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Back to the Med! Final weekend in Catalunya

I realize the large majority of our city arrivals seem to be rather difficult and painful. I think that's because of our preference for staying in old town Airbnb's rather than in hotels on the main roads. For the most part our locations have been worth the trouble, but Girona might have been the final straw for old town accommodations when we have our own vehicle, even though we were staying in a hotel. Thanks to having crossed the border again, we had no Google Maps navigation. I didn't have the foresight to load Girona into Google Maps before we left France, so we didn't have cellular GPS either. That left us with our Garmin navigation, which should have been enough. We had no problem getting into Girona and finding the old town, but that was when things started to get hairy. As soon as we drove in, it was clear we were in a crowded pedestrian area. People slowly parted to let us through, but I had a strong feeling we weren't supposed to be driving there. The next problem was that the old town was three dimensional with a tall central hill. The street we were on split with one half ascending the hill and the other half remaining level. There was no way to distinguish between the two on the GPS and we incorrectly chose to remain at ground level, requiring us to leave the old town and circle all the way back in through the pedestrian zone we had initially entered. We went uphill the second time round but the driving situation quickly deteriorated as we found ourselves in a tiny but busy square that was obviously the old town center, and the GPS was directing us the wrong way down a narrow one way alley. It took ten minutes just to turn the van back around with a dozen overly helpful tourists shouting different instructions. With no cellular GPS and no ability to call the hotel, I resorted to parking the Iceberg next to a cathedral and headed out on foot with the Garmin. The Garmin screen is not designed for foot travel and can't be easily scrolled or zoomed. I couldn't find the name of the street where the hotel was located on the Garmin, and none of the locals I asked had ever heard of it, including the security guard at the church. I wandered around for twenty minutes with no luck. I got back just in time, as Cleo was desperate to go to the bathroom and Mei Ling had no way to take her with the other two kids in the van. While they were gone, I kept playing with the Garmin and suddenly I saw the street I was looking for briefly flash into view as the display constantly shifted and reloaded. I couldn't get it back again so I tried to freeze the image of the screen where I'd seen it in my brain. Once Mei Ling and Cleo got back, I set off again up an unpromising steep incline behind the cathedral, turned a corner, and found the hotel.

The hotel staff seemed unsurprised and unphased by my pitiful account of our troubles. They handed me a parking pass and instructed me to drive up the way I had walked because there was simply no other way to get there. Back at the van, we prevailed on the security guard to hold the pedestrians at bay while we reversed into the square and then gunned the Iceberg up the steep slope to the level of the hill our hotel was on. In the one stroke of luck of the evening, a single parking spot was free in the tiny row of spaces next to the hotel. Once we unpacked, I came across my old Spain sim card which should have expired long ago. I slipped it into my phone and it worked perfectly. I decided not to tell Mei Ling about that until the next day.

Somewhat recovered from the stress and disorientation of our arrival, we walked back downhill to the cathedral. It was clear this was no ordinary weekend in the old town. At first, I thought it was a religious holiday due to the floral displays that seemed to be everywhere, but after asking around I learned that it was actually the Temps de Flors, the annual flower festival. Despite being overcast and drizzly, the town was quite beautiful amidst all the decoration.

We had a decent dinner at a tapas place in the Jewish quarter, then went straight back to the hotel for a well-earned sleep. The two bedroom private apartment was just as good as most of the Airbnb's we had stayed at, with refrigerator and kitchen to boot. The next morning we cooked the kids breakfast before heading back out into the old town.

The thing to do in Girona is to walk the ramparts of the medieval city walls, which can be traversed all the way from the cathedral to Plaça de Catalunya, south of the old town. Thanks to the festival the ramparts were crowded with visitors, especially around the center, but we still got some great views of the old town and the rooftops of Girona.

There was a playground in Plaça de Catalunya, which meant the kids got a break from being carried, and then we walked a short distance to the covered market Mercat del Lleó where bacalao (codfish) was on prominent display.

We were now on the opposite side of the River Onyar, which splits the center of Girona, and it was time to find a place for lunch. Our first choice couldn't accommodate us, which was very lucky because our backup Txalaka was absolutely amazing. We arrived just before the afternoon rush and got the last table as a long line was about to form. It was another self-service tapas restaurant but much better than we had experienced in Barcelona, with outstanding sangria as well.

After a great lunch we walked over to Plaça de la Independència, then crossed one of the bridges across the Onyar back into the Jewish quarter. We enjoyed the narrow alleys and flower displays a little longer, then returned to the Iceberg.

Girona's old town had saved one last unpleasant driving experience for us, which was an arched passage next to the hotel that didn't look large enough to accommodate the van. I asked reception if we could return the direction we had come from, but they said it was impossible. We pulled in the mirrors and Mei Ling walked ahead to make sure no one tried to walk through the passage while I was driving through. I centered myself as much as I could and drove through at a mile an hour. I could practically hear the stone walls brushing the sides of the van as I clenched the steering wheel, although perhaps it was just my mind playing tricks on me. A minute later, we were back in daylight in another wide open square. I celebrated our escape from Girona with one last picture.

From Girona it was only an hour to our overnight stop at Tossa de Mar, a small town on the Mediterranean coast north of Barcelona. The main attraction here is the fortified medieval town on the hill that overlooks the beach and the rest of the city. We were also hoping to get the kids another beach day on the Mediterranean before we returned home. Our hotel was an attractive, whitewashed place with a pool where we decompressed for an hour before taking the winding road up the hill to the old town.

The walk up the hill gave circumferential views of the town, the chalky cliffs of the nearby coastline, and the open sea.

Once we reached the top, we descended partially to tour the interior of the old town and walked the ramparts much as we had in Girona.

I scouted out some of the restaurants in the old town but they seemed very touristy. Instead, we walked around the beach to the opposite side of the Badia de Tossa where we found a decent seafood restaurant with great views of the old town.

A steady rain the next morning quashed our hopes for another beach day, so we decided to head straight for Barcelona. Unfortunately it was Sunday, so we couldn't revisit the Boqueria. Instead we took the kids to the science museum, CosmoCaixa, where we kept them entertained with various game-like displays for a couple of hours. Hunger demanded that we bring our visit to an end, so we got a light lunch in a small cafe in l'Eixample. I couldn't come up with many options for the rest of the afternoon, so we went back to Montjuic to visit the Poble Espanyol theme park. I'd skipped this on our initial Barcelona visit because I feared it would be a boring tourist trap, and in fact it turned out to be a boring tourist trap. It didn't help that half the park was closed for a concert, or that we'd taken the strollers and there were stairs everywhere. We walked the parts we could and then returned to the Montjuic fountain to see the National Palace in the daylight.

Our hotel for the night was in Sant Boi de Llobregat, a boring suburb to the south of Barcelona whose main redeeming feature was its proximity to the airport. I hadn't wanted to deal with parking in downtown Barcelona or the possibility of traffic jams on the way to the airport the next morning. We got an early dinner of grilled meats not far away and spent the rest of our last evening packing and downloading new cartoons and apps for the kids to discover on the flight home. The next morning we got to the airport uneventfully and held our breaths at the rental car dropoff as the attendant gave the Iceberg a cursory survey. Miraculously she didn't notice either of the cracked brake lights and we bolted for the terminal. Another month long European road trip had come to an end.

Posted by zzlangerhans 06:38 Archived in Spain Tagged barcelona girona tossa_de_mar Comments (0)

Back to the Med! Barcelona

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.
Settling in.

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 Lleó-Morera
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.

Posted by zzlangerhans 05:01 Archived in Spain Tagged barcelona Comments (2)

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