My time in Barcelona was somewhat unusual. Despite doing a decent amount of stuff, I came away from it feeling like I had squandered a lot of my time – whether it was spending too much time deliberating on destinations, or lots of things being closed, or the heat driving down the inclination to do anything, there seemed a vague meh-ness in the whole approach. It may well be that travel fatigue is beginning to set in, and I have seen – were it possible – one too many archaeological museums and taken one too many free tours. Don’t get me wrong – Barcelona is excellent – one of the more vibrant and varied cities I’ve been to so far, and the first one with a decent beach which is always a plus (gotta swim in that Mediterranean) – but I left it feeling underwhelmed despite being excited about most things I did. Anyway, enough introspection, let me tell you about some more tourism and fun times.
The first port of call, after essentially doing nothing all morning, was a visit to the Barcelona history museum, which is housed in a medieval palace right in the centre of the Old Town, known as the Barri Gotic or Gothic Quarter. This particular building includes the same steps that Christopher Columbus ascended to meet Isabella and Ferdinand on his return to Spain from the first voyage to the Americas, bearing tomatoes, potatoes, turkeys and parrots. Now, visiting the Roman Baths in Bath and the archaeological museum in Cordoba, I had grown accustomed to seeing museums built on excavated Roman ruins, but Barcelona’s museum was in a class of its own. Taking the complimentary audio guide (always a nice touch) and descending into the depths, I was faced by not just an excavated bath, palace or theatre, but a whole literal street of various buildings, carefully excavated to show the development of the city at different points in the first five hundred years AD. There was a dying workshop, a laundry, a fish sauce manufacturer, a winery, a church, part of the old city wall. All laid out in situ, in the largest and best-explained one I’ve had the privilege of seeing. Aside from this, the museum itself was fine – there was a good amount on the brief period that Barcelona was a Muslim area, right at the zenith of the first caliphate, and several special exhibitions housed in great historical rooms about Renaissance cartography and warrior monks – but walking through the vast underground trail and listening to all the detailed audio guides makes Barcelona’s history museum in the Plaça del Rei a highlight.
The museum ticket gave entrance to several other sites of ancient historical significance in the city, so we planned to visit some of those, but first – predictably – we went and met Sandemans again for a free tour. Having just come from Granada and found an independent guide to be in a lot of ways far superior to this multinational, we were moderately skeptical, and though the tour was fine, it followed a similar formula as those before it – walking around the Old Town, pointing out some fun historical facts, and so on. Though it was enjoyable, it wasn’t the end of the world to accidentally fall behind and lose the tour down some alleyway or other.
It being about 3pm by this time, apparently a lot of smaller historical sites were closed from two, so we could only use our ticket for three places – the Temple of Augustus, which was essentially some enormous pillars stashed in a close between tall apartment buildings; the Sepulchral Road, which was a museum that combined Roman funerary practices and Roman roads, with an actual roman grave site in the open air outside, and was worth the visit; and the Museum of the Jewish Quarter which was small but moderately interesting, and included an upstairs exhibition on a philosophical opponent of Maimonedes (who we’d encountered in Cordoba) who argued for orthodoxy and literalism over sweeping allegorisation of the Scriptures. There was quite a decent amount of amiable mud-throwing from both schools of thought, and this played out quite will on the upper floor exhibition. If you’re looking for a good museum on Jewish Spain, however, you’re better off in Cordoba.
The last stop of the day was a trip to the beach. It was still sunny in the early evening, and I had a hankering to swim in the Mediterranean for the accompanying lols. It was quite an interesting experience. The sea was flat as a tack at the closest shore (about 500m from our accommodation), with no waves on the horizon; there was plenty of sand on the beach but it almost immediately became serious shell cover the moment you stepped into the water; and there was a constant stream of semi-shady looking guys walking up and down selling snacks and mojitos (rather like those guys in Paris who try to sell you little Eiffel Tower key rings made of the most awful metal, 5 FOR €1, 5 FOR €1 SIR). It was still sunny but became cold reasonably quickly – it was still early in the season – so we didn’t stay for super long.
The next day, I went out by myself across town a little way to visit an international church – a quick google search got me to http://www.icbspain.org/ which despite the somewhat flamboyant colour scheme seemed like a good option – and it was a good experience. I hadn’t been to church in a couple of weeks, due to moving around a lot, so it was nice to get back into it – and also to be somewhere where the norm was speaking English! (They had a Spanish interpreter going through headsets for those who weren’t English speakers but all the songs and talking were in my native tongue). It had all the usual features I’ve come to associate with visiting non-cathedral churches in Europe – mostly different songs interspersed with the latest Hillsong, semi-awkward conversations with excited regulars, and a decent talk from someone in a leadership position (sometimes with a Pastor or Reverend for a first name, in this case helpfully not, though it was a husband-and-wife team). Short and sweet service. One thing they did that was a bit unique was getting people who were visiting to stand up and say where they were from – it was different for everybody because it’s an international church – a good way to catch the people who are new (either the people getting up or the people awkwardly fidgeting when everyone else is getting up :P). Also they had free pastries and coffee afterwards, which is always a plus, though the congregation was a bit too big to hang out and have a conversation; so I exited reasonably quickly, keen to get going on some more tourism.
First up (after going home to research our options) was the Picasso Museum, right in the heart of the Barri Gotic. We hadn’t gone to the one in Paris – put off by the promise of queues and cubism – but Picasso spent a lot of his early life in Barcelona and the TripAdvisor reviews said it wouldn’t be what you expected, so it was put on the list. Happy to get in on a free student ticket, the museum was rather good. Picasso in his early days was a pretty typical painter – doing landscapes, portraits, miniatures – and then getting into the blue period before going full-blown cubist. Though there is a gap of over a decade after he left Barcelona, you still see something of his development as an artist and the different styles he experimented with. It was quite different to my expectations and certainly worth a look – along with the temporary exhibition which is currently four big rooms of wildly different works inspired by Picasso’s, which was really good if a little weird (definitely worth it if you can get in for free or cheap – otherwise €14 for the permanent and temporary exhibitions is a bit steep). Couldn’t take photos inside but snapped a couple before I realised – for those who read my Madrid post, Picasso did a whole series taking off from Diego Velásquez’ works, including the dwarf picture, and a very famous one of the artist in his studio painting some Spanish royalty. So here for your delectation are the versions by Picasso.
There was a bit of spare time, so we took a wander through the Parc Cituadella, which has a reputation for being a local favourite and was featured in some of Picasso’s darker works, so it seemed worth a look. It was really hot and pretty crowded, but rather nice – the real highlight was all the public art that is scattered around the park and around Barcelona as a whole. A particular highlight was glimpsing what appeared to be a typical wire chain-link prisony sort of fence, but three or four times the size and set up in the middle of a plaza. Here are some shots of the park and the gems of public artistic incomprehensibility marvelled at along the way. The park also contains the zoo and a natural history museum, which I always believe is resoundingly appropriate in all cites #royalparkisunderratedbecauseIjustthoughtMelbournewasntlikethat
After this scintillating experience, there was a free tour from a different company – this time one about the famous architecture of Barcelona’s favourite, Antoni Gaudi! It seems to be a good strategy if you’re a bit of a cheapskate (like me) to shop around tour companies, because often they’ll only have one free tour each but they can be in different areas, as turned out to be the case here. Of course, I disagree fundamentally with the concept of tipping rather than paying a fair amount to your workers, but because these are all independent or at worst self-operated franchises of a global brand, and thus they deliberately put themselves in the position, I feel okay doing it. Also the fact remains that free tours, in my experience, are usually just as good if not better than the paid ones, so if you can get a free tour from another company in place of brand loyalty, you’re getting a better deal out of it and spreading your money around to multiple groups who are all trying to make a decent dollar/euro/pound/swiss franc. ANYWAY, moving on from that, this tour was with a company called Running Bean, which is run by two native Barceloninas (almost certainly not the right word – OH WAIT THANK YOU WIKIPEDIA IT ACTUALLY IS. HECK YES. In Catalan at least – in Spanish it’s Barcelonesas. But Catalan is the local language!), each who take one tour. This one involved four Gaudi sites – the Palau Guell, Casa Battló, Casa Milà, and the Sagrada Familia – and the tour guide was engaging and informative. Like most free tours, it would have been better to take this earlier in our stay because everything piqued our interest! Even still, it was an enjoyable way to round off the two days in the city, we got to see the outsides and a sneaky glimpse inside one, of the greatest works of Barcelona’s greatest modern architect, and we even made a friend to have some cultural tapas at a joint called Bilbao Barria (we wanted to have paella and this seemed to be a good option – it turned out to be more like a self-serve sushi bar, where you pulled the skewer from every small, exotic thing you ate, and then paid per stick at the end. Extremely tasty) and completely failed to get his facebook (despite literally being given his phone and tapping the ‘add friend’ on my own profile – dunno what is going on there).
So yeah! That’s what I did 🙂 Barcelona, out! Next up: Avignon!