With a few days planned into our schedule to get from Arles to our next month-long stay in Edinburgh, the choice of how to pass that time somehow seemed obvious to us - a whirlwind tour of Barcelona and London! It might seem a bit crazy to try to take in two big cities with just two nights to spend in each, but because we didn't set many expectations, we managed to enjoy it and get a taste of both cities.
Barcelona and London made convenient airport hubs for us, with super cheap airfare between them - and not just on crazy budget airlines - we took British Airways for less than $50 each! Having already made the visit to Paris (our other airport option), and with an interest in visiting Spain to try out our Spanish, Barcelona was an easy choice.
After a lovely train ride along the French coast and into Spain, with amazing views of the Pyrenees as we crossed the border, we tackled Barcelona's somewhat complex public transit system and made our way to our Airbnb apartment in the Ciutat Vella, or old town.
Exploring this neighborhood made up our first night's activities, including wandering up La Rambla, enjoying the Medieval cathedral, checking out a Gaudi house (Palau Güell), discovering an awesome beer bar, and eating some great tapas.
If Brendan looks less than enthused in that last picture, it's only because it was 10:00 pm and we were so pooped we didn't even finish our sangria. We had thought we might go out and enjoy some Barcelona nightlife, but instead we hit the hay - or tried to...
Here's the basic math of it:
Apartment with a great location in the heart of a lively neighborhood + warm climate + no fan in the room = having to choose between listening to loud drunk people outside your window at all hours of the night (plus mosquitoes coming in the window) and a hot and stuffy room.
We nearly changed to a hotel for the second night, but instead purchased some earplugs and a cheap fan, which basically did the trick. I also had a serious issue with the smell of the apartment, BUT not to dwell on the negative... on to day 2!
The highlight of the day - Sofía joined us! Sofía was my niece's au pair for the past year and just returned to her hometown in Catalunya in September. We were so happy to see her again, and to be able to explore Barcelona with her. She was able to provide us with a lot of insights about the local culture, as well as teach us a few Catalan words.
We started the day by heading to La Boquería, the market off of La Rambla.
This place is awesome. There is a lot for tourists here - lots of fresh, cut fruit and smoothies, and of course, an abundance of jamón ibérico, the cured meat the region is known for - but there are also stalls for locals selling all sorts of meat and fish products (read: sheep heads and whole, skinned rabbits). Brendan and I opted for a breakfast of paper cones filled with slivers of jamón. Yum!
Throughout the day we had more yummy treats including sangria, gelato, and churros. At the end of the day, we grabbed a dinner of tapas at a touristy place, and I got the paella I had been craving since we arrived. Only too bad they didn't have a non-seafood option!
We hit three major Gaudi sights with Sofía - Parc Güell, La Sagrada Familia, and Casa Batlló. These were all very cool, but the highlight of Barcelona for us was La Sagrada Familia. It is spectacular. Brendan described it as, quite simply, his favorite building. Ever.
Gaudi gets almost all the attention for architecture in Barcelona, but many other houses in the neighborhood of Eixample are pretty cool, too. For instance, check out the building to the left in the photo above.
From the top of Parc Güell, you get a view of the whole city - only problem is the smog. It's outrageous, as you can see if my last photo above.
La Sagrada Familia
It's difficult to capture just how awesome this place is. It's huge inside and out, with two strikingly different facades, and the whole inside glows with the colors of the stained glass windows in a way I've never seen before.
The advice here is to book your ticket in advance - you get an entry time slot and get to skip the lines, and it doesn't cost any extra.
One final sightseeing stop - with the sun setting, we headed down to the beach. It feels a lot like a Los Angeles beach, really - people were playing volleyball, and the beach is lined with skyscrapers, restaurants, and clubs.
All in all, we loved Barcelona. It is both livelier and more relaxed than anywhere we visited in France. The food culture is fun, it is a very pedestrian-oriented city (especially in the Ciutat Vella), and it has the same open-air-living style as the south of France. We felt very comfortable there, and despite the fact that my attempts to communicate in Spanish largely failed, we never had any issue as everyone spoke excellent English.
I'll keep this post from getting crazy long and break the narrative here, to be resumed in the next post - coming very soon!