Barcelona, you little charmer…

I returned to Barcelona last week after nine years.  It’s amazing how many technological advancements there have been in that time.  Nine years ago there was no Facebook (at least, not in my world) and I didn’t have a digital camera, so I only had a smattering of mediocre quality photographs with which to awaken my memories of this Catalonian city.

I recalled the Gaudi-designed architecture – the immense and imposing Sagrada Familia – and the abundance of art,  but little more visual pictures remained in my head.   Barcelona had also been one of the places I’d visited with an ex-boyfriend of mine, probably the first person I truly loved, and with whom I have memories of a time in my life that is still very dear to me.

So, I returned to Barcelona with a mix of trepidation, curiosity, and excitement.  Excited to be returning to a place I have fond memories of, but trepidant due to the nature of those memories and the person they relate to, and also curious to discover what I remembered of the city, as well as what I didn’t remember, and parts that I hadn’t yet explored.

I arrived in Barcelona on a balmy summer evening at the end of June and found my way to the city centre via train, which – in comparison to the airport bus – is a more pleasant, authentic – and fractionally cheaper – way of making the short 17km journey.

Now don’t get me wrong, I can’t really complain about the £16 a night charge for a bed in a nice enough dorm room, in a city that’s expensive even by British standards.  However, I did feel that the location of our first hostel – just on the cusp of the Esquerra de L’Eixample district near to the University, was a little out on a limb, and the staff there seemed more concerned about making sure we came to their nightly party (read: a large bowl of free Sangria for guests to help themselves to) than they were about offering us a map or any information about their city.  That said, free alcohol is always a great way to break down those social barriers, so probably not a bad idea in itself; it just felt a little impersonal.

Coupled with the disorientation you always tend to feel when arriving at a new or unfamiliar destination, the fact that I got a little more drunk than I’d intended to (I blame the absinthe!), got separated from my boyfriend, and later learned that he’d been victim to a couple of pick-pocketers during his stumble home, I have to admit that at first, it was a bit of an ambivalent love affair I had for the city.

So how did Barcelona manage to charm me?

With its tranquil green spaces…

On our first full day in the city, through the haze of an absinthe hangover, we decided to explore the verdant park area of Montjuic.  It is possible to walk up from Plaza d’España, although I understand it’s a pretty steep climb, and one that we didn’t fancy doing in the heat of the (almost) midday sun, so we caught the funicular from Paral-el metro station.

Montjuic is a beautifully serene, shaded area, and is home to the Fundacio Joan Miro (a permanent exhibition of the work of Catalan artist Joan Miro), the Botanical Garden (which is laid out on terraced slopes and offers some superb views of the city), and the Castle.  If you’re into your surrealist, abstract art then you’ll love the Joan Miro exhibition.  The Mercury Fountain is amazing and even the building itself is a work of art.

Wandering around this area, I felt a million miles away from city life, and that’s the beauty of Barcelona’s green spaces…like Parc de la Ciutadella and Parc Guell – so close to the city, yet so far removed.

Joan Miro's wonderfully abstract art

Joan Miro’s wonderfully abstract art

Beautiful purple lower in Barcelona's Botanical Garden

Beautiful wild artichokes in Barcelona’s Botanical Garden

With its wonderful food…

Whether it be the colourful markets of La Boqueria (the highlight of busy thoroughfare Las Ramblas) or Santa Caterina (north of the Born area), or the busy tapas bars, or the cosy little restaurants tucked away down little side streets in Barcelona’s old town, the city’s vast array of culinary offerings will not disappoint.

Mercat de la Boqueria

Mercat de la Boqueria

So much fruit...I was in heaven

So much fruit…I was in heaven

There’s something for every budget too, and it’s not just traditional Catalan or Spanish fare on offer – although it’s almost unethical to leave Barcelona without sampling some of the local favourites.    Although not specifically Catalan eateries, the following are definitely worthy of a mention…

1. La Cereria, Baixada de Sant Miquel 5, Barri Gotic 

This is one of those places you walk into, and you instantly know that they’re going to be serving some of the tastiest organic, vegetarian cuisine in Barcelona.  It’s got an arty, rustic, bohemian feel to the place, and is full of unusual instruments and bright colours.  The portion sizes are very generous, making this little gem very good value for money.  Order from their extensive menu of imaginative pizzas, salads, crepes, as well as some artisan beers, exotic teas and tasty riojas.

One of La Cereria's starters...hummus, olive paste, guacamole, and tzatzki, accompanied by a lovely rioja :-)

One of La Cereria’s starters…hummus, olive paste, guacamole, and tzatzki, accompanied by homemade bread, stuffed vine leaves, crudities, and a lovely rioja 🙂

2. El Salon, L’Hostal d’en Sol 6-8, Barri Gotic

It’s easy to fall for the charms of cosy, candlelit El Salon, and its intimate, understated decor belies the outstanding quality of the food they serve there.  There’s a plethora of inventive salads, and a wide variety of fish dishes.  I ordered oriental style tuna steak with a soy and ginger sauce, and it was cooked perfectly!  There’s also a lovely little terrace in the nearby square, although this seems to fill up first so get there early if you want to dine al fresco.  The food here isn’t cheap but it’s certainly worth it.

3. Tapas bars Vaso de Oro (Carrer Balboa 6, Barceloneta) and Champagneria (Carrer de la Reina Cristina 7, Barceloneta)

Two very different tapas bars but both are great little finds in their own right.  Vaso de Oro may be in all the guidebooks but it still retains it’s traditional Spanish charm.  Sit along the bar and order from their extensive tapas menu, watch the food being prepared in front of you, and wash it all down with one of their own light or dark beers.  We ordered Manchego (one of my favourite cheeses) – served with roasted and salted almonds, and spicy tuna.  Service is efficient, the portion sizes are generous, and the food is deliciosa!

Champagneria on the other hand, is more of an experience in itself rather than a dining establishment.  It was initially recommended to me by an acquaintance of mine who used to live in Barcelona.  It’s hidden away behind a couple of huge wooden doors down otherwise quiet little Reina Cristina.

I was warned it would be busy but I hadn’t pictured quite what I found – I had to push my way in past hoards of people, shouting “Perdoneme!” as loud as I could without seeming rude, yet still not being heard or noticed.  When I finally got within reaching distance of the very tall bar, I was too overwhelmed to order.   To order would have meant shouting, in a language I wasn’t very confident even speaking in, and to do that would have meant being able to understand the tapas menu written on the huge boards behind the bar – in Catalan.

It may not sound like I’m painting a very good picture of this tiny, crammed, standing room only tapas and cava bar, but beyond the crowds and the language barriers is a buzzing hub of social activity and one of the cheapest places to eat and drink in Barcelona.  It shuts at 10pm every night – a testament in itself to Champagneria’s popularity.

With its beautiful barrios…

A stroll through Barcelona’s old town quarters is a true delight. The Ciutet Vella encompasses Barri Gòtic, el Raval, and La Ribera (also known as El Born) and is a labyrinth of narrow streets and tall, crumbling old buildings oozing with character.

The streets are lined with tapas bars, vintage shops, quirky cafes, and colourful galleries but above these are residential apartments like the one we stayed in, right in the heart of the beautiful Barri Gotic.

Sat out on our small balcony in the morning, drinking tea and eating cheese and crackers (how very English!), we felt the intimacy and charm of this lovely serene neighbourhood.  Ciutet Vella, whilst at once belonging to modern Barcelona, has clung independently to its historic roots.

What I also love about wandering these streets is that you can be walking down a quaint little alley one minute, and then the next you are met with a wonderful open space – a beautiful plaza full of outdoor cafes and talented buskers – and a stunning church or cathedral rises up in front of you.

El Born

El Born

Carrer de Milans, Barrio Gotic

Carrer de Milans, Barrio Gotic

Despite the relaxing atmosphere that permeates these streets, there’s also a certain vibrancy.  Whether it be an entertainer making huge bubbles to bewitch and delight small children, or a musician plucking the strings of his harp outside Gothic cathedral La Seu, there’s always something to lift your spirits and awaken your senses.

Bubbles!

Bubbles!

Alien...one of the fantastic living statues on Las Ramblas

Alien…one of the fantastic living statues on Las Ramblas

With its abundance of art and culture…

Everywhere  you look Barcelona’s streets are alive with visual art.  Along with the work of Antoni Gaudi, Pablo Picasso, and Joan Miro, there is some fantastic street art, interesting sculptures and wonderful murals to marvel at.    Barcelona feels like a city that encourages creativity, in whatever form it may take.

One of my favourite nights here was the evening I paid Robadores, in El Raval, a visit.  With its stone walls, low ceilings, manga artwork and cheap beer, it has the appeal of an underground bar.   The clientele seem diverse, friendly and down-to-earth, but the reason this bar really shines is the live music nights it hosts.  I understand there is live jazz on a Wednesday night, but we rocked up on a Sunday night – for the live flamenco jam session.

We got there pretty early (around 10:30), so we managed to get a seat, but all those who showed up later on just grabbed a space on the floor or squeezed on to one of the benches along the walls.  It was a fantastic thing to see…the flamenco style clapping, singing, guitar playing, a bit of piano.  At times it was difficult to tell where the crowd ended and the artists began.  Towards the end of the night, the room was full of smiling, slightly inebriated faces sharing one common interest between them – their love of music.

Flamenco jam session at Robadores 23

Flamenco jam session at Robadores 23

The artwork you can see on the back wall above is only a microcosmic example of the fantastic graffiti art that can be found all over the city.  Graffiti is a word I use reluctantly, because to me graffiti is tags; it degrades the appearance of the landscape rather than complementing it.  I want to call it street art, but then it’s often used inside buildings as well as out, and there are still many people who refuse to accept it under the label of ‘art’.

Tell me what you think…here are a few examples of the expressions of creativity on display.  These two in particular can be seen in the skate park along Avinguda del Paral-el, along with – randomly but brilliantly – a large ornamental gate valve.

Graffiti?

Graffiti?

Art?

Art?

With its cool bars…

Whether you like cocktails, a bottle or two of real ale, a glass of chilled Sangria, or some sparkling pink cava bubbles, Barcelona has it.  Whether you fancy some live Flamenco or Jazz, a bit of rock, some chilled beats or a full-on D.J set, Barcelona has that too.  The city’s nightlife ranges from tiny cramped tapas bars, to wood-panelled pipe smokers pubs, to cocktail lounges, and underground clubs.  Those that serve food normally shut by 11pm, but all the remaining establishments stay open well into the small hours of the morning.  Nightlife here starts late, so it’s not unusual to find yourself heading home as the sun is coming up.

For real ales, check out La Cerveteca (on the same street as El Salon).  Not the kind of place you’d expect to see real ales served – it’s a bright, modern bar with few seats – but they have a huge selection from all over the world.  I do like my ales and I’d not heard of a single one of the bottles that were stacked up on wooden shelves from floor to ceiling.  There’s some interesting names too…Rogue dead guy anyone?

For a chilled beer with friends, check out Pipa Club.  It’s hidden away in the corner of Placa Reial, in an inconspicuous third floor apartment.  You have to ring the bell, wait to be let in, and ascend the stairs, and as you do you feel like you’ve discovered a secret den, a million miles from the buzzing tourist trap of Placa Reial.   Through the rather seedy looking entrance door, you’ll discover a wood-panelled, jazzy, pipe smokers haunt.  There are several rooms in this converted apartment, and you can wander the linking corridors to view a quirky collection of pipes, including one that belonged to Dali.

For an absinthe experience, check out the authentic, atmospherically run-down bar Marsella – named after the French port of Marseilles, where absinthe is the drink of choice.  It’s located just at the bottom of Rambla de Raval, on the corner of Carrer de Sant Pau and Carrer de Sant Oleguer; you can’t miss it for the hoards of people hanging around outside, smoking cigarettes and sharing inebriated conversation.   Opened in 1820, everyone from Picasso to Hemmingway is rumoured to have been a regular here.

You wouldn’t think it had been cleaned since it opened, the dust is inches thick on those ornamental bottles behind the bar and the chandelier is so grimy, you can’t ever imagine it once being grand, but this is part of Marsella’s appeal.  Moreover, I’m not entirely sure they serve anything other than Absinthe and Estrella – but that’s part of its appeal too.

For live music, cheap beer, and an all-round fantastic little underground-style bar, check out Robadores 23 (as previously mentioned under the art and culture section)

For some happy hour Mojitos (until 10pm) or a late night drink, with an in-house D.J playing some cool, laid back beats, check out Milans – on the street of the same name just off Carrer d’Avinyo in Barri Gotic.  This bar was opposite the apartment that we stayed in for the second half of the week, and always seemed to be open when other bars nearby had closed.

And finally…

Because, after less than an hour on the train, you can be here…

Looking down on the walk up to the hermitage of Sant Magdelena

Looking down on the walk up to the hermitage of Sant Magdelena

Hermitage of Sant Joan

Hermitage of Sant Joan

The mountain of Montserrat (which I affectionately named ‘Monster Rat’), with its rocky crags, vast monastery, hermitage caves, and stunning views.  Montserrat is 1236m above sea level, and walking up here certainly feels like being on top of the world.  I climbed the mountain on my last day in Barcelona, and it was a wonderful way of reflecting upon my experiences in the city.

With the wind in my hair and the clean mountain air in my lungs, I took a deep breath and considered that perhaps Barcelona had managed to charm me once again…maybe just a smidgen 😉

Thanks toBridges and Balloons for their recommendations of Where to eat, drink and go out in the city, many of which I followed up during my visit, and a few of which I have also recommended in this blog.

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Barcelona you little charmer

Barcelona you little charmer

Mentioned in this post
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20 Responses to Barcelona, you little charmer…

  1. Bex March 2, 2014 at 3:24 PM #

    What a great piece. I love Barcelona, it’s the epitome of Europe.

    • Kiara Gallop March 2, 2014 at 3:31 PM #

      Isn’t it just? It’s definitely one of my favourite cities in Europe (although the favourites list is growing, the more cities I visit!)

  2. frankaboutcroatia March 2, 2014 at 4:24 PM #

    Great post! I love Barcelona, although my relation with the city started a bit like yours (not a boyfriend part, but pick-pocketers). We got robbed within first half hour in the city. But yes I got to love it for the same reasons like you regardless of that unfortunate event. Thanks for linking up to the #SundayTraveler!

    • Kiara Gallop March 2, 2014 at 5:40 PM #

      Yeah, considering that I got separated from my boyfriend on our first night out there, and I walked all the way home alone, through blurry, inebriated eyes, I was surprised (and lucky!) that I didn’t get targeted by pick-pocketers too. You have to be so careful and keep your wits about you. But then, I guess that’s the same everywhere to a certain extent. Thanks for dropping by and reading my post 🙂

  3. Bianca Malata (@ItsAllBee) March 2, 2014 at 5:13 PM #

    Great pictures. Refreshing as they are not the usual pictures of common tourist traps. I still havent been to Barca yet, Holdiing out for next year 😀

    KÖLNER DOM | COLOGNE CATHERDRAL

    • Kiara Gallop March 2, 2014 at 5:43 PM #

      Thanks Bianca. Yeah I always try to get off the typical tourist trail a little. Sometimes it can’t be avoided and often the sights I really want to see are those that everybody else wants to see too (hence the reason for their popularity), but I always make the effort to discover something new 🙂

  4. davidpcole March 2, 2014 at 6:25 PM #

    Ah, nothing takes me back to one of my favorite cities like seeing someone tipping a bottle of Estrella Damm while listening to acoustic guitar. Such a great walking city, too. Wonderful photos and and elegantly written post!

    • Kiara Gallop March 3, 2014 at 8:35 PM #

      Aw, thanks David 🙂 Yeah, definitely nothing quite like sipping one of your favourite beers to the sound of a beautifully-played acoustic guitar, and I love walking too. It’s the best way to explore a city, and helps you to notice all the little details that you may not otherwise see.

  5. gypsy shutterbug March 3, 2014 at 10:41 PM #

    I spent a weekend in Barcelona about 12 years ago as part of a whirlwind romance and like you, have nostalgic memories of it and not many photos (pre-digital age). I would love to go back and see how my memories mix with my now somewhat more experienced eyes. Great post.

    • Kiara Gallop March 4, 2014 at 10:33 PM #

      Yeah, I’m always wary of revisiting places I have fond memories of, but on this trip I explored parts of the city that I hadn’t done the first time around, and returned with a wealth of new memories, decent digital photographs and a blog post to document it all 🙂

  6. malaysianmeanders March 4, 2014 at 6:33 AM #

    I haven’t been to Barcelona in almost 16 years, and you now have me wanting to go back. I want to see what progress has been made on the Sagrada Familiaa and see Montjuic for the first time since you made it sound so good. I like how the fruit is so pleasingly arranged in that photo, and a night at Champagneria would be a memorable experience.

    • Kiara Gallop March 4, 2014 at 10:36 PM #

      I didn’t go into the Sagrada Familia on this particular trip, partly because of the cost, partly because I’d done so before, and also partly because – certainly from the outside – it didn’t appear that much (if any) significant work had been done since my first visit 9 years previously. I’d like to see it when it’s finished – if it ever becomes so!

  7. SJ @ Chasing the Donkey March 4, 2014 at 5:02 PM #

    Ohhh I had this place in my Summer wish list, but it got knocked off for Tuscany instead. Its sitting there, just begging for me to come and visit – and your photos are so stunning (as always) great read Kiara. Big And thanks for linking up with us to #SundayTraveler

    • Kiara Gallop March 4, 2014 at 10:42 PM #

      Ooh, I would like to go to Tuscany though. I haven’t explored that area of Italy yet, and it does look like a beautiful part of the country. Was it worth knocking Barcelona of the list for? 🙂

  8. thriftytravelmama March 5, 2014 at 7:05 PM #

    That lunch from La Cereria needs to jump on over to my table now! It looks amazing, as did ALL that fruit! Can’t wait to go to Barcelona myself!

    • Kiara Gallop March 5, 2014 at 7:11 PM #

      It was totally amazing! And there were fruit shakes for sale at the market using every variety of fruit imaginable, it all looked so colourful 🙂

  9. A Southern Gypsy March 6, 2014 at 5:22 AM #

    Great post and photos as usual Kiara! I’ve been to Barcelona and while it was a short trip, I loved it. I can’t wait to go back! Thanks for linking up to the #SundayTraveler! 🙂

  10. Mellissa Williams August 27, 2016 at 3:43 PM #

    I’m going soon and want to thank you for this great guide, it’s been really helpful, especially the restaurant/tapas bar recommendations
    Mellissa Williams recently posted…Our Top 5 Attractions On International Drive, OrlandoMy Profile

    • Kiara Gallop August 28, 2016 at 10:46 AM #

      So glad you found it useful, Melissa 🙂 I really hope you enjoy Barcelona as much as I did, and if you find any more amazing restaurants/tapas bars please let me know so that I can check them out on my next visit!

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