Port Post: Barcelona

Hey There! This is the first post of what I plan to be a handful more about each port that my husband Christian and I had the pleasure of sailing to a few weeks ago during our Mediterranean cruise. It was our first cruise ever and a smashing hit!

Having backpacked Europe back in college, I actually had more European cities under my belt than my own European husband! I’d been itching for years to let him see for himself the splendor that Barcelona, Venice, Rome, and many more European cities have to offer. Pair that with wanting to whet the “what is the hubbub about cruising, anyway?” appetite, we decided that Norwegian Cruise Line’s Spirit, touring all around the Mediterranean in April, would be a grand idea.

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And boy was it! We started in Barcelona, then made our way all around France, Italy, Greece, and Turkey, until we disembarked in Venice. It was 12 nights and 13 days of a great cruise experience, but not before 5 glorious days in Barcelona, the “Port Post”, if you will, of today.

Barcelona. One of the most surprising things I found in Barcelona the very first day we arrived was the flying of their flag. Not the Barcelona flag nor that of Spain, but of Catalonia. Perhaps the shock was only…shocking…because I’m coming a very flag-shy country. But I hadn’t seen so many flags of a nation fly about since the hubs and I drove through Texas. ;)

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And a nation Catalonia is, in fact. Well, the Barcelona people tend to refer to their home as a nation without a state. No longer under the iron-fisted rule of Franco, the Catalan people can finally teach, learn, and speak (that’s right, speak) their own language. For forty-plus years, until 1975, Franco fought for one Spain, one religion, and one language, so that meant three of the four main languages and in essence cultures of Spain were outlawed (Basque, Galatian, and Catalan).

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Now that Franco’s gone and since Spain is a part of the EU, the Catalan culture (and other regional cultures, too) is alive and vibrant! No wonder they’re flying their flag so proudly. Everywhere you look in Barcelona you’ve got the Catalan flag, two-three Spanish languages offered, and even the ritual Sardana dances!

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These dances are held on Sundays at noon, after mass, in the courtyard of the Cathedral of Barcelona. Catalans gather together—and tourists are invited, too—and place their purses and bags in a pile on the ground. Then everyone holds hands, forming a circle around their belongings, and do a Greek-style dance as the band strikes up at the foot of the Cathedral’s steps. The dance is a soft sway, then a hop with a little flip of the toes, then sway and hop! It’s absolutely delightful and a must-see when in Barcelona. It took about 10 minutes to find and another 5 to watch and it’s one of the most quick, fun, and simple pleasures we got to enjoy there.

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What’s the point of these dances? The Sardana dance is done to represent Catalan unity and pride, and that there’s a general sense of trust among your fellow man as your belongings are all piled together, unattended. (Though this might be the only place where you don’t feel you need to keep your eyes peeled for pickpocketers. Sadly, Barcelona is one of the hottest pickpocketing spots in Europe, but I’ll be honest with you. So long as you don’t have your head in the clouds and your bag hanging open, or your wallet in your back pocket, you should feel fine. I felt very safe and returned home with everything intact (plus a handful of souvenirs).

Barcelona is one of the trendiest European destinations these days and its refreshed waterfront glimmers and shines with obvious appeal as you fly overhead or pull into the harbor. The waterfront has been all jazzed up and is much more people-friendly, thanks to the 1992 Olympics that really rejuvenated this Franco-hit, industrial-looking harbor town. Today it offers sandy and sun-kissed beaches, a promenade of shops and eateries, and plenty of places for you to zip along on your bicycle, park it, and soak up some rays.

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Christian and I rented bicycles one afternoon and rode up and down this crowded and happening promenade. I was worried about the crowds and them becoming my roadkill because I’m not the best with a rented bike. I’ve got ridiculously short legs so renting any adult bike that can accommodate this physical inconvenience is nearly impossible. (I’ve asked to ride a child’s cycle before in Germany and I was given a long, blank stare, then the final, “Nein.” Oh well.) Not being able to touch the ground with even the teensiest of tiptoes when stopped made my bike riding a little uncomfortable in Barcelona, but oh well.

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It was fun, still, but stressful on top of a tad uncomfortable. The masses of people moving like slugs on the promenade, all of whom I was about to plow over because they were much slower than myself, the fact that I always seemed to be gaining speed somehow and there was never a hill in sight, and because I couldn’t stop thanks to being so dang elevated from the ground (and my rear brake was so loose it may have well not even existed), all added some stress to the ride and turned the difficult into the overtly complicated. Rest assured, no one got injured and I only nearly (nearly, I emphasize) hit a fellow biker head-on. He seemed to be a local because he quickly leapt off his bike and walked it briskly around me once he saw my worried expression and rickety advancement.

Our afternoon of cycling ended up being a forty-five minute adventure, but you know? I’d do it again. Although I’d make sure my brake worked and I’d use the toilet beforehand. Riding bumpy roads on a full bladder is what happens when you brushed off for years Mom’s warnings to use the facilities before you leave.

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Barcelona’s artistic offerings, both inside and outside of the museums and churches, are really big attractions. Three names most everyone knows from the artists’ phone book when venturing to Barcelona are Gaudí, Dalí, and Picasso. Gaudí and Picasso, in particular, were top on our list when we were there.

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Picasso’s museum is located in the happening Ribera district, the wealthier strip of town where merchants and shippers used to live, hence all of the fancy mansions. This museum is a spectacular collection of what this genius was capable of—from Picasso’s prodigious works as a boy (age 12) and all the way through his Blue and Rose periods, to his French Riviera days, where he passed away in 1973. There isn’t any of his Cubist work here, for which he’s most renowned, but what I really like about this museum is that you get to see Picasso in the early days. He was a true master and anyone who may write off his Cubism art as too obscure and not “masterful” (although the man is the father of invention when it comes to Cubism), his talents are evident in this museum. Think the man is too obscure and can’t run with the big and classic guys? Think again.

Picasso imitated Impressionist works, could whip out Cézanne- and Matisse-like masterpieces, and embraced Art Nouveau and the avant-garde style beautifully. Like Michelangelo, anyone would be bowled over to discover that such masterpieces were created by a wet-eared twenty-four-year-old!

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There’s a lovely quote of Picasso: That as a child he was forced to paint like an adult, but as an adult he was able to paint like a child. That couldn’t be more true as this museum shows his artistic life from beginning to end, each decade becoming more and more true to himself and free. His colorful and almost childlike paintings of birds and the French Riviera in his twilight years are fabulous proof.

From Picasso to Gaudí. I first discovered and fell in love with Antoni Gaudí’s work in 2005 when I stumbled upon La Pedrera (or Casa Milà) and the Block of Discord when wandering the Eixample district. Pedrera is the Modernista (from Modernisme, Catalonia’s Art Nouveau) building in the city, with its melty-looking eaves and balconies. It was Gaudí’s last main project before he headed off to spend the rest of his life working on the Sagrada Família, his cathedral and ultimate masterpiece.

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The melting look of Pedrera is just a visual feast, and getting to tour inside and on the roof was a dream finally come true! I’d wanted to tour the interior and take a look at the unique roof in 2005, but was on a shoestring budget so that wasn’t going to happen.

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When touring this architectural beauty you get to see the attic, the rooftop, and an apartment, which is furnished as it was when residents lived in this swanky home at the onset of the twentieth century. The most stunning part of the tour is the rooftop. There are 30 chimneys and vents, one set of five or so that are topped with broken pieces of champagne bottles. Love this random artistic detail! The chimneys remind me of masked and protected knights in shining armor. Something of a renaissance era, perhaps.

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I can’t recall everything from the audio guide, but I do remember that the chimneys and ventilation system of the building were top-notch, especially back then and considering how this building seemed to prioritize art rather than functionality. But that’s Gaudí for you. It’s functional art that you just can’t draw your eyes away from! He wanted to create a visually appealing and entertaining piece that was comfortable and functional, and you know what? I wouldn’t mind taking up residence in this masterpiece, although I’m sure the UNESCO World Heritage committee would be none too pleased with me.

By the way, did you know that Antoni Gaudí’s last name is where the English word for gaudy comes from? Fabulous!

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The Block of Discord just across the way houses more Gaudí masterpieces and is filled with Modernisme architecture. At the close of the 19th century artists and architects, like Gaudí, blended elements of nature (like roots, leaves, flower blooms, trees) with the modern styles and functionality, hence Modernisme—practical and decorative art.

The most stunning piece to come out of the Modernisme is, undeniably, Gaudí’s Sagrada Família. This is that massive gothic-esque church that has been under construction for decades upon decades. Inspired by nature, as is signature Gaudí, Sagrada Família was his baby for more than forty years. After his death in 1926, construction has slowly but surely continued. Rumor has it that with all of the donations and admission charges (hence its steep admittance price), Sagrada Família should stand tall, proud, and finished in 2026.

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A few years ago it was estimated to be completed in 2040, so who knows. I sure hope I get to see it completed! Architects sign on to help complete this massive project, knowing full well they may never see it completed; but the goal to have this masterpiece unlike any other stand high above Barcelona is a shared dream of everyone who spends a cent or donates an ounce of time to help it get on its way.

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Christian and I toured the interior of the Sagrada first, after we smartly bought our tickets online the night before to escape the long line (highly recommended!). That is an overwhelming church interior, ladies and gentlemen. Gaudí wanted its visitors to feel connected to nature when in the church, since he strongly believed that nothing is invented in art or life, but exists already in nature. So in come the tree-trunk-like columns and the large amounts of stained glass to reflect light and make you feel like you’re under a canopy. Light spills in and casts its radiant glow about the interior, which can hold up to 8,000 people.

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There are three facades—Nativity to show Christ’s birth, Passion to show the crucifixion, and Glory to show, in the future when it’s constructed, how the soul passes through death, judgement, and on to heaven. We took the lift up inside the Nativity spire (4 spires have been built, but 18 are planned, I believe) and we got a spectacular view over the city. When you’re up there you can see up close the spires and architectural detail that have been built and are still being worked on. There are some really gorgeous mosaics done and, I’ll tell you, I couldn’t help but think of Trix, the cereal, with how the little orange and yellow and green globes look like cereal fruits. I suppose that’s the fruit and nature aspect that Gaudí was shooting for. Some pieces on the spires look like lavender and hay stalks, even asparagus heads. It’s nature-here and nature-there when you tour anything by Gaudí, not least of all the Sagrada Família! Oh, this man’s art excites me!

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Let’s venture to La Rambla. This is one long (and very famous) street that runs from the Plaça de Catalunya, Barcelona’s Times Square, to the Waterfront, where the column of Christopher Columbus greets the ships at the harbor. It is the pedestrian promenade with tons of fabulous shops, eateries, and stops to make along the way, one of which is La Boqueria.

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La Boqueria is a rip-roaring market that has everything you could imagine you’d want to tickle your tastebuds. From succulent fruits, nuts, and piles of candy, to sea urchins, tripe, and large slabs of the Spanish meat, jamón serrano (dry-cured Iberian ham). I enjoyed this market because it had a similar feel of Berlin’s Türkenmarkt that I love so much. Lots of people, lots of food, and always noise-noise and action-action!

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The food of Barcelona is fabulous! I love tapas, so getting accustomed to this way of eating was no problem for me. For Christian, however, who’s not the keenest on tapas or pintxos (small open-faced sandwiches that are the tapas-like food in the Basque country), got used to it and enjoyed. With a cool glass of homemade sangria and tasty treats like salted and grilled pimentos, Spanish tortilla (cold egg and potato omelet), seasoned olives, marinated baby octopus, and fresh salmon with a cream cheese spread on hearty bread, all to be enjoyed outdoors as you listen to a violinist serenade you in the very square where Picasso and his friends used to take their dinners and drinks, how could anyone not enjoy? Eating like this every single night, and during some afternoons, was our idea of vacation!

By the end of our time in Barcelona we were stuffed and felt like we’d been on a big journey, but the adventure had only just begun! We still had a nearly two-week-long cruise and some post-cruise recovery time in Venice ahead of us. We did both agree, however, that if our trip were to conclude in Barcelona we still would have been very happy travelers.

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In other words, if you have a chance to go to Barcelona, do it! It will not disappoint. If a combination of warm sunshine and coolish sea air, coastal views, the kindest people, a lively culture, tasty food and drink, a plethora of things to do and see, and stunning art at every corner is on your list of vacation-to-dos, then Barcelona has your name on it!

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I loved the city in 2005, loved it even more in 2013, and can’t wait to return. We didn’t get to do any Salvador Dalí sightseeing, nor did we get a chance to go up to the mountaintop with the monastery, Montserrat, and I’d love to take a peek inside Gaudí’s Casa Batllo, and of course take in more tapas, pintxos, and sangria, so naturally we must head back to Barcelona some day! Have to leave something for next time, right?

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Thank you for taking this journey with me to Barcelona. If you’ve been and want to share your own thoughts on this exciting Catalan city, or if you have questions, drop me a comment. I love talking travel and love swapping travel stories!

I’ll be back again soon with another “Port Post,” although I just may do a “Ship Post” because the Norwegian Spirit certainly deserves some love. :)

As the Catalans would say, Adiós.

And Happy Reading!