We left Gatwick early on a Wednesday morning, after opting to stay overnight in an airport hotel – an option we had previously thought of as a potentially unnecessary luxury, but we soon discovered that waking up at 4am for a quick commute to the airport is a world away from waking up at 2am for a long drive. After what seemed like a matter of minutes (I will admit I napped for most of the flight) our plane was circling Barcelona, and we stepped out into glorious weather that promised the afternoon would be a scorcher.
We were a bit unsure about how easy the metro would be, so we opted to splash out on a taxi to our hotel on the outskirts of the city, seeing as we would have our bags with us, and in no time at all we were padding across the air-conditioned foyer to check in.
With only three days (Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and an early flight home Saturday morning) to see everything this city had to offer, we knew we needed to plan every moment of our holiday in Barcelona wisely.
Our hotel was located a two minute walk from a metro station, and before long we were sitting on a blissfully air-conditioned train speeding underground towards Las Ramblas, the long boulevard that cuts through the heart of the city towards the harbour. Shaded for the most part by the leafy limbs of trees, it offers a pleasant respite from the midday heat, and whilst there were plenty of people out and about, both tourists and locals, it never felt too packed. There are plenty of interesting things to see along the way too, from the fascinating, ornate facades of the buildings lining the avenue to the stalls selling prettily fragranced flowers and intricately patterned fold-out fans. We walked over a piece of famous art – a Joan Miró circle crafted from black, white and coloured tiles – past human statues eerily frozen in place, their faces completely painted various shades of silver, green and gold, moving only in response to a Euro or two placed in their hat, and we stopped at the famous food market… which, unbeknownst to us, is closed on Wednesdays. After stopping for a dish of pintxos – bitesized morsels on crusty bread – and paella at a cafe instead, we made our way back the way we’d come, side-stepping the enthusiastic men selling selfie sticks and whistles that made shrill sounds like birds trilling in the leaves overhead.
We rose early the next day, excited about the day’s itinerary, and were soon hopping aboard a metro destined for Sagrada Familia, the huge, still unfinished, church that came from the deepest, darkest recesses of Modernist architect Gaudi’s brain. I was particularly excited about seeing the church in all its glory – because building work is constantly going on, you never know what state of completion it will be in when you visit. We climbed up the stairs out of the metro station on to the street and glanced around, expecting to have to walk for a while before we even saw the unmistakable spires peeking out from behind other buildings, so it was a bit of a shock to turn around and find them towering over us. I was reminded of the various descriptions I’d had from people after their own sightseeing trip to Barcelona: an upside-down ice cream cone dropped from a great height, with melting globules of chocolate ice cream dripping down the walls; a giant anthill rising organically from the city; a fevered dream brought on by too much cheese late at night; a monstrous church organ, built for giants… it was all these and much more. From one angle, a staircase of half-finished white pillars stands out against the grey-brown stone behind out, from another Jesus, Mary and Joseph await the visit of the three kings. Striking, yes; majestic, certainly – but beautiful? I wasn’t sure. We ummed and ahhed about paying the extra 15 Euros to go inside – would the interior be much the same as the at times terrifying exterior: dark and chaotic? We finally decided we couldn’t get this far and not see inside, so we dutifully purchased our tickets and joined the winding queue to gain entry. And once through the massive double doors, I was so glad we made the effort. On the other side of the manic façade was a true oasis of peace and serenity. If the outside was a giant anthill the inside was a forest, with smooth pillars made of a light coloured stone reaching up to the ceiling like elegant tree trunks disappearing into clouds. The stained glass windows, installed in 2009, let in shafts of rainbow coloured sunlight that fell gracefully on the throngs people milling around in quiet reverence. I was completely unprepared, and I’m not sure I have ever seen anything else quite so beautiful.
After Sagrada Familia, there’s really only one place you can visit next – and that’s Gaudi’s Parc Guell. Perched high above the city, it took a bit of breathless walking through uphill streets to get there, but the views were definitely worth the exertion. We climbed up to a viewpoint that looks over the entirety of Barcelona – Sagrada Familia and the ever-present cranes moving around it, the green line of Las Ramblas, and far in the distance our hotel and beyond it, the sea. That night we treated ourselves to authentic tapas; flakes of smoked tuna and prawns so fresh you were able to eat them whole, head and all (I managed it but my companion couldn’t quite face it, and I’m not sure I’d be able to do it again), meatballs and patatas bravas.
The next day – our last full day – we once again made for Las Ramblas, this time determined to go to the food market. To our joy, it was open, and packed with people weighing nuts, portioning out prawns, squeezing oranges, taking money and doling out change. Our plan was to eat here for lunch, stopping wherever caught our eye; my companion enjoyed a paper cup filled with spicy chorizo and smoked cheese, and a spinach pastry, and I had a pepper salad with fat prawns and a slice of the popular crusty bread covered in fresh tomatoes and oil (a specialty of the city, we discovered, and all the more delicious for its simplicity). Suitably sated, we made our way through the cool, winding cobbled backstreets to the Picasso museum, where we spent a few hours wandering around admiring the great man’s early work. After one last stop at Barcelona’s heaving sandy beach we returned to the hotel, tired but very happy with our experiences of the city.
The next morning we took a taxi back to the airport, and were soon winging our way back to the UK, slightly tanned and seriously considering booking another holiday to Barcelona for next year…