Barcelona, Armed with Pepper Spray and Two Plastic Forks
followed by the international incident I caused at Toronto airport
I fell in love with Gaudi and Barcelona whilst studying interior design in the UK and decided that my bucket list would include a visit to the work of this famous Catalan architect. As it was a big O birthday this year I thought it might be nice to visit Barcelona. Around the middle of last year I began leaving travel magazines around the house, to no avail. I then had to resorted to desperate measures. At this time I don’t want to elaborate.
My husband eventually decided it would be cheaper than a divorce. It was $1300 for flights and 7 nights hotel though Expedia. And so I set about picking dates. With my husband’s workload our window of opportunity was narrow, as we prefer not to be there in the hot summer months. We managed to get seven nights at the Barcelo Raval on the edge of the Gothic quarter at the end of April, which suited us as we enjoy walking in cities but not in the hot weather.
The Barcelo Raval – What’s not to like with a view like that?
The Barcelo Raval is the quintessential urban boutique hotel. Slightly incongruous in an ok sort of way to its locale in the Raval district. Its location perfect for seeing everything the city has to offer. We actually timed the walk to the Rambles it was 6 minutes. Ipso facto you are a 6 minute walk from one of the largest most beautiful Gothic cities of the Mediterranean.
The hotel has a panoramic 360 degree terrace and rooftop bar. Even before we checked in, I took the elevator up. The view of the city laid out before me was utterly breathtaking and offered the promise of a magical week. It was this assured view of Barcelona that sold me on the hotel several weeks prior, and I was not disappointed. All the rooms have floor to ceiling, room width, windows, and our room was high enough up to see over the rooftops of the city. Upon coming conscious in the mornings, you press a button and the curtains draw back to reveal a Mediterranean history in Terra-cotta. It’s worth asking when you check in if any of the rooms on the upper floors are available.
All round Funky
Barcelo Raval’s hotel rooms are nothing short of funky with solid blocks of color, waterfall showers and very comfortable beds. The Modern and unconventional decor is prevalent from the rooftop bar to the basement gymnasium. And I can only describe the restaurant decor and food in a similar manner, modern, tasty Mediterranean fusion. Followed by after dinner drinks at the rooftop bar. you can even eat up here if you can’t drag yourself away from the view.
There’s something special about looking out over a city at sunset. At the Barcello Raval you can do it every night, which we did. You could offer me a 5 star hotel, all expenses paid and I would still prefer the Barcelo Raval.
A few hotel reviews mentioned the hotel was in a slightly seedy area. If you turn right out of the main entrance and walk around the hotel, within 20 steps you know you picked the wrong route. It was not threatening, and we continued to walk through it, but we didn’t do it again. Walking straight out of the hotel and turning right on the Carrer de l’hospital takes you to La Rambla in six minutes. You could take a slight detour and walk through the Boqueria market, which is a charcuterie lovers dream, and vegetarians nightmare.
La Rambla is the main tree-lined street in the Gothic district. Popular with the locals and tourists alike, for promenading, eating, drinking, shopping or just watching the world go by. It’s just over a kilometer long, pretty quiet in the mornings, best time for breakfast, coffee and people watching. However its busy after school through to the evening. Another favorite haunt for watching the world go by is the nearby El Born. Authentically Barcelona with the tree lined Passeig del Born for eating Tapas and drinking the local wines or just sitting in the warm evenings.
Security in Barcelona
A little concerned at first regarding the obvious security issue affecting Europe. La Rambla is no exception, fortunately the streetscape means it’s pretty much enclosed. At each end there are concrete bollards, and armed police. Its comforting to know that the Catalans take their visitors security very seriously.
My profession as a photographer of architecture and Interiors takes me around New England, to places I’ve never been and meeting people I don’t know. For safety I always carry pepper spray and after reading about pickpockets in the city, I decided to take pepper spray with me, especially with a few thousand dollars worth of camera equipment, and a habit of zoning out when I’m taking photographs.
One of our excursions was to Casa Mila otherwise known as La Pedrera. I decided the night show would be interesting, but would mean walking back to the hotel around 10pm. Pepper spray at the ready and two plastic forks I found in the detritus of my shoulder bag (not sure what I planned to do with these) we headed home. With my eagle eyes scanning around like some shit house rat, all I could see were happy families with babies in buggies and toddlers on bikes. Feeling very foolish, my assault weapons were gingerly put away.
The Case Mila or La Pedera as it is sometimes known is an occupied apartment house. So there’s less to see than at Casa Battlo. The exterior of the Casa Mila is an undulating wave of rough stone interspersed with seaweeds of wrought iron. The dramatic otherworldly foyer imitates an enchanting undersea world. Another surprise awaits on the roof. Apart from the spectacular views over Barcelona. Here you are above the water, amongst huge waves of organic shapes and chimney stacks, reminiscent of knights on a chess board, under an ever moving and changing music and light show.
To Cruise or not to Cruise
If you were visiting Barcelona and not too interested in the Gaudi architecture, four or five full days in the city gives you time to see most things. However if you took every tour that was available you’d never get home. We did seven nights, as a Gaudi aficionado that’s plenty of time. I had considered a cruise but pleased we didn’t, besides apart from the fact you tend to only get a day in Barcelona, there is no time to see to see the main attractions. As a consequence my in-laws have been to Barcelona four times with different cruises and never been inside any of Gaudi’s buildings because time is so short.
Barcelona’s Main Attractions
The city of Barcelona is a cornucopia of Architecture and Art. Gaudi is Barcelona. There are several houses to visit, a park, and of course the Sagrada Familia. It’s well worth booking tickets several months in advance especially in the busy holiday season. You can get ‘skip the line tickets’ online, just pick a date and time. As Casa Battlo is my favorite, I paid extra for early morning tickets when they only let the enlightened in and certainly worth every penny. And similar at Casa Mila (the night tour).
I didn’t book tickets for Park Guell. Because ‘it’s a park’ I didn’t think we would need them. Big mistake. They were almost fully booked but we managed to get two tickets just before we left. Interestingly though Park Guell is a failed housing project. However in a nutshell, it whimsical and organic with bursts of color in mosaic and pattern. And to top it off a sweeping view of the city. Its a stop on the hop on hop off bus tour. You don’t have to have tickets for part of the Park, but for the main attractions you do.
Gaudi’s Casa Battlo
Casa Battlo, words cannot do it justice. I do know it is a Unesco World Heritage Site, and rightly so. Actually all his work is Unesco Heritage. From the dragon roof to the lowest level. Nothing was left to chance; its ‘Organic.’ He really did have skeletons in his closet and their form is pervasive. Furthermore it makes this building unique from the roof and facade to the smallest door knobs, from furniture to light fittings, everything was designed by him. The way he worked with light, shape and color in the stairwell is nothing short genius. Different hued tiles adorn the stairwell, lighter hues on the lower section and darker as you near to top, as a result, viewing from either top or bottom the color looks uniform.
HINTS & TIPS
Always buy your tickets from the Casa Battlo and Casa Mila etc. websites, there are other ticketing websites that add large commissions. Making matters more difficult, you will need to search through Google to get to the web site you need and even then you can be easily fooled. I have links direct to them at the end of this blog.
They are really on the ball nowadays at these attractions. You are given what looks like a mobile phone and a set of ear plugs. Enabling you to go around at your own pace, matching your phone up with a number on the walls of each room and listening to any number of languages. How good is that. I assume most places do this now. but up to this point I had never seen them
Note: Casa Battlo and Mila are a short walk from each other and could easily be done in the space of 5-6 hours.
Gaudi, Sagrada Familia
To call the Sagrada a Church is akin to calling Shakespeare a novelist. Gaudi designed it in the late 19th-century and worked on it until his death in 1926. They are still working on it and hope to finish it in time for the hundredth year anniversary of his death. Booked my ticket already. Words do not do justice to this sacred icon. It is the most amazing building I have ever had the pleasure to visit. The interior is just spectacular as the sun’s rays burst through the stained-glass windows.
When buying Sagrada tickets, you are given the choice to pay extra for the Sagrada tower tours. There are two. We chose the Nativity and well worth the trip up. However a word of warning. The spiral staircases are very very narrow and not for the faint hearted. One poor lady we passed had fainted, Oh my goodness. I wouldn’t like to hazard a guess as to how or when she got down.
Gaudi was told it the Basilica would take too long to build. His reply, “My client’s not in any rush.” However, this most famous client does not exempt the church from having a building permit, which is has never had, nor has it paid any taxes. EVER. These two oversights are now being corrected and the Basilica board now has a rather large tax bill. Goes to confirm the old adage that there is only two things guaranteed in life, “Death and Taxes”.
On a final note, one of his report cards stated that they were not sure if he was a madman or a genius.
Palau de la Musica Catalona
Although a first class musical concert hall. It is an architectural attraction in its own right. Located in the Sant Pere district. And a testament to the Art Nouveau period. Described as an architectural jewel. Its a plethora of colorful mosaics,ironwork, stained glass tiffany would be jealous of, and so beautifully ornate it resembles a giant street organ.
Guell Palace and Casa Vicens
A mansion designed by Gaudi for Tycoon Eusebi Guell (of Guell Park fame) its conveniently situated just off la Rambla. Another stunningly gorgeous architectural delight. Every room is just a feast for the eyes, Gaudi seems to let his imagination run riot in everything he does, but then you find out nothing is left to chance, and you marvel at his dedication and artistry. However all was not well with the Palau Guell, because apparently Mrs. Guell hated the place. She may however have prefered Case Vicens. Not as austere as Guell palace and certainly less deference to the heavier materials and ostentatiousness. As his first architectural work, he began mixing styles, using a collection of glass, iron, ceramics and concrete in an architectural soup of moorish, oriental, hispanic and arabic style, which in turn became the Catalan modern.
A moment in Time
As you would expect in this fair city, Paella is a given. I think I ate it most days. Living in Louisiana I loved the Jambalaya and here was an opportunity to enjoy the original from which all others are made.
You know those special moments, when you realize that life cannot get any better than where you are at that exact place and moment in time. Well on this trip it was in a little corner of Barcelona. We had spent several wonderful hours at the Sagrada, and having walked the hour and a half there, decided before the walk back to our hotel sustenance was needed. As we walked over the crossing at the corner of the Carrer de Mallorca and Carrer de Sardenya we noticed a pavement (sidewalk) cafe.
Lunch Al Fresco
The Istanbul bar and restaurant, had an end table, and a view of the southern side of the church. We couldn’t have sat down quick enough. And to cap it off, it was the best paella in town. What made it extra special was, after ordering food our waiter asked if we would’t mind sharing the table (as all others were full), with another couple. We then passed an hour conversing with these two complete strangers, who worked on one of the docked cruise ships, she was a German singer and he was from the Philippines and worked in one of the bars on board. With a million dollar view I cannot remember a more pleasant time.
The Jamon was divine
Having read somewhere that tourists can be easily ripped off here. I was a bit apprehensive, and expected the taxi ride from the airport to the hotel to be the beginning, however we were pleasantly surprised to find the cost lower than we had been advised, and the rest of the week continued in the same vein. One meal we ordered was very reasonable priced, however the waiter asked if we would like some ham with it. Ouch! I think it tripled the price of the meal, and was probably Jamon Iberico that had been hanging for a century and a half in the local Charcuterie market. Note to self; check next time.
The Gothic Quarter
The Gothic quarter in Barcelona is one of the biggest medieval districts in Europe, and encompasses the oldest parts of the city dating back 2000 years to the Romans. You can see many influences as different cultures left their imprint on the city. The narrow streets are a labyrinth of both ancient and not so ancient buildings.
There are new surprises around every corner. From centuries old hole in the wall stone buildings, to picture postcard squares like the Placa Reial. Where Cafés, restaurants and bars are filled from morning till night behind a neoclassical colonnade. Here you can watch the world go by and relax, perhaps after you’ve been around the Gaudi museum housed next to the 13th century Gothic cathedral.
The best way to see the quarter is to walk down one of the very narrow walkways off the Rambles and just go where the fancy takes you. If you get lost all the better. As you walk through the bustling neighborhood, you will pass a plethora of shops, boutiques, cafés, restaurants. Barcelona even has its own Bridge of Sighs, the Pont del Bisbe. You may even bump into Picasso in his museum. Over 4000 of his works are exhibited here making it his largest collection anywhere.
I would like to meet the chap in charge of marketing for the 1992 Olympics. Now he was a genius. The camera views of the city that were beamed across the globe, from the excellently positioned diving pool, were the best marketing ploy I’ve ever seen.
And whilst still on the subject, the several miles of Barcelona’s beautiful beaches were created especially for the olympics. Prior to this it was a run down industrial area. Where else to spend a wonderful days R&R, to soak up the rays and enjoy the local cuisine at the beach side restaurants and cafes.
To the northern end of the beaches is the 1992 Olympic village and water sports area. Its a relief to see the athletes housing has not gone to wrack and ruin. One of the open top buses that ride the city everyday have a drop off here. These Olympic areas are not the eyesore that have blighted other cities around the globe, usually because they are out of town and easily forgotten. Here they are an integral part of Barcelona and would have been a travesty should the city have suffered the same fate. However the Catalan powers that be have targeted this area for more regeneration.
The Cable Car
The other Olympic areas are on and around mount Montjuic, (a stop on the bus tour). Alternatively you can walk around the quay, and pick up the cable car for the journey to the Mount. It’s one of the best views of the city you will ever see. The other is from the rear of the city at Tibidabo (also on the bus tour). But you need to alight your tour bus and board the ‘Tramvia Blau’ tram to the funicular railway. Your tour bus driver will point out where to pick it up. The tram was not working the day we needed it but there is a public bus which goes the same route.
The spectacular views from Tibidado’s spread all the way to the ocean. Here you can either visit the Cathedral or play at the amusement park. A very weird place to have an amusement park, in my opinion. But it seems to work.
A note on the Buses
Loving open top buses as we do, Barcelona is no exception. Whereas some large cities with 2 or 3 routes (NYC) charge separately for each route. In Barcelona the Bus Tourisric has three routes for the price of one ticket, allowing you to hop on and off and change routes as many times as you like. What a marvelous bargain.
One of the many stops on the bus for any football (soccer) aficionado is Camp Neu home of Barcelona FC, there’s are lots of tours of the ground, but as ever, book first as it’s very popular.
Prior to leaving for Barcelona I almost booked one of several coach tours to the villages of the Pyrenees. But decided to see how our week panned out and very glad we did because we would never have fit it in.
It is legal in the U.S. and Barcelona to carry pepper spray, but travelers beware, they MUST go in the hold. Upon reflection; It’s debatable which was my biggest mistake. Not checking where our stopover was, (and whether pepper spray was permitted) or forgetting that one of my three pepper sprays was nestling quietly in my shoulder bag. Ready to cause what can only be described as an international incident in the U.S. customs at Toronto.
Note to travelers
Once you have been through security in some overseas airports and think you can breath freely, you are then hit with another set; U.S. security to be exact. As any regulars fliers know some customs agents are potty trained at gunpoint.
Potty trained at gunpoint, but all for the good
On the first leg of our flight home I just happened to open my shoulder bag, only to find my pepper spray that I had forgotten to put in my hold luggage. Making some sarcastic remark about the potty training or lack thereof, of the security agents in Barcelona. I never gave it any more consideration and the thought of dumping it never ever crossed my mind.
Not for one minute did I think we would need to go through American security before our next flight to New England. Deciding honesty was the best policy. As I was putting my bags into the containers along with my shoes, belt etc. I pointed out to the TSA agent that I had pepper spray in my handbag. She gave me a look sheer terror. Thinking perhaps repeating myself would bring some clarification to the proceedings….. I know I didn’t scream at the top of my voice. “I am going to take all my clothes off and run around shouting Canada is a sh** hole”. but her reaction gave me the impression this is what she heard.
Oh goodness what a to-do
She immediately got on the phone and within 0.2 seconds armed security arrived. I was immediately separated from other travelers and questioned about my pepper spray. He seemed to accept my explanation, consequently the happy little naive bunny that I am, thought this was the end of the issue. Alas not. He promptly got on the phone to a larger and more heavily armed guard, also arriving in record time. By now I’m seeing a prison reception area and several wardens standing in 6’ of rubber gloves. I tell my story again.
My husband has also been separated from everyone, his eyes have taken on a catatonic glaze. Being over 6 foot tall he’s trying to be 3’3” and trying for a point somewhere between inconspicuous and invisible, I think his rubber glove pile is around 10’.
Does no one care that I have a latex allergy
Three more telephone calls and three more security personnel later. Each one more heavily armed than the last. The latest agent informs me Pepper spray is illegal in Canada. Erring on the side of caution I decided not to point out that these areas in foreign climes were considered to be US soil.
What if I Plead the 5th
The fourth security agent orders me to go and get a full pat down. However it goes surprisingly well. I think it was the fourth, I was too busy wondering if pleading the 5th works in Canada, or was it the 5th agent and I wanted to plead the 4th. Whatever, I can see 15 to 20 in Leavenworth looming on the horizon. After which another phone call ensues and this time an unarmed gentleman turns up.(not sure if this is a good or bad sign). Asking me to repeat my story again he seemed quite happy with my explanation of my job as a photographer working with unfamiliar people yardi yardi ya.
He finishes by pointing out that the previous several security agents who are all still milling around, are in fact smiling. Had there been any real concern about me there would be no smiles but frowns. bloody marvelous, he could have pointed that little snippet out and saved a lot of grief.
By this time my tears are from sheer relief, that I won’t have to divulge my latex allergy.
Err…. joking apart you can be fined anything up to $1900 for taking pepper spray in the cabin.
For the hotel web site click here Barchelo Raval
Casa Battlo tickets
Casa Mila tickets
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