Our Four Days in Eclectic but Gritty Barcelona

Port Vell Port Vell

Barcelona is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe, if not the world. This fact becomes evident as soon as you step off the train.  It is busy, bustling with tourists, even in the offseason.  My husband described Barcelona as gritty. Can the city made famous by Antoni Gaudi's La Sagrada Familia be fantastic, eclectic and gritty? 

Port Vell

The Ugly Side of Barcelona

As a tourist, there are some things you try to overlook when visiting a city. In Barcelona, you can't miss the graffiti. Is it street art or just plain vandalism? There are vendors everywhere selling cheap souvenirs. There are "gypsy" vendors, too, selling everything from shoes to key chains. It's hard not to compare this to Lyon, where there are few souvenir shops, and there are no gypsy vendors.

Sad to say, there are beggars everywhere, just like there are in France and America. However, they seem to be more aggressive in Barcelona. They make you want to wrap your arms around your purse. In Lyon, they are so polite that they greet their "SDF" (or sans domicile fixe), which is the French acronym for a homeless person. We see people speak kindly to the SDF on the street. My husband never fails to put a few coins in their cups to help a little.

Then, there is the constant warning about pickpockets. We hear it from friends and read it on the blogs. Even the locals warned us about hanging on to our bags. You have to be careful everywhere you go, of course, but some cities are worse than others. I will say, however, that despite the graffiti-ridden Sants area, it did not seem to be unsafe. But, you can't let your guard down.

You will see Catalonia flags everywhere. Friends, who used to live there, say that the fight for independence is real. Perhaps, Barcelona's grittiness comes from this conflict. This forced marriage with Spain has been going on for over 1000 years! 

Catalonia Square
Sants Train Station

The Favored Prize

Barcelona was considered a favored prize because of its location between the mountains of the Collserola and the Mediterranean. The kings of Spain fought very hard for Barcelona because it offered them the coastal route between Central Europe and the rest of the Iberian Peninsula.

In the early years, Barcelona was the dominant city compared to Madrid, which was virtually unknown. Without going into too much history, Barcelona and the region called Catalonia came into being in 988. It eventually became a part of Castilian Spain through a marriage of convenience between two royal lines. The alliance with Madrid was never smooth. The next several hundred years was about the Castilians trying to dominate and tame the very independent streak of the Catalonians. Finally, in the 17th century, Catalonia declared independence and went to war with Spain with the help of the French. When Napoleon fell, Barcelona signed a treaty with the English and the Genoans and started another fight. The war ended in 1714, with Catalonia falling to the Bourbon. Catalonia lost its autonomy, and the Catalan language banned.

Fast forward in time. Barcelona recovered to become a great city with the coming of the Industrial Revolution. It was awarded the 1888 World's Fair in recognition of its importance. The death of the dictator, Francisco Franco in 1975, liberated Barcelona from years of suppression. In the next several years, two events shaped Spain and Barcelona, i.e., the entry of Spain into the European Union in 1985 and the 1992 Olympics. These events ushered massive infrastructure and building improvements and renovations to bring it up to where it is today.

MNAC Sculpture

Trains, Hotels and Hop On Hop Off Buses

The train trip from Lyon took about five hours, which included several stops. From Lyon, the train went south to the Mediterranean coast of France, then turned west to Bordeau, then proceeded south to the coast of Spain to Barcelona. The train was a REF Spanish train which appeared to be new. Our first-class seats were comfortable. SNCF staff serviced the train while in France then changed to REF staff once entering Spain. You'll know the difference because the French serve coffee, tea, juices, and snacks in first class (for purchase) — no sign of a cafe con Leche or churros on the Spanish train. Going to Barcelona, we were able to get a direct TGV/REF train, but on the return, we had to change to the TGV in Nimes. We only had seven minutes to change trains in Nimes!

I chose an AC Hotel, which is a Marriott Hotel, by the Sants train station for the Marriott points. My original choice was my back up hotel brand, Citadinne-Ascott, which had a location on the famous Las Ramblas. No rooms were available at the time of my booking, but it opened up reservations the week before our departure. The AC turned out to be the right choice because of its location in the arrival section of Sants. The AC faced the taxi parking lot for Sants (Sants is "saints" in Catalan), so it was a short stroll to the hotel. All the black and white taxis looked like bees swarming around the station. This location had many restaurants along the main street and the side streets. The AC staff gave us many restaurant recommendations, which turned out to be excellent!
There are two "hop on hop off" bus operators in Barcelona. City Tour is one, and Bus Turistico is the other. You have to be sure to find the right bus stop for the right bus company. Luckily, Bus Turistico had a stop and a ticket booth in the Sants taxi parking lot. Since there were many tourist stops and three routes, we decided to buy a two-day pass and use it as a bus pass. With the traffic congestion, it took a long time to go from one stop to the next or to go on another route. But, we thought that this was our best alternative because we did not want to mess with the metro, given the "noise" about pickpockets.
La Sagrada de Familia

Day 1 - La Sagrada Familia  

We did not see everything we wanted to see in our three days in Barcelona. We saw a significant site on each day of our visit. On the first day on Bus Turistico, we made a round trip on the red route, which looped from Sants to the harbor. Once we got the "lay of the land," we transferred to the blue route, which took us to the La Sagrada Familia. We did not think of buying an advance pass for this site but, luckily, we got in just 30 minutes. The path from the ticket booth to the Basilica entrance and where to pick up the audio guides were a little confusing and lengthy. You had to leave the premises and re-enter via a separate entrance.

The Basilica was unique, eclectic, and beautiful. It was hard to remember that this was a church, a basilica no less. It was not a traditional church, which always cowers me (and most Catholics) into feeling guilty for my sins. The Basilica gave me that feeling of awe but not the guilt.

I thought that the statue of the Christ Jesus was impressive. It was hanging on what looked like a swing and a parasol.
Other figures of saints were very untraditional as well. There was one of St. George which looked like batman.
Antoni Gaudi started construction of La Sagrada Familia in 1883, and it is still under construction today. Private donations fund construction of the church. The completion year is 2026 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Gaudi's death.
The tour of La Sagrada Familia took most of the day. We stopped to have lunch. There were a lot more fast food places in Barcelona compared to Lyon. Like complete tourists, we ate at Taco Bell, for old times sake.
La Sagrada Familia - Christ Jesus
Statue of St. George

Day 2- The Ports

This morning, our first stop on the bus route was the Mercat, or Barcelona's version of Les Halles in France. It had the same interest level in terms of the local fare, fish, legumes, and meat. I could not resist buying a "lardon," which is Barcelona's version of pork rinds. Unlike your typical pork rinds, lardons look like little flat chips. It appeared to be less greasy than the "friton" (duck skin) or "graton" (pork rinds) in Lyon. An abundance of souvenir kiosks surrounds the Mercat selling pashminas, fans, and trinkets.

This is so unlike Lyon, where there are very few souvenir shops, and you rarely find souvenir items selling for under 20 Euros. Here, you can find stuff for 5 or 6 Euros.

The ports were the highlight of the day. It was one area that benefitted from infrastructure improved brought about by the 1992 Olympics. Once an industrial area filled with old factories, it is now a regenerated maritime showcase for the city. There are two sections to the area: Port Vell (earlier part) and Port Nou (new section). This area has a wide array of activities for tourists ranging from just watching the many yachts sail by or dock, or gazing at the Mediterranean. You can walk along the wooden promenades, and eat at many facilities or shop at the mall in Port Vell.

There are many museums and an Aquarium. The Picasso Museum and the Maritime Museum are notable. We took a 30-minute boat ride around the harbor to get a closer look at the boats and the yachts. My husband researched some of the huge yachts. You can rent a yacht for a million euros a week for yourself and 8 of your best friends!

We had a quick tapas lunch at a restaurant in Port Vell. I enjoyed the tapas and the paella, although I have had better tapas and paellas on previous trips to Spain. But, how can you complain about this beautiful sunny day, in a lovely restaurant sitting by a picture window gazing at the Mediterranean?

After lunch, we walked a short distance to Las Ramblas. You will know it by the palm tree-lined avenue. Las Ramblas looked a little gritty, and you automatically tightened your grip around your purse. We were continuously reminding each other to watch our bags or wallets. We hung around a little bit but decided it wasn't exciting enough, so we left for hot chocolate and churros before finding our bus. The Las Ramblas got more agreeable as we passed the high rent district, where we picked up our Bus Turistico.

One View of The Port
Placa de les Arenes
Church Betlem

Day 3 - MNAC  

We spent the final day at the MNAC or the Catalan National Museum of Art or the Palau Nacional. It located in the Olympic Ring area, which sits on one of two hills of the Montujuc. You will know the MNAC by its beautiful domed structure, which I thought was a church. The original building was built for the 1929 World Exposition, then expanded and completely renovated for the 1992 Olympics. From the front patio of the building, you will have a good view of Barcelona, the Christopher Columbus Monument, the Arene, and the palm trees of the Las Ramblas. 

We had to rush to see the Joan Miro museum, which closed at 2:00 PM (Sunday). The walking route was quite confusing, and we seemed to be walking in circles. I finally turned on my GPS (should have done that earlier) and rushed to make it. We made it 30 minutes to closing. With that short time left, they let us in for free.
Catalan Museum of Art or MNAC
Christopher Columbus Monument
Joan Miro Museum
Modern Art by Joan Miro

Final Day Rush - Parc Guell

We had the morning free before our return to Lyon. Our friend, Tom, said that Parc Guell is a must so, we grabbed a cab to get there. After being lucky at the La Sagrada Familia, we were not so fortunate with Parc Guell. They told us the next admission was at noon unless we had an advance pass. We ended up walking around the perimeter of the park, which had some exciting features. Parc Guell felt like an odd amusement park, so we could only imagine what it was like in the actual park. Gaudi has 19 buildings in Barcelona, altogether. Except for La Sagrada, we viewed most of the others from a distance on Bus Turistico. We have a perfect reason for a return trip to Barcelona!

Parc Guell
Gaudi's La Pedrera

I took advantage of the many Jamon serrano or Iberico and wine shops at the train station. I ended up buying a shopping bag full of ham, sausages, and sangria to take back to Lyon. I even bought myself a baguette with a Spanish tortilla for lunch on the train.

I hope you enjoyed reading about our trip to Barcelona. We have so many more trips planned in and around France and to other countries in the continent! If you'd like to read more about our bucket list trips, subscribe!
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Wednesday, 29 May 2024
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About the Author

I am a recent retiree, and have been taking advantage of my newfound freedom to travel the world. So far, travelled to over 55 countries on six continents, and I've set might sights on 30 more countries while I am still able.
This blog is my journal of the wonderful cities, less traveled, that should be on everyone's proverbial bucket list.
Happy Traipsing the Globe!