There have been many places that I have dreamt of visiting, places that I have researched and put on my travel wish list and places that I have never really had any interest in visiting but ended up in anyway, and there are those places that I didn’t really think of and that blew me away the moment I arrived. Barcelona is one of the latter, such a special city located in a gorgeous part of the European continent, a little island to itself in the north of Spain. I haven’t been anywhere else in Spain, so I cannot compare it to Madrid or Seville or another city, but Barcelona definitely seems to have a heart and soul of its own, beating to its own rhythm in the heart of Catalonia.
I’ve been to Barcelona twice, both times thanks to a previous job that I had. The first time I was only there for a few days and didn’t really get to see much apart from the office, a few restaurants and bars and the hotel. The second time I was there for 2 whole weeks and stayed in an apartment about 10 minutes from the beach (on foot). What a difference it made! While I spent a lot of time working in the company’s Barcelona office during those two weeks I also had time to discover the city. I’m by nature shy, part loner and part extrovert, and I have no problem doing things alone, even exploring a city whose language I don’t really speak very well at all. While I had no issues butchering Hebrew when I lived in Israel, I still understand spoken Dutch when I concentrate, and I still have no problems switching between English and French without a thought, the one language I actually spent time learning at school, Spanish, has never come naturally. I suppose I feel like I should actually really speak it by now, but don’t and I feel embarrassed. During both of my stays in Spain my interactions with the “locals” was really kept to a bare minimum due to my inability to just try in case I sounded stupid and my fear of being really annoying by asking people if they spoke English. I’m glad that I made friends with some of my colleagues who showed me the best places to eat lunch, and took me out a few times at night. I did spend a lot of time alone, exploring, and I thoroughly enjoyed it!
The second time I was in Barcelona I was sober and therefore not too interested in the nightlife, which, from the little I did experience, is quite amazing. Walking through the cobbled streets at night reminded me of France: laughter coming from bars, different styles of music pumping from each side of the street, cafés open until the early hours and groups of friends hanging out on steps, chatting the night away. I assume that southern France and northern Spain are quite similar in several aspects, as this wasn’t the first time that I was drowned in a mix of homesickness and nostalgia for the country that I still call home.
My company’s office was located right by the Plaça de Catalunya with its beautiful statues and fountains. The apartment I was staying in was in the Sant Marti area, and while there was a metro station nearby both locations I preferred the 30 minute walk in the mornings and evenings, walking under the Arc de Triomf every day and enjoying the warm air, the city smells and the people watching that I could do along the way. The soundtrack to those days was a lot of BRMC, Psychedelic Furs, and mainly the White Stripes, and a lot of dreams about moving back to Europe and picking a slower paced and less stressful life back up there. Whenever I hear a White Stripes song I am still transported right back there, the early morning mist, a certain sense of grandeur and freedom. I wrote a lot during those two weeks, sitting on the balcony in the apartment, watching the full moon rise and listening to the sounds of the night, smoking cigarettes and writing poetry. At the time I felt that Barcelona helped me figure out a lot of little knots that had made their way along my path. Now I feel that it was a combination of being somewhere that was foreign but familiar as well as being really alone for a few weeks. I think I will always maintain a quasi spiritual relationship with my memories of Barcelona.
I love good food, like anyone, but I’m not a foodie. I could live on pasta and olive oil for a week without any issues. I like simple things, but if you cook an extravagant meal for me I will most likely rave about it for weeks (as long as it’s vegetarian and corresponds to my annoying and picky texture eating tastes). I had no issues with the food in Barcelona, it was easy to order, there was a lot to choose from even for vegetarians and most food I ate was delightfully fresh and well prepared, and super cheap. I LOVE tapas, always have, and love how they make eating out super easy and fun. And Spanish tortilla is just fabulous – who doesn’t love eggs and potatoes anyway?! I think my favourite meal of both trips was lunch in a simple restaurant not far from the Plaça de Catalunya, tucked away in a side street, 3 courses for less than 10 Euro, plat du jour (or Spanish equivalent) that contained a vegetarian option for each course, fresh juices and delicious desserts. It reminded me of how important it is to take time for each meal, relax and enjoy the food and company. I was really happy to find a Lidl on my walk home, so that covered breakfast and dinners and I found a sandwich shop where I was able to order a delicious brie on baguette sandwich in a mix of English and Spanish. Living in NYC, and now northern California, for so long, I have always missed grabbing a “café en terrasse”, a perfectly made espresso, and sitting out on the street, watching the world go by. On my first day off that is exactly what I did, on the way up to the Park Güell, ordered a café, a croissant and sat at a table, contemplating life and my life.
I really didn’t do much research on Barcelona before I went (something I often lack doing with any kind of travel, making for some missed occasions but mainly some amazing discoveries), but discovered the beauty of Gaudí’s work after randomly walking past the Casa Batlló. Gaudí’s architectural designs and artwork maybe classified as Catalan Modernism, or art nouveau, but for me they depict the existence of another world that we can’t see, full of fairies and butterflies and beauty. His creations are scattered all over Barcelona, but if you don’t have enough time to track them all down, then a visit to the Park Güell is a must. I spent a few hours wandering through the park, marveling at the colours, turrets, twists and turns and imagining all kinds of stories and fairytales in my head. Located on a hill, you get a great view of Barcelona and the sea, and while it can get pretty packed with tourists, I am really glad I made time to visit it. It reminded me that everything is possible in this world, and that we all have something to give, and leave behind, be it physical, fluid or a formless legacy. La Sagrada Familia church also provided me with breathtaking inspiration and emotions, in a way that only an amazingly designed religious edifice can (and I am in no way religious in any form). I lit a candle there for my father as I do in most places that I visit.
I also spent a lot of time wandering through the Gothic Quarter, getting lost and going round and round in circles. Walking through the small, cobblestone streets, surrounded by looming old buildings. Shops and bars, art galleries and restaurants populate the busy little streets and it was lovely strolling through them, backing up and laughing at my inability to find where I had started from. I walked around the area both in the daytime and at night and ended up using the GPS on my phone a couple of times (I had a humungous phone bill on my return!) – but that was only because I was too shy and embarrassed to ask for directions. Silly, I know. There is something quite satisfying though, about walking both aimlessly but with aim along unknown streets, watching people go by and making up stories about their lives and their day, admiring balconies with blooming flowers and growing herbs and imagining life in one of those apartments. There were so many moments during those two weeks in Barcelona that I contemplated moving there and creating a new life for myself amidst those streets. Changing my name, running away and being someone and somewhere different. Barcelona had a real effect on me, and while it took a few more years after my return to make some real changes, it did help me put a lot of things into perspective. I think spending time alone in a new city does help promote a certain kind of self-reflection.
I love the beach and there was no way I was going to miss going to the beach in Barcelona. After being conditioned to NYC and Long Island beaches for a few years I forgot how the atmosphere is different on Mediterranean beaches. I walked to the Bogatell beach as it was the closest to the apartment and found a spot by myself between the water and the beach volleyball area, and set myself up for a few peaceful hours of music, sunbathing and swimming. I’m not keen on swimming over waves, so I was really looking forward to swimming in the calm Med, but it was actually pretty choppy that day! After my initial surprise it was lovely to feel the warm water over my skin, and to swim out a little and look at the beach from the water. On my next beach trip the water was as calm and peaceful as I remembered it from my days in Israel, and I spent a lot of time in swimming around. I was kind of taken aback when people came up and talked to me on the beach though (hence my US beach remark because everyone really leaves you alone there), and felt a little uncomfortable at times. In my opinion it’s better to go in a group or at least as two, but that’s just me. Oh, and I remember worrying about a beach volleyball landing on my head, and then one actually landed super hard on a sunbathing woman’s stomach so I ended up moving away from the beach games. The walk along the boardwalk up to Barceloneta beach is quite lovely, especially if you can grab a sunset en route. There really is nothing like a sunset on the beach, always breathtaking, one of those consistent acts of nature that never lets you down and makes you feel so tiny and so important all at once. All in all the beaches are city beaches and if they are lacking in beauty and cleanliness they make up for it in pure convenience and entertainment. Living within walking distance of a beach, whether on the sea or ocean, east or west, has been a lifelong dream of mine. One day we will make it happen.
I started writing this wondering if I would remember more than that feeling of never wanting to leave and I have surprised myself by digging up all the love I felt for Barcelona while I stayed there. I love how warm and welcoming the city is, how calm and energetic, how she continues to embrace her language and culture, while accepting everyone with ease. Merci, Barcelona – I hope to be back one day to search for more Gaudí, take more and better photos, and to eat your delicious food. Some days I feel like I am moving further and further from the places that actually feel like home.
A collection of (awful) Blackberry and (OK) digital camera photos can be found HERE.
After I finished writing this piece I dug out my journal from the late 2000’s from one of our boxes and realised that the Barcelona I documented on paper is the exact one that I remember. I will post the entries in a separate post this week).