Travel 2013: Barcelona Arrival

April 16th. First Evening in Barcelona.
See Travel Itinerary for a rationale of this trip, and a who’s who of those travelling.

Our first evening in Barcelona and Margaret and I were sitting enjoying tapas in the Plaça Sant Josep Oriol. We were just five minutes off the Ramblas,

Street “performer” on the Ramblas. Imaginatively made up, this modern Don Quixote will move/ perform when money is dropped into the container in front of him.
Barcelona’s famous tree-lined central avenue, with its teeming crowds of Barcelonans, tourists, street performers, booths with sundry goods, and restaurants … a place to see and be seen, buzzing with activity and energy. But after a hectic travel day, we were pleased to relax and people watch in Sant Josep.

Plaça Sant Josep is in the ancient Barri Gotic (Gothic Quarter), adjacent to the Plaça del Pi and is a perfect place to stay in Barcelona. Centrally located, both plaças skirt the walls of the 14th-century Gothic church of Santa María del Pi.

Gothic church of Santa María del Pi

Sant Josep was busy that warm evening but not thronged with people. The outdoor tables of the numerous tapa bars that ring Sant Josep were filled with animated talk; Spaniards love a good conversation over food. Margaret and I were waiting for John, Leslie, Andrew and Alex (JLAA) who had taken a different flight from us and were expected any moment.

As we waited, I thought about the history of Barcelona, capital of the autonomous community of Catalonia (Catalunya in Catalan), Spain’s second largest city (pop. approx. 1,621,000 in 2013) and a major Mediterranean port. It had carried a lot of political clout in the Middle Ages once its primacy over surrounding regions had been established by the evocatively named Guifré el Pelós (Wilfrid the Hairy) in the late 9th century. By the 13th century, Barcelona was the heart of a trading nation with possessions and contacts extending across much of the Mediterranean. Its influence waned in the 16th century with the rise of Castile and was rekindled only in the late 19th century. That was when it became an industrial and cultural hub (e.g. Gaudí and the Catalan moderniste movement) and centre of an increasingly independent minded Catalonia.

Political unrest in the 20th century –particularly the civil war of 1936-39 and General Francisco Franco’s smothering dictatorship until 1975— jeopardised freedom of expression but it did not fundamentally undermine Barcelona’s position as Spain’s major industrial base. Its population increased too as thousands of impoverished Spaniards from other regions flocked to the city in search of work.  It also continued to be a centre of artistic expression, e.g. Dalí, Miró, Tapiés.

At news of the death of General Franco in 1975, Barcelonans rushed ecstatically into the streets to celebrate. Since then, Barcelona has become Spain’s most cosmopolitan city. It’s now flourishing with hi-tech and biomedical investments, and received a major boost and makeover when it hosted the 1992 Olympic Games. And in the last few years, the success of its main soccer team, Fútbol Club Barcelona (or simply Barça to aficionados), has projected its image all over the sporting world.

My musings were cut short when JLAA suddenly appeared, hauling their luggage across the Plaça del Pi, having taken the subway from the airport. (Margaret and I took a taxi, and for a reasonable 25 euros it was worth it!) They  were staying in Hotel El Jardí, overlooking Plaça San Josep; Margaret and I had opted for Hotel Racó del Pi, about 100 yards up the Carrer (Street) del Pi, mainly because it did not entail climbing a flight of steps before getting to reception. Both were good choices for us and we hope to return there.  (As a bonus, Racó del Pi also provided a glass of cava on arrival, and there were apples and nuts available for guests at the reception desk!).

By the time JLAA were settled in El Jardí it was late, but despite their transatlantic overnight haul from Vancouver to Barcelona via London, they weren’t yet ready for sleep. So about 10.00 p.m. –a typical Spanish dinner hour– the six of us were seated in Sant Josep sampling more tapas (patatas bravas: deep-fried potato chunks with spicy sauce, and calamares a la romana: rings of squid in light batter), and reflecting on our respective journeys (Margaret and I were staying overnight near Boston when the tragic Boston marathon bombings occurred).


In Sant Josep: building our strength for the next day with patatas bravas and calamares a la romana and some liquid refreshment. Andrew became a true aficionado of patatas bravas and calamares, sampling them wherever he could during our trip.
We also planned our first day in Barcelona. We were to get up early, have breakfast and then head for the Plaça de Catalunya, about ten minutes away via the Ramblas. Our plan was to take a double-decker bus tour of Barcelona, which gave us the freedom to get on and off at a choice of destinations and at the same time see something of the city between stops.  For us this was the most efficient way to get a taste of Barcelona with the limited time available to us (two days).

There are endless web pages and recipes on Google on both patatas bravas and calamares. Here’s one amusing and illuminating read on patatas bravas: