Having spent several months working in the South West of France and flitting across the border several times, the road signs to Barcelona finally got the better of me and I gave in to temptation. It was somewhere that I vaguely remembered going as a child, and the one thing that stuck in my mind was he crazy traffic system as we tried to find the airport. I looked at my spotless French hire car paid for by my office and decided to play it safe, and get the train rather than risk an accident in a country I wasn’t supposed to be in. A few clicks on my trusty iPad later and my train to Barcelona, plus a bed and breakfast was booked. Friday afternoon finally came and I was taking the high speed train from Perpignan. What to do for the two hours before my train? around 20 minutes from the city center lies the tiny village of Ille sur Têt.
It is a fairly unremarkable border town, but as you follow the river out of the cobbled streets, astounding forms begin to rise from the scrubby embankments alongside the road. Follow signs for Les Orgues down an unpromising dirt track and you arrive at a tiny ticket booth and the start of a path which leads to some stunning sandstone formations with a breathtaking mountain backdrop. If you come before the end of June, you are likely to see snow still clinging to the dramatic Pyreneen slopes whose shades of blue and purple offset the sandy Orgues.
After snatching a few photos and cooing over the spectacular views, I dashed back to my car and headed for Perpignan station. I just had time to stuff my backpack full of cameras and back my car up to the wall before taking the train to Figueras. I wasn’t sure what to expect; the French TGV is a fairly hard act to follow, but I was amazed at how efficient it’s Spanish counterpart was, and just over two pleasant hours later I arrived in Barcelona Sants, a huge and bustling station where it’s easy to get lost. Seeing as it was quite late and I’d read one too many guidebooks warning about crime in the city, I decided to take a taxi and boy was I glad I hadn’t brought my car. My taxi weaved and honked its way amidst hundreds of other yellow cabs, and I covered my eyes as my friendly Pakistani driver dodged mopeds and buses, all the while turning around and chatting to me about my journey. As we moved away from the big wide boulevards, he began to slow through some gloomy looking side streets, and I hoped he was just taking a shortcut. “This is your stop!” he cheerfully announced before speeding off, leaving me and my huge rucksack in a dark and deserted alley. The hotel reviews rang in my ears as I tried to squash the little niggles of panic. “This is NOT a hotel”… “Owner wasn’t there”… “Bad area of Barcelona…”
You see, I always thought that these people were just too fussy. But as I frantically searched for an intercom with Hostel written on it and, failing that, tried to ring the mobile number provided in the booking, I started to think I’d be spending the night on the abandoned mattress lying across the street. After 30 minutes of frantically trying to call the owner which killed my battery stone dead, Enzo the owner arrived with a huge grin and an apology, and despite my murderous thoughts towards him a few moments before, all was quickly forgotten as he waved him arms, animatedly trying to give me tips about visiting the city. The Enzo B&B was spotlessly clean, cheap and, as I later learned, not so far from the city center. I gratefully dropped my bag on the bed and went out in search of some Tapas, and I didn’t have to walk far. At ten PM, the nearest tapas bar was bursting with locals jabbering animatedly over little plates of delicious looking food and glasses of Rioja, and I was the only tourist. People looked on with amusement as I opted for the biggest plate they had and filled it with one of everything…slices of toasted baguette topped with ham, basil, cheese and tomato salad, fish in a smoky sauce…all washed down with a generous glass of Rioja. A couple of glasses and platefuls later, I tottered back to my hostel, and the next thing I knew, it was 8 am and I was awoken by parrots squawking .Yep, parrots.
I am not a fan of public transport, so I decided to see just how far I could walk in Barcelona. I grabbed my camera and flimsy little map and headed towards the sea, before following the port towards Barcelona’s’ very own Arc de Triomphe, stopping for a delicious coffee and fresh orange juice on the way. I happily marched along leafy avenues, and stumbled upon Barcelona’s old bull ring which is now used as a circus. It is a beautiful building, topped with blue and white onion domes and mosaic. It had a distinctly forgotten feel to it, despite the stunning beauty of the Moroccan style minarets, and there was no mention of it on the map.
As I walked North, I began to see swarms of tourists heading determinedly in the same direction as me and tacky gift shops at increasing frequency, I knew I must be getting close to my first destination (the bullring was just a happy accident): the cathedral designed by Gaudi. As I turned a corner, I was breathless: the cathedral towers over the surrounding buildings and its stunning organic forms and intricately carved columns are a stark contrast to the residential area in which it stands. After taking far too many pictures and watching a game of Boules in the little park opposite the weird and wonderful giant, I marched on to my next destination: the Gaudi houses. For fans of architecture, the queue is well worth the wait: the Casas offer spectacular and peaceful views of the city. After getting my bearings on the huge Catalunya square, I followed the lively La Rambla down to the heart of the Gothic quarter, just in time for lunch. The Gothic quarter is a vibrant mishmash of little boutiques and eateries lining narrow, uneven streets, a huge antiques market where you can pick up some gorgeous jewelry or a beautiful embroidered shawl for a fraction of what you’d expect to pay in the UK, and a delightful square, home to Barcelona’s Gothic cathedral (I made the mistake of calling Gaudi’s cathedral The Cathedral. Enzo’s face fell and he said, That’s the Other Cathedral. Oops).
After a tasty bruschetta and coffee on the square, I decided it was time to brave the metro, as my feet were beginning to throb and my next destination was at the opposite end of the city. I had read many horror stories about Barcelona’s mean streets, and was pleasantly surprised by how clean, friendly and safe the metro felt, and how easy to navigate. A short, joyful ride later and I was at my most coveted destination of the weekend: Parc Guell; the park designed by Gaudi. The park’s beauty is breathtaking, and if you only have a short amount of time in Barcelona, make sure you come here. When you walk through the gates, you feel as though you have walked into a mangrove, and it is hard to distinguish the real palm trees from the weird trunk-like columns that blend effortlessly into the natural rock.
Ivy hangs down over the rustic archways and exotic stone figures adorn the roughly carved trunks. As you climb further into the park, past giant pawpaws with lovers’ names carved into their prickly leaves, a stunning panorama of Barcelona emerges, and you can’t help but marvel at the huge size of Gaudi’s cathedral which dominates the sea front far below. I thought the exhaustion of a day’s walking had got the better of me when I saw a splash of green whizz by above my head but, as I looked up, I spotted hundreds of little parrots flitting from tree to tree, building nests and cleaning their bright green feathers with their stubby little orange beaks. Yes, Barcelona is infested with little green parrots. Flocks of them swoop over the city and their strident squawks echo through the deserted early morning streets. The lower part of Parc Guell is a riot of colour, and the terrace is a delightful patchwork of bright mosaics, flanked by two gingerbread houses: one in blue tones, its twin adorned with shades of rust.
And I couldn’t resist a chavtastic bull t-shirt from one f the many souvenir shops on the walk back to the metro. As much as I try not to look like a tourist, I cannot resist a bit of tasteful tat.
By the time I’d finished ogling Gaudi’s mosaics, darkness was rapidly falling and I was finding it hard to walk straight. It was 8 pm and I realised I’d been walking for 12 hours. I looked down at my grubby, sweaty self and decided against going somewhere posh. I limped back to the now familiar backstreets of the foot of the Montjuïc park where I was staying, and collapsed on to a flimsy chair on a terrace. Give me a bar, any bar. This one had promising pictures of paella outside. I chose the black paella, which is coloured with squid ink and goes perfectly with a big glass of Estrella, Barcelona’s answer to Stella. I ate my paella in a kind of exhaustion-induced euphoria, and that night passed just as quickly as the last one had.
On Sunday I awoke to a beautiful, cloudless sky (apart from the odd parrot). It would seem that the locals sleep in late, so I crept out of the hostel into the silent streets, and set off for Montjuïc park, which is a hotspot for early risers and sports fanatics.
The climb is steep and I admired the pumping calves of the many cyclists I saw struggling up to the fortress at the top of the hill, especially in the already intense heat (it was the end of October!). The climb was well worth the trouble for the fabulous view, and I realised Barcelona is as big again on the other side of the mount, which conveniently hides the city’s sprawling commercial docks. Giant ships languish in the sparkling blue sea, waiting to be loaded with the multicoloured containers that look like Lego from the fortress gardens.
As it was such a beautiful day, I decided I had to go back to the Park Guell but be warned: sun means crowds. After a few more parrot photos, I headed for the port via Las Ramblas. By now the heat was stifling, so I decided on a trip to the aquarium which I hoped would have some air conditioning. I was not disappointed. For 250 euros I could have swum with the vicious looking grey sharks…that’s on my list for next time! The aquarium itself is fantastic, and I got my first ever glimpse of a sawfish, discovered that stingrays love to be tickled, and finished off the visit with a trip through the shark tunnel.
Emerging from the aquarium, the heat hadn’t abated even though it was five o’clock so I decided to head for the beach via Barceloneta, a cramped peninsula of colourful buildings between the city and the seafront. I walked along the promenade, admiring the throngs of sunbathers on the golden sand, the nimble rollerbladers dashing through the crowds, and the striking, sail-shaped building which overlooks the port. Sun worshippers rubbed shoulders with surfers and old ladies chattering while doughnut hawkers in turbans shouted about their wares in every language imaginable as they ambled down the beach in the late afternoon sun, which was only just starting to lose some of its heat.
Having mastered the metro and thus not being afraid of being so far from my hostel, I dared to have dinner on the port. A football sized glass of the most delicious sangria preceded gazpacho and watermelon soup, oysters and a fabulous fish stew, a meal which would have cost three times the price in a similar restaurant in France. As I tottered back to the metro, the weary street vendors were also heading home after a hard day selling hats and bags in the tourist areas, with one eye on the lookout for the police. Despite what I’d been told about crime in Barcelona, I felt completely un-threatened there and much safer than in Paris.
I had been in Barcelona for 48 hours, and walked for 24, and while I had seen everything I’d wanted to see, it had gone by in the blink of an eye and I was already longing to return to this vibrant, colourful city.
The next morning I hopped on the metro like a local (apart from the grimy shorts and huge rucksack) and with a heavy heart, headed for the station. After one last delicious orange juice and creamy coffee, I boarded the train to Perpignan, changed into my suit in the car and made my way to my first business meeting of the week, and I could almost believe it didn’t happen, if it weren’t for the I <3 Barcelona bracelet peeking out of my sleeve…