22 November, 2011

Weekendje Weg - Barcelona

More than six months ago we booked a weekend trip to Barcelona.  So much has happened since then, I still can’t believe that we found the energy to go!

We had been watching flight prices for more than a year, but have never been able to find a price good enough for us to take the plunge (tight-arses that we are).  So it was almost a serendipitous moment when I was cruising for offers one day and saw that EasyJet had one of its sensational sales for a destination that actually appeals and we snapped up the tickets quick smart, for the ludicrous price of 120 EUR return for the two of us.

Our big problem was that because we had so many trips locked in, we had barely any spare holiday days available, so we made the decision to only take a flying visit (literally) between Friday and Sunday nights.  I have to say, I was quite nervous about both the flight and how busy we would be.  At 28 weeks pregnant, I’m just not as mobile as I was when we booked the flights (back in the pre-pregnancy days).  We just agreed to take it very easy and if I was too tired, I would just go back to the hotel and have a sleep.

We had what can only be described as a dream trip from Schiphol to Barcelona.  Great seats (managed to secure a spare seat between us in a virtually full flight), then a super fast connection to our hotel with the Aerobus in Barcelona.  We were in the hotel within an hour of getting off the plane, which is absolutely unheard of usually at any destination we go to.

We stayed at the Grupotel Gravina, just off La Rambla.  The location was sensational.  A 30 second walk to the Universitat Metro station and less than five minutes to Plaza Catalunya.  Even better, the hotel was in a quiet side street, with virtually no city noise.

The room was however, very small.  The double (just) bed was pushed into the corner (which I hate), so there was only access from one side and it was also quite stuffy, so we opened our window so we could sleep the first night.  Some time during that first night I was woken by some pretty serious banging that sounded like it was coming from outside.  In my sleepy state I wasn’t quite sure what it could be, until I twigged.  It was the neighbours going at it.  And I mean really going at it.  It went on so long and so loudly that I wasn’t sure if I should be envious or sympathetic.  And then just when we thought the slapping, moaning, banging and yelling German sweet nothings was starting to get out of hand (after more than an hour, mind you), they abruptly stopped, had a shower, then slammed their window shut!  Yep, show’s over folks, we’re going to sleep now!  I will admit that at breakfast the next morning I was sneaking looks around the restaurant to see if I could spot the culprits and congratulate/chastise them.

Speaking of breakfast, it was included in the price of the room and although there was a sign in the lift warning guests to eat before 8.30 am to avoid the queues, we slept late (due to the neighbours’ late night performance) so didn’t get downstairs until around 9.00.  Big mistake.  Huge.  The queue was out the door and we knew we had to leave by 10.00 to make Sagrada Familia on time.  So, we retreated upstairs to get ourselves completely ready in the hopes that the line would have shortened by the time we came back half an hour or so later.

This turned out to be a good choice.  We only had to stand in line for about five minutes before we were seated.  However, waiting until almost the end of breakfast service is never really a great idea.  There were about two pieces of bacon and a spoonful of eggs left, plus the pastries on the ‘dessert’ buffet had dried out and were no longer really edible.  On Sunday, we were up and at breakfast before 8.00 am, and as among the first to eat, we had a great choice of the freshest ingredients.  

My tip:  Don’t sleep in before breakfast.  Get yourself up early, tuck in to the good stuff, then retreat to your room for a bit of a rest before starting your day.  Works a treat.

We had looked into a couple of travel options (and when I say we, I mean Maarten) and were tossing up between one of those hop on hop off tourist buses, or the metro.  The hop on hop off buses are expensive (around 23 euros), so we decided to try out the metro.  We thought that if it was rubbish, we could just go for the bus and be done with it.  But, the Barcelona metro is a delight!  The trains are new, the stations are spotless, the trains run perfectly on time (about every three minutes) and best of all, the tickets are cheap!  

We bought a ten trip card for 8.25 EUR on the first morning that can be used by multiple passengers.  So Maarten would check in, hand the ticket to me and then I would check in.  So simple and there are several different options.  For example, we could have gone for the one day unlimited travel card, which is 6.20 EUR per person, but weren’t sure how many trips we would take.  As it turned out, we had one trip (each) remaining on Sunday morning.  I can’t recommend the metro enough.

We took the metro to our first stop of the trip, Sagrada Familia.  I stepped out of the metro station and when greeted with my first view of the temple I thought: Meh.  Is this it?  But it turned out to just be the angle I was standing at.  As we walked around and I saw it from all angles, my awe grew, as did the church, in my eyes.  The second thing I noticed was the queue.  I had been warned that the queue to get into the church was hours long, and the crowd didn’t disappoint.  While it wasn’t equal to the summer Louvre queues, it was down the block and well around the corner and easily a couple of hours long.  On the very sound advice of my friend Natalia, we pre-booked our tickets and waltzed straight past the queue and took the express entrance, score!  I won’t lie, I did consider flashing my arse to those poor souls standing in line for hours...
Sagrada Familia
Standing looking at the outside, I was struggling for a way to describe what it makes me feel or see.  The building feels organic.  Like it was carved out of a single piece of stone, or like it has been there for all time and humans just moulded it slightly.  Inside it feels like a futuristic forest.  Like you’re standing amongst giant trees and staring up at the canopy in wonder.
Inside Sagrada Familia
It turns out that what I felt was basically Gaudi’s intention!  The pillars inside are inspired by tree trunks and the entire structure is inspired by nature.  You know, it’s just wonderful to experience art (no matter the scale) and just get it.  Instead of just looking at a painting/sculpture and wondering what the artist’s intention was or why you don’t see it.  I look at Picasso, or Mondrian and often I don’t see the meaning (who am I kidding, I never see it), but with Gaudi’s projects inspired by nature, you just feel it.

But anyway.  Off from Sagrada Familia and on to Park Guell, another Gaudi nature project.  Maarten had warned me that it was a “bit of a bitch” to get to and stupid me thought he meant that it was a bit out of the way on the metro, but no!  What he actually meant was that once you stepped out of the metro you have to walk about a kilometre up (what feels like) the third steepest street in the world, eep!  But, I put on a brave face.  After all, I did climb Heart Attack Hill twice a week for two years, so this was clearly going to be a walk in (to?) the park.  Lucky for me half of the journey was serviced by escalators so we made it to the top in a jiffy.  Note to Kings Canyon park rangers:  Escalators!

Our walk wound us around the top of the hill and offered beautiful views of the city and Mt Tibidabo (remember that Friends episode?) and over the bay.  Then we descended into the park itself and to see Gaudi’s work at its finest.  The two houses that look like something out of Hansel and Gretel.  The walls built to resemble birds nests. The curved walkway that looks like a wave, and of course the mosaics.  I fell in love with the place, and not even the enormous crowds and revolting toilets could put me off.
One of the houses inside Park Guell

The Salamander - synonymous with Gaudi's work in Barcelona
After visiting Park Guell, it was most definitely siesta time for me, so I headed back to the hotel and Maarten went exploring by himself.  Siesta stretched well into the evening, and it was quite late when we finally headed out for dinner, with a spot of shopping along the way.  I just love that all the stores stay open until 9.00pm, so convenient!

Sunday Morning we were up early for all the fresh goodies on the breakfast buffet and then headed out to enjoy the city by ourselves.  Something that we just love doing is getting out and about early in a new city on a Sunday morning.  There are virtually no people around, so we can really get a great feel for the place.  We visited a couple of Gaudi-designed houses, and went inside the Casa Mila which is now a museum.  It was very expensive; around 15 euros per person and there wasn’t a lot to see.  Not if you compare it with other, far greater museums.  Although it was very cool (and World Heritage listed), if you’re on a budget visiting Barcelona, I would give entering this one a miss.  It’s fabulous for the chimneys on top, but that is the main attraction to be perfectly honest.  It’s one of those places that you think will be much more than it is.

Casa Batllo,  inspired by St George and the dragon

Chimneys atop Casa Mila

We stopped off for a spot of lunch at one of the many, many Spanish bars for a bocadillo (sandwich/half a baguette) and one of Barcelona’s specialities; Patatas Bravas.  Basically, it’s cooked potato pieces with a yummy spicy mayonnaise-like sauce.  Very, very tasty.  These bars are so cheap and simple, it makes me wonder why we insist on all the trimmings at cafes across Europe and Australia when the Spanish do it perfectly, remembering it’s all about the food, not the fancy decor.

Patatas Bravas
As it was getting close to the time that we needed to head to the airport, we ambled through a park, past Barcelona’s Arc de Triomf and via the Cathedral to the hotel before catching the bus to the airport.  It was then that we discovered that back home in the Netherlands, there was a blanket of mist waiting to greet us and that Schiphol was in chaos with flights cancelled and delayed left right and centre.

Lucky for us, we took off on time and were only delayed a little while circling at Schiphol, but spent half an hour taxiing to the terminal - the one runway that we always seem to land on is basically in Haarlem, although it feels like it’s in Alkmaar...  We were out of the plane, straight on a train, and then home tucked up in bed before 11.00 pm, ready to go to work first thing Monday morning!

What did I love about Barcelona?  Everything.  Although I only spent a very short amount of time there, I really felt at home and like I could have stayed and blended in immediately.  I loved all the buildings that I saw by Gaudi and wish that I had more exposure to it when I was younger, it is truly inspirational.

What didn’t I love about Barcelona?  Nothing.  It was spotless.  Never once did I feel like a target for pickpockets. The key is to be vigilant, but not over the top.  Just keep a hand on your bag and don’t look like an obvious tourist.  Those of you who wear a money belt and zip off trousers, I’m talking to you!

November is also a fabulous time to go.  The weather was still great (I could have worn shorts to be honest) and there are half the amount of people that visit during the summer season.  It’s the perfect off-season destination, but is Spain ever really off-season..?

Basically, I can’t wait to go back.  Can’t wait.

Have you been to Barcelona? What are your tips and what did you think of it? Did you love Gaudi as much as I do?

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