BarcelonaAuthor: Gordon T. (More Trip Reviews by Gordon T.)
Date of Trip: July 2010
I went to Barcelona with a friend in June 2010. I was very impressed with Barcelona, and intend to return. It was an interesting and beautiful city, lots to see and do, I enjoyed the beach the best. But it was not all beach weather, there were some rainy days. Every visitor to Barcelona makes for La Rambla, the main thorough-fare in the centre, but I was not impressed with it, though it was a lot safer, and less seedy at night, than I had anticipated. There is a lot more to Barcelona than La Rambla, and if you intend to make it the centre-piece of your visit, you will be disappointed.
Travel from Aberdeen by Air France was OK, but I would take a direct flight next time. We had to change planes at CDG, both going and returning, and we found having to go through security again a real pain. CDG security was strict, I had to take off not only my jacket but my shoes and belt as well. I live in Aberdeen, and it was great not to have to travel to a distant airport to fly, but in retrospect it would have been worth travelling to Edinburgh or Glasgow (or even Newcastle or Manchester) to get a direct flight and avoid the hassle of changing mid-trip. Air France were excellent though, no problems with on-line check-in, baggage drop-off, and baggage retrieval at journey's end.
On arrival at Barcelona, we decided to take a taxi to our hotel, as it was our first visit, and we were not familiar with the city and alternative transports. There was no difficulty with the taxi, but I thought it was expensive at Euros 40, to just a mile or so east of the city centre. There was a charge for each suitcase, Euros 3.50 I think. Now I know the city, in future I would take the bus service from the airport to Placa de Catalunya, the square in the centre of the city, then take the metro.
Our hotel was excellent. The trip (flight & hotel) were booked on Expedia, and there was no difficulty at all. The hotel was the Confortel Barcelona, and it was big, modern, and clean. There was no difficulty with checking-in, or indeed any aspect of our stay there. Our room was quite big, en-suite, and we were delighted with it. It had a safe, and a small fridge, in which the chambermaids would put six free bottles of water every day. The hotel was in a very quiet area, and there was no noise at all at night, not even traffic noise. We did not eat at the hotel, as we thought the charge for breakfast (Euros 15) was high, and there were many places for breakfast a short walk away. I recommend the hotel unreservedly, though as I say we did not eat there. The Confortel was right next to La Rambla de Poblenou, a street of cafes, bars, restaurants, banks, & shops. This was not a "touristy" area but we ate and drank there a lot and found it to be excellent. We unfailingly encountered good service, good food and drink, and reasonable prices.
I recommend a cafe called Bracafe, as it was a Brazilian coffee bar, where service was friendly and the earl grey tea excellent. The hotel was about a mile or so from the city centre, so travel necessitated the metro, and taxis back at night. The metro was excellent, there was no difficulty in using it. The nearest metro station to the Confortel was Llacuna, which was an easy five-minute walk away. Tickets were purchased from machines at the stations, the machines were invariably in good order. Travel on the metro was very cheap, it was Euros 1.40 per trip, though tourists would be better to but a T-10 ticket, which allows 10 trips, and cost less than Euros 8, also purchased at the machines at the stations. We never waited more than 3-4 minutes for a train. It was never too crowded, and seemed perfectly safe. I believe the metro stops at midnight on weekdays, and at 2am on Friday and Saturday.
What of Barcelona itself ? Well, I start with the beaches. There were quiet beaches near our hotel, called Bogatell, and Mar Bella, and though these were fine, the main beach by far is Barceloneta. There is a metro stop called Barceloneta, and a walk of about half-a-mile to the busiest part of the beach, this is a pleasant walk, you can go along beside the harbour with all the restaurants facing it, or cut through the Barceloneta area itself, full of narrow streets but lots of cafes and bars as well. The beach is clean, tidy, & safe, with good facilities, there are excellent cafe bars, and toilets. There are loungers, with parasols, which you can rent for Euros 8.50 per day, just sit on them and the attendant will come soon to collect your money. This beach on sunny days was busy, but not overly so. The sea, however, was rather cold, I did not try it myself, but saw many recoil in shock when they dipped their toes.
One thing that some may find annoying, the beach was frequented with hawkers, there were many of them but they were not persistent, once you said "no" they would quickly move on. There were also Thai ladies offering massage, we tried this and it was excellent, Euros 5 for the top half, and another Euros 5 for the legs and feet. Beach etiquette ? Well, I did observe that most ladies at Barceloneta were not topless. There were, however, 1 or 2 completely naked men, some were upset by this but we heard the waitresses at the cafes say it was permitted. I believe the beaches to the east are more frequented by those wishing to be nude. Overall, I greatly enjoyed Barceloneta beach, and I wish there had been more sunny days on our trip so we could have gone there more.
Sight-seeing -- I am not a great fan of sight-seeing but Barcelona was impressive in this respect. I recommend the city bus tours, there are two companies offering much the same service. The one we used offered two routes, through the west of the city, and the east, and you could hop on/hop off and change from one tour to the other, where they overlapped , as much as you wanted for your day ticket of Euros 22. There were headphone sockets on the buses, where you could plug-in and listen to tour commentaries in various languages, but I found the commentary boring. It was a great way, however, of seeing the city.
We went firstly on the west tour, which took in, amongst others, Montjuic (the hill which offers great views, and a cable car), the 1992 Olympic Stadium, the Barcelona FC Camp Nou Stadium, and the wide avenues and impressive buildings of what I think is the Eixample area, to the north of Place de Catalunya. We did the stadium tour at the Camp Nou, it was Euros 17 and well worth it. The Camp Nou is, I believe, the largest sports stadium in Europe with an all-seated capacity of just under 99,000. It was very impressive even empty, huge and colourful. The banks of seats are so high, and so steep, it must be fantastic to see a top game there. On the tour, you come in to the stadium at the "dugouts", and you are allowed to walk right up the main stand, up and into the media gallery. The stadium PA plays atmospheric sounds, at the bottom the noise that the players would hear as they come out, and at the media gallery, the Spanish commentators going over the top with their descriptions of Barcelona goals ("Messi! Messi, Messi, Messi ! Gooooooooooooooooooooool! Gol Gol Gol Gol Gol!" etc). You can sit in the main stand and look out at the pitch, reliving famous games and goals that took place there. I was remembering Manchester United's last-gasp goals to win the Champions League final there in 1999. There is also access to the museum, this is very high-tech with the accent on the visual, videos and photographs. It is unusual and very modern. I enjoyed the tour and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in football.
The east city bus tour was not so interesting, but it did take in the Sagrada Familia, the Gaudi-designed cathedral which is still being constructed. I must admit that I am not much interested in art and architecture, but you have got to see this building. There can't be anything like it anywhere in the world. It is huge, it has high spindly spires, all manner of detailed figures, representations of clusters of fruit(!), religious symbols, carvings, and words, and that's just the outside! There is a tour of the inside, and I believe, a trip up the inside of one of the spires, but I did not go on it, it was Euros 28 which I thought expensive, and there were big queues. But definitely worth a visit.
City-centre -- I did, of course, visit Placa de Catalunya, and La Rambla, but I was not too impressed with either. The Placa is large, and frequented by pigeons, but it was not particularly imposing or attractive. As I said before, La Rambla to me was a disappointment, but then I am not a shopper, if you were interested in bargains or souvenirs or unusual purchases then you may be very taken with La Rambla. The day I was there was a rainy one, so I did not see any of the much-vaunted "street artists". I have to say that when I realised that I had walked the length of La Rambla, my thought was, "is that it?". But perhaps I missed a few things, and maybe I did not see it at its most vibrant. It is, in the main, a pedestrian area, with a narrow street at each side for vehicles, usually just taxis. I was pleased, however, that it was not as dangerous as many accounts have it. I was not robbed or pick-pocketed, and I did not see anything of this at all. At night there, I expected to be accosted by prostitutes, who would also be looking to pick-pocket you, but there was nothing of this either. I think that the police and authorities there have had a big clamp-down, and have forced out the robbers and the streetgirls from La Rambla. It was not dangerous or threatening at all, even at night, I have been in worse in the UK. So do not be put off by the stories of theft and solicitation, I think that it used to be like that, but it's not now. I say this, though, with the qualification that I was not there on a Friday or Saturday night, where I gather that visiting groups of young men drink heavily with consequent "poor behaviour", but this could easily be avoided if you wish.
Going back to the robbers etc, if you think on it, it would be surprising if the city authorities did allow what was almost a "no-go area" in the heart of their beautiful and modern city -- it would be completely incongruous. And now that the Spanish economy is deteriorating, perhaps there has been a realisation that tourism will become all-important. The complacency that allowed the city-centre crime have been swept away, and measures have been taken to minimise Barcelona's drawbacks.
One word of caution about La Rambla itself -- the prices for eating and drinking can be extortionate. It seemed to me that any place on La Rambla with "tapas" in its name was a rip-off. There were other places in La Rambla, like pizza restaurants, whose menu prices seemed reasonable, but the tapas places were expensive. One personal example -- two modest plates of paella (one with chicken ON-the-bone) plus three beers -- Euros 53 -- about twice what it was worth. And two beers sitting outside on La Rambla -- Euros 18 -- they were large beers but surely double the price they should have been. This is hard to understand as there are a multitude of places to eat and drink at reasonable cost just off La Rambla, so you soon learn to go elsewhere. I particularly liked the El Born district, the street called Passeig de Born is nothing but pleasant-looking bars, cafes, and restaurants, and certainly the restaurant we tried was excellent. Other areas I saw were the Barri Gotic, the gothic area, with narrow streets (no cars here), high tenement buildings, and lots of interesting-looking shops, particularly clothes ones. I think that this would be an interesting shopping area if you were that way inclined. The Port Vell area is good for shopping too, with a large and very new mall, the Maremagnum.
Also at Port Vell is the Aquarium, which I read is the largest in Europe, we visited this and found it interesting, the main tank is enormous, and you walk underneath it, there are large sharks, manta rays, moray eels, and all manner of tropical fish. There is even a seating area in the "tunnel" so you could relax and watch the fish. They were also smaller display areas, including, strangely, penguins, but they were cute. Also at Port Vell is an Imax Cinema, we did not try this, but would the films be only in Spanish ?
Which brings me to the question of the language difficulties. Both my friend and I had only a few words of Spanish, but we got by. But in saying that, we did not have to face a difficulty or an emergency of any kind, so we were not tested. We found that, away from the tourist-facing people, most did not speak English at all, but we managed to cope by the usual expedient of pointing and repeating key words. Ordering food from a menu is easy, you just point at the appropriate part of the menu. It was also not difficult to understand the ticket machines at the metro stations. But anywhere where they expect tourists, like hotel reception, and the bus tours, people spoke English (albeit sometimes very rapidly and with a strong accent!). So don't be put off if you don't know Spanish, all you need is hola, habla ingles, si, non,por favor, gracias, and buono suertel (good luck!).
Port Vell is near the hill of Montjuic, which offers great views across the city. It also has a cable car, which allows you to go from Montjuic to Barceloneta beach. We went on this, it cost only Euros 9 one-way, I think it was Euros 12.50 for a return. The ride was a very interesting few minutes, great views over the city, and in particular, Colom, Port Vell, and Barceloneta. We went one-way in the best direction; at Montjuic, there was no queue at all to buy tickets, and get in the car, but at the Barceloneta end, there was a big queue to get the one small lift (one was out of order) up to the car station. Don't make the mistake we did though; we thought that you could get on the cable car at the mid-tower at the World Trade Centre at Port Vell, but there is no longer access there. Take a taxi to Montjuic. I was a little disappointed in the "recommended" bars in Barcelona. I had scoured the internet looking for tips on where to drink, but the places we went to were unremarkable. Bars like the London Bar, and the Wild Turkey (both just off La Rambla), which to some may be "atmospheric" and "comfortingly British-style", were to me pokey and dull. There were smarter "cocktail" bars like Schilling, and Rita Blue, we were in these during the day, they were OK but nothing special, but perhaps they are better at night-time. Another bar we went to was Miramelinda, in Passeig de Born, this pub was a bit bigger, and livelier, and did excellent mojitos (or moxitos as it is in Spanish), the rum-based cocktail given its special taste by sprigs of mint. Fantastico! So all-in-all, Barcelona was a great place to visit. We had no problems at all, and a lot of pleasure and fun. I certainly intend to return there.
Gordon Tulloch, Aberdeen, June 2010
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