After a wonderful stay in Budapest, we headed to the final stop on our European trip: Barcelona, in the Northeastern part of Spain.
Every travel blog out there will place Barcelona as one of their top go-to cities in Europe. However, I personally believe that this city has been hyped way too much. The reason we ended our trip there was that it was the cheapest flight out of Europe back to San Francisco (by a large margin); they had direct 13h flights for around 250€, which is unbeatable.
I first went to Barcelona with my family back in 1998. Then I went back around 2007. Every time I go back, and the more I travel the rest of the world, I like it a bit less. It’s big, hot and noisy.
One disclaimer: I’ve been a FC Barcelona football fan since I was 13 years old.
But this article is not about the football, it’s about the city.
So what’s the deal with Barcelona then?
One blog mentioned “Our favorite thing about Barcelona is that it has a little bit of everything.” This is kind of precisely the problem. It has a bit of everything, but none of those little bits is world-class. Let’s take a sample:
- The Barceloneta beach is nice, but surrounded by buildings and way too overcrowded. You can find better beaches in Europe: head to Galicia in the north of Spain, to Andalucia, Portugal, or Greece.
- The food is nice, but Barcelona is not necessarily known for being a gastronomical capital. Furthermore, it’s easy to fall in tourist traps. We ate lunch at the Paella Bar next to the Boqueria market. The paella was good, if a bit overpriced. At the end, when I told the waiter that the paella would have needed a bit more saffron (which is a key ingredient of paella), he seemed offended and responded “We don’t put any. As you can see, it doesn’t need it.” Great way to accept negative feedback!
- You’ll find tapas places, but tapas are not from Barcelona. The tapas I’ve eaten in Barcelona aren’t as good as the pintxos of San Sebastian or those of Sevilla.
- The Gaudi museums are outrageously expensive (28€ for entering La Pedrera anyone?)
- Its architecture is nice, but nothing special (apart from a few highlights). It’s no Rome.
- Its air is polluted and doesn’t even meet European Union targets (the city’s 2013-2018 Urban Mobility Plan should be saluted for aiming to reduce traffic by 20%.)
Now, there are still some cool things to do in Barcelona. Here’s what we did in only a day (!!!):
- Walked through the cobblestone streets of the Gothic Quarter
- Admired the Gaudi architectural masterpieces, the Sagrada Familia, Casa Batlló and Casa Milà, from the outside (if you have the money, do visit them).
- Absorbed the smells and colors of La Boqueria market.
- Went to the beach.
- Visited the Park Güell (a wonder of stonework, mosaics and gardens) on the north hill overlooking the city (Important piece of advice: you need to book your ticket only for a specific time slot. Don’t miss your time slot.)
Geeking out on urban planning
Barcelona was one of the first city in Europe to use the modern grid system (the Romans had designed grid cities, like Pompeii, a long time before). Antonio Gaudi, the architectural God of Barcelona and its mayor (Guell) decided to design the “new” Barcelona on the plain of the Eixample.
Now, one of the reasons I like Barcelona less than other cities in Europe is precisely because of this grid system. Barcelona blocks are quite large (about 140m long) and the streets are wide. There is little sense of wonderment, because you can see everything that’s around you, without any surprises. The 99% Invisible podcast episode on the Salt Lake City urban design added further insights on this: “urban planners have long known that short block are inherently more interesting, because there’s a greater density of what they call ‘network nodes’ or ‘sites of possible interactions between people’. Shorter blocks mean more intersections, and more intersections means more options for what to do, or where to go.” Given this observation, I haven’t felt like Barcelona’s “Superblocks” (9 nearby blocks which together don’t allow car traffic), which were supposed to increase social activity, have done much. In Barcelona, turning right or left at the next block presents more or less the same sight, and walking more has diminishing returns.
Now compare this to a city like Siena, in Italy (I know they’re not the same scale at all), or Rome:
Rome’s top sights are placed randomly around the city. It isn’t uncommon for tourist to wander around and haphazardly and unexpectedly find themselves on the Piazza Navona, next to the Pantheon, or at the foot of the Colosseum. While Rome has a few main arteries which take you from one end to the city to another (for example, the 3 vias sprouting from the Piazza del Popolo like the rays of the sun), most of its streets are small, uneven, and curly, with an enormous number of the network nodes mentioned earlier. This is a big reason behind the magic that a neighbourhood like Trastevere exerts on tourists and filmmakers alike.
Now, look at Siena. Doesn’t its urban plan have a resemblance to the golden ratio if you squint your eyes every so slightly?
I remember when I went to Siena (it was on a school trip). I didn’t know anything about the city (it hadn’t been used as the location for the Quantum of Solace intro scene yet), so didn’t know what it looked like or what to expect. As we walked on old paved circular roads, going ever more inwards every time (like towards the center of a labyrinth), the mystery was kept. These old narrow streets are sidelined by very tall Italian buildings and the visibility is therefore almost nil. What am I too expect at the end of that street? Where will I land? So much mystery to keep the excitement going. Then, out of a street, suddenly it appeared: the Piazza del Campo, one of the world’s most beautiful squares. If you look at an aerial view of this square, you almost don’t see any street openings leading to it… like it’s hidden from the outside. And since things are well made in this world, the square is shell-shaped, just like the surrounding street plan traces the ridges of a shell itself.
But this isn’t a story on Italy. These examples were to illustrate the idea what’s even more interesting than shorter blocks are no blocks at all. Cities planners should embrace chaos the way Salvado Dali embraced a surrealist depiction of reality. Barcelona’s chaos isn’t to be found in the stroll along its orderly streets. Its chaos is to be found in the Spanish temple of social life: the tapas bar.
The Tapas Eating Culture
The tapas bar (or its upgraded version, the pintxos restaurant) is the essence of Spanish organized chaos.
As brilliantly explained in this Medium article the culture of Tapas is all about sharing. The way it works is that you go to a bar, order a wine or a beer and you get a free tapas (usually leftovers from lunch nicely cobbled together on a nice toast of bread.). One could say free is part of the essence of tapas. For this reason, when you go to a “tapas restaurant” in Ireland or England, the 5€ plate you’re getting is not a tapas. It’s a ración. While supermarkets in Anglo-Saxon countries are filled with ready-to-eat food for people on-the-go, that’s not so much the case in Spain. Instead, people go to the tapas bar with their friends, quench their thirst with an Estrella Galicia, and eat a small tapas. But won’t they go hungry you may ask? Well no, because Spaniards eat 4 times a day (usually 10am, 2pm, 7pm, 11pm), and readily engage in tapas crawls.
Now, small tapas are quite limited, so most of the time, both Spaniards and savvy tourists will end up eating at a bar that serves pintxos and raciones, those small plates, which are usually bigger than a tapas and more intricate, and are presented on the counter of the bar with a toothpick. Alternatively, you can order a ración directly with the barman and he/she’ll bring it to you. Either way, the way these bars work is that you can freely take raciones from the counter, without anyone watching, and just keep the toothpick in your plate. Imagine a small bar packed with people all vying for a spot at the bar, and you can imagine the chaos. The rule of thumb in these situations is to be assertive and loud so you can both make your way to the bar and/or call the attention of the barman.
At the end, you bring your plate to the barman, he tallies up your toothpicks and charges you accordingly. These pintxos and raciones are usually around 2 to 4€. Despite these low prices, a non-Spanish mind may be befuddled at this eating practice, which fully relies on the honestly system. Surely, there is room for abuse? Ben Curtis of the blog Notes From Spain addressed this issue in this article. The way I personally see it is that Spanish (or Italian, or southern France -where my grandparents grew up) cultures (even in big cities) retain a local, community-driven, almost village-like sense of belonging. People know and trust each other. They give something and get something back in return (“I give you 12 eggs and you help me repair my bicycle”). The same people will keep coming to the same tapas bars, and as long as they respect the place and the owner, a feeling of loyalty will be created both ways.
This is very different from the American way of life, where people live in segregated suburbs away from the city centers (which are just highways interwoven with skyscrapers), not really knitting meaningful relationships with their neighbors (before you correct me: I know “small-town America” may be closer to the southern European way of life, where communities are strong).
On our last night in Barcelona, we walked the blocks of the Eixample neighborhood (admittedly not the best place to eat tapas & raciones in Barcelona, but the Gothic Quarter was far from our hostel) for a long time, until we finally found a good restaurant which was open at this late hour. It was a Basque pintxos place called Maitea. We gorged ourselves on the delicious food, which was extremely diverse and kept being brought fresh and warm from the kitchen by waiter. While Jarelle had complained the whole 20-25 minutes we walked there, almost ready to give up and eat at McDonalds, I spurred him on as I knew he’d rejoiced at the local Spanish cuisine and way of eating if only he could experience it. And of course, as we all know Jarelle experiences huge mood swings, he changed from a state of frustration and resignation to that of a kid in a candy store when he started eating the delicious Spanish plates.
So, how to enjoy Catalunya?
As you may have gathered, I have somewhat mixed feelings about Barcelona. I’m sure a local expert would be able to bring me to secret places which would totally change my opinion for the better, but until this happens, I will conclude by saying this:
I think what makes a travel destination great is not that it’s ‘OK’ in all dimensions that a tourist may be looking for: in other words, it doesn’t try to be everything to everybody. No, a travel destination is amazing because it’s world-class in only a few dimensions. For example:
- Tibet is the go-to place for travellers seeking adventure and spirituality (both themes being key in Tintin in Tibet, one of my favorite childhood comics).
- Rome is the go-to place for food and history lovers. You won’t find any nightlife there.
- Conversely, Berlin is the go-to place for party animals and hipsters.
- Dublin is the go-to place for real Irish pubs, and having some good craic.
I would definitely recommend going to Catalunya, but don’t focus your trip on Barcelona. Head for the picturesque little seaside towns of the Costa Brava while listening to Cafe Del Mar. Visit Girona. Go hike in the mountains.