A Quick Jaunt to Barcelona Before the Holidays
I equate Barcelona with the words fun, merry and boisterous more than any other city I have ever visited. The tapas are endless—the cava and and tempranillo are cheap and ever-flowing—the locals are convivial and the streets are marinated in sunshine. I love everything about it. Every morning hints at the the promise of being one the most memorable days (into night) you'll ever have. Please refer back to my 2016 blog posts from my first trip to Barcelona if you need reassurance.
This time around, Barcelona served as a stop along the way to another destination, and I loathed having to abbreviate my time like that. Unfortunately my mom expected me home for Christmas and agreed to loan me the money to buy the ticket there. To save her (and my indebted self) money, it was cheaper to fly in to the U.S. out of Barcelona. I use "cheap" very loosely here because no matter what way you spin it, the cost getting home and back was steep.
Last time I traveled to Barcelona my friend and I stayed in a gorgeous Airbnb off of La Rambla. At the present moment, I am a solo traveller on a restrictive budget and it's hostel bunks all the way. I stayed in the Black Swan Hostel, sandwiched right between Arc de Triomf and Plaça de Catalunya, for two nights. Overall it was an enjoyable lodging experience. The staff was helpful, the whole establishment was clean and the dorms didn't smell like feet.
After seven hours on the bus, I was antsy to get checked in and stretch my legs. The weather was marvelous that weekend, Barcelona blessed me with temperatures in the mid 60s and sun every day. After a quick and peaceful pause at La Masala Cafe for a chai latte (who am I) and some fresh green juice, I was ready for the afternoon. Reinvigoration!!
Caffeinated and refreshed, I explored my ephemeral neighborhood. Though I wasn't at all far from La Rambla, Barcelona's boundless diversity gave this neck of the woods a completely different feel. I enjoyed the fact that I didn't feel like I was walking in a sea of discombobulated tourists, though I was still within walking (or a short metro ride) distance of nearly everything I wished to see.
Confession. Though I find all European cathedrals to be stunning and uniquely characteristic, most pale in comparison to Notre Dame in Paris. Just a personal opinion! But, the exception to that rule is the Catedral de Barcelona. Officially named The Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia—the cathedral dates back to the 13th and 15th centuries and is a dazzling example of gothic architecture. I"m in awe of the opulent facade, which gives way to dramatic arches and colorful stained glass.
At the moment the the gothic quarter is extra gussied up—boasting one of the city's many Christmas markets in right on the Avenida de la Catedral—in front of the cathedral. The Fira de Santa Llúcia is Barcelona's oldest and most iconic Christmas market. I was intrigued (and a little disappointed to be honest) that this market was strictly in the business of peddling artisan crafts, christmas trees and and traditional christmas instruments. I'm all for the authenticity but would a churro stand or two hurt anyone?
I take pride in my time management skills. I'm very adept when it comes to getting the most out of my experiences. Basically, I turn in to the Energizer Bunny when traveling and develop endless amounts of stamina and enthusiasm. Sometimes I don't realize my own effectiveness. But, returning to a city that previously visited has helped me to realize just how much I accomplished in the time I spent here three years ago.
The other side of that coin is the cool opportunity to be able to come back to a city and find the time to do the things you missed the first time around.
Daunted by the long, exhaustive line—I skipped the Museu Picasso my first time here. This time, I found that it's absolutely worth waiting it out in the snaking line. Honestly, the building alone is worth the line. The collections are ensconced in five connecting medieval mansions in la Ribera right off the Gothic Quarter. The museum hosts one of the most comprehensive Picasso collections in the world. There are over four thousand pieces of artwork. Museu Picasso was different than most other Picasso museums or exhibits that I've seen, the collection focused largely on his education, formative years and early steps as an artist. Once I got over the slight disappointment of walking in and not being visually bombarded by thousands of acclaimed pieces, I found the museum and its history to be excellent and comprehensive.
Spain and Barcelona are unique all-around incredible, but I'd be a dirty liar if I didn't admit that my favorite component of Spanish life and culture is the FOOD and the WINE. This infatuation could stem my first trip to Spain—or the six and a half years I spent waiting tables in a tapas restaurant—but I could sip on a fizzy glass of cava and feast on patatas bravas for a disconcerting amount of time without complaint. Armed with this self-evident knowledge, it was important to make my two day and limited amount of meal-time count. The first night I ambled in to La Xampanyeria from the Can Paixano cava makers (good luck with the pronunciation), an old school Barceloneta establishment dating back to 1969. Half tapas bar half cava bar, La Xampanyeria is a true hole-in-wall where you need to be exert a little gumption to find a place to stand, and use your best translation skills to decipher the Catalan only menu. But it's cheap and fun and wildly delicious.
I'm comfortable with most all aspects of solo traveling at this point, but places like La Xampenyeria are daunting to enter alone. It's lively, loud and crowded. Large groups divvy up endless plates of jamón and bottles of bubbly and couples lean in to each other over platters of lomo to simulate some form of intimacy in the cluster of merrymakers–but it's not a spot where you see many solo diners. This is especially so on a Friday night. BUT if there is one thing about myself I know to be true, it's that my self-consciousness will NOT keep me from a good meal. I drank two glasses of cava and devoured a jamón y camembert sandwich, olives de la casa and croquetes. It was a damn good meal only made better by the to-go chocolate con churros I unabashedly inhaled from Xurreria Laietana. If you don't need to undo the restrictive top button on your jeans by the end of the day in Barcelona—you're doing it wrong.
Something I love about living and traveling in Europe is the acceptability of basically eating dessert for breakfast. Seriously, get your self a buttery pastry, stuff it with some thick melted chocolate and don't you dare forget to steep it in powdered sugar. Couple that with an overly caffeinated espresso beverage and Europe will say, "there's breakfast." But I gluttonously love having an excuse turn my nose up at eggs and avocado in favor of carbs and coffee. I had a big day planned—and since my insomnia usually prevents me from sleeping in hostels (or ever really) I needed a morning shock to the system. I popped in to Giulietta Café for breakfast. A traditional pastelería, Giulietta specializes in pastries, cakes and all types of bread—they even have a hearty looking brunch menu for the morning eggs and bacon types. I satiated my sweet tooth with a powdered sugar dusted chocolate croissant and a frothy cappuccino. I told you—dessert for breakfast.
Okay, yes—back to the subject of my big day! I'm not a religious person and I try to avoid regrets, but there is a pilgrimage of sorts that I have always regretted not endeavoring during my first stay in Barcelona. Is that too dramatic? Maybe a little, but I was so excited for this. After working at a tapas restaurant for so long I've developed a taste for all that is Spain, but especially cava. Cava is Spanish sparkling wine. It's made the exact same way as French champagne but with different grapes—the three primary grapes are parellada, xarel-lo and macabeo if you're curious. Cava is dry, nutty and glittering with fine bubbles. I like to refer to it as is champagne's cheaper and more down-to-earth younger brother. Freixenet was one of the first cavas I ever tried and it was love at first sip. Cava is the effervescent drink of choice among my friends and I—my boyfriend and I got to know each other many years ago over one too many bottles of cava—and now a cold and sparkly glass is one of my favorite ways to end a long day.
Long story short—I toured the Freixenet cellars!! I was sorry to miss this gem the first time around, but my friend and I instead took a full day trip to Monserrat Mountain and the monastery, followed by a tour and tapas and wine tasting at the Oller del Mas winery. It took a whole day and a heavy chunk of change to accomplish that, but what an experience. Now, being the older and wiser traveler that I am, I realize there are ways to have the same incredible adventures without shelling out a hundred plus dollars for them. Rather than booking a third party tour group to get me to and from Freixenet, I booked the tour through the vineyard's website (12€) and bought tickets for the 48 minute R4 train from Barcelona into the Penedès Mountains at the station. Easy as that, and I spent maybe 25€ euro on something I'll obviously brag about forever. ***The big takeaway here is to vet your options before getting suckered in to paying an arm and a leg for an overpriced, guided tour. I am the first to say that there is always going to be a time when the guided day trips are WELL worth the money, but if you have the chance to do the damn thing yourself and spare your wallet, do it! The more cash you save on the tour itself, the more cash you can blow on bottles from the tasting room.
The tour itself began on the immaculate lawn and entry hall of the Freixenet bodega. The guides are cava savvy and the groups are small enough for an exclusive experience. We were ushered in to a small movie theater and watched a 15 minute informative film about the narrative of Freixenet's past and the global reach of its current empire. My biggest and most shocking takeaway from the film was that my friends and I have been pronouncing Freixenet wrong for six years and I'm aghast. Let's see if I can elucidate the details. What I have always said and heard is "free-shen-ay" and the correct pronunciation is in fact "fresh-in-net." What is life? The rest of the visit comprised of an lengthy jaunt through the cellars of the centuries-old winery. We started in some of the oldest parts of the bodega—made our way through multiple rooms of resting wines and even took an underground train through the cellars and impressive bottling factory. The whole experience is a melange of cava making tradition coupled with cutting-edge technology. As if that isn't enough, the hour and a half tour concludes with two free and generous pours of cava in the tasting room. I ended the experience buzzed on sparkles and purchasing a reservee bottle to haul home for the holidays. Honestly—the was the best 12€ I could have spent in Barcelona.
By the time my 48 minute train ride back in to Barcelona was finished and my buzz had worn off, the hunger set in. It was such a novice and uncharacteristic move of me to not bring snacks! But like I said earlier, my meal time and stomach space were limited so every morsel must count. I was on the prowl for the perfect plate of patatas bravas and blissfuly found them at Bar del Pla in the Born district—just a five minute walk from my hostel. Honestly, Black Swan Hostel was within walking distance of just about everything. The small tapas bar had an old-school, authentic vibe and the convivial crowds to prove it. I edged in to a corner spot at the bar—the place was packed and I was once again the only solo diner. But hey, the only real downside that I've found to dining alone is not being able to order and try as much food as I would be able to if I were with friends, or my bottomless pit of a boyfriend. Otherwise, it's all good. The winning items at Bar de Pla are obviously the bravas, whatever daily special they are serving and a great wine list. I continued to surf my morning cava wave by ordering a glass—and I ate pan con tomaté, the croqueta of the day and the most luscious plate of patatas bravas I've ever tasted. I also ordered a flan for dessert, whoops. When in Barca, right?