I was last in Barcelona in 1972 when the dictator Franco was still alive.  Ellen had never been there.  In trying to get to our friend, Birgit's 50th birthday in St. Tropez (or to Nice Airport) from Singapore, we found you had to one stop someplace else.  The list was long:  Dubai, Istanbul, Frankfurt, Munich, Zurich, Paris, London, etc. etc.   When we saw Barcelona as a stop off option, Hola!  We jumped at the chance.

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Barcelona is an ancient city, founded by the Romans over 2,000 years ago, and has always been a hub of trading and manufacturing.  Even today it is the headquarters of most car manufacturing in Spain and is a major arts, science and technology center.  But, we’re not here just for the history; it’s the shopping, the spectacular architecture and, above all else, the amazing food that draws us in.

After scouring the web we decide on The Neri Hotel in the ‘Barri Gotic’, the Gothic Quarter.  Deep in the ancient part of town, it is all narrow stone alleys leading to gorgeous squares; usually with a huge, old tree in the middle.  However, it isn’t all real, or at least, really old.  Leading up to the International Exhibition of 1929 the city Fathers supplemented the old town with newly created Neo Gothic structures and did so all the way into the 60’s.  Still, it all looks old to me.  The walls of the Placas Sant Felip Neri are still pockmarked with bullet holes from when the Republicans made their last stand here against Franco’s Nationalists in January of 1939.

El Mercat de la Boqueria

We begin with a walk to La Rambla, the tree lined central corridor where I stayed in 1972.  It’s more like the old Times Square now, full of buskers, tourists and pickpockets.  But, if you follow your map you can avoid most all of it and enter just across the street from El Mercat de la Boqueria, the main public market.  There has been a market of sorts here since 1217 when La Rambla was a sewage-filled stream bed.  Centuries later, the stream was diverted and the market was officially recognized in 1826.  It isn’t huge but it is simply packed with good stuff.  The fish market is in the center and all around the outside are tapas bars.  The best we found was ‘El Quim’ where you plunk yourself on a stool and pick from the amazing food on the counter in front of you.  There is an English menu and once you’ve had their oxtail risotto you will come back.  We did, three times.

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Time to tour!  We have found, in these old European cities, a great way to see the town is the hop on hop off Big Red open top buses.  We pick it up at the Placas de Catalunya square and quickly hop off to tour Antoni Gaudi’s famous La Perdela house.  Barcelona is Gaudi’s town. His unique architecture is unmistakable and a visual feast.  La Perdela was conceived as a 20-unit apartment in two buildings with a central atrium.  Over the decades it was everything from residences to offices of an insurance company until taken up and renovated by the city in the 90’s.  At first it just seems weird; the constant curves so foreign to the eye but, as you wander listening to the audio provided you begin to feel the warmth of design, the depth of color and his incredible sense of detail.

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Gaudi - Hopping back on the bus takes us to ‘Sagrada Familia’, the gothic church where Gaudi commenced construction in 1892 and, unbelievably since he died in 1926, won’t be completed until 2026.  Knowing the structure would only be 15-20% complete on his death, Gaudi left detailed drawings for future architects and builders to interpret.  You can’t compare this to any other religious building in Europe.  It’s almost psychedelic with its faux forest tree arches and the way it fills the vast 250-foot tall space with light.  The exterior is more Disney castle than cathedral with extraordinary detail everywhere you look.  Always intended to be as big as a cathedral even if isn’t one as it is not the seat of a Bishop.  Now, a century of architects have weighed in with some strong opinions.  Some call it the most creative structure ever built, others an abomination of tasteless excess.  You decide.  We loved it!

We pick up the Big Red Bus again and cruise up into the hills above the main city, an area of gorgeous homes and sleek condominiums; then down the other side to pay homage to the beating heart of Barcelona - the FC Barcelona football club.  Their compound is an industry to itself.  Anchored by the largest football stadium in Europe, the 100,000 seat Camp Nou, there are facilities for all kinds of FC teams from football, to hockey, to handball, to basketball.  It is the one stop where ALL the bus people get out for souvenirs or the faint hope of seeing Lionel Messi.

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The Cerveceria de Catalana

After 5 hours jumping on and off the bus we give in to all the delicious smells that lunchtime in Barcelona provides as you drive through the different neighborhoods.  We pick ‘The Cerveceria de Catalana’, a hectic, overcrowded spot a short walk from the central square.  When a table comes available on the tiny patio we grab it.  That begins an all afternoon eating and drinking fest that includes their tapas sized paella, their pasta, their fish, their salads, etc.

The wine is crisp and ice cold but it is their version of Sangria that overwhelms us.  We think it begins with Cava, the Spanish prosecco.  Then, we can taste fresh orange juice with sliced limes and lemons followed by a bit of red; pomegranate we think.  Whatever, it’s addictive and we have two pitchers, or was it three?  In the end our bill comes to just 39 euros.  We could not possibly eat another thing and another drink is even more out of the question.  It is the bargain meal of our entire trip.

We come to our last day before departing for Nice.  We’ve heard of a place that has been making Espadrilles since 1939; called ‘La Manual de Alpargatera’ it’s just six short blocks off La Rambla. Here you enter a world clinging nicely to the past.  The smell of old rope and canvas fills the room. The Spanish love their espadrilles and come for new ones every year, custom made.  Easy to pack flat, we stock up for ourselves and friends and head to the beach.

 La Barceloneta Beach

La Barceloneta Beach

La Barceloneta

La Barceloneta is one of seven beaches and the busiest I would think.  We are searching for paella and have heard of a little place called ‘Con Mayo’ that people rave about.  Finally, after several misses we find it and it’s worth wandering about in the heat for an hour.  As usual the wine is crisp and cold but in this place it’s the salad that is the real prize; gorgeous tomatoes, onions and greens, a few olives, sweet sunflower seeds, a carved carrot and a dressing that has a citrus tang. We inhale one and have another.  Their paella is different and given it’s about the same everywhere, that’s good.  It is dark and smoky, full of mushrooms and fresh seafood.  The flavor is off the chart but, it’s so special I doubt the normal version will ever taste as good.  We then head to the end of this beach to the imposing, new ‘W’ hotel.  We like ‘W’s and have stayed in a lot of them over the world.  This one is pretty fantastic, right on the water with glam pools, chic restaurants and bars galore.

 Best salad we've ever had

Best salad we've ever had

And then it’s over and we are off to Nice.  We loved Barcelona.  The food, the wonderful architecture and the low prices are a big draw.  We realize the Spanish economy is a mess but there isn’t a lot of evidence of that until night falls.  Then, in the Old Quarter, you see hundreds of young people rolling out sleeping bags to sleep in the courtyards and little plazas.  It isn’t the homeless types you’ve come to expect.  It’s both the young and old who are suffering in Spain and it isn’t getting any better.  The unemployment rate just hit 27% in June of 2013 and is rising every month. That is over 6 million unemployed, more than the population of Denmark.

You can feel guilty about that or visit this lovely city and leave a few euros behind.

Update 2013:  Nothing more to say.  A wonderful town, great architecture, inexpensive shopping and, above all, amazing food.  Shame about their economy and the unemployment numbers are staggering but, makes for a bargain trip and hopefully, every euro you leave behind helps a bit.