When planning a girly getaway for February the first and most important criteria was the weather. If you have lived in Ireland or the UK during winter, you will understand. Following that, since we were going to be girls only, we wanted good shopping and so it happened that my stepdaughter and I were met at Barcelona airport by my sister, who flew in from London to meet us.
The aerobus service was regular as clockwork so even though we missed the first two while we were queuing for tickets at an ever-so-slightly-confusing ticket machine which I was convinced had swallowed the little old lady at the front of the queue since she seemed to simply vanish into thin air, we waited only a few minutes for the third bus to appear. I always prefer buses to trains when travelling in unknown cities. One underground tunnel looks much like another no matter what language the signs are in, whereas on a bus you get to see something of your surroundings. The trip took perhaps half an hour, taking us past industrial areas and into the inner city.
My initial impression of Barcelona was one of Paris meets Cairo. The city itself is quite beautiful, architecturally speaking - that would be the Paris bit. Traffic is chaotic and my guess would be that motorcycles and scooters outnumber cars in the city. But the way the sun cast that peculiar dusty glow on the world as it burned its way through thick smog reminded me most of Cairo. That, and the blocks of flats that must once have been beautiful but have fallen into slight disrepair in some parts of the city.
We passed through what must be the slightly dodgy end of town where buildings are covered in graffiti and ended up in the touristy area where our hotel was located on the Placa Catalunya.
Luggage in tow, we alighted from the bus and I remembered that I had forgotten to print the instructions on precisely where our hotel was. For a few moments I spun around in slow circles, bewildered by the crowds and the fountain spewing noisily in the square and the amount of traffic coming from what seemed like every direction possible. I was convinced we had to find a side street but then, as we picked a direction and took a few steps, I spotted our hotel across the plaza. We couldn't have chosen a better location - it was only a short trot to the other side of the huge square until we were checking in at a marble-floored reception area, an oasis of quiet elegance separated from the chaos outside by glass sliding doors.
Our room wasn't quite ready so we were invited to wait for a short time in the lobby on the first floor. Comfy chairs and free coffee and snacks awaited us. The elegance of our surroundings was soon in tatters as I managed to sploosh milk all over the place from the little jug, which of course sent Li'l Sis and I into fits of giggles. This sort of hilarity seems to pepper all our holidays together, something to which young Cinderella had previously not been exposed and I suspected she wasn't used to seeing this side of her normally serious and very responsible stepmother. I'm not sure she knew quite what to make of it, but when I sauntered over to the center of the room to look down into what appeared to be some sort of atrium and promptly banged my head on the glass windows installed, I suspect, for safety she couldn't help but join in the laughing.
As promised, the room was ready after 15 minutes so we dumped our luggage and headed out into the sunshine. It wasn't hot outside, not by our South African standards at any rate, but it was a good few degrees warmer than Dublin and we revelled in it. Our first order of business was food since lunch time had long since been and gone, so we sat down at the first place we found, a bar called Café Zurich which boasted a large number of chairs and tables outside and a choice of three baguettes. Our energy restored, we set off down La Rambla, the most popular pedestrian zone for tourists in the city. We hadn't gone very far before we were sidetracked by one of the many narrow roads - more like alleys, really - that wander off from the main road on both sides. These alleys are crammed with small shops, cafés and restaurants. We found some great bargains to satisfy our shopping lust and when we were all tired out again there was no shortage of coffee shops to be found - although with the length of time it took for us to pick one you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise. As we sat drinking a really good cup of coffee at the sidewalk table we had finally settled on, we heard the sound of maybe a hundred or so male voices singing. Football anthems. In English. The amount of Liverpool scarves and shirts we spotted in the crowds really should have given us a clue but being the footy fans we are (not!!) we were oblivious to the fact that Liverpool had beaten Barcelona the night before. The singing got closer and soon a group of maybe 200 Liverpudlians passed, parading up La Rambla with noisy pride. When they and our coffee were gone we resumed shopping and meandering, although the shopping was becoming difficult due to the Mediterranean habit of closing for siesta for a large part of the afternoon.
In a roundabaout way we were heading for the sea at the bottom end of La Rambla, but with all the alleys and fresh fruit / veg / meat / fish markets distracting us we eventually gave up and sat down around sundowner time for a beer at one of the many outdoor restaurants that nestle temptingly under the trees. It was amusing to eavesdrop on a table of young Dublin men drunkenly attempting to chat up a table of equally plastered young Liverpool ladies. Noisy football fans were still very much in evidence, adding an air of festivity to the city.
The beer was good. Very good. And the waiter was friendly. So we sat and rested our feet until it grew dark. When it grew dark, it got cold, so we hot-footed it back to our hotel where we refreshed ourselves and got all dressed up to go out for dinner.
We returned to La Rambla, to a small Tapas restaurant we'd seen. The food was good but the service was atrocious and the cheap wine did nothing to improve my temperament, which had grown seriously irritable with tiredness. By the time we were ready for the bill we were all ready to become mean customers. The drunk, randy Liverpudlians didn't help. We gave up the idea of coffee at the restaurant and instead stopped off at Starbucks on the way back to the hotel. Cinderella offered to run in and get the coffee while Li'l Sis and I finished our post-dinner cigarettes outside. We soon tossed that idea and joined her inside after some eejit accosted us... I think he was looking for some action, whether paid or unpaid I wasn't about to hang around and find out, shooting a filthy look at him in lieu of a punch in the head that sent him scuttling off into the night. It turns out La Rambla has its seedy side after dark.
If a good night's rest wasn't enough to make us all happier then the breakfast that greeted us in the hotel restaurant the next morning would have. They catered for every conceivable breakfast preference, bar cold pizza. We could choose from eggs, bacon and sausage, or cold meats and breads, cereal, yoghurts, croissants and sweet pastries. Or a combination of all of the above. Terri's breakfast heaven!
When we'd eaten as much as we could, and Li'l Sis and I had topped up on coffee, we crossed the plaza outside and boarded a Barcelona Bus Turístic. I must confess that unlike some of my previous city breaks I hadn't really done much planning for this one so I had no idea what sights I wanted to see, besides the "big unfinished cathedral" that you see on every advertisement for Barcelona. So we found seats in the sun on the open-top bus and soaked up the sunshine, lazily pointing our cameras at in things of interest as we passed. These interesting things constituted buildings, mostly. Barcelona is famous for buildings designed by the architect Gaudi and now I know why.
Had we seen none of the other sights on the bus tour, the Sagrada Família would have been enough. This massive cathedral has been under construction since 1882. When I say "under construction", I don't mean that it's mostly built and they're just adding on to it now which is what I sort of assumed when I first heard of it. No, this thing is genuinely still being built, and it is dominated by the tallest cranes I have ever seen. If you take a look at the fine detail decorating the outside, it may go some way to explaining why it's taking so damn long to build. That and it's simply gi-normous! It took a good ten minutes of walking around, attempting to fit the whole thing into one photograph (and failing) and gawping, "Wow!" before my jaw stopped dropping at the size and beauty of it. Li'l Sis was just as impressed. Cinderella not so much, I think. Mind you I'm sure I don't think I was that interested in buildings and cathedrals either, at sixteen. But I can safely say that the towering spires of this one are more intricate and awe-inspiring than any building I have ever seen.
By the time we were done being amazed by the Cathedral we were hungry again, so we stopped for a bite at a nearby KFC. Laugh if you must, but good KFC is hard to find in Dublin so Cinderella and I were dead keen on this idea. The security guard in the restaurant who kept warning us to watch our bags eventually started creeping me out more than the possible muggers or pick-pockets lurking at the other tables under the guise of eating their lunch. I guess our ghostly complexions, brought on by months of sunshine-deprivation, made it pretty obvious we were tourists in this Spanish city where the people all have luscious black hair and beautiful olive skin tones.
After lunch we hopped on the next tour bus, again sitting up top to enjoy the warmth of the sun. As tourists I must confess we were a little apathetic, not doing a lot of the whole hop-on hop-off thing to see all the sights. We thought Sarrià sounded nice, though, the guide book promising that this old town would be packed with book and antique fairs, small shops and restaurants, so we left the bus there to do some exploring. Perhaps our timing was off as far as the whole siesta thing is concerned, because whatever shops there may have been were closed and it was actually rather disappointing, although we did have another very nice cup of coffee in the afternoon sun. By the time we caught the next bus the temperature was dropping and the wind had picked up, so instead of going to see the monastary, the football stadium (yes, this is a stop on the tourist route), the royal palace or any of the other sights we stayed on the bus and saw the rest of the city at a passing glance, including the Plaça d'Espanya and all things Olympic. We changed buses outside the Spanish Village (Poble Espanyol) to get away from a gaggle of young children who had a penchant for pulling hair, something to which their father and uncle appeared oblivious. Who ever heard of two men taking five children, none older than five, on a city tour bus?! This stop actually looked like it could be interesting, but not interesting enough for us to fork out the €10 each entrance fee. Besides, we wanted to get to the Port before daylight faded since we'd missed it the previous day on our rambling expedition.
By the time we reached our stop at the Colom that stands at the foot of La Rambla it was seriously chilly and we hurried over the walkway to reach the Maremagnum shopping center and our good friend Starbucks. The coffee was, as always, great; the shopping not so much. I found much of the clothing was overpriced for what it was and I was disappointed that I probably would have had more fun shopping in Dublin.
It was dark by the time we exited the center and we debated turning back towards the hotel. But then we saw lots of lights lining the water's edge so we walked in the opposite direction instead, past a marina packed with yachts, overlooked by mostly empty restaurants, until we reached the main road that runs along the water's edge.
It is a well-known fact that the Spanish only go out late at night. Eating dinner at 10pm or later would be perfectly normal. Personally, I can't wait that long, and since it was closing in on 7:30pm we were easily enticed by a vibrant young woman to sit down and order some seafood for supper. Our meal at this establishment turned into one of those experiences that typify things that happen to Li'l Sis and I when we travel together. The prawns were delicious. The service was... erratic. Sangria arrived, on the house, almost as soon as we sat down, as did the menus, and our order was taken. But then we waited. And waited. And waited. The couple at the table next to ours went through two courses before our food arrived. When it arrived, as I said, it was good, although I'm not sure in what universe a single paper serviette is sufficient for a meal like prawns, especially when the place appears to have never heard of finger bowls. We considered ordering dessert until our neighbours got theirs; his was a small tub of ice cream, still with the foil lid, while hers was an orange. I waited to see if perhaps it was actually orange sorbet but no, it was just an orange. A lady at another table got a banana. Just a banana, and not even on a plate. Posher people may have gotten irate but we just found this hilarious. Perhaps the beer helped. It was like all the diners were together in the same twilight zone, though, and pretty soon we had started conversing with the couple next to us. It turned out they weren't really a couple, but two friends studying together in Paris. An American with Spanish ancestry, he was delightfully gay and terribly amusing while she was a Canadian with really bad gay-dar. We stayed at our open-air restaurant by the water for the rest of the evening laughing and talking and drinking delicious Spanish beer and coffee. It was one of those evenings that makes travelling so interesting; meeting people you would otherwise never meet and having conversations you would never otherwise have had.
While starting the day with another outstanding breakfast the next morning I sent Hubby a text message to find out how his trip to Madrid was going. He'd gone with the social club from work - once a year they use the proceeds from the club to pay for a weekend away somewhere which really is little more than a booze-up in a foreign country. His reply had us in stitches: "The pain in Spain is mainly in my brain".
After breakfast then we headed back into the sunshine, this time in the opposite direction to La Rambla. It was something of a compromise day - Li'l Sis wasn't really in the mood for shopping, while Cinderella and I weren't really in the mood for staring at more buildings, so we did a bit of both, wandering slowly along, diving into shops of interest or stopping to take photographs as the mood took us. Although the shops in this area were beautiful, they were a little out of our price range. When you're on a budget like ours shops like Chanel and Cartier are strictly look, no touch. But it was another beautifully sunny day and there was no pressure to do anything or go anywhere. We stopped regulary for refreshments and rest, with no shortage of sidewalk restaurants and cafés at which to do this.
In the afternoon we headed back towards La Rambla but then veered left into the Gothic quarter. You could wander the back streets for days, I'm sure, and not get bored. There is every sort of shop imaginable, big and small plazas, eateries and drinkeries galore and all of it set in the picturesque winding streets and narrow alleys, the walls studded with narrow wrought-iron balconies, that typify Barcelona.
On our last night we decided we wanted a good hearty meal - no more of the little bitsy Tapas meals which, although delicious, don't quite do the trick as well as a good old-fashioned piece of beef steak. The advantage of the Spanish preference for late meals is that if you go to a restaurant before 9pm there are bound to be free tables and the steakhouse we selected was no exception. Our waiter was super-friendly and our steaks were divine. We were all three in top form and by the end of the evening we were all laughed out. I think Cinderella discovered that finding the funny side of everything when you're on holiday makes the whole experience that much more entertaining and in the end she was giggling as much as Li'l Sis and I were.
We were up before the crack of dawn the next morning to get to the airport. I was impressed, again, with the Aerobus shuttle bus service. Less so with the Aer Lingus check-in queues, both of which were manned by trainees... you think they'd do one at a time, surely? Ah sure, that's the thing about travelling - you have to take the bad with the good. All in all, though, on this trip, there was definitely more good. Barcelona is a lovely city and I imagine it is probably even more lovely during the summer months when going to the beach is an option. The food was excellent, the service, well, sometimes good, sometimes bad, often indifferent. We found language to be a bit of a barrier - in most European cities I've visited the waiters and waitresses know enough English to understand what you want when you ask for milk with your coffee ("leche" is the word you want, f.y.i.). They weren't rude, exactly, just often sort of indifferent. Perhaps they were sore at losing the football that week. Or perhaps I should have taken some time to learn more Spanish phrases before going there. As City Break destinations go it's pretty good, though, with plenty to do and see and even at this time of year it is crowded with visitors from across the planet.
Yep, all in all a good time was had.
And now, as promised, some photographs...
If you'd like to see more pictures you can take a look at the photo's I uploaded to Flickr.