Barcelona: Where Old Meets New

Three friends meet in Barcelona for a long weekend in and around the city. If you're at all interested in great inexpensive food or Art Nouveau/Modernist architecture, this is the journal for you.


Barcelona: Where Old Meets New

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Truly Malin on June 28, 2001

One moment you're in a piazza in Rome; turn a corner, and you're strolling down a narrow cobblestoned alley in Strasbourg. Look up: the tiny apothecary shop with its windows full of ancient-looking remedies would fit right into a tony Paris residential neighborhood. Those intricate tile mosaics? Could just as easily be found in a post-colonial city in Mexico. And isn't that the McDonald's Golden Arches up ahead? Barcelona is an amalgam of everything we love (and hate!) about the new world and the old.

Spend some time wandering around the Passeig de Gracia and Las Ramblas, where the only thing more interesting than the shopping is the Art Nouveau architectural marvels scattered amongst newer buildings.

Climb the 400 steps of the Sagrada Familia cathedral and gaze down into a construction site unlike any other!

If you have children in tow, take them to the Zoo to meet Floquet de Neu (Snowflake), the world's only known albino gorilla.

Eat out just about anywhere. Order whatever you want and squeal with delight when your bill is about half what you'd expect in any major U.S. city for the same food.${QuickSuggestions} Pack layers. The temperature changed quite a bit during the April weekend we visited.

Bring reading. English-language bookstores are few and far between, and you'll want something to do during your siestas besides write travel journals in your Palm Pilot like I did!

A final note: The exchange rate to US Dollars was around 173 when I visited - it is now 196, making a trip to Barcelona even cheaper. Check the rates before you go - and don't go nuts buying travelers checks in your home town. There are plenty of ATMs scattered about which will accept your Mastercard or Visa, provided it has a 4-digit PIN, and give you cash at a favorable exchange rate.

${BestWay} Only TWA and Delta fly direct to Barcelona, but many other airlines fly direct to Madrid. It's only 45mn in the air from Madrid to Barcelona. Travelers coming from Europe may prefer this option. British Airways also flies direct from London Heathrow. The Metro is easy to use, inexpensive, safe, and clearly marked. I wouldn't hesitate to take advantage of it. Taxis are priced comparably to cabs in a large U.S. city like New York or Washington D.C., and can be flagged down on the street.


Hotel Arts Barcelona (Ritz Carlton)

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Truly Malin on June 28, 2001

There is simply no better way to recover from a grueling transatlantic flight (which included a change of planes and hour-long layover in an empty, closed-up airport in Madrid at 7am, thank you very much!) than checking into a Club room at the Hotel Arts in Barcelona. We were ushered up to the 33rd floor of this glass-and-metal high-rise, and greeted with ''what would you like to drink'' and ''which table would you like to sit at?'' while we checked in. Our drinks were brought to a cozy table overlooking a marina on the Mediterranean sea, and as we sipped our bracingly strong coffee and grazed at the buffet teeming with cheeses, cereals, pastries, and made-to-order strawberry pancakes, our bags were brought to our room.

The room itself was beautifully presented, with a red rose on the turned-down bed and muted classical music playing on a Bang & Olufson stereo. Checking into a hotel has never been so relaxing.

The Club Floor has its own restricted access lounge, with ocean and city views and a full-time concierge, not to mention five different daily buffets: breakfast, mid-morning snack, afternoon tea and cakes, pre-dinner tapas, and evening cocktails and chocolate - all served with an assortment of drinks, including unlimited Veuve Clicquot champagne. One need never leave the hotel - or pay for a meal, while staying in a Club Room.

The concierges, though unfailingly polite, occasionally disappointed. One offered to make us a 2pm lunch reservation, but called back to tell us that since 2pm was ''early'', a reservation would not be needed, and we could just show up. When we did, the restaurant was closed, with a sign outside stating that they only serve dinner.

Note: room rates depend on the season. Call ahead!

Hotel Arts Barcelona (Ritz Carlton)
Carrer de la Marina, 19-21
Barcelona, Spain
93-221-10-00

Agua

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by Truly Malin on June 28, 2001

Metro: Ciudadela

Recommended by a few friends and natives, this hip beachfront restaurant was mere minutes from our hotel. The boardwalk was undergoing some unsightly construction work, though, which lessened the effect of what must be a lovely view in summer. The tables were crowded with young, trendy-looking couples and groups, including one pink-haired local whose gender was a topic of idle speculation at our table for quite some time (until his male date showed up). Being on the beach and all, W and J decided to sample the seafood. I, being a vegetarian, prudently decided to stick to the usual vegetables and starches.

The menu was 100% Spanish - a relief from the incomprehensible Catalan, but still a challenge for our meager vocabularies. J went so far as to call her Spanish-speaking sister-in-law on her mobile for assistance with the menu. W chose a local fish that my Palm Pilot's Spanish dictionary described as 'hake' and Jeanne chose "cigalito", a word that was missing from the Palm. 'Cigalo', however, meant lobster, which was close enough. I ordered a risotto with 'various cheeses' and hoped none were too odoriferous.

When dinner arrived we were still snacking on some delightful salads and tapas. J looked down in horror at a quartet of crayfish, each one staring back up at her with beady little eyes. She refused to send it back -- determined, I suppose, to give it a fair chance. She stopped eating altogether when crayfish #2 was discovered to contain a black lumpy substance we believed to be its entrails. My risotto was quite good, although I must confess that I lost my appetite after an inadvertent viewing of crayfish #2's innards.

Agua
Passeig Marítim de la Barceloneta, 30
Barcelona, Spain, 08005
+34 93 2251272

Pla de la Garsa

Member Rating 2 out of 5 by Truly Malin on November 20, 2002

I'm not sure how this Catalan favorite acquired such a spotless reputation. Frommers' raves about its gastronomic marvels, and several close friends called it the best bargain in Barcelona. Even the cab driver who dropped us off waxed lyrical about the traditional regional specialties. He even admitted to wishing that he was joining us for dinner – and I don't even think he was trying to flirt with the two American ladies in his taxi!

Admittedly, the antique-filled interior set in a renovated 19th century stable has considerable charm. Set on a narrow and clearly ancient street, the building itself exudes European charm. Inside, the rickety metal spiral staircase leading up to the second floor was as delightfully dated as it was alarmingly precarious. The ladies room ("water closet" really would be a more accurate term in this case) was hunched into a corner of the building that obviously pre-dated plumbing. And perhaps most importantly, the preposterously inexpensive house rose (Flor de Raim, Conca de Barbera) did not disappoint. So far, so good.

But oh, dear ... the food! Perhaps Wendy and I just ordered the wrong things. Pla de la Garsa is known for their pate and vast selection of French cheeses, neither of which we sampled. But they are also famous for their beef bourgignonne, which Wendy ordered and could barely choke down three bites. It consisted of a school lunch room-style plastic bowl filled with chunks of greyish meat, swimming in a sauce containing more cooking grease than anything else. Our salad appetizers prominently featured canned vegetables and very little fresh lettuce, which is particularly shocking in a city where every meal we had eaten to date included bountiful heaps of just-picked lettuce and vibrant vegetables bursting with color and flavor. My raclette (fondue) was foul-smelling and dappled with pools of viscous-looking oil. Although the accompanying bread basket was piled high with tasty morsels of bread, I couldn’t bring myself to sample more than a few bites.

All of the above was served by waiters who would have looked more at home in a college dorm, right down to their ripped corduroys and long, greasy hair. Honestly, we would have had a better meal with more atmosphere at Medieval Times. I was surprised they even allowed us to use silverware! So if you’re looking for some authentic Catalan ambiance, have a walk by the building, but don’t go in unless you’re planning on having nothing but a cheese platter and a big carafe of rose!

Pla de la Garsa
Assaonadors 13
Barcelona, Spain
(93) 315-2413

Dining at the Hotel Arts

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Truly Malin on December 10, 2001

I'm not a fan of eating in hotels, preferring to go out and see the place I'm visiting. But even the most intrepid traveler gets tired sometimes and gives in to convenience. This entry describes two reasonable options at the Hotel Arts that are as good as any restaurant out on the street, yet won't break your budget.

Goyescas
Spanish – Tapas
We learned the hard way that dinner reservations must be made a day in advance in Barcelona on weekend nights. Having been shut out of our first choice for dinner, we opted instead to take the path of least resistance, and dine in the tapas bar at our hotel. Amazingly, we were not disappointed. The ambiance at Goyescas was friendly and bright, yet chic and sophisticated at the same time. The staff was attentive and spoke excellent English. The crowd included couples at intimate tables, families with small children, and large groups, all harmoniously seated together, somehow.

We sampled an array of typical tapas, including triangles of delicious fried cheese, pa amb tomaquet (a sort of sliced bread with tomato topping that is ubiquitous in tapas bars), patatas bravas (fries or potato chunks in a spicy tomato-ey sauce), and truita espanyola (translated as 'potato omelet', this is really more of a thick quiche.)

Bar Marina
Spanish – Seafood
As good as Goyescas was, we vowed not to skulk around the hotel eating in its five restaurants (which, although quite reasonable by New Yorker standards, are as overpriced as you would expect) -- until we stumbled upon the Bar Marina while investigating the hotel pool. It's a poolside grill with outdoor seating and a glorious view of the Mediterranean sea. Enormous, healthy-looking lobsters greet you as you walk by the grill, then a cool ocean breeze lures you to the simply appointed, lovely tables. We couldn't resist.

Salads were bountiful, fresh, and lightly dressed. Our grilled asparagus appetizer was heavenly, as were W.'s vegetable tortillas and my butternut squash and ricotta ravioli served in a basil butter with fresh, lightly salted spinach. J, however, was not as lucky. Once again heeding the siren song of the sea (and the grill), she ordered grilled shrimp. These arrived with heads, tails, tentacles, and eyes intact, to her complete horror. W, a less squeamish sort, charitably offered to behead and de-vein them for J - but even she had to stop when shrimp #3 squirted the contents of its stomach on her hand. Several napkins and hand-washings later, she was unable to get the stench off herself, and decided that the best course of action was to use her smelly fingers to terrorize J all afternoon.

Hotel Arts Dining
Carrer de la Marina, 19-21
Barcelona, Spain
34 93 221 1000

Negro

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Truly Malin on June 28, 2001

With an early departure for Montserrat looming in the morning, we decided to see just how early you can eat dinner in Barcelona without being hopelessly uncool. Our taxi pulled up outside Negro around 8:45pm and from the street, it looked closed. We wondered if the concierge had let us down but upon closer inspection, we saw movement inside and approached the door.

Inside was a minimalist's paradise: cool grey and blacks against a dramatic high ceiling and a few startled looking staff members clad all in white. I could almost imagine them shouting "Lock up your women and children!" as they stared at us as if we were bank robbers or desperados instead of tourists with an early deadline the next morning. They did get over their shock however, and seated us (their first customers of the night) in the center of the room. It was a full fifteen minutes before another person walked in.

As our dinner progressed, the spacious room gradually filled and we felt less ridiculous. In fact, our dinner was quite good. I started with a precariously stacked tower of lightly grilled vegetables, one more delicious than the next. My entrée was a creamy, cheesy risotto formed into a square on my plate. It was so rich and the olive oil so fruity that I quite forgot what my dinner companion ordered. I do remember, however, that when she returned from a trip to the ladies room she had an odd question: "If you went to the restrooms and you saw only a 'C' and a 'D' on the doors, which one would you pick?" I pondered for a moment and then said 'D', because 'C' is for 'caballeros' and 'D' must be for 'damas'. It turns out Wendy, whose French is much better than her Spanish, had assumed that 'C' stood for 'chicas' and had not noticed her mistake until she saw the urinals.

Dessert, by the way, was a bitter chocolate ice cream topped with an indescribably decadent sort of a candy brittle made from sugar and pignolia (pine) nuts, both homemade. Getting home was a challenge, as taxis are few and far between on Avenida Diagonal at night, but it was well worth the few blocks that we spent wandering around looking for a free cab.

Negro
Avenida Diagonal 640
Barcelona, Spain
(93) 405-9444

Museu de Picasso

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Truly Malin on June 28, 2001

This popular homage to one of Spain's most well-known artists was opened in 1963 by a good friend of Picasso's, who donated his personal collection. In 1968, Picasso himself expanded the size of the museum's inventory by donating early paintings. He also left many drawings to the museum in his will. Sprawling across three adjoining medieval buildings, containing some original stonework and intriguing bits of detail, the collection allows the viewer to meander through a wide range of the artist's styles and subjects, including selections as diverse as a cover for a restaurant menu, ceramic busts and studies, and several selections from the 44-pc Las Meninas collection (based on a Velasquez original). A much younger Picasso is also represented, with several works done as a teenager, including self-portraits. Be forewarned, however; signage is only in Catalan and Spanish, so bring a dictionary - or two!

Adult Admission 800 ptas ($4-5)

Picasso Museum (Museu Picasso)
Montcada, 15-19
Barcelona, Spain, 08003
+34 93 3196310

Parc Guell

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Truly Malin on June 28, 2001

Though there is surprisingly little of Gaudi's work in this urban park, his signature style seems omnipresent. The park was originally envisioned by Gaudi as a housing development, combining public spaces with 60 extravagantly styled houses. Only two houses were actually built before the city took over the project and turned it into today's public park.

The oft-photographed entrance contains most of what is worth seeing in the park. Here you will find the bulk of the exquisite tile and glass mosaic work, the colorful iguana fountain, and the wonderful open-air market with its slanted Doric columns pointing every which way. This area is invariably populated by musicians of some sort. It is worth hiking to the top, if only for the panoramic view of the city and the Mediterranean, but you will also huff and puff by some interesting arcades, buildings, railings, and other public and private areas along the way. All this walking might tire out younger children, so be prepared to rest or even bring a stroller.

By all means don't walk to the park unless you are training for the Olympics. If you don't want to spend the money on a taxi, the 24, 25, 31, and 74 buses all drop off there.

Phone 93-424-38-09

Park Guell (Parc Güell)
Montana Pelada, Gracia District
Barcelona, Catalonia

Parc Zoologic (Zoo)

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Truly Malin on June 28, 2001

One of the most offbeat attractions we visited was the Barcelona Zoo. It is home to an animal so unique, he may be the only one of his kind. Floquet de Neu (Snowflake) is his name, and he is the only albino gorilla ever seen - and certainly the only one ever captured. Taken while still a toddler from his home in in Africa, he has lived in Barcelona for over 30 years and has become something of a city mascot.

The Zoo was built in the 1950s and was considered revolutionary at the time because most of its inhabitants are not caged, but are kept in their respective areas by the use of moats. Floquet is not so lucky, and spends most of his time behind a plexiglass window with two of his many offspring. He is famous for his wide range of facial expressions, which are made all the more remarkable by the unusual pinkness of his skin. His unusual coloring and flamboyant personality are worth a visit, especially if you have kids in tow. Also in attendance was what appeared to be an albino peacock, although its existence is not nearly as well advertised. I didn't take any photos of Floquet; he is photographed more often than a supermodel and I thought he could use a break. Instead, I will direct you to a link where he is posing very prettily and making a great face! Gorilla Cheesecake

The zoo is located in the Parc de la Ciutadella, which also contains a truly splendid multi-story fountain on which Gaudi reputedly worked as a student. The fountain is flanked by two stone staircases leading up to what was once an aquarium.

Phone 93-225-67-80

Barcelona Zoo
Parc De La Ciutadella
Barcelona, Spain
34 932 256 780

Sagrada Familia

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Truly Malin on June 28, 2001

Possibly the most famous landmark in Barcelona, the Temple Sagrada Familia (Holy Family) is startlingly unique. Begun in the late 1800s and still under construction to this day, this Gaudi-designed cathedral astonishes the eye and the expectations. Approaching it from the street below, I thought it was at least a partially functioning church, but drawing close, I saw that after 100+ years, the interior is still quite unfinished and roofless. Antoni Gaudi died in 1926 in the 48th year of construction, and left little in the way of detailed blueprints behind. Thanks mostly to private donations, his vision is slowly being brought to fruition one spire at a time.

Eight of twelve massive bell towers have been built to date, each representing one of the 12 apostles. Each one is over 300 feet high and has 400 numbered steps, up which you are invited to walk if your legs can handle it! I made it to the top but could barely move the following day. The reward at the top is a stunning panoramic city view, as well as glimpses of the decorations adorning the exterior of the towers as you slowly ascend. If you decide to make the hike, don't get separated from your traveling companions like I did. My fellow tourist buddies sprinted ahead of me initially, then wimped out and turned back down via a crossing point between two towers. I consider myself lucky to have found them at the bottom after my grueling ascent.

Three of the four sides of the church feature elaborate façades representing the Nativity, Passion, Death, and Glory (unfinished). In addition to detailed mosaics and stained glass work, they also incorporate interesting flora and fauna, like the large turtle I found holding up a pillar. Some day I hope to return and see the central dome, which is still a gleam in some architect's eye ... More about the Sagrada Familia can be found at the official website:

Sagrada Familia Official Website

Adult Admission 850 ptes ($4-5)

La Sagrada Familia
Carrer de Mallorca, 401
Barcelona, Spain, 08013
+34 93 2073031

Half-day tour of Montserrat

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Truly Malin on June 28, 2001

This is an easy day trip, although the 9:30am departure seemed painfully early once we had grown accustomed to 10 or 11pm dinners. Our guide was meant to give the tour in English, but repeated everything in a passable Italian to accommodate an Italian couple. I noticed that while her accent was quite good, her vocabulary slipped a few notches when she wasn't reading from the prepared script. Her English was more heavily accented than her Italian, however, leading to moments of utter confusion when she would say things like "There is a George where they found the banana". It took us a while to translate that into "There is a church where they found the Madonna".

The trip to Montserrat takes 45 minutes, culminating in a dramatic drive up the mountain and arrival at the monastery proper. It is nestled into a cradle inside a semi-circle of outlandishly shaped cones and spires, smoothed into seamless curves by what was once a vast sea, or so the guide informed us. She gave equal time to the theory that angels built the mountain overnight.

Prominent among the monastery's sand-colored buildings is the Royal Basilica, which houses Montserrat's main claim to fame, a sculpture of a black Madonna and Child. The line forms outside the Basilica at about 11am, snaking through every nook and cranny of the Basilica (making for a sort of unguided tour of its mosaic work, fine marble, and religious art). A series of small signs reading "Silenci", "Silencio", "Schweigen", and finally "Silence" topped the door to each consecutive chapel that we passed through. Finally you are whisked past the statue, protected by glass except for a protruding golden globe that the Virgin holds out for the faithful to touch (or in the case of the nun behind me in line, to kiss) before being herded back out and into the alley beside the basilica.

We barely had time to discuss the health hazards of kissing the globe after hundreds of people had touched it, when we noticed that the choir had begun their daily performance back in the basilica. These 50 gifted boys are hand-picked from all over the country. They live at the monastery and are schooled in both music and other subjects by the 80 Benedictine monks. Aged 10-14, their schooling is paid for in equal parts by their parents, the monks, and the government. In return, they travel the world singing and performing as goodwill ambassadors for their native Spain.

Don't miss the ride up the funicular of Sant Joan (adults 975 pta), which rewards with a breathtaking view of the Pyrenees, the mountain range separating Spain from France. There are a few trails at the top of the mountain, so if you've got time, bring some lunch from the cafeteria down at the monastery and make an afternoon of it.

We were back in Barcelona by 2:30pm, still pondering what our guide meant by "The mummy at the monks' reunion"...

Muntanya de Montserrat
Monistrol de Montserrat
Muntanya de Montserrat, Spain
+34 93 8777777

Massages at the Hotel Arts

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Truly Malin on March 31, 2002

The Hotel Arts' fitness center overlooking their relaxing pool is a pleasure to be in. Amenities such as free bottled water make you feel pampered even while you're trying to burn off last night's paella. But the best part about it is the inexpensive yet skilled staff of massage therapists on duty.

9,000 pesetas ($45) is extremely reasonable for an hour-long full body massage in such refined surroundings. Mine was performed by a quiet, gracious blonde with strong hands that didn't seem capable of getting tired. I was so relaxed that I almost fell asleep. This is a great activity to plan for the day after you walk to the top of Parc Guell, or up all 300 stairs to the top of the Sagrada Familia (why couldn't someone have told me there was an elevator?!)

The only distraction was a cassette tape that ended in mid-song, then had to be rewound for what seemed like minutes while I lay there waiting for the massage to continue. As for my traveling companions? Jeanne felt that her masseuse could have rubbed harder, whereas Wendy's male masseur could have used a few English lessons - he asked if she "liked it hard"... Hmm.

Hotel Arts (Ritz Carlton)
Carrer de la Marina, 19-21
93-221-10-00

Massages at the Hotel Arts
Marina 19-21
Barcelona, Spain, 08005
34 93 221 1000

On the streets of Barcelona

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Truly Malin on January 31, 2002

Wandering through Barcelona, you never know what you’ll find...

Mercat de la Boqueria
Any stroll up the Ramblas should include a stop into this busy market. Although it sells mostly fruits, vegetables, and raw seafood, the wares are beautifully arranged and a feast for the eyes. Around every one of its twisty corridors is another shop filled with olives, pastries, fish, or fowl. Those whose eyes are bigger than their stomachs can feast on nuts, dried fruits, and candies by the kilo, or indulge in some goat’s milk cheese and fresh-baked bread for an afternoon snack. Don't be intimidated by a lack of Spanish or Catalan - you can accomplish a lot by pointing and smiling. This is one of those "only the locals know about it" kind of places. Most visitors to Barcelona walk right by the entrance, never noticing the teeming horde of native Barcelonians busily shopping for their dinners just steps from one of the most touristy streets in the city.

Passeig de Gracia
I suppose the Passeig de Gracia is an upscale version of Las Ramblas - as the Champs d'Elysee is to the Boulevard St. Michel. The usual pricey subjects such as Armani and Chanel were in attendance, as were what I can only guess are the European equivalents of Banana Republic and the Gap. We stopped in Mango, where I'd done well years ago in Paris, but found that everything was made of stiff-looking polyester. One of Spain's more notable clothing exports, Zara, disappointed also, with collections that seemed to be inspired by the military and by United airlines stewardesses, circa 1976. Occasionally, however, our grim attempt at shopping was pleasantly interrupted by a Modernist-style building, whose outlandish curves and colors outshone any of the curves and patterns we saw on the other pedestrians. The real reason to visit the Passeig de Gracia is the architecture, a topic on which many other guides have already waxed lyrical in other journals.

Sant Jordi's Day and a Glass of Cava
We had the blind luck or misfortune (depending on your perspective) to be in Barcelona on the Diada de Sant Jordi (St. George's day), or Lovers' Day (April 23). Local tradition has it that men must give their beloved a red rose and in return, women buy their man a book – although political correctness has set in over the years, making it acceptable, though less common, for women to give roses and vice versa. All day long, the streets are crowded with vendors selling individual roses in fancy wrappers, and tables overflowing with used or new books. This ends up being a very bad day to be looking for English-language books to read on the plane home, as we were. However, we stumbled upon a piece of Barcelona life that most tourists probably miss altogether, and it was fun to be given cava and roses while waiting on an endless bookstore line!

Cava, if you're curious, is the local equivalent of champagne, although it technically can't be labeled as champagne because it doesn't come from the Champagne region of France. Like so many other sparkling wines, it suffers from an inferiority complex that the local tourist board tries hard to conquer through canny advertising and low prices. The Penedes region, north of Barcelona, produces the best varieties, and you’ve probably even heard of Freixenet, the Rolls Royce of cavas.


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