When I was abroad, we constantly had off from school for mysterious-sounding holidays. Like my friends back at Brown, we coincidentally had no class on Columbus Day (though on neither campus did we call it that). I assumed initially that our Spanish day off was for yet another Catholic occasion, but as it turned out, we too were celebrating Columbus Day! Just from a different perspective. Unlike the American holiday, the Spanish version is tied to a particular date and so it happened to fall on the Wednesday of our stay in Barcelona. The holiday had no major effect on us, save for a large number of school children everywhere reveling in their day off.
Having done a Gaudi warm-up the day before with his apartment buildings in L’Eixample, we were ready for Barcelona’s main attraction: Sagrada Familia. Sagrada Familia was intended to be Gaudi’s opus, a massive modern church for his beloved city. Construction began in 1883, but during the process Gaudi went bankrupt and died, leaving his church incomplete. Architects and historians have argued since about what the final product should look like, and though construction has been ongoing for the last decade, it is predicted that the church will not be finished until 2023. (The anticipated end date keeps getting pushed back. It’s like Barcelona’s version of the Second Avenue subway.)
Despite its cranes and scaffoldings, Sagrada Familia is the most visited site in Spain, and by 10 a.m. the line to enter stretched around the block. The inside is impressive, but the outside is really the must-see spectacle, so we walked around the block a few times, gazing up at the whimsical towers and controversial facades.
From Sagrada Familia we walked south about 10 blocks to do a drive-by of the building I lived in while I was abroad. Residencia Onix is an apartment building for students — no Spanish universities have dorms like in the U.S. — and so our hallways were filled with Americans and Spaniards alike. CASB uses a different building for its students now, but to me, Onix was home.
Just beyond Onix is one of the city’s landmarks and home to my once-upon-a-time Metro stop, the Arc de Triomf. Very similar in appearance to the Parisian arch, Barcelona’s version was built for the world exposition in 1888. As one of my books noted, the only triumph that the supposedly triumphant arch celebrated was an on-time completion.
The Arc sits at the top of one of the city’s biggest parks, Parc de la Ciutadella, home to my one-time attempt to learn to like running. Ciutadella was once the site of a military citadel — where it gets its name — but it now houses ample gardens and walking paths, a field of ping pong tables, Barcelona’s zoo and the Generalitat de Catalunya’s parliamentary building. At the center of the park is a massive fountain, decorated with traditional Roman chariots and fantastical water-spewing dragons, a testament to the mix of history and whimsy throughout the city.
Ciutadella is always crowded and was particularly so because of Wednesday’s holiday. Families lined the block to get into the zoo, runners in neon apparel filled the paths and mothers sat at the fountain-side cafe with strollers parked by the water.
We continued south of Ciutadella to the beach. Normally by October, Barcelona’s beaches are empty, but with no school and persistent 90-degree weather, bathers lined the waterfront. On our walk to the Mediterranean, we passed teenagers socializing on the boardwalk, old men playing dominos and more publicly displayed modern art than on Brown’s campus.
Clockwise from top left: Frank Gehry’s “Fish,” which overlooks the water from between the city’s two skyscrapers, Hotel Arts and the Mapfre office building; Antoni Llena’s “David i Goliath,” which was built for the 1992 Olympics; Rebecca Horn’s “Homenatge a la Barceloneta,” which was built to memorialize the oceanfront shops and restaurants destroyed for Olympics construction.
The old men playing cards under the boardwalk looked like they had been coming to the beach to do the very same thing for decades. One player saw our cameras and yelled out, in Catalan, “Take pictures! No charge!”
From the steamy beach, we walked up the Barceloneta boardwalk, a touristy strip lined with paella restaurants and parked cruise ships. Barcelona is an enormous port for passenger vessels bound for the Mediterranean’s waters; my entire flight from New York was filled with cruise passengers. The scenic beaches are broken up by industrial docks and vestiges from the 1992 Olympics, which makes parts of the waterfront less than ideal for sunbathing. Still, the mild waters provide great relief on a record-setting hot day.
We walked inland fron the shores to la Ribera, a neighborhood also known as the Born and renowned for its food and art. Both categories were on the agenda, but after our long sweeping walk, lunch would have to come first.
We paid a visit to El Xampaneyet, an example of the old world charm of tapas bars. Packed with people, the bar is a total free-for-all. You grab whatever table or inch of bar space that you can and just start pointing at food, all of which is displayed on top of the bar. We fought our way to a little table in the middle of the action and the food just started flowing: red peppers stuffed with tuna, spicy marinated olives, tortilla española, a traditional omelette made of potatoes and onions, pan con tomate, sundried tomatoes, manchego cheese and peppers stuffed with soft cheese. I washed down my tapas with a glass of cava, sparkling wine made in Spain.
Lunch was delicious, but eating at El Xampanyet was as much about the experience as the food.
After lunch, Jessica paid a visit to the Picasso museum, which is housed in a series of old houses down the street from El Xampanyet. I’ve seen the art in the native Barcelonian’s museum a few times before, so I decided to go for a walk around the Born instead.
I should have expected it because of the combination of siesta and holiday, but nearly everything was closed. But as I wove my way through the Born and circled several of the surrounding neighborhoods, it gave me a chance to people-watch and eavesdrop. Everyone in Barcelona speaks Spanish, but Catalan is the city’s lifeblood. After the Franco-era ban was lifted, locals returned to speaking their native tongue, and today, it is the language of choice among many young people. Catalan is a close relative of the other regional romance languages; as one of my friends once put it, Catalan was born the bastard child of Spanish and French, dropped on its head in an Italian hospital. It’s not quite as phonetic as Spanish, which makes the accent tricky, but when written, it bears many similarities.
Many people are critical of Barcelona as a study-abroad choice because of the almost secondary place of the Spanish language. But I disagree. All of my classes were conducted in Spanish and the castellano of most people in the city is fairly unaccented, as compared to people in Sevilla or South America. I had ample opportunities to practice my written and verbal comprehension of the language. Plus, as a two-for-the-price-of-one bargain, I learned Catalan. My speaking abilities are atrocious, but I was shocked at what I had retained from a comprehension perspective, thus validating the placement of “conversational Catalan” as a skill on my resume.
Jessica and I reconnected and continued our walk around the city. Down the block from the Picasso Museum is one of the city’s more beautiful churches, Santa Maria del Mar. In contrast to the church’s Gothic style, a nearby modern sculpture commemorates those who fought for the Catalan constitution in 1714. (It’s hard to let go.)
We walked down to the water in time to see the sun beginning to set over Roy Lichtenstein’s “Barcelona Head,” a fun pop art sculpture that rises above the waterfront buildings. Down the block from the “Head” is a sculpture of the man of the day, Cristóbal Colón, as he is known in Spain, pointing out to the sea.
For dinner we headed up to Gracia, the neighborhood north of L’Eixample. Gracia is quieter and more filled with locals than other parts of the city. The neighborhood is dotted with squares that are filled with bars and restaurants. One of its more well-known streets, Carrer Verdi, is tree-lined and closed to cars. The street is filled with young people, filtering in and out of restaurants of all different world cuisines.
We chose a Lebanese restaurant and sampled the muhammara, a dip made from red peppers and walnuts, a salad and musakaa, a dish of sauteed eggplant, pepper and chickpeas.
Yet another delightful, delicious day.