a spanish sunburn: our barcelona vacation

B a r c e l o n a : a fun word to say. Up until last week, that’s all it really was to me; four exotic syllables. My knowledge of Spain started and ended with a taste for chorizo.

Then Florent and I visited (my 21st birthday present!) and I fell in love with this place. It’s colorful and tropical and close to the sun. Gelato is cheap and (seems) more plentiful than water. The vibe is laid-back, friendly, even joyful. This is something I felt, and something I could even see, and all it takes is stepping inside the Sagrada Familia to pick up on it.

The Sagrada is stunning, like a fairytale castle from a distant land. It seems impossible that something like this exists with laundromats and grubby grocery stores just across the street. It’s still under construction, too, which adds to its charm. It feels alive, so different from other ancient cathedrals, solemn and heavy, where you can sense the past but not the present.

Inside, the Sagrada was filled with people bumping into each other, for the windows and the light draw the eye up, up, up.

We ended our visit in one of the towers for a nice view of the city. After the Sagrada, I was really eager to see more of Antoni Gaudí’s work; it’s breathtaking.

But first, the beach. We didn’t see, probably, everything there is to see in Barcelona, because we wanted to treat our vacation like an actual vacation. There is nothing better than lying in the sand with no place to be.

I was pleased with Barcelona’s beaches. They’re actually rated very highly for city beaches, and it shows. Even the most touristy beach, Barceloneta, wasn’t too bad. We found a favorite, though, a twenty-minute-walk away. It was more peaceful; there were less pebbles and more sand…only it required walking past a long stretch of nude beach. Heretofore, I had never seen a nude beach. Now, I have seen…well. Once we made it to our beach, however, the view was quite nice.

I was happy I’d picked up a copy of Where’d You Go, Bernadette, and saved it for the beach, because it’s the perfect summer read: smart, funny, and entertaining. I liked it so much I may reread it on the flight home.

Swimming made us hungry, as it tends to do, and we had great luck with food in Spain.

We drank fresh fruit smoothies and tried horchata, ate gelato in flavors like dulce de leche and coconut, but even more than that, three meals in particular stand out to me.

The first was our first night, when we ate the paella pictured above. I was starving, the kind of hungry that required all my resolve to refrain from beating on the table with my fork and knife, demanding food. So when the waiter placed the dish on our table, it disappeared fast. We cracked open shells with abandon and scraped the bottom for every last grain of rice. I hadn’t eaten paella since last summer in Marseille, and it didn’t disappoint. Even better, though, was the atmosphere. The restaurant was on La Rambla, which is this crazy tree-lined street with thousands of things to buy, eat, and look at. It’s also a good place to get your pocket picked–that is to say, not the most relaxing–but I’d definitely recommend eating a meal there, or at least an ice-cream, because it’s kind of like the Champs-Elysées of Barcelona.

The next notable meal was at a tapas bar called Gasterea, way off the beaten path. It took us quite awhile to find it, but when we did, it was well worth the hike. Gasterea was located in this trendy little neighborhood that felt far, far away from the tourist traps. Inside, the menus were written on chalkboards in Catalan. I didn’t know before visiting that there are two official languages in Barcelona: Spanish, of course, and Catalan. This is because the city belongs to the region of Catalonia. In formal capacities, like schools or offices, Catalan is actually the dominant language and not Spanish.

The bar was skinny, long and L-shaped, with a thin bar running the length of the place on one side to accommodate more patrons: you could order drinks and tapas and stand against the wall while you ate, nabbing a stool if you had a chance. We got there a bit before nine, so we got good seats at the main bar before the place filled up. There wasn’t another tourist in sight.

We ordered beers and then puzzled over the menu, eventually just pointing at things and giving the pronunciation our best shot. They only took cash, and we only had a €20 bill, but it turned out to be more than enough. The majority of the tapas were only €1.90, or a much bigger option for €3.60. So we did the math and then just ordered n’importe quoi. We ate sausages and steak with tomatoes and chiles, quail eggs and manchego, chèvre and candied figs, huevos rancheros and potatoes, eggplant chips with olive oil and feta…and on and on. It was all really, really good.

That place was moving fast. A guy would run out from the kitchen, get the orders, run back in, and then bring the food out a few minutes later. This other waiter, who looked like Jack Sparrow minus the hat, would take the tray, ring a bell, and start calling out the food he had, distributing a plate here, three plates there. We couldn’t understand what he was saying, but we’d try to figure out if what he was holding was something we’d ordered, and if so, wave at him and gleefully accept the next plate.

It was noisy and crazy and it was one of the most fun, most memorable eating experiences of my life. Plus it cost twenty bucks.

The third meal of note was our last night in the city, when we discovered Barcelona’s more upscale side.

La Mar Salada was a mere three minute walk from the beach at Barceloneta. It stood out to us because it seemed a lot more classy than the tourist-bait offerings on most of the street, where a waiter stands outside with a book of pictures of food and practically forces you to come inside (only €11, señor!).

It was reservations-only, but they managed to find us a table. We ordered sangrias, and it was my first time trying that. You could buy individual glasses or a whole pitcher for €15. It turned out to be a really good thing that we turned down the pitcher, because I hadn’t eaten all day and started to get a little light-headed when I was only halfway through my one glass.

Luckily our food arrived not too long after. It wowed me; the kind of meal where you say ‘mmm’ out loud after every single bite; that delicious. Florent had “salmonetes” with risotto, asparagus, and squid ink vinaigrette, and I had (according to the picture I snapped of the menu) “confited codfish with tomato jam, fresh spinach, and garlic mouselina.”

We ate, trading bites, the cool night air soothing our matching sunburns after a long day, and I don’t know that anything has ever tasted so good to me as that codfish and that sangria.

Going all out because it was the last night, around 11 we walked to a nearby gelato place and ordered three huge scoops each.  I had horchata and dulce de leche and cream, or something like that, and we walked to the beach and ate our cones staring out at the black water.

I fell asleep that night and I could still taste that meal; could still feel the waves I’d swam in earlier rocking me gently to sleep.

I’ve already mentioned the gelato, how it was everywhere in abundance, so pretty and varied that it was one of those “take my money” situations. I loved running up to every glass case I saw, searching for new flavors and colors. Well, there was another product in Barcelona that inspired a similar fervor, this one inedible: sandals.

I am a big sandal lover; my feet are never so happy, and I think Barcelona is my city. Espadrilles, Birkenstocks, high-heeled cork wedges, flat sandals with a bow, peep-toes, platform sandals, strappy leather sandals in turquoise, chestnut brown, red… you name it, it was there, it was fashionable, and it was cheaper than in France.

My Birkenstocks fit right in, and I found cute little black low-heeled sandals after my TOMS espadrilles finally gave up the fight and snapped in two.

I was totally feeling Spanish style in general. Short dresses, long dresses, espadrilles and summer white and bright patterns and colors, all accented with a nice tan. It was, understandably, sunnier and more cheery than the average daily wear in France, and left me feeling inspired.

Comfortable shoes are a must pretty much everywhere in Europe, and Barcelona was no exception. This was made especially clear the day we visited Park Güell.

Park Güell, the magnificent public space designed by Gaudí, sits on the top of a very high hill. There is no metro stop or funicular, and no regular bus stop. I don’t know why except that it allows the taxis to make a sizable chunk of change. If you are elderly, pregnant, have any kind of health problem, or are not wearing flat shows, you are going to have a very tough time making it up that hill.

It’s worth it, though.

Gaudí’s buildings, again, were like something out of a fairytale. From where we’re standing above, we could see the city, the sea, the Sagrada Familia…and even just the wall itself was mesmerizing: colorful and complicated.

The rest of the park was great, too.

But most of all that mosaic wall. I couldn’t get enough of it.

Walking around after I’d finally gotten enough pictures, we came across this guy, so excited about the place he lost his head.

It made for some fun pictures, but unfortunately there’s a creepy story behind the scenes.

So we came across this guy and started laughing; it was awesome. Florent fished out a euro to give headless guy, and I took their picture. Well, headless guy (who couldn’t speak, of course), is happy to take pictures with Florent, and then we’re ready to go on our way, but he ushers me over, c’mere, c’mere, and so I go. He wants me to sit on his lap, and I have absolutely no idea how he was able to balance like that, but he managed, and so I’m laughing and Florent’s taking pictures, but then it gets weird. Headless guy got pretty handsy. It was bizarre, and it was brazen, but I guess when you’re wearing a costume you feel invincible or exempt from the normal moral code or something. All I know is, I jumped off his lap in a hurry. Florent was not happy when he realized what happened, but I assured him I wasn’t going to be scarred for life or anything and chalked it up to getting some silly photos.

Still, ugh. A funnily-costumed creep is still a creep–only in disguise, which is almost worse. I hope he doesn’t make a habit out of that sort of thing, and if so, that someone slaps him and that he gets kicked out of the park for good.

Soon after that brief moment of weirdness, we left the park. We were able to go see something else Gaudí designed: a sort of wavy apartment building.

Crazy to think that people actually live there, and I’m sure the rent is unbelievable.

Some other things we saw: this famous statue of Christopher Columbus (near La Rambles), and this beautiful…thing, that we came across in a park by chance. I’m going to have to look that up.

On our last day in Barcelona, we visited the sort of Spanish Arc de Triomphe. It’s gorgeous, and so different from anything French.

Down the path that leads to the structure, people were sending huge bubbles into the sky. Little kids were laughing and chasing them, shocked when they popped. People watched, amused, and probably tempted to chase the bubbles themselves; there’s something irresistibly joyful about doing so.

It was a nice last image; bright and shiny and happy like the city itself. Barcelona was good to us.

(and surtout: merci, Florent, et gros bisous <3)


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