Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Barcelona 2013 - Part 1

At long last!

I’ve been dreaming about visiting this city forever… and that longing has escalated ten-fold during the trip preparations.  Big time!  So many places to see, things to do, and especially… for the foodie in me, joints to enjoy authentic tapas – in my opinion, the best thing that ever happened to food since…. ahem…fire!  And then, of course, Barça - the Blaugrana of Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, and now Neymar!

Before we "go in," let’s start with a short history lesson.  I found these little bits enjoyable, and they help paint a bit of the background picture; provide some perspective, if you wish.

Old Barcelona, now Barri Gòtic
According to legend, the city (the port of Barcino, rather) was founded by Hamilcar Barca about 200 years before Christ.  So what?  Who’s this guy, anyway?  Well, none other than the father of famed military commander Hannibal – one of the greatest of all times (for those of you not up to date on the history of the Roman Empire) the one who gave Rome quite a headache over the years, and occupied Italy for over 15 years (after crossing the Alps with...elephants!).  Then, throughout history, Roman (attested by the layout of Barri Gòtic, and some of the buildings within), Visigoth, Moor and French conquests left a considerable imprint.  More recently (with the Spanish Civil War) Catalonia was suppressed under the dictatorship of Franco (until 1975) but today, the Catalan culture and heritage are strong again, with the Catalan flag proudly displayed all over the city, and the Catalan language official in schools and government.  More so, in 2013 the local Parliament adopted a Declaration of Sovereignty, and in 2014 they’re planning to hold a referendum on independence from Spain.  That’s how strongly they feel about being a different nation, a different people.  They speak Catalan among themselves, to identify with that heritage, although Spanish is equally used.

But let’s leave that alone for now (although I may revisit the topic here and there)…

The first impression – arriving by car around midnight – was how vast the city seemed; brief assessment that was to be confirmed over the next few days.  The second immediate impression – how tourist-friendly it is.  Well, maybe for the exception of La Rambla, where tourists are a prime target for the world-famous pickpockets (#1 in almost every “Top 10” on this topic).  A bit more on this later on as well…

For the first couple of days we ‘anchored’ (spent the night rather) on Barceloneta beach at the W Hotel (locally known as hotel Vela – the Sail).  Ever since I saw that hotel in the Starwood marketing brochure I always wanted to stay here.  Amazing hotel – designed by Ricardo Bofill in 2009 – with equally amazing views, and to top it all (given my status of somewhat of a hotshot within SPG ranks) was upgraded to a large suite, which surpassed by far any of my other past hotel-related experiences; and believe me, I’ve spent my fair share of time in hotels over the years…

Walking from the lobby straight onto the beach on a crisp late spring evening, cocktail in hand, slightly inebriated, for a stroll along the shore, is one of those experiences that won’t easily fade away in the memory vault.  Turning around to face that majestic structure under the lights, reflecting under the moonlight, looking indeed like a giant ship about to set sail, was just the cherry on top!

Yet, with all the excitement around visiting Barcelona, paradoxically the first stop (for about half a day) was actually 65 km away, in Montserrat.  Why, you’re wondering?  Because it was highly recommended on Tripadvisor (my favorite travel-research ‘tool’) and I still had the rental that I picked up in Monaco.  So, why not!

The jagged mountain seems to burst out of the ground, and as you approach it, and start winding up the road that leads to the monastery, it reveals a wild beauty that surely attracted the Benedictine monks here as early as the 9th century.

The Monastery, Abbey, and Basilica have evolved over the centuries, but their architecture – looking as if they spawned from the rock – is quite a site.  So is the Madonna of Montserrat, a black Virgin Mary wooden statue that by some accounts is traced to the early days of the Church.  She’s Catalonia patron saint and a pilgrimage site for Christians.  If you want to pay homage, there’s a long line on the right side of the basilica; expect at least an hour wait.  If you just want to steal a peek, go on the left side, light a candle, and keep walking up the stairs.  The point where all the people from the aforementioned line exit is where you can steal a quick glance of the venerated statue.  And if you time it right (daily at 1 pm; except for Sundays, at noon) you can catch a quick performance of La Escalonia (the oldest boys’ choir in Europe).  We missed it, but I hear it’s angelic!

Although the courtyard offers nice views of the mountain, it is crowded.  To get away, I suggest taking the funicular to the top of the mountain.  Once there, you’ll probably feel what the many monks that lived there surely felt: closeness to God.  Don’t make me explain it; and know that I’m not overly religious in the “organized religion” sense… but there’s something spiritual, something majestic about the tranquility of the place, the solitude of it all, and the unique rock formations shaped by the nature over thousands of years look like they’ve been molded by Salvador Dalí or Antoni Gaudí…

There are a few walking trails at the top, ranging from 1 to 3-4 hours in length (wear appropriate footwear if you want to venture out).  I would recommend it, if you have the desire and time.


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Like any major metropolis, Barcelona has a lot to offer, but the main attractions center around Gaudí creations (several across the city), the Gothic Quarter (Barri Gòtic), and – regardless of whether you’re a fan or not – the Camp Nou experience.  Three days is plenty for a quick visit (two-and-a-half if you count the Montserrat detour) but 4 or 5 would allow for a more leisurely experience…

Let’s get started.

Since this was my first time in Barcelona, I took what would have been my own advice and booked a 2-day double-decker tour.  It conveniently stops at every major attraction, provides a decent guided tour of the city, and although the metro would have been a slightly cheaper/faster option, I preferred something more conducive to actually seeing the city, from a slightly elevated vintage point.

The vast Plaça de Catalunya is pretty much the focal center (where the old city and the new city meet) and it’s where we picked up the bus [blue line].  First stop (frankly, within walking distance) is Casa Batlló – perhaps the second most famous Gaudí building after Sagrada Família.  The house – which he renovated in 1904 – is known by the locals as Casa del Ossos (House of Bones) due to its skeleton-like façade; an almost organic quality about it.  It’s a bit pricey to visit (about 20 euros) but looks like it’s worth it.  I’m saving that experience for next time.

A few blocks down, on the other side of the road is Casa Milà (or La Pedrera) – another Gaudí masterpiece both structurally and architecturally – which can also be visited for about the same price as Batlló.  During the summer, there are jazz concerts on the roof.  We didn’t stop, but this is clearly on the agenda for next time as well! [one needs to ‘save’ some things in order to justify a second visit]

From here, the bus route cuts across Avinguda Diagonal towards Sagrada Família.  WHAT A SIGHT!  Hard to come to grips with the idea that a human mind has conceived something like this AND worked tirelessly (immersing himself 100% in the project during his last years) to actually translate that idea into the physical form it holds today.  History claims that during his last few years, he was so much “into” the project that he totally neglected his appearance.  When he was fatally hit by a tram, dirty, in shabby clothing, without ID, he was thought to be a beggar and did not receive the level of care that may have otherwise saved his life… True story, and not inconceivable for such a genius (get this: allegedly he tranquilized a donkey and hoisted it up on the construction facade, just to be able to visualize what the Nativity scene would look like!  Yep. Genius indeed!).   

The cathedral is a breathtaking work of art 130 years into the making.  Giant cranes and scaffolds distract somewhat from the complete picture, but only for a few seconds.  Until recently, scaffolding occupied most of the inside as well, but in Nov 2010 – in front of a congregation of 6,500 people (with another 50,000 outside) – Pope Benedict (aided by 100 bishops and 300 priests) had consecrated the church.  And while the interior is complete (according to some critics fairly close to what Gaudí intended, while others seem to think it was oversimplified) the exterior is expected to take another 13-15 years at least.

Gaudí’s original plans called for 18 spires, representing (in ascending order of height) the Twelve Apostles, the four Evangelists, the Virgin Mary and, tallest of all, Jesus Christ.  When completed, it will be the tallest church in the world (170 m).  For now, only 8 spires are complete, but work seems well under way on the others.  And with over 2 million visitors each year, at 15-20 euros per click, this is the best self-funding construction project in the world!

Speaking of admission – make sure you get your tickets online and adjust your itinerary based on that 2 hour window.  And do splurge on the basilica+towers combo.  I recommend the Nativity tower, where the detail on the stonework is absolutely astonishing, as you can see from some of these snapshots (click for larger picks):

Incidentally, plans are for the Evangelists' spires to be surmounted by sculptures of their traditional symbols: a bull (Saint Luke), a winged man (Saint Matthew), an eagle (Saint John), and a lion (Saint Mark). The central spire of Jesus Christ is to be surmounted by a giant cross.  I’ve seen the model and it looks incredible; can’t wait to come back in 2028 and share it with the grandkids ;-)!

The finished masterpiece... in another 15+ years...

Now that I got you all hooked, here’s the kicker: don’t get off at this stop.  After Casa Batlló and La Pedrera, and with Park Güell the next stop, you’ll experience a bit of Gaudí overdose that might be hard to handle.  Instead, just briefly admire it from the top of that double-decker; it builds heightened expectations for that full visit the next day.

Off to Park Güell then.

The park – originally intended [but never materialized] as a residential housing project for the well-to-do that wanted to escape the noise and pollution of the city – will shortly celebrate 100 years since it opened.  The entrance is flanked by two buildings that seem to come out of a Dr. Seuss book (motif that is present throughout). So are most of the other structures in the park.

Although fairly large, the park starts to get busy mid-morning, which could detract from enjoying it at its fullest, so get there early if you can.  Undoubtedly, a leisurely stroll through the alleys lets you once again inside Gaudí’s mind; an artistic mind that seamlessly integrated – especially in this case – architecture and nature in one organic element.  There’s also a Gaudí museum here: the house that he lived in for about 20 years, but he did not build.  For a small fee you can visit (apparently some of his work is on display there).  

This last stop completes the Gaudí portion of the tour.  There are other significant creations bearing his incomparable imprint of art nouveau/modernist/naturalist/neo-gothic style (what else would you call it?) in and around the Catalan capital.  Check out Wikipedia for a detailed account of his works.

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The tour continues on the north-north-east with stops for Tibidabo (the highest point in Barcelona) where the attractions include an amusement park (featured in Vicki Cristina Barcelona) and the Sagrat Cor (Sacred Heart) catholic church, which is something else for the “next time” list.  I just couldn’t resist the parallel with the religious edifice bearing the same name in Paris, which is also presiding over the highest point in that city: Montmartre.

Beyond that, there’s the Barcelona University, Sarria, and Les Corts (mostly a working class neighborhood) and finally, Camp Nou.

For a die-hard Barça fan (ever since Hagi played there, after exploding on the World Cup scene in ’94) this was a veritable pilgrimage.  The kid-in-the-candy-store kind!  Sure, the stadium is old, by most standards (built in ’57, renovated and expanded a couple times since then) but the memories it holds, the stars that graced it (Kubala, Kocsis, Asensi, Cruyff, Neeskens, Carrasco, Bernd Schuster, Maradona, Zubizarreta, Laudrup, Koeman, Stoichkov, Guardiola, Romario, and more recently Figo, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Kluivert, Ronaldinho and Eto’o) would make any soccer fanatic bow in holly reverie.  Getting down to pitch level one could almost feel the history of the hard fought battles, the joy and agony of victory and defeat… and that feeling is not lost up in the stands either.

I returned two days later to witness ‘my team’ live for the first time ever; a game against Málaga, of little importance (last game of the season, and they had already won the title), yet the stadium was almost at capacity, even though Messi did not play :-(

The 4-1 victory meant they finished the campaign with 100 points (another record for the club) providing Eric Abidal with a nice send-off.  I was surprised to see that no one left the stands at the end, a sign of appreciation for the player who gave so much to the club over the last 5 years.

Despite the relative insignificance of the game, I was surprised of how vibrant the culés were throughout: chanting, applauding, and doing the wave (which my daughter thought was “so cool”) all in a very civilized manner.  None of the cursing, yelling, and name-calling I grew up with watching soccer back home…

It felt, indeed, more of a family outing; like going to the theatre without dressing up (unless you call wearing a Barcelona jersey dressing up).  The cost for this enjoyable adventure: just under $500 for 3 tickets [8 rows up from the field, that is].  Sure, there are cheaper seats “up top” but since I doubt I’ll be back soon, I figured I’d splurge ;-).  And I was lucky to see 4 of the 5 goals on "my end" (see third here).  Oh, and be advised, there’s no discounts for kids (although the club has about 4 games per season when they offer kids tickets for 1 euro).  And I forgot to mention earlier, the Camp Nou experience tour is about $35 (includes museum, and a tour of the facilities, all the way to field level).

At the time I write this, Neymar is officially with the club, and I can only imagine how much stronger Barça will be in attack this year; just hope they sign a couple of solid defenders to plug some holes at the other end!

But I digress… Most of you can probably care less about that.

If you’re getting back on the bus, it heads back the Av. Diagonal and down Rambla de Catalunya to the origination point in Plaça de Catalunya.  Pick up the top end of La Rambla and stroll through the Barri Gòtic, unless you’re spent from all the walking and excitement.

Speaking of spent, let’s take a break and go enjoy good tapas, quality jamón, and a few cold Estrella Damm.  We’ll come back to Barcelona in Part II of this series.

¡Buenas noches! (Bona nit!)

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