stand in groups of four and mark the three entry facades of the building. The center tower (honoring Jesus) will reach 580 feet up and be flanked by 400-foot-tall towers of Mary and the four evangelists. A unique exterior ambulatory will circle the building like a cloister turned inside out.”
There is also the Pablo Picasso Museum. Judging by the unusual places in which women’s breasts were likely to appear in his paintings, I’m not sure Picasso could see well. I personally favor giving Cubism back to Cuba, but that’s just me. Regardless, the museum houses what are considered to be some of Picasso’s greatest works.
Also worth visiting is Mount Juic, the site of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and the Poble Espanyol (Spanish Village) that was built for the 1929 International Exhibition. It was designed to show visitors a representative sample of Spanish architecture. The village includes a large square, a town hall, a church, a monastery, shops – including restaurants – and residential buildings.
Many of Barcelona’s most famous and worthwhile attractions – including the Barcelona Cathedral and the Joan Miro Museum – are easily reached via the “Hop on hop off” tourist buses. Tour commentary, via headphones, is provided in numerous languages.
When we were there, ticket prices for adults were 21 euros for one day and 27 euros for two days. Sometimes, hotels can even improve on those rates.
This time, we stayed at the Hilton Diagonal Mar Barcelona Hotel. The hotel, which was roughly a 15-minute taxi ride from the port, was very new and modern with excellent rooms and a superb staff. The Hilton looks out on the beach and the blue Mediterranean beyond; it is opposite the Barcelona Convention Center and across the street from a huge shopping mall. The front desk folks, one of whom was from Argentina, and the concierge, a gentleman who spoke multiple languages, were kind enough to let me practice what’s left of my Spanish on them, but my determination not to ask my tourist questions in English backfired. When we got to the closest kiosk where we could purchase metro tickets, we could not make sense of either the written instructions or the map, so we wound up purchasing three “zones” per person, for something like 11.70 euros. We overpaid, since all of Barcelona is considered one zone, and our tickets could have been purchased for 7.70 euros each. Ay caramba!
Barcelona was actually the last stop on our trip, aside from airline flights home to Denver, which was a story in and of itself, so I started this article much closer to the end of our adventure than the beginning. I will detail the rest of the trip, including our stay in Rio de Janeiro and the cruise to Barcelona, in a second article.