After lingering in Germany, we were headed to the South of France for some beach time. But first, we took a five-day detour to Barcelona. A stopover in Spain wasn’t part of the initial travel plan, but Michael found a really affordable fare on Vueling (pronounced Welling) airlines from Nuremberg to Barcelona. That got us south in a hurry, and from there we could take a scenic train ride to Montpellier, France to begin exploring the beaches of the Languedoc region.
Meanwhile, we were off to one of our favorite cities. It even made the shortlist of “Places in Europe We Could Live”. Others include Split, Croatia; Cascais, Portugal; Most anywhere in Italy, Fontainebleau, France, Strasbourg, France - and after this past week, Nuremberg, Germany.
It was peak holiday season so Airbnb listings in Barcelona in late July were scarce and also the most expensive we’ve encountered anywhere. Barcelona is one of those cities and other destinations who are bemoaning the impact of too many tourists and are wondering whether the economic returns are worth the overcrowding and degradation of their heritage. However, Barcelona maintains her dignity while being embraced by strangers.
We could easily use up any savings we gained getting there just finding a place for our pillows! In the end, we chose a private room (still over our budget) in an Airbnb that we would share with the owners. Something we rarely do.
Our young hosts, Michael and Lucy were great, and their stylish apartment was well located - just off the famous La Rambla and down a quiet side street. The apartment was probably large by inner-city standards, but it felt tight for four adults. Our room had a comfortable bed, a small desk, and a balcony, but we shared a bathroom and the kitchen. It turned our hosts had jobs that allowed them to work from home - something we hadn’t anticipated, so it made the situation a little more awkward since we were often at home together.
Our hosts did all they could to create a sense of privacy. They retreated to their room when we were home and we did the same. We enjoyed interacting when we were working together in the living area and sharing the kitchen, but we have gotten too used to our own space. The listing was really nice, and ultimately, we learned a lesson about works for us, and that is an entire place.
Meanwhile, we had four days to explore parts of the city we missed during past visits. That included the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s magical cathedral. We decided the best way (and a way to get in for free) was to see it during the 9:00 am Mass on Sunday. The one hour service was Catholic but appealed to a wide audience. The voices of the choir soared to the tops of the fantastic, sunflower stalk arches, and the dancing colors from the many stained glass windows turned the sanctuary into a kaleidoscope. The spoken words were presented in a mix of English and Spanish, but words were superfluous - divine inspiration came from the surroundings.
After the service, we were allowed to linger in the sanctuary for a few minutes before being ushered out into the sunshine. By seeing the church this way, we didn’t get to take a guided tour or see the exhibits, but we had no regrets. If you are in the city on a Sunday and want to follow this suggestion, be in line by 8:15 at the latest. You still have to go through security - and it will seem like the lines are long, but once they open the doors things move quickly and you’ll have a seat for the service. The earlier you get in line, the closer to the altar you’ll be.
Michael and I also took advantage of free Saturday admission to the Museum of Contemporary Art and found the extensive collection worth the visit. There was a special exhibition of work by Christian Marclay, a Swiss-American graphic artist I hadn’t heard off. The highlight was his “Video Quartet” - a video installation using clips of musical performances from Hollywood movies to create an original composition.
Afterward, we meandered the neighborhood near our apartment looking for a place to eat dinner. But first, we had to pass the gauntlet of restaurants with girls in short skirts waving menus! We bolted for the first street off La Rambla and just started walking.
I heard some convivial conversation coming from a side street so we followed the sound of tinkling glasses and low laughter. We turned a corner and came upon a small tapas bar where diners spilled beyond the pleasant little courtyard and on to the street with small plates and wine glasses in hand.
It looked like seafood was their specialty, but just across the way, another bar was serving aged ham and chorizo along with their handcrafted vermouth. I wanted fish and Michael hankered for sausage so we were going to split up until we learned you could take plates from either restaurant into the other, just be sure to return the dishes and pay when you were done. Perfect.
The bartender at Tascael El Corral, the chorizo pub, spoke great English and was particularly proud of their “vermut" and insisted we try it. For about a dollar, why not? It was a deep ruby red and tasted of earth and herbs. He poured it slowly over one large ice cube in a small juice glass and added a twist of lemon. I have a new respect for vermouth. And the chorizo was excellent. I had plates of tiny whole fish fried until they were so crisp you could eat them like french fries. Everyone was happy, and the evening became one of our most memorable.
A similar “local” experience happened the next night when our host told us about a Fiesta Mayor that was getting underway nearby. These Fiestas are neighborhood “block parties” that take place in all the Barrios of Barcelona in July. Many of the larger ones have parades, street fairs, and DJ’s, but two activities take place whether the event is large or small. One is a Castell where men try and build impossibly tall human towers by standing on each other's shoulders. And the other is a Correfoc or Fire Run. We’d watched in awe as Castellers formed human towers during our last visit - including a version where a small child scrambles to the top and waves a banner. This time I really wanted to see the fire runners so I dragged Michael out of the apartment as it was growing dark.
The festival was in Poble Sec, about a 30-minute walk from our place. After navigated some back streets, we finally came upon a square where neighbors were just gathering for the traditional potluck held on the first night of the celebration. Long tables were set up under bright paper lanterns and twinkle lights strung between the trees. A DJ was getting warmed up on a small stage and the emcee was checking the mic.
We didn’t see anything that foretold pyrotechnics, but then a few people dressed in unusual costumes began to arrive. Some wore hooded robes and had blackened faces. Others wore dark jumpsuits and devil masks. One gang wore leather jackets embroidered with devils on the back, black skull caps and red bandanas that covered their faces. There were even a few children in costume. Each group carted black boxes and torches. Lots of torches. Finally, a rowdy bunch of drummers arrived and started to practice. Things were looking up!
It took a while for events to get underway, and we almost left a couple of times - but a sage person once shared some advice that has served me well “don’t leave five minutes before the miracle.” So we stayed put and were rewarded with one of the craziest spectacles we’ve ever seen.
The Diablos, or devils, are half-crazy folk who come along to Fiestas to set off firecrackers and brandish pitchforks loaded with giant, spark-spewing sparklers and other fireworks to the frantic beat of a dozen drums. They are usually part of a parade, and as they run down the street, equally crazy citizens (the Fire Runners) try and run alongside without getting burned.
Our little firestorm was a bit tamer. The Diablos jumped and twirled pell-mell around the square showering spectators with sparks while the drummers pounded out a bone-rattling beat, but no one else took part and no one was hurt. Apparently, there are Correfoc Festivals where things can get really fired up, but we’d seen enough to satisfy our curiosity.
Other highlights included a day at Platja El Masnou beach about 25 minutes by metro from the city center. I had a delicious seafood lunch with my fellow nomad friends ReAnn and Joyce, the two women we met up with earlier in our travels when we were in Lisbon at the same time.
We also took a long (hot) walk to the top of Parc Guell, a green oasis in the center of the city filled with whimsical, tile-covered walls and other structures created by Gaudi. Most of the walk was uphill and at the top of the stairways, entrepreneurial fellows were selling bottles of water half-filled with solid ice for one euro. They couldn’t sell them fast enough! Since our last visit, there is an admission charge to get into the part of the park with the largest concentration of Gaudi works. We saw those on our last visit so we headed back home for a siesta.
Most of us probably think of Barcelona, Spain’s second-largest city, as the countries most popular destination with over 9 million tourists a year. But most locals think of it first as the capital of Catalonia, a region with its language, culture, and history. There is an ongoing struggle within the region to gain independence from Spain that can be traced back to events that took place in 1714, over 300 years ago.
Today, the region is officially known as the “Spanish Autonomous Community of Catalonia.” For many Catalonians that is not independent enough so two years ago, on October 1, 2017, a vote was held to determine if the people of Catalonia wished to become fully independent. The Spanish government considered the election to be illegal, but it went ahead anyway.
The turn-out was less than half the voters but 92% of those who did vote, favored total independence. That was not the end of the story. In fact, it was just another chapter in this long-running feud. Spain clearly does not want Catalonia to become independent and it is estimated the desire for independence is split 50/50 even among Catalonians, as can be seen by continued protests and the bright red and yellow Catalan flags that hang from many balconies. Side note: in recognition of the independence movement and the year 1714, at every FC Barcelona home football match, at exactly 17:14 (seventeen minutes and fourteen seconds into the match) fans join in a rousing chant for independence … “”in, inde, independencia…”
We left Barcelona with a pledge to return. Just not in the middle of tourist season! We caught the train heading east to Montpellier, the gateway to many of France’s most beautiful beaches no doubt also crowded. We’ll sea you there.
Thanks for following along,
Debbie and Michael Campbell
The Senior Nomads