After eight months of living in London during which I have been horrible about traveling (only making return trips to Paris and The Hague), I finally got my adventurous travel spirit back and took off this past bank holiday weekend for a much-needed vacation in Barcelona.
Spain is a country near and dear to my heart. I studied abroad in Cádiz, a town on the southern coast, during the summer of 2005 and got to see a number of other cities (Madrid, Segovia, Toledo, Sevilla, Jerez de la Frontera, and Granada) while I was there. I loved every moment of that time in Spain, and I cannot account for the fact that it took me an entire decade to go back except to say that I was more focused on accumulating new stamps in my passport rather than becoming more familiar with countries I’d already visited. I also think my continued study of Spain (through my Hispanic Studies major, for which I ultimately wrote a thesis about Spanish film) and my subsequent years as a Spanish teacher helped me feel connected to the country even when I was far away. That being said, the things that make Spain so magical can only be experienced in Spain – the food, the music, the dancing, and the supremely attractive men. (It was true 10 years ago, and it is true today: out of the 27 countries I’ve visited, Spain has by far the most attractive men.)
I have heard so many good things about Barcelona over the years (plus I’ve watched “L’auberge espagnole” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” countless times), so it’s been at the top of my travel priority list for a while and was a natural choice when I thought about where to go for my first SOLO trip. I turned 30 two weeks ago, and for that as well as for the practical reason that I am still single, I am moving forward into this next decade of life ready to experience more of the world as a solo traveler. I’ll write a separate post about my thoughts on solo travel, but for now, I can say I am very encouraged about it!
I arrived in Barcelona around 5:00 on Saturday evening, and after dropping my things at my hotel near the Barceloneta metro station, I set off on foot for the most famous street in Barcelona, La Rambla. (I think it is also called Las Ramblas because although it’s a continuous street, its name changes a few times along the way, each with “La Rambla” in the title.) It was bustling with tourists and locals alike. There’s a wide pedestrian strip in the center of the road, which makes it easy to amble along, ignoring souvenir stands and perhaps not ignoring the gelato stands. I was quite hungry and made straight for the Mercat de la Boqueria, which is a feast for all the senses. It is comparable in size to the market I went to in Budapest, and inside are people selling every type of fruit and vegetable known to man (along with a wide range of fresh juices and smoothies), fish, baked goods, and of course: ham, ham, and more ham. You can grab a paper cone filled with freshly shaved ham for about 1.50€. I opted for a wrap with two types of chorizo, a quail egg, and a few patatas bravas to tide me over until dinner time:
I planned to spend more time at the market on Monday, so I was soon continuing north along La Rambla. I made a brief detour into the Corte Ingles, Spain’s department store, and then I turned back southeast to wander through the Barri Gotic, which is the old part of the city and made up of narrow, winding streets filled with shops and restaurants. I eventually came out into the plaza where the Cathedral is located and passed a trio giving an outstanding impromptu concert along one of its walls. One man played Spanish guitar, and a man and a woman sang along. Their rendition of “Ave Maria”, with opera-quality voices, brought tears to my eyes. Five minutes further along, I encountered a completely different musical performance in the form of a troupe of 20 or so people playing different types of drums. They filled up the whole street, and the sound of all their drums reverberating off the stone walls made a pretty terrific sound.
I eventually turned north again and made my way to a tapas place that had been recommended to me for its great food and its convivial atmosphere. Since this would be my first experience dining out alone, I wanted a place where I could sit at a bar and at least watch people putting food together. There were a few people standing along the wall inside waiting for seats to open up, and that waiting period gave me time to look at some of the dishes being served, all of which looked incredible. I eventually ended up perched on a bar stool and sipping a glass of white wine while perusing the menu, which was in Catalan. (For those who may not know, Barcelona is in Catalunya, which is one of the provinces of Spain with its own official language and aspirations of independence.) Catalan is pretty similar to Spanish, but that menu was an exercise in guessing! After extensive deliberation, I ended up ordering a Bomba de la Barceloneta, spicy lamb skewers, and one of the daily specials, white asparagus with caviar and edible flowers.
This is the Bomba – it’s the Spanish equivalent of a Scotch egg, minus the egg. There’s a ball of meat at the core, which is surrounded with the potatoey substance found in Spanish croquettes.
The asparagus was incredible, as you can tell:
I was never bored while sitting there alone. I was perched next to a window looking into a part of the kitchen where a number of delicious things were being prepared, so I enjoyed watching one of the cute chefs (whose name turned out to be Rafa, as will be revealed in the next post), and directly in front of me I could watch the man whose job it was to prepare the most simple dish in the place: two slices of toasted bread rubbed with tomato and sprinkled with olive oil. That’s literally all there was to it – I am not talking about bruschetta with chopped tomatoes on top of the bread; I mean literally cutting a tomato in half, rubbing it against the bread, and then topping it with olive oil. I did not order this, but everyone around me seemed to want some, and when I asked a neighbor if it was one of those things that was really delicious because of its simplicity, they said yes. I also really enjoyed watching the restaurant staff: people dashed back and forth from one side of the bar to the other, variously taking orders, getting drinks, serving tapas, or darting out from behind the bar to find a seat for somebody. They would shout certain orders as they were made, and one or more people would acknowledge the order by calling out “oído” (literally, “heard”). They had to be constantly on their toes, but no one lacked for energy or enthusiasm.
I was midway through my dishes when the stool next to me opened up, and an American girl named J sat down with sangria in hand. We started talking immediately, and I ended up spending a lot of time with her over the course of the weekend. The fun in traveling alone is that you never know who you are going to meet! She had been sitting in a different part of this restaurant eating with a mother and daughter she had also just met, and when they left, someone thought to move her to be next to me so we could talk!
We ended up staying at Tapas 24 for another couple of hours, working our way through a glass of sangria and then a gin and tonic that one of our friends behind the counter offered to us with the promise that it was the best gin and tonic available in Barcelona. The end result was certainly good (I am not a G&T aficionada, so I can’t really comment on how this compared to others); our friend Sam impressed us most with the leaves he carved out of lemon rinds without us even realizing what he was doing:
Eventually, after promising to return the next evening, J and I made our way back outside into the cool evening to see what Barcelona had to offer us on Saturday night. At this point it was about 11:00, so still extremely early in the Spanish nightlife timetable. We ended up meandering back over to La Rambla, which we learned is a good place to go if you are in search of suggestions about how to spend an evening. We were stopped by a series of men who were scouting for people to come to their bars/clubs, but our favorite by far was a guy named Renzo who was delighted that I spoke Spanish and so cute that we allowed him to lead us all the way into his club about a block and a half away. He explained that for only 15€ we could have two drinks and then get on a bus that would deliver us to one of three nightclubs on the beach. It was a tempting offer, partially because we hadn’t even known there were clubs at the beach. We ended up taking his number so that we could find him again later and continued along the street to receive very similar offers from less effective salesmen, including one who, observing that J seemed slightly less enthused about the idea of going to the beach than I did, commented “she is not your real friend.” We laughed about that until we decided to pop into another tapas bar to get a drink and some water while we tried to decide what to do.
Our waiter in this establishment was yet another nice, attractive man who introduced himself as Miguel Angel and quickly took to calling me things like “honey” and “princess”. We asked him if the beach clubs were worth going to, and as I had suspected, the answer was no. He indicated he was going out after his shift and that we could join him if we wanted. We were a little hesitant to do that; I can’t offer any reason for that except the very superficial one that we thought Renzo was cuter, so if we were going to accept someone’s plan, it was his. Anyway, while we were sitting there we noticed a movie-star-level-attractive man sitting at a table nearby and blatantly stared at him on and off for about 15 minutes. He was sitting with another couple, but they left, and somehow he ended up entering the conversation I was having with Miguel Angel. Hot Paolo (as he is now saved in my phone) asked me if I spoke Spanish (I think he was not close enough to have observed that I was speaking Spanish with Miguel Angel), saying that I seemed a little dazed or something, and I said “oh, I speak Spanish very well – it’s just that you’re very cute.” He smiled and said “you are too!”, and we soon learned that he was from Argentina but now lived in Miami. He was getting ready to leave, but he gave me his phone number and said to get in touch if we wanted to hang out the next day. Yes please!
Flushed with that unexpectedly successful interaction, we left the restaurant and proceeded back to Renzo’s club. We never did find him again, but we paid our 15€, got wrist stamps, and ended up sitting down for some enjoyable people watching. The first (and, as it turned out, only) bus to the beach was leaving very shortly after we arrived, and given that it was only 1:00 at that point (meaning the club would be entirely empty), we opted to forego partying at the playa and just stay put. One drink in that place was enough, so we left before things got heated and established that we’d meet up again at the Sagrada Familia the next day.
Nights like that – even when they don’t end in stories that are amazing but inappropriate to share here – are why I love to travel. I arrived in Barcelona alone and without an agenda; the universe provided me with a new friend and threw a bunch of fun, friendly people into our path over the course of the evening. I went to bed very excited for what the remainder of the weekend might have in store…