Part 1 in a series:
Culture is resilient, shaped gently even when handled roughly by politics, religion or brute force. Tourists need to respect the constitutional crisis that currently embroils Catalonia and Spain. But the world-class cultural delights of Barcelona persevere unfettered. We felt very welcome.
Barcelona was our first and last of seven stops on a whirlwind three-week tour of Spain this fall. And from the mountaintop Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey to the deepest excavations of the 2000-year-old Roman ruins beneath the Gothic Quarter, overt political emotions surfaced only once.
Day 1 began in a haze of jet lag with a train ride to the Benedictine abbey atop Montserrat. A Twitter follower suggested the day trip. It was a great idea but poorly executed on our part as we overslept, missed the early train and then stumbled off one stop too early – we needed the cog train stop, not the gondola stop, to reach the monestary. Argh.
Result? We missed the 1 p.m. “not to be missed” performance of the Escolania boys choir in the chapel, settling instead for unmemorable cheese sandwiches at the cafeteria and rushed audio tours of the chapel, grounds and art museum. The setting was spectacular. The museum contained work by El Greco, Dali and Picasso. And we did see the famed Virgin of Montserrat, one of Europe’s “Black Madonnas.” So the trip was not a total loss.
Back in Barcelona and finally beginning to awaken, we spent the evening at Parc de la Ciutadella and the Gothic Quarter for a taste of La Mercè, an annual city festival dating to 1871. The beloved event includes food, music, light shows, parades, fireworks and fantastical ceremonies featuring giant papier machè figures.
We decided to skip the ceremony involving papier machè dragons, demons and monsters spewing fireworks on attendees, who are advised to wear fire-proof clothing. Instead we attended the less incendiary annual dance of the gegants held on Placa Sant Jaume between the city and Catalonia government buildings. The ceremony features 12-foot effigies of royalty and nobles who bow, dance and strut to the music of a traditional band. Lots of kids were on hand. Minimal fireworks. No fire suit necessary.
It was all very fun and quaint until tradition took a pause and an impassioned speaker took the stage. We don’t speak Catalan — and based on the reaction of some waiters, our Spanish is appalling — so we really don’t know what was said. But the crowd responded with a roar. The band played. A determined chant broke out. Fists beat time with the chant and flags unfurled. The Geek and MontaraManDan exchanged a glance, eyebrows raised. And then it was over. Everyone behaved, but unfamiliar with the complexities and the territory, we stayed only briefly for the festival’s second act of the evening – artistic projections on the square’s rectangular government buildings — before withdrawing to the calm of a nearby cafe. No harm. No foul. Interesting.
We did better on Day 2. Much better. Fueled by café Americano and tomato toast, we walked the catwalks at the Museu d’Historia de Barcelona to view extensive underground excavations dating back nearly 2,000 years to the Roman city of Barcino, where the ruins of one era become the foundation stones of the next.
Back at Placa Sant Jaume, we witnessed amateur castellers forming 50-foot human towers with helmeted children scampering up backs, limbs and heads to the top. (Don’t try this at home, kids.)
And we toured the first of too many magnificent cathedrals, the gothic Barcelona Cathedral. All great stuff.
But the surprise of the day came as we powered up our phones while leaving the cathedral and found a text from the maître d’ at, according to Condé Nast Traveler, “one of the 80 hottest restaurants in the world.” He could seat us in 45 minutes. The same Twitter follower who recommended the trip to Montserrat had recommended Cinc Sentits (Five Senses), which was co-founded by his wife. We had put in a reservation request only the night before and never expected they’d actually have a table. Anyway, Google maps said that we could get there in 30 minutes, so we hoofed it out of the Gothic Quarter, nose to phone.
We chose the four-course lunch with full wine and alcohol pairings. Long story short, it was amazing. And the locally sourced Catalan cuisine was paired with no fewer than seven different libations. Chef Jordi Artal even came out to say “hi.” We stumbled out of the restaurant with all five senses sated and more than a little tipsy. (Note to foodies: We’ll share the long Cinc Sentits story in another post in this series. Promise.)
This Barcelona tale could have ended here, as far as MontaraManDan was concerned. But The Geek, always the overachiever, insisted on a trip across town to Montjuïc Castle, a 380-year-old fortress high on a hill above the present-day Mediterranean port. M-Man finally agreed it would be poetic to slack coastside on the Mediterranean, even if only briefly. Exhausted, we took a cab to the top, arriving late enough to be awarded free admission. Great view. The fort was a bit stark. Unable to find a taxi at the top of the hill, we stumbled to the bottom before finally finding a sympathetic cabby to deposit us on the doorstep of our hotel. We were beat.
The next day we headed for Madrid.
But wait … we know what you art, architecture and Barcelona aficionados are thinking: “What about Gaudí? Architect Antoni Gaudi. The father of Catalan Modern Architecture, that rounded, melty early 20th century-style dripping with ceramics and wrought iron. What about Park Güel? Casa Batllo? Casa Mila? What about La Sagrada Familia? You went to Barcelona and didn’t stop at La Sagrada Familia?!? Gaa!!!”
Don’t worry. We saw them all. But similar to our Cinc Sentits reservation, we waited far too long to secure reservations and had to defer Gaudi’s Barcelona until our return trip to the city, before our flight home. More on Gaudi’s cathedral masterpiece in a later post. We promise.
This is the first of a multi-part series of our travels to seven Spanish cities across three weeks in the fall of 2017.