There are a couple of reasons why Seb and I made the daunting decision to pack up our lives, leave everything and everyone we knew behind and move to Germany. But the main one – it goes without saying – was the chance to travel. A lot.
Four months in, Seb and I decided that our apartment had been furnished to an acceptable level (we always liked the minimal look anyway), and that the time had come to plunder our savings for a little mid-winter adventure. Having endured two back-to-back winters, our milky skins were crying out for some sunlight. And Barcelona, it was decided, was the perfect place to find it.
So off we went.
Barcelona is a city that’s incredibly difficult to summarise. I mean, preventing this post from turning into a short novel proved quite the challenge. It’s a city that was simultaneously everything we had expected and more, and yet not at all how we imagined. Great weather, delicious food and awe-inspiring architecture: you’ll be hard pressed to find a city more generous in all three. What neither of us had bargained on, however, was our ignorance of Catalan culture.
A very brief history lesson for you folks, since we knew virtually nothing before we arrived. Barcelona is the capital of Spain’s Catalonia region. But calling it a ‘region’ is a tad simplistic. Catalonia is an autonomous community of Spain: a distinctive area with its own laws, language (not a dialect of Spanish, we were scolded) and way of life. It’s not like the rest of Spain…and it sure as hell doesn’t want to be either. For the last couple of years – though the tension goes back centuries – seeking independence from Spain has been a very heated topic. One could go on forever though, so read more about it here.
Why does all this matter though, you ask? Well, Seb and I thought we were going to Spain. And…we weren’t. My Pinterest-fuelled imagination featured images of paella, sangria, flamenco dancers and Spanish guitars. None of this was to be. Of course, Barcelona still offers all of it – but it’s quite clearly a commercialised thing to appease the tourists.
Despite the surprises though, Barcelona had soon enchanted us with its grungy beauty and offbeat charm. There’s a lot to like about Bartha – but these, dear reader, are the bits we loved most:
Staying in El Born. During our time there, we stayed in two different areas: first in the Eixample district near Sagrada Familia and then in El Born. Where we stayed had a massive impact on the overall vibe, and I wish we had stayed in El Born from the start. It’s an ancient neighbourhood with narrow cobbled alleyways and vibrant shops, bars and restaurants. It’s noisy, it’s busy and it never sleeps (so neither will you), but it’s full of interesting things and we absolutely loved every second there.
Staying with Hugo and Ioannis in El Born. These two dashing gents are by far the best Airbnb hosts we’ve ever stayed with. So much so, that I would even plan my next Barcelona trip entirely around their available dates. Not only do they have a beautiful apartment (with the cutest pooch and kitty included), but they really went out of their way to give us an unforgettable Barcelona experience. They took us out with them, cooked dinner for us and were always up for a drink and conversation. Stay with them, all ye travellers. You won’t regret it.
The food. All of it. Even when we weren’t eating, we always seemed to find ourselves wandering into neighbourhood markets or salivating at the bakeries’ window displays. Being on a budget in a city like that is hard on one’s emotions. Nonetheless, we ate a lot. We just tried to eat simply. Lots of fresh bread and pastries, cheese, cured meats and tomatoes.
We had dinner at a couple of restaurants, but Bormuth in El Born was by far our favourite. Their menu was full of delicious tapas and plates to share, featuring lots of delicious flavours that we’d never heard of. Everything we ate was superb, but the Patatas Mojo Picón (baby potatoes with a thick spicy sauce and sour cream) were definitely wolfed down the fastest.
Vermut. Sangria shmangria. Ignore all the tourists and have a glass of vermut or cava (sparkling wine) instead. But especially vermut. It’s positively delicious and traditionally enjoyed in the afternoon with some tapas. Apparently it was viewed as a working class or old man’s drink until recent years, but Catalonia’s younger generation has seen to its revival.
Exploring Barcelona by motorbike. About halfway through the trip, we spoilt ourselves to one of BrightSide Tours‘ sidecar experiences.What was amazing, aside from driving around in an actual sidecar, is how customised the tour was. Our guide, Peter, listened to where we had already been and chose a route that would give us an entirely new experience of the city. A bit pricy (as with all touristy things) but highly recommended.
The weather. We got what we came for. Shirtless Mediterranean men on the beach (sadly not pictured below) in the middle of February. Enough said.
The prettiness. Sigh. Just sigh. Gaudi & company did a great job of the modernisme, but the beauty of Barcelona goes so far beyond that. Literally everywhere you look (even in the crumbiest part of town), there is always something lovely to admire. The balconies, the pavements, the views, the textures…
Anything we didn’t like? Perhaps a bit more touristy than we were expecting (says the tourist, ha!) so I would probably avoid summer and the selfie stick-wielding masses that go along with it. Funnily enough, some of the most highly-ranked places on TripAdvisor were our least favourite. Park Guell is pretty but crowded, and I had the worst seafood of my life at La Boqueria, Barcelona’s famous food market. The constant warnings about pickpockets were also a bit disconcerting, but in hindsight we really shouldn’t have worried so much. Just keep an eye out, don’t leave your stuff hanging around and don’t talk to strangers, kids! You’ll be fine.
Before we knew it, eight days of non-stop adventuring had flashed by and it was time to head back to the land of grey skies and sauerkraut. A week is quite a while to be in Barcelona, and yet there was so much on our itinerary that we just had no time to do.
“Oh well,” said Seb as we got onto the plane. ” I suppose we’ll just have to come back?”