Our roving retirement has finally gotten back on track in Barcelona Spain. Our plan was always to drive down the eastern coast of Spain and back up the western coast of Portugal. But before we think about anything else, we spend time absorbing Barcelona a city that neither of us has been to before.
Preparing for Our Flights
I’m sure it comes as no surprise that international travel these days is fraught with uncertainty. In early May, we chose to book a flight to Spain for July. Americans were not welcome in Europe at the time, but I could see airfares were rising as like-minded travel hounds were betting that the desire for tourist dollars would open things up in Spain in time. Happily, Spain opened in early June, so our bet paid off.
Even so, there was and still is an ever-evolving set of requirements for Americans entering Europe. Spain recently dropped almost all restrictions if you are coming from the US. You don’t even need a test to get here. A little frightening, actually.
The only requirement today is that you fill out an online health form confirming that you don’t feel sick and where you will be staying immediately after arrival. Once you complete the form, you get a QR code to show to whoever cares to see it.
Flight to Frankfurt
Our first flight was a red-eye from SFO to Frankfurt on United. Checking in was a little hairy, resurfacing the trauma of our last Europe-bound flight. Because United had changed our reservation eight or nine times since we booked 2 months earlier, our connection to Barcelona had been dropped. It took an extra 30 minutes waiting at the check-in counter for the United agent to get things straightened out. Finally, we had seats and could check our luggage all the way through to Barcelona.
The flight was better than expected. United was serving French wine where we were in the front of the bus. The food was not up to pre-pandemic Biz class standards, but the food, liquor, and service were the best we have seen since the beginning of the pandemic. We don’t fly for the food, but the lie-flat seats for stretching out are a must.
Flight to Barcelona
Our flight to Frankfurt arrived 30 minutes early, so we had to deplane on the tarmac and take a bus into the terminal. I’ve grown used to this in Europe, but it is a bit annoying. Off the bus, we walked a fair distance to Immigration and made up for the early arrival with a 30-minute wait. We presented our passports and vaccine cards and were quickly waved through. After a fairly long walk to another terminal, we settled into a couple of hours’ wait in the crowded Lufthansa lounge. The gate area was pretty dismal, so I was happy about the lounge access.
The actual flight to Barcelona was surprising. We had booked on a United code-share operated by Lufthansa, in typical crappy Euro-biz class, which is basically where you sit in an economy class seat with the middle seat turned into a table and they serve you food. What we got was a flight under Air Dolomiti, a subsidiary of Lufthansa. The actual airplane and crew were operated by Eurowings, another Lufthansa subsidiary. The plane they selected for the 2-hour flight had lie-flat seats in business class and they served a meal, too! Diana didn’t even know what airline we were on because the only thing that said: “Air Dolomiti” were the Covid wipes. Strange days.
Hotel on Las Ramblas
We chose to stay at the Royal Ramblas Hotel on Las Ramblas, one of the main drags because it was near the marina and the Gothic Quarter and had easy access to the Metro at Placa de Catalunya and nearby Placa de Espana. We settled in for our weeklong stay in a decent room, which had a view of the wide pedestrian median on Las Ramblas. Our location made for interesting people watching.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect was the breakfast buffet. For safety, all guests were required to get their temperature taken upon arrival for breakfast and wear plastic foodservice gloves to use the buffet. However, almost everyone neglected the gloves when they returned for seconds. The service felt a lot more natural than the bagels individually sealed in plastic we’ve been getting at US hotels.
We spent lots of time wandering the Ramblas, El Born, and Gothic neighborhoods. The streets were crowded with many people wearing masks. The Covid case rates here in Spain are rising and people seem to be taking the hygiene rules seriously. Even with the masks, Covid hasn’t cooled the warm Spanish vibe. There are lots of young people on the streets which helps give a vibrant impression of the town.
We usually use Google Maps to look at the restaurant ratings before we decide where to go for lunch or dinner. That works pretty well in the US but it was a giant fail in Barcelona. The first three places we went to were locked up tight even though Google said they were open. There is also a famous chef who has closed all but one of his Michelin-rated restaurants since the pandemic. It was unclear whether any of these places would reopen anytime in the future. I do hope Barcelona recovers from the pandemic. That said, there are still lots of restaurants/cafes open with tables and chairs sitting in quaint plaças (plazas).
There is no point in having a car in the city, so we took public transportation in the form of the subway, buses, and funiculars. Using the subway in Barcelona was really simple, especially compared to Mexico City. The Barcelona system is very similar to the Paris system so the directions were pretty easy and the Google directions were easy to follow. The machines don’t talk to you like the ticket machines in Tokyo but it wasn’t difficult to figure out since the machines give you the option for English. The tickets work for the subway and the buses. A subway worker even recommended the 8 ride family ticket to save us a little money.
Barcelona Architecture Airbnb Tour
We opted for an Airbnb Experiences tour to learn more about Gaudi. Our guide, Christian, started the tour at Casa Mila, one of the famous homes designed by Gaudi. He explained how representing nature was a driving force in Gaudi’s motifs, which is very evident in the style of the exterior of the home. Gaudi was also into the reuse of material so each artistic metal balcony railing is made from reclaimed metal and they are all different.
Not far away is the Block of Discord, where a few strongly stylized houses clash with each other. The first home we saw was Casa Batllo by Gaudi, which has a colorful exterior evoking images of the sea and the roof looks like a dragon. In this case, the patron was also fond of medieval knights. You can see a sword depicted on the left and a single white rose in the form of the Juliette balcony in the middle.
Next to Casa Batllo is Casa Amatller, created by Josep Puig i Cadafalch in 1900 for a wealthy chocolatier. The exterior has ornate iron and stone artwork and a stamped cement façade. We were encouraged to return for a tour inside, to see the period furniture. We did pick up some family-produced chocolate at the store inside, which is situated in the original kitchen of the home. Overall, the walking tour got us oriented in the city and we learned a lot about the history and Modernism movement in design around the turn of the 20th century.
The final stop on our walking tour took us to the Palau de la Música Catalana, a Moderniste concert hall created by Lluís Domènech i Montaner in 1908. It is difficult to get the full measure of the building exterior because it is on a narrow street. Rather than taking a tour inside, we chose to get the full measure of the interior by buying tickets for a Flamenco guitar and dance performance that night. Score!
The program for the evening was 90 minutes of flamenco guitar including several passionate dances. The music and dance were expertly performed in the beautifully restored theatre. Ironically, the highlight for me was the encore, which included all 3 guitarists and the drummer playing “Billie Jean” simultaneously on a single guitar. Fantastic!
Who’s your favorite architect?