Today, I wanted to explore Placa de Catalonya which is the central square of Barcelona, and stroll the main pedestrian walkways (including La Rambla) that descend from the plaza to the waterfront. I emerged from the metro stop at the square and walked around. Perhaps because it was early morning, I didn't find it that impressive; it was indistinguishable from any public square in any nondescript city. I took a few photos, but didn't linger long as I wanted to check out the pedestrian strip.
The main pedestrian mall is the tree-lined La Rambla. The promenade is usually extremely crowded with locals and tourists, with lots of shops and storefronts along the way. I started down the the street, but then without knowing it, got turned around onto a parallel street before reorienting myself. I am still not sure how that happened. La Rambla is pretty much a straight line boulevard, but perhaps I took too much interest in the side streets off the main strip, or perhaps my navigation skills are much worse than I believe. In any case, La Rambla and the other pedestrian walk ways are symbolic of Barcelona…crowded, full of life and character. There is a lot of virtue in making pedestrian-only zones in our urban centers. I had a great time just taking in the sites and people watching, ranging from street performers (some talented, some umm not so), locals spending the day with their family, tourists milling about, and the ever present Nigerians selling fake Guccis. How did Nigerians come to dominate the fake handbag business in streets throughout the world?
I took my time strolling down the boulevard, which took me to the waterfront. I generally like street performers, especially musicians, but one genre I just don't understand are the "statue" performers. This is a talent? The ability to stand still for less than a minute?
I reached the waterfront, where the Christopher Columbus monument stands guard. As the morning warmed up, it turned into a beautiful day to stroll by the water. I took my time wandering around. I remember thinking at the time that the area reminded me of a combination of Battery Park and the South Street Seaport in NYC, but upon reflection, that analogy is probably trite.
Many were out sunning themselves and enjoying the fine weather, which also brought out the usual joggers and power runners. Still, this is the first time I ever saw someone do push ups for exercise in the middle of the street. Maybe he was pumping up his manly muscles to impress women??
I was getting hungry at this point, so decided to turn around. La Rambla borders the Gothic Quarter, where many of the buildings date back to medieval times or older. Some of the city's main tourist sights are also in the area. I walked slowly through the area, armed with my guidebook, but I was mostly interested in finding a place to eat.
Quite by accident, I stumbled on to La Fonda. The place was packed, and many patrons appeared to be local although many tourists had also flocked here. I always tend to favor places that draw locals and the prix fixe menu was quite affordable. They did not have an English menu, and neither the waiter (nor my Pimsleur training) helped much. As best as I could figure out, I had the prix fixe of cauliflower soup, chicken with asparagus, and flan for dessert, with a glass of red wine. I think I paid only 12 euros. And it was quite tasty!
At this point, I was running a little late for a meeting I had near the plaza so I hurriedly walked to my appointment. The meeting was productive, but ended earlier than expected leaving me with the late afternoon to continue my exploration of the Gothic Quarter. I thought I would stumble around the area, and then check out the churches. The area had its share of homeless people, rich tourists, interesting modern sculptures, grafitti, tenements, and the occasional medieval walk way.
I first entered the gothic Santa Anna Church, as I was drawn inside by the line of people lighting candles. I am not sure if there was a particular festival that day, or if this was holiday related, or a normal occurrence. In any case, my first thought was "fire hazard!' but no one seemed too concerned and the process seemed fairly organized. The church also had courtyard where kids were running around playing with ducks, and that was an odd juxtaposition.
The biggest church in the area, and probably Barcelona's second most famous next to the Sagrada Familia, is Santa Maria del Mar, which dates back to the 14th Century. I took my time walking around the exterior before entering. The church is massive and imposing, but otherwise not that memorable. I kept thinking how poorly it compared to Sagrada Familia.
The sun was starting to set as I exited the church. A large Christmas street fair was operating in front of the church, selling mostly handicrafts. I decided to skip this for another day and instead headed over to a much more reknowned market, La Boqueria. Just off La Rambla, the market is well known to tourists and locals for their Iberian ham, fresh seafood, and small food shops. I shook my head when I realized that some of the ham was priced at over 200 euros per kg! And I thought my steaks back home were expensive. The market was bustling with activity, and I was tempted to buy something but I didn't even know where to start.
Ultimately, I didn't buy anything. By this time, the sun had set and the city's Christmas decorations began to light up. La Rambla now had a very different look from the day time, so I walked back down snapping photos until I reached the waterfront once more. I enjoyed that walk, and felt the holiday cheer which hadn't seem particularly present during daylight. Even the skateboarding dog was in a jolly mood.
I turned back to the Gothic Quarter for a place to have dinner. By this time, my feet were wondering how many times was I going to traverse La Rambla and the neighborhood in a single day! Certainly, my meanderings could have been more efficient, and I was tired. Still, I felt good about my sight seeing. I found the energy to make one more stop before dinner as Palau Guell was on the way. This mansion, designed by Antoni Gaudi, also is part of the UNESCO designation. Even in the dark, I could make out the distinctive architectural style.
For dinner, I wanted to try traditional Spanish tapas. I had heard good things about the restaurant Irati. I walked in, a little unsure of the process. The place was jammed with diners and drinkers, and a hundred little tapas lined up atop the counter. I squeezed myself into a spot at the counter, and pointed to something I thought might look good. The guy behind the bar just motioned me to grab whatever I wanted. I tried the grilled anchovies first. Yummy! I next tried the mini Iberian ham sandwich. Hmm, this was really good stuff. I made friends with the Aussie tourists sitting next to me, and we compared what plates looked good and which ones tasted great. I kept going and going, and eventually I had about 8 toothpicks in front of me from the 8 tapas I had consumed. I lost count of the glasses of beer. The staff just counted up the toothpicks and presented me with the bill. It wasn't exactly cheap, but I wasn't going to complain since I had tried 8 very different, and delicious, different small plates. It felt authentic.
Completely sated and quite tired, I said goodbye to the Aussies and headed back to the plaza to catch the metro. La Rambla was still jammed with people, and the Christmas lights made even the mundane Placa de Catalonya seem pretty. Even though I had been in Barcelona for only about 36 hours, I was starting to feel the rhythm of the city. I liked it.
I stood on the train back to my hotel, musing through a tired and foggy head about the very productive day. Although the train was crowded, I noticed that there was an empty space in the middle of the car. Two young teenage girls sat on the floor of the car, oblivious to everyone around them and the inconvenience they were causing. No one said a word to them. When they started kissing passionately a few moments later, the other passengers remained nonchalant, as if this sort of thing was not unusual.
What an interesting city, I thought.