Barcelona: More than a city

My last big European trip was to Barcelona in northern Spain (in a region known as Catalonia/Cataluña). Although most of the major cities in Spain are within a few hours of Sevilla by train, Barcelona would have been a 6 hour train ride, so I flew there instead. The language of the largely independent region has traditionally been Catalán, an odd dialect that sounds like a mixture of French and Spanish. Luckily for me, most of the people I met in Barcelona spoke Spanish or English. Apparently, Catalán is falling out of use with most of the population.

Barcelona is a unique city with gorgeous art, architecture, and a culture all its own. It didn’t even feel like I was still in Spain.

Barcelona was larger than I expected (it is the second most populated city in Spain, after all), with a metro system large enough to rival the one in Paris. I got lost countless times, particularly on the way back to my Airbnb. Luckily, though, a cab from five minutes away only cost me 5 or 6 euros if I was desperate. The city itself, however, was much more laid-back and friendly than Paris.

In Barcelona I had “paella de mariscos,” or seafood paella. Normally, though, I prefer just plain “paella de verduras,” or veggie paella.

I spent my first hour in Barcelona wandering La Rambla, a popular pedestrian street filled with tourist shops and restaurants. I made sure to stop for some paella (rice seasoned with saffron and mixed with veggies and seafood). Though it was a bit expensive and took a while to make, the delicious seafood was worth it (Barcelona is a seaside city). On the way, I spotted a couple buildings with organic, unique architecture that had clearly been designed by Antoni Gaudí, the famous Catalán Modernist architect.

Next, I had some time to kill before the rest of my friends arrived in Barcelona the next day. Instead of heading to the major tourist attractions, I wandered over to the Barri Gòtic (or “Gothic Quarter” in Catalán), where I stumbled across a church called Santa María del Pi, a 14th-century Gothic church whose name apparently translates to “St. Mary of the Pine Tree,” whatever that means. It was a small but beautiful church, with vivid stained glass windows and a collection of tesoro (treasure) in a back room.

Exhausted from my travels, I grabbed some hazelnut gelato (yum) and headed back to my Airbnb, which was owned by a friendly Spanish couple from Madrid. Eager for another taste of Catalán seafood, I ate at a sushi restaurant called Kibuka nearby and then passed out for the night.

The next morning, after a failed attempt to find the brunch place where my friends were eating, I met them at their hostel, Sant Jordi Hostel Gracia, near my Airbnb. We hopped on the metro and headed to the beach, getting off at Barceloneta and walking the rest of the way. It was blazing hot, so we sheltered from the sun at a cool beachside restaurant called the Surf House, which some other study abroad students had recommended to us. They not only had delicious strawberry and kiwi mojitos–they also served burritos and fish tacos! Coming from TCU, we were in Tex-Mex heaven.

After a blissful, relaxing hour on the beach, where we drank cheap beer and cider and observed several topless women and a cheerful vendor balancing a box of donuts on his head, we got back on the metro and changed for dinner. Unsurprisingly, my friends wanted to go out for sushi, and I wasn’t about to refuse. I just ordered noodles instead of fish. At the restaurant, I tried my first sake shot, which was pretty disgusting. And then it was time for clubbing.

I’d never been to a discoteca in Spain before, so I figured I had to try it. We began the night at a bar called The Room, which we were 99% sure was actually a gay bar. Nearby was a club called Opium, which charged a whopping 20 cover fee. Luckily, girls got in for free with a coupon, but the boys were forced to pay the cover. We bought them drinks out of guilt.

The discoteca was dark, crowded, and loud, like most clubs. About five minutes after arriving, we were approached and offered a spot in the VIP section, complete with a bottle of free champagne. We accepted, only to discover that only the girls were allowed in VIP without paying for bottle service. The boys were left out yet again, much to the dismay of one of the boys’ girlfriends. The champagne came with a bunch of sparklers, which I’d never seen before. After dancing the night away until four in the morning, I was ready to go home. I hopped in a cab (it was too late for the metro to be running) and headed home.

The next day, Saturday, was my last day in Barcelona. Having bought our tickets to La Sagrada Familia the day before, we were able to skip most of the long line to get into the huge Modernist basilica. The church has been under construction since it began in 1882, and it relies entirely on donations. The planned completion date is 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudí’s death.

The result of the church’s constant additions is an odd, almost patchwork style, although it is still breathtaking in its design. Eight giant conical spires crown the church, riddled with rectangular openings that are probably perfect for bird nests. The spires symbolize the four Evangelists on both sides, and another, representing Jesus Christ, is planned to rise above them. Gaudí’s final design calls for a total of eighteen spires. The church’s two sides, the Nativity façade and the Passion façade, are decorated with stonework that depicts different stages of Jesus’ life.

As soon as I stepped into La Sagrada Familia, I understood why Gaudí is sometimes called “l’arquitecte de Déu,” or “God’s architect.” While the exterior is impressive, it can’t compare to the beauty of the basilica’s interior. Walking down the nave of the church is like walking through a multi-colored forest or kaleidoscope.

Gaudí intended the church to play with light, color, and sound. Apparently, the church’s many curved surfaces create a wonderful acoustic effect, making it basically a giant organ. The pillars, all made of different types of stone according to the weight they have to bear, rise up to the ceiling like massive tree trunks, spreading to support the vaulted ceiling. The stained glass windows are like no church windows I’ve seen before, made of abstract colored shapes rather than depicting religious figures. The windows were probably one of my favorite parts of the church’s marvelous design.

I’ve visited dozens of churches all across Europe, from the Sacre Coeur in Paris to St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. But none of those churches can compare to the sheer beauty and grace of La Sagrada Familia. Not only was it my favorite Barcelona tourist attraction–it was my favorite European church, period.

After La Sagrada Familia, my friends and I headed to the beach again. But as soon as we ordered our food at Surf House (the food is just that good), they realized that their Barcelona FC tickets, which they thought were for Sunday, were actually for the game on Saturday at 6 pm–which was about 15 minutes from this realization! They bolted down their food and sprinted to catch a cab, and luckily managed to catch the second half of the game, which everyone knows is the most important half anyway.

After relaxing and reading on the beach, I took the metro and then a cab to Parc Güell (pronounced with a hard G), a popular tourist destination where Gaudí’s old house is located. I had bought a package deal of tickets to La Sagrada Familia and the Casa Museu Gaudí, so I spent a while in the museum before strolling around the park. Although the small museum was a disappointment, since it only contained some furniture and a few plaques, the park was certainly worth a visit. Transportation to and from it was certainly a pain, though–the metro doesn’t run that far, and the only way up or down the hill is either a bus or cab.

Satisfied that I had seen most of Barcelona by then, I returned to my Airbnb and took a nap before eating dinner at a quaint Peruvian restaurant nearby. I got to try a strawberry “pisco sour,” a Peruvian cocktail, and had some delicious tamales.

My time in Barcelona was brief, but I’m definitely glad I went. Barcelona is so different from anywhere else in Spain, but has the advantage of a mostly Spanish-speaking population. The art and architecture were absolutely gorgeous, the beaches were heaven, and the people were extremely friendly. In fact, after Sevilla, Barcelona is probably my second favorite Spanish city.

Ireland & Scotland: A wee journey

Two weeks after the Semana Santa (Easter Holy Week) holiday, students living in Sevilla also get a whole week off for Feria de Abril, or the annual spring festival. After spending just one day riding Ferris Wheels and snacking on the traditional pescaditos (pieces of fried fish, basically), I was off to Dublin, Ireland, and Edinburgh, Scotland. After visiting England and Wales, I had to finish my tour of the entire UK, of course!

I’ve never seen a greener landscape in my life!

I arrived in Dublin on Thursday night, so most tourist attractions were already closed. The lovely gay couple I stayed with had two adorable cats, Betty and Joan, who actually deigned to let me pet them. That’s a huge deal, since cats usually hate me. My hosts suggested I visit a pub called The Cobblestone, which is known for its traditional Irish music. After a long and confusing trek through the poorly lit Dublin streets, I finally made it to the pub.

Settling down with a pint of cider with black currant (a much sweeter alternative), I listened to a group of fiddlers, a flautist, and a drummer stomping out lively tunes. The pub was packed–standing room only. My favorite part was when an older gentleman stood up, called for silence, and belted out a song called “Northwest Passage” that turned out to be Canadian, oddly enough. I loved how engaged the audience was in the music, stomping their feet and sometimes clapping along with the beat.

The next morning, I woke up bright and early to catch a bus to the Galway, which is about three hours away from Dublin, on the other side of Ireland. From there, I caught a tour bus to the Cliffs of Moher, my true destination. Unfortunately, I didn’t check the itinerary, or I would have realized that the Cliffs were an all-day affair–and I only had one full day in Ireland. So I didn’t visit Dublin Castle, the Guinness factory, or any other tourist destinations. Just the Cliffs. Luckily, the Cliffs were so beautiful that I didn’t feel like I missed out on much. We stopped at some other locations along the way, from an ancient dolmen (passage grave) to a nearby castle.

For those who don’t know, the Cliffs of Moher are cliffs rising nearly 400 ft from the Irish sea, and were the filming location for both the Cliffs of Insanity in The Princess Bride and the seaside cliffs where Dumbledore goes to retrieve Regulus Black’s locket/horcrux in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

“SEE! The Cliffs of Insanity!” *dun dun DUNNN*

The Cliffs of Moher were breathtakingly beautiful, even though the weather was cloudy and drizzly. Seagulls and other birds crowed loudly and circled a large rock off the coast, while the breeze smelled unmistakably of salt and brine.

A low stone wall encircles most of the Cliffs, preventing tourists from plummeting to their deaths after an ill-advised attempt at a selfie, but past O’Brien’s Tower (known as “Horny Corny’s Last Erection” by the locals–what a story our tour guide told us about Cornelius O’Brien, father of Irish tourism) there’s a section of cliffs owned by a farmer where you can get right up to the edge. Despite my fear of heights, I gathered my courage and followed everyone else, getting my boots incredibly muddy in the process. Looking down at the waves crashing on the rocky shore hundreds of feet below made me feel a little queasy, but the view from the other side of the cliffs was worth it.

Sadly, I returned to Dublin late at night and had to get up early the next morning for my flight to Edinburgh. My short time in Dublin, land of Artemis Fowl and James Joyce, had come to an end. I definitely want to come back someday and visit all the other tourist attractions I missed this time.

Apparently, the Scott Monument is the largest monument to a writer in the world. It looked pretty sinister to me.

I arrived in Edinburgh at a much more reasonable hour, so I got to tour the city even before I checked into my Airbnb. The bus from the airport dropped me off right next to the Scott Monument, a towering Victorian Gothic monument to the Scottish author Sir Walter Scott. Then I visited the Scottish National Gallery and saw some Van Goghs, Titians, and Monets.

After meeting my Scottish host, a lovely artist and mom who gave me helpful directions and maps, I headed to the Royal Botanic Gardens nearby to look around a bit. The Fort Worth Botanic Gardens are nice, but they’ve got nothing on the ones in Edinburgh. The UK is just so wonderfully green.

I rushed over to the Royal Mile because I didn’t want Edinburgh Castle or the Palace of Holyrood to close before I got there. I climbed all the way to the top of Edinburgh Castle, which has a wonderful panoramic view of the entire city. There’s a memorial to all the Scots who died in World War I in the center of the castle. It was crazy to see hundreds of names, all of the men who gave their lives for their country (I’ve never been to the memorials in Washington, D.C.)DCIM100GOPRO

After a peek at the Scottish Crown Jewels (which paled in comparison to England’s), I set off on the Royal Mile once again. By the time I got to Holyrood Palace (Queen Elizabeth II’s residence when she’s visiting Scotland), though, it was closed. I was consoled by the huge extinct volcano called Arthur’s Seat, which rose high above the city. I wasn’t about to climb it on foot, though. My feet were dead from running around the city all day.

My last stop in Edinburgh was Elephant House Café, the coffee shop where J.K. Rowling famously wrote the majority of the Harry Potter series, sometimes jotting down ideas on napkins. I was surprised to find that Elephant House is actually a Japanese café, or it’s at least owned by Japanese people. I had some chili con carne (they gave me nachos instead, but whatever) and a giant mug of hot chocolate with pink marshmallows called the “Mallow Delight,” and it was heaven. The tea room (where J.K. used to sit) has a view of Edinburgh Castle, but I didn’t get a table in the back.

Obligatory Elephant House bathroom graffiti selfie. (Someone wrote “put a check mark here if you’d snog Hermione” and there were like 10 check marks. It’s a women’s restroom.)

After a long and satisfying day in Edinburgh, I returned to my Airbnb, where I finished a book I found in a Scottish book shop for a pound and a half (!!!) and passed out at 11 pm. I was exhausted after a weekend of travel. My host let me cook my own eggs in the morning, which was a real treat for someone living in Spain, where they don’t eat protein for breakfast.

I was sad to say goodbye to Scotland after a weekend filled with history, friendly locals, and gorgeous landscapes. Out of all the places I’ve visited in Europe, Edinburgh has got to be one of my favorites. Dublin is a close second, only because I didn’t get to see much of the city itself. I hope I get to return someday, maybe when I can afford a nice cozy Aran sweater.