Three Great Day Trips from Barcelona

I’ve said recently that I don’t like Barcelona (and it sparked a big debate on my blog and Facebook page. Turns out even people who love the city think it has a dark side and that its people can be unfriendly at first, though many were shocked with my confession). So when my parents suggested it as our Christmas travel destination, I was initially disappointed, but figured a seven-night stay would guarantee we’d use Barcino as a springboard into a region that others tout as gorgeous and cultural.

Three places you can't miss on your trip to Barcelona. Medieval towns, funky architecture...and another country?

Thankfully, Barcelona is capital to a region with multiple encantos, even if I’m not a fan of its capital city or politics. During our stay, we were able to break out of the city thrice, discovering the beauty of Catalonia in its interior.

Montserrat

Upon my family’s last visit to Spain in 2007, the holidays presented us with the problem of what to do on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. We hiked a mountain, attended mass in English (Thank you, Costa del Sol and your guiri enclaves!) and had dinner at the hotel. This year, we were in a heavily touristed area, but had three days of festivals to counter.

You know the saying, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”? We became Creasters cum Holy Rollers on the day of Jesus Christ’s birth by driving to the Monastery of Nuestra Senora de Montserrat in the mountains of the same name.

My mom and I made the last cable car for the day and were its only occupants, affording unparalleled vistas of the strange mountain range that the monastery and its various hermitages can be found in – it jutted up from the plains like an upside-down saw. My dad and sister drove the car up, snaking through alien rock formations and curbside offerings. Because it was Christmas, the parking was free, but the cable car ran my mother 6€ and me 5€ with a carnet joven.

The monastery, apart from its surroundings, is also known as the home of the Montserrat virgin, whose face is black, earning her the local nickname of La Moreneta. The place was crawling with tourists, similar to my experiences at Covadonga and Santiago de Compostela, but we were in for a treat: the all-boys choir, L’Escolonia, would be singing at the noon mass.

The whole place was opulent, lined in limestone with marble floors, statues of saints and an impressive art museum. I could barely see anything but on my tiptoes once inside the church, but the slight breeze and commanding views of the area were all I needed to consider myself holy on that day.

If you go: Montserrat can be reached by car, bus or train from central Barcelona. I used this page to plan our trip. The basilica itself was free, and many pilgrims choose to bring picnic lunches and enjoy the views, rather than picking over sandwiches in the cafeteria.

Girona and Besalu

For ages, Girona to me was little more than a Ryanair hub with a direct flight from Seville. On my way back from Karnaval in Cologne, Germany a few years back, I had a seven-hour layover. Not willing to sit in an airport, I hopped a bus to the city about an hour north of Barcelona and explored it on a sleepy Sunday.

It surprised me, quite honestly. Humbling beautiful, historic and lively – even on a Sunday!

I told my parents it was a must-see, and my dad’s love of medieval architecture made a trip to nearby Besalú to see the famous stone bridge. The town is teeny, cut through with cobblestone medieval roads and small, family-run shops.

We stopped in the tourism office, which was open but unmanned, and found that practically all roads led to the river Fluvià and the magnificent bridge. Many of the people we met told us that they were from elsewhere in Spain and had fallen under the charm of its Romanesque streets and history.

Girona was a quick drive away, and I remembered the city well – the soaring spires of the churches, the cobblestones under our feet, the street life. The clear day shone over the city perched along a river and its bright buildings, and merchants reopened after a few sleepy, glutton-filled days. We stopped for cupcakes on the main shopping street, beers in sun-drenched plazas, pintxo moruno in a bustling restaurant. Sadly, the smack-in-the-face Independence flags and signs got in the way of the beautiful buildings in the old Jewish quarter.

Even a horrible tummy ache (I later got sick) couldn’t prevent my sweet tooth from getting the best of me. I took my parents to Rocambolesc, the brainchild of the Hermanos Roca, famous Catalan chefs. The whimsical interior of the small place, which is a Catalan word for fantastical, was something like out of Willy Wonka, from a wall display of the six types of ice cream, a cotton candy machine and pinstripes.

I have to say that the hype, much like Barcelona’s, didn’t live up to my expectations. I let the attentive and sweet (ha!) shopkeeper chose baked apple ice cream with butter cookie crumbles and sweet apples, but could barely plow through half of it – it wasn’t sweet or even that tasteful! I agonized over the orange sherbet the guy parked on the bench next to me.

If you go: Girona and Besalu can be reached by car or bus from Barcelona, though there is a toll on the C-33. Rocambolesc is right near the red iron Eiffel bridge (Santa Clara, 50). The walk along the ramparts above the city are also not to be missed.

Andorra

This minuscule principality wedged in between mountain peaks of the Pyrenees range separating Spain from France welcomed me with a text message from my phone company. If Vodafone thinks it’s another country, it is in my book, too.

We snaked our rental car up through the Montseny and Costa Brava area of Catalonia before reaching the border. The signs were only in Catalan, but from the looks of it, we’d need to take just one road into the small country’s capital, Andorra la Vella. Upon parking, I felt like we were in a glamorous ski town – all mountains, clear skies and ski bunnies bustling up and down the city’s main shopping streets. Christmas sales had already begun, so we took our time browsing duty-free stores and brand name shops.

The day was leisurely, with the only hiccups being stops for a coffee or lunch. The city doesn’t offer much by way of culture, and our tour of the historic part of town – stretching back 800 years – took a mere five minutes. The tourism office claimed that hot springs, ski resorts and outdoor activities keep the country’s economy afloat, but I have a feeling it’s the tax-free cigarettes and perfume.

Andorra is a three-hour car trip from Barcelona, or a four-hour bus journey via ALSA bus lines. Part of the highway has tolls. Don’t miss the breathtaking mountain views and the duty free shops!

Have you ever taken any day trips outside of Barcelona? Where do you recommend visiting?

If you’re looking for a guided tour or discount tickets for attractions, check out TicketBar. Or if you’d like to take a Spanish course while in Barcelona, I’ve got top tips and language schools – get in touch!

Apparently, I’m Not the Only Guiri Who Dislikes Barcelona: Aga’s Take on the Ciudad Condal

After I confessed that Spain’s cosmopolitan Barcelona – a city on nearly every traveler’s itinerary, I was shocked to discover that I wasn’t alone in feeling iffy about it. Even friends of mine who have called Barna home have admitted that the city is a bit sketchy, that it’s hard to navigate and that it took a while for it to grow on them. Upon publishing what has been my most controversial post, Aga of Aga Nuno Somewhere offered to write a counter post about what’s to love about the sprawling city. Her story:

Barcelona was the first Spanish city that I visited. Maybe that is why I have such a soft spot for it? I remember walking the first time around Passeig de Gràcia and admiring Gaudí’s masterpieces and how intimidated I felt when being surrounded by thousands of tourist on la Rambla.  During my first visit I was only a tourist, but then came back to Spain for my Erasmus exchange and spent a whole year in a small Catalan town Lleida. I took every opportunity I could to travel to Barcelona, which is only 90 minutes away.

I love big cities, the hustle and bustle of a metropolis, and Barcelona had all I ever needed – sun, beach, beautiful monuments, calmer districts like Gràcia. I secretly dreamt of living there. Little did I know that I would actually move there with my boyfriend for two years. And as much as I like the city, I must admit it was not as great as I would have wanted.

Barcelona is expensive, finding a flat is a nightmare (we actually had to fight in court to get our 1500€ deposit back from the first landlord), Catalans are not really friendly when it comes to service and it is really hard to get to know them. As my boyfriend used to say: in winter they all go skiing to Andorra, in summer they all go to their beach houses on Costa Brava. When you actually live in the city that always appears on a list of top destination to travel in Europe,  all those tourists who come to visit start to annoy you… But I still loved being able to say: Oh, I live in Barcelona.

I discovered some great places to eat, as I am a foodie, so I tend to look for nice bars or restaurants everywhere I go. But unfortunately I have to admit that when comparing it to other Spanish cities, when it comes to food, Barcelona is falling far behind Madrid or Andalucía. You really must know where to go, otherwise you end up in some pintxo chain or paying a fortune for simple tapas and sangria.

I love street art, so every walk around Barcelona was exciting: I never knew what was waiting for me around the corner! And all of those Catalan traditions that I discovered during the fiestas: castellers (human towers), correfoc (parade with fire) or calcotada (eating grilled calcots – a kind of sweet onion). I had my calendar full of all the city fiestas –  la Merce (the Patroness of the city), fiestas de Gràcia and some other neighborhoods.

I also travelled a lot around the region, to lovely Sitges, Montserrat, Dali’s Triangle and Costa Brava. But even if you live in Barcelona for a long time, there is always something new to do, somewhere to go and discover, or simply sit in a chiringuito on the beach with a cold beer (or the winter version: drink in a vermutería– small local bar that serves homemade vermouth).

I really like Barcelona and had my favourite spots there, but then understand that not everyone falls under the spell of Ciudad Condal, especially when spending there only few days and just being a guiri.

Aga writes in Polish and English about her travels throughout Europe with her boyfriend, Nuno, on Aga Nuno Somewhere. Currently residing in Ireland, you can find her on twitter at https://twitter.com/AgaNunoBlog.

The Sagrada Familia: Gaudi’s Obra Maestra

The Sagrada Familia is perhaps one of the most well-known construction sites in the world, as well as one of the longest running. Intended to be the obra maestra of Antoni Gaudí, his untimely death leaving the construction site nearly 100 years ago launched the church into the epicenter of a battle over how closely to finish Gaudí’s work.

Nature inspired Gaudí as a child, and his grand temple is a testament to his religious devotion and belief that no man can create what God has done upon the Earth. Every detail of the facade and the towers were conceived bearing that in mind, though recent advances in technology have led to a stray away from the original blueprints. The church is slated to be finished in 2026, 100 year after its mastermind’s death.

On my first visit to the Sagrada Familia in 2005, a hangover dampened our plans to make it to the site early, but we lucked out that the hot July day meant that tourists had taken to the water. The line snaked halfway around the block, but the cavernous church provided refuge from the hot sun. It would be five years before the cranes would be removed, the sound of the drills quelled and the makeshift floorboards that served as walkways around a construction site would be replaced with smooth marble floors.

I went a few years later with my grandmother, and not much more work had been done. On my most recent trip to Barcelona, I could marvel in Gaudí works that partially redeem the city for me. While we scoffed at the thought of paying 20€ for the Casa Batlló, devoting an entire morning to the Sagrada Familia and paying the price of entrance and an audio guide was a no-brainer.

I’m not very religious or even very spiritual, but the emptiness and the contrast of colors, mixed with the soaring buttresses, was uplifting. We spent well over 90 minutes before taking the elevator up to the top of one of eight towers.

If you go: The Sagrada Familia is located in the Eixample neighborhood, and metro lines L2 and L5 serve the Antoni Gaudi plaza, making a stop at the station called Sagrada Familia. The basilica, museum and towers are open daily from 9am until 6pm in the winter, and until 8pm in the summer. You’ll be charged 13,50€ for entrance (11,50€ if you’re a student or senior), or 18€ for an audio guide with entrance fee. The towers will run you an extra 4,50€, and you will be assigned a specific time to avoid lines (we were able to sneak in 15 minutes earlier).

Alternately, you can skip lines and receive discounted tickets for all of Barcelona’s big sites via TicketBar by clicking here.

The temple was consecrated in 2010 and mass in now celebrated regularly. Many thanks to Meritxell of Tourism with Me for her help with where to eat nearby. We had a filling Catalan menu at Juanma, located at C/Lepant, 280. If you’re looking for a place to stay, look no further than Barcelona Home for great apartment rentals.

Places with Encanto: Barcelona’s Parc Guell

When I was a child, I used to cut up old pictures into tiny squares, scatter the fragments and look at the kaleidoscope of memories that began to collect, adorn other picture frames and end up in projects I completed for high school.

Years later, I toured Gaudi’s whimsical Parc Güell, a high-hanging oasis in the middle of a bustling metropolis. The shards of ceramic that lined the few physical structures and park benches captured my imagination much the same way that my photos had.

Originally meant to be a luxury subdivision dreamt up by Count Güell and designed by Antonio Gaudí, only two houses were ever built. The property was turned over to the city and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the 1960s. Despite the crowds and the uphill climb from the nearest metro stop, the park is a beautiful showcase of Gaudi’s work on a small scale, and it’s one of the redeeming parts of a city I’m not too fond of.

Have you been to Parc Güell? Which shot is your favorite?

Am I the only one who doesn’t like Barcelona?

I am a person who believes in second chances. You can ask my dear friend, Phil (hi, friend!).

And when it comes to cities that I didn’t like the first time around, I’ll always willing to make another trip. So many of my travels could have been spoiled by rain, strikes, food poisoning and culture shock, but some cities and I are just not amigos, even after multiple visits.

Barcelona is one of those cities. Three second chances later, and it’s still not grown on me.

In all fairness, I love the whimsical architecture, the Mercè festival, the oceanfront. But the positive aspects seem to end there.

I find Barcelona too busy, too big, too expensive and not well-lit. It’s not friendly in the same way that Valencia is (another Spanish city I could take or leave), nor did I ever stop feeling like a tourist. Having my family with me was stressful as I repeated, “No, Mom, I can’t read it; it’s in Catalan and I don’t speak Catalan,” or tried to ask directions, only to find the person I’d asked spoke no English or Spanish. Apart from the sites I like, such as Parc Güell or the Gràcia neighborhood, I felt like I wasn’t really savoring a second chance in a city – and I swear I tried!

I hear loads about the cuisine, but being based in El Born, couldn’t find much that wasn’t chain pintxos and tapas, or menus riddled with poorly translated English – always a sign the service and prices will be exorbitant. What’s more, I come from a family of picky eaters. We had pizza, two consecutive meals at a pintxos bar and burgers.

And what is with not a single place being open for coffee before 9am, save Starbucks?! Even the 24-hour McDonalds wasn’t open when we left early one morning for the Pyrenees! I can always count on an obscure cafeteria opening early for a coffee in every other part of Spain I’ve traveled to, so I was surprised that all the bars seemed shuttered until 9am.

I’m also not into the Catalan ‘tude. Spearheaded by Artur Mas, a campaign for Catalonian independence has transformed the city into an alien landscape of sorts, which independence flags hanging from balconies and Mossos, the Catalan version of a cop, all over the place. I can’t argue that their claim  that their language and culture was oppressed under Franco, I don’t think that their reasons for leaving will necessarily make things any better. The kicker? They want to be recognized as an EU sovereign state but still stay in the BBVA Spanish soccer league! (if you’re interested in learning more, check out Simon Harris’s book project, Catalonia is not Spain: a Historical Perspective)

I also had to laugh when our host called to ask us how the trip was going. Considering we’d invariably come during three back-to-back holidays, I told him we’d had to escape the country on the whole and go to Andorra. Qué lujo, he responded, and I told him about my plan to travel to 30 countries before 30. His response? That Cataluña is another country, even though it’s illegal to secede from Spain. Different, yes, but still Spain.

What is great about Barcelona is its proximity to the Pyrenees, Girona and Costa Brava. Navigating through my cell phone, we took quick breaks to Andorra, Girona, Besalu and Monstserrat. Getting out of the city meant having my head cleared and experiencing a part of the country whose tourism is highly developed and thriving. Returning, I tried to see Barcelona a bit differently, but I just ended up pouting like a three-year-old when I had to pay more than 1,20€ for a beer and use my cell phone as a flashlight for opening the door to our place in El Born. 

Have you ever given a city a second chance? Were your thoughts swayed? Is there a destination you’re not keen on returning to? Watch for the response to this post from Aga, part of the traveling duo of Aga Nuno Somewhere. If you decide you have to see Barcelona, considering checking out Barcelona Home for apartment rentals while in the Ciudad Condal.

Four Mini-breaks from Seville

Part of the attraction of residing in Seville; apart from the sunshine, siestas and delicious oranges is its proximity to so many weekend break destinations. Whether you’re after a quick city fix or an island beach break, you can take your pick of cheap flights from Seville.

The local government recently expanded the bus line to Aeropuerto San Pablo, the airport that services Seville and western Andalusia. The EA bus will now travel all the way to the Plaza de Armas bus station for 4€ one-way.

Lisbon, Portugal

In just six hours you can be in the beautiful Portuguese capital, Lisbon. The enchanting whitewashed houses climb high into the hills of this easy going city on the edge of the wild Atlantic Ocean. Quirky canary yellow trams navigate the windy streets of Lisbon passing the elegant architecture of the Castelo de São Jorge and the beautiful Museu do Teatro Romano.

Take a leisurely stroll along the Ponte Vasco da Gama, Europe’s longest bridge on the way to a Pastelaria where you’ll find heavenly sweet treats fresh from the oven. You can shop in the Centro Comercial Colombo or enjoy the peace and tranquillity of the lush Lisbon Botanical Gardens.

Museums and galleries mingle with local markets and cosy cafes. At night the famous Barrio Alto glistens as the clubs and ritzy wine bars throng with people, while the sound of Fado drifts on the air.

Marrakech, Morocco

‘Souk’ up the sun in this magical, dirty, spice scented city. Head for the bustling medinas to try out your haggling skills for that special carpet, teapot or Moroccan lamp; escape to the solitude of a glorious hammam where you can luxuriate in warm thermal waters while being pummelled and pampered to your heart’s content.

For something more energetic, take a hike into the breath-taking Atlas Mountains before discovering the city at night. Wind you way through snake charmers and story-tellers until you find a cosy little restaurant where you can feast on tangine and couscous to the sound of swaying palms.

Barcelona, Spain

For a chic city break brimming with bright colours and a vibrant art scene, grab a cheap flight to Barcelona.  Stroll around the local markets and marvel at the magical architecture of Anton Gaudí s dreamlike Sagrada Família.

Get lost in museums dedicated to Picasso and Miró, or the jewellery boutiques and artisan workshops in the maze of streets around Mercat del Born. Explore the beautiful winding lanes of the Barri Gòtic, the city’s most historic quarter as you stumble upon mouth-watering dishes of tapas.

Don’t miss the lovely sight of Sunday’s at the Cathedral La Seu, where local elderly couples come to dance a Catalan folk dance called the Sardana. In winter, the Festival Internacional de Jazz de Barcelona comes to town. Cool bars and all night clubs make Barcelona the place to be if you’re after some non-stop nightlife, so consider staying in a swanky apartment.

 Palma de Mallorca, Mallorca

If you’re after a getaway that offers culture, history and city life but with a side order of white sandy beach, you can’t do better than a weekend in Palma de Mallorca, which is actually a destination I’m hoping to get to in 2013.

Castles and classical Spanish architecture combine to give Palma elegance, with just a hint of ‘the Riviera’ as yachts glisten and bob in the blue harbour waters. The ancient historic centre boasts Arab baths and the Museum of Contemporary Art, showing Miro, Dali and Picasso. Palma is a fantastic place to bring the whole family. Kids will love a day at Aqualand Water Park or Marineland zoo, while adults can try a spot of sailing or windsurfing.

Alternatively, spend your days languishing on the beautiful Ciudad Jardin beach with its soft white sand, or on Cala Major beach whose waters are clear as crystal.  At night, as the city lights twinkle, visit the famous Abaco cocktail bar in a former coaching house in the old town. There, every Friday at 11.30pm, fresh rose petals fall from a hidden balcony above a magnificent stone fireplace to the sound of classical Spanish music.

This post was made possible by Skyscanner, but all opinions are my own.

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