Our first stop after leaving Barcelona was naturally l'Abadia de Montserrat. The famous monastery is a mandatory stop on any Catalunya itinerary, and it only required a minimal detour from our route to Andorra. We weren't sure what to expect in terms of accessibility, so we took the gondola and one carrier. We decided to skip the interior of the monastery itself and focus on the trails and views higher up the mountain.
The views of the rock formations and the valley below us from the trails were awesome. The trail was very steep in places and pushing the gondola was a tough slog. We were glad we hadn't brought the other stroller. I kept reminding myself that I needed the exercise as I sweated and grunted my way up each sloping stretch.
I wasn't sure what to expect from the mountain roads heading into Andorra so we didn't hang out too long at Montserrat. However, the one lane roads and hairpin turns I was expecting never materialized and we were in Andorra within a couple of hours. Andorra has a reputation for being great for skiing and not much else so I had only given us one night there. I'd chosen the small town of Encamp, right in the center of the tiny country, as our destination because it seemed to have better Monday night dinner options than the capital city. Our host at the Airbnb was agreeable to a late arrival, so we decided to get dinner first. The GPS directed us off the main road towards a narrow street, but rather than risk getting the van stuck in an alley I decided to find parking and then search for our chosen restaurant on foot. As I had feared, my Spanish SIM gave me no access to data in Andorra so we had to take the GPS out of the car and let it guide us. This turned out to be much more difficult than I'd hoped as the device clearly wasn't meant to be used in that way, but eventually we were able to find our way to Restaurant Borda del Tremat. We were the only customers when we arrived, which was fine by me since I didn't have to worry as much about what the kids were doing. Our hostess was able to give us her undivided attention, and taught us the traditional Andorran way of making bruschetta at the table from the ingredients of toasted baguette, olive oil, whole garlic, and tomato. Dinner was delicious and satisfying, including several grilled game dishes and a chocolate lava cake dessert. We over-ordered and were glad we did.
Finding our apartment was another challenge, and then we had a scare when no one answered the door no matter how many times I rang the bell. Luckily I had screenshotted our host's phone number from Airbnb and even luckier my Spanish SIM was working for phone calls, so we didn't have to spend a freezing Andorran night in the van.
Andorra has acquired a reputation for being Europe's ugliest country, thanks to overdevelopment along the highways and the lego block style of the modern apartment buildings. However, on our morning drive north from Encamp to the French border we found the countryside quite pleasant. Cleo saw snow on the mountains and even got to trudge through some of the stuff for the first time. Our pick for lunch was closed for renovations, so we were finished with Andorra less than sixteen hours after we had arrived.
A red-eye flight from Miami to Barcelona was the obvious choice. That gave us the whole day in Miami to run errands and be sure we had everything for our trip. It also meant the kids would be sleeping for most of the flight and not demanding our attention. Mei Ling was able to sleep for a few hours as well, although true to form I didn't get a wink. Given my work schedule, of course, I'm accustomed to going 24 hours or more without sleep so that didn't present a problem. We got past customs in Barcelona around 11 AM local time Friday and contacted our Airbnb host, who gave us the unpleasant update that she wouldn't be able to meet us at the apartment until after 1 PM, even though she had known our arrival time for a month. Given all our luggage and kids we had no choice but to head to the apartment anyway, in the El Raval neighborhood downtown. It was chilly and rainy, but fortunately the little cafe next to our Airbnb was owned by a Chinese lady who was immediately charmed by Mei Ling and the kids. We got some breakfast and the ladies chatted for an hour in Mandarin while I tried to prevent Cleo and Ian from ripping the place apart. Eventually our host showed up and let us in to our building. We were on the second floor (American terminology) with an elevator, but the elevator was tiny with a door that blocked the hallway so it took us three trips to get everything and everyone upstairs. The apartment itself was good, with plenty of space and comfortable beds.
I'd made a list of all the produce markets in Barcelona and of course the centerpiece was La Boqueria. However, our apartment was just a couple of blocks away from the Mercat de Sant Antoni so after freshening up a little bit we made that our first stop. The market had moved across the street to temporary digs due to a renovation of the main building, but there were still a number of good stalls and restaurants to choose from.
We found a promising tapas restaurant in the market and had a very satisfying meal of snails and grilled seafood while the kids slept in their strollers.
After lunch, I got myself a Spain SIM card at Vodafone and we made our way through the Ciutat Vella neighborhood to La Boqueria. La Boqueria turned out to be even more impressive than I remembered from my last visit to Barcelona fifteen years earlier. Apparently it was renovated just a few years ago, and every stall seemed to have only the freshest and highest quality foods. The colors and smells were overwhelming even before sampling the wares. The first photo shows giant slabs of sepia steaming on the grill, one of our favorites.
We didn't have much appetite after our big meal at the last market, so we bought enough food to have a self-catered meal and walked back to the apartment. We unpacked and let the kids play around a little, then ate our monkfish, grilled mushrooms, and sea snails before collapsing into bed.
Our determination to remain active throughout the first day was rewarded when we awoke early Saturday morning, well-rested and ready to begin our exploration of Barcelona. I purchased advance tickets for La Sagrada Familia online, and then we headed straight to La Boqueria for breakfast. After scrutinizing every restaurant inside the market, we settled on Ramblero which proved to be a wise choice. We had an enormous brunch of which the highlight was a mixed fish grill.
After lunch we explored the market again, especially the seafood section which had been very subdued the previous afternoon. At 10:30 AM on a Saturday however, it was crowded and bustling.
We exited La Boqueria onto La Rambla and rambled northward through the oncoming crowds, eventually reaching Plaça de Catalunya, one of the nerve centers of Barcelona. The square was full of activity, along with plenty of pigeons for Cleo and Ian to chase.
We pried the kids away from the pigeons and proceeded up Passeig de Gràcia to La Mansana de la Discòrdia, a single block famous for four large buildings constructed in four very different styles by four of Barcelona's most famous architects. The highlight is Antoni Gaudi's surreal Casa Batlló.
Casa Amatller, Casa Batlló
We made it to La Sagrada Família in perfect time for our pre-scheduled visit. I won't get into the history of this amazing building, which is easily discovered online. Suffice it to say that Gaudi's masterpiece has been under construction since 1882 and is expected to be complete except for certain decorative elements in 2026. The church is enormous and difficult to photograph from a distance due to buildings and trees, so I imagine most professional photos of the church use wide lenses and stitching tricks. The surreality of this unique basilica is difficult to describe, and the amount of ornamental detail both inside and outside the structure is amazing.
From La Sagrada Familia we decided to walk further inland to Park Güell, partially because I wanted to see more of Barcelona on foot and partially because I was too lazy to hail a cab and disassemble our caravan of strollers. The first part of the walk was decent enough, with a stop for ice cream along the way, but I'd forgotten about the three dimensional nature of Barcelona. I spent the last quarter mile pushing the double-loaded gondola up a steep hill to the park. I was soaked in sweat by the time we got up there, but at least I got a free stress test!
I hadn't bought tickets in advance and we arrived at peak time on a Saturday, so we weren't able to visit the Monumental Zone which contains all the Gaudi sculptures. Nevertheless, we walked around the park and got some great views of Barcelona from the terraces.
We wandered down a pathway behind the top of the hill and eventually came to a playground, where the kids burned off some more energy. Fortunately we were able to flag down a taxi quickly and had him take us all the way back downtown to El Born, a beautiful old neighborhood just north of the Barrio Gotico. Our main goal was to visit another food market, El Mercat de Santa Caterina, but the driver took us to El Mercat del Born instead. This was the former market building from which the market was relocated after important archeological discoveries were made underneath the floor.
Like all neighborhoods in downtown Barcelona, El Born is pretty small, so it was a just a short walk to our true destination. El Born was pleasantly busy with shoppers and strollers on a Saturday afternoon, and Cleo and Mei Ling had some fun with a couple of street musicians.===
Unfortunately once we arrived at El Mercat de Santa Caterina we found that it was closed. Except for La Boqueria, all the markets in Barcelona close early in the afternoon. Disappointed but undaunted, we crossed back across El Born to Parc de la Ciutadella, the main park of downtown Barcelona. It was a beautiful, energetic park with gardens and monuments, full of people relaxing in the sun and enjoying themselves. In the center was a good-sized pond with rowboats and ducks.
It was starting to get dark, and having self-catered the previous night I was determined to try a real Barcelona restaurant. I eventually settled on Pla, which was close by and highly-reviewed on travel websites. We eventually found it after some meandering through the alleys of the Barrio Gotico, and fortunately at 8pm it was almost empty. Most Barcelonés won't consider having dinner before 9pm, and 10pm is usually when things get moving. The staff was great about helping us get all the kids and strollers into a little alcove to the side, and Ian and Cleo did quite well during dinner with their coloring books. The major hassle during dinner was recovering all the crayons that kept rolling off the table. On the list for the next trip: square crayons. The food was good but couldn't compare to the experience of eating at La Boqueria.
After dinner, we had to run to La Rambla to catch a cab to Montjuïc in time to see the light show at the Font Magica. The fountain was built in 1929 and restored for the Olympic Games in 1992. On the weekends, the fountain is illuminated in a series of vibrant colors and music is played over loudspeakers. Cleo and especially Ian loved the show. There was a large open area around the fountain which of course meant there was a bunch of South Asian vendors selling those cheap lighted propeller toys. Ian was totally fascinated by the toys and ran from one vendor to another trying to catch the propellers as they spun to the ground. I knew the toys were super flimsy and would be broken after a few minutes so I never considered buying one for him. Ian kept on screaming and laughing every time one of the guys launched a toy into the sky, and eventually one of them handed him a new one in the package. I was annoyed by that, figuring it was a pushy sales tactic at my son's expense, and shook my head and frowned at the guy. He gestured back that it was a freebie, which I wasn't really buying, but of course by that point I wasn't going to rip the toy away from my beaming son. I figured I'd been beaten so I asked the vendor how much it was, but he kept shaking his head and indicating he was giving it to Ian free of charge. I practically had to shove two euros into the guy's hand. I found it very touching that this guy who probably works 16 hours a day just to feed himself could still enjoy a little boy's happiness. Maybe Ian reminded him of a son he left behind in Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, who knows. We never did find an opportunity to play with the toy, but I was able to get it back to Miami in one piece. It's one of our few souvenirs from the trip.
The next morning we made a beeline for La Boqueria, only to discover it was closed. All Barcelona markets closed all day Sunday, despite some online sources claiming La Boqueria would be open. Dejected, we had a lousy breakfast and headed southward on La Rambla. Lots of people dismiss this street as a nest of tourist traps, but to me it's one of the nerve centers of the city and a vital destination if you want to feel the vibe of Barcelona. The street performers of La Rambla have been copied in major cities all over the world, but to me there's nothing like the original.
It was just a short walk to El Mirador de Colom at the end of La Rambla. The tall monument to Christopher Columbus dates back to 1888, and marks the boundary between old Barcelona and the modern seaside. As soon as I reached El Mirador, I realized our best bet for the morning would be to visit La Barceloneta neighborhood and beach. We walked north along the Passeig de Colom and soon encountered a lengthy street market with artists, craftspeople, and artisanal food products. It was an unexpected win.
The market seemed to go on forever but eventually we reached Barceloneta beach, the most central and popular beach in Barcelona. It was cool and overcast, but to the kids a beach is a beach.
Walking back inland from the beach, we found a cluster of cafes. Fortunately we arrived just ahead of the rush and snagged the last table at the most appetizing of the bunch. We had a great meal of fried seafood, mussels, and shishito peppers that made up for the lousy breakfast. The highlight was a dish called jols, tiny fried fish that they call whitebait in the US. It's been a favorite of mine since I was a little kid.
Barceloneta is the only neighborhood downtown modern enough to be laid out in a grid. We explored it for a while, and eventually found a nice park and playground for the kids to get in some exercise. Once they were done, the only substantial thing I had left on my Barcelona list was Tibidabo Hill so we hailed another cab and headed back inland.
Tibidabo is a rather confusing place. The top of the hill is shared by a beautiful modern church and an amusement park. To complicate things further, there are several large rides outside the gates of the amusement park for which individual tickets can be purchased. It was already late in the day to buy tickets for the main park and we figured the kids would be too small for most of the rides anyway, so we focused on the rides outside the gates. I saw what looked like a short line for the Avió ride and took Ian there since Cleo had fallen asleep. This was an old red propeller plane that "flew" in circles over the hillside suspended from a rotating girder. Unfortunately, we were on the short line for over an hour as the airplane had a very small capacity. Ian enjoyed it once we got on, although it only lasted a few minutes.
By the time we got off the plane, Cleo had woken up so I took the kids to the Ferris wheel. Once we got to the front, the operators decided Ian was too small which I found incomprehensible since we would be sitting inside a bucket for the ride. Were they worried he would slip through the cracks? Regardless, they couldn't be swayed and Ian was dispatched back to his mother. It was all for the best though as once we were on the wheel we were subjected to gale force freezing winds. I had to practically cocoon Cleo to my chest for most of the ride, which kept stranding us motionless at the top while people got on and off at the bottom.
The Sagrat Cor church was beautiful and enticing, but there seemed to be no way to avoid the enormous flights of stairs on either side so we settled for pictures.
I wasn't sure how to get back downtown from Tibidabo. The funicular was right there, but I didn't want to negotiate the stairs in the station with the two strollers. Then I saw a bus stop, and a quick Google search indicated the bus that stopped there would take us all the way back downtown. We waited 20 minutes or so for the bus, as more people showed up at the stop with no queue forming. When the bus finally came, everyone crowded towards the doors since it didn't appear there would be enough room for everyone. Mei Ling is a valuable asset in those situations, and she managed to ram all of us through the late arrivals and onto the bus. Unfortunately, the bus drove a short distance down the hill and kicked everyone off, so we were stranded. We figured we could catch a cab so we started pushing the strollers downhill, but after a while it became apparent that there were no cabs and no good route down the hill. The only street going straight down was steep and narrow with no sidewalk, and every few seconds a car would explode upward at maximal RPM to attain the plateau we stood on. We decided that risk was unacceptable. I tried Uber, only to find that Uber hasn't been allowed in Spain. I even downloaded and tried local taxi apps but they didn't work. Eventually we had to push the strollers all the way back uphill to the funicular and navigate the steps. We'd wasted an hour and a half and exhausted ourselves just to get back where we'd started. Cleo enjoyed the funicular though.
At the end of the funicular, we transferred to a train and half an hour later we were back at Plaça de Catalunya. We headed to the Barrio Gotico to find food, but most of the restaurants in the neighborhood seemed to be closed on Sunday evening. Eventually we were happy to find an open self-service tapas restaurant and put together a serviceable if not outstanding dinner.
Cleo found herself a friend on the walk back home.
Early Monday morning, I took a cab to the Budget rental office to pick up the minivan. I was a little nervous about our first minivan rental outside the US, since none of the companies had Japanese or American brands that I was familiar with. The office staff was OK, but I got a fright when I arrived at the designated spot in the garage and found a small cargo van with an Avis logo. Fortunately, it turned out there was a mix-up and I'd actually been upgraded to a huge Mercedes Metris minivan. It seemed about a foot longer and six inches taller than the Odyssey we drive at home. I felt like I was driving a truck, and there was no rear view camera either. I figured Mei Ling would be appalled but actually she loved it. There was enough space in the back that we could fit all the luggage and both strollers. All it needed now was a name. Calling our van Titanic didn't seem like great karma, so we christened it the Iceberg instead.
Now that we had a minivan, we needed to find parking anywhere we went. Mainly for that reason, I decided to look for lunch at El Mercat de Sant Andreu, in one of the far northern neighborhoods of Barcelona. I justified it by saying to myself that we'd almost certainly be back in Barcelona within a few years, so we'd have the chances to see El Mercat de Santa Caterina and the other central markets but we might not have a car again to take us to Sant Andreu. It was a good plan, but once we got to the market there were only a couple of tired-looking stalls open and no restaurants. Monday is apparently not a good market day in the suburbs. I asked around and was directed to one of the few open restaurants in the neighborhood, where we got a decent meal. After that, it was time to leave Barcelona and begin our road trip.