I’ve had the privilege of visiting a great many European cities in recent years, and I’ve formed a sort of mental ranking of them into a few rough categories. The Italian cities are in a league of their own; sublime, without parallel in beauty, history and atmosphere, but there’s a dodgy side to many of them (beggars, gypsies, Mafia, general corruption, dirt) that means one probably wouldn’t want to live there. Then there are the supreme centres of civilisation that are cities such as Geneva, Salzburg and Copenhagen, places where one feels that this is a country that really is a cut above the UK. Then there are the other great cities, such as Budapest, Athens or Paris, where there is much to be admired, but you’re still glad to get back to the UK.
And then there are cities that singularly fail to live up to the hype surrounding them. Barcelona was, I’m afraid, one such city. I’m sorry to say that I don’t think I’ve ever taken such a vehement dislike to a place, and I can’t even quite put my finger on exactly why. Perhaps it’s the fact that we were ripped off at every turn (I will write in more detail about this below). Perhaps, visiting in low season, we didn’t experience it at its best. I don’t know. It just didn’t impress me in the slightest. Being a fan of the Woody Allen film Vicky Cristina Barcelona, it was somewhere I’d been wanting to visit for years, and I had had high expectations. “You’ll love Barcleona,” friends confidently enthused before we went. I wish I could said we did.
It seems to me that the only thing Barcelona has to distinguish itself from any other bog-standard European city is the work of its most famous architect, Antoni Gaudi. Without Gaudi, I’m not sure that it would be as much of a destination as it is now. So I’ll start by discussing our experiences of the two of his works that we visited. I’m aware that the photos I’m going to share with you below are going to make the city look much better than it really is, so just remember that there was lots I didn’t bother photographing!
First up, the Sagrada Familia – Gaudi’s cathedral. We stayed in a hotel a couple of blocks from this, so the first thing we did after getting to the hotel at about 7.30 in the evening was walk up to see it illuminated at night. The first thing that struck me about it was its colossal size, but my overall impression that first night was that it was a bit sinister-looking, its vast towers completely over-decorated and huge cranes towering over them. I shared some of these thoughts on Facebook when we got back to the hotel and people assured me that it was better on the inside.
One was even more aware of the cranes by day. I must admit, I hadn’t anticipated that the most famous building in Barcelona – and indeed in the whole of Spain – would be an active building site. I’d known that the cathedral wasn’t finished, but I guess I thought it would be like an unfinished painting – simply left unfinished. I hadn’t thought that it would be covered in scaffolding and workman, with enormous yellow cranes lifting things into position and building noises adding to the roar of the passing traffic. I’m surprised we didn’t have to wear a hard hat. I suppose it does make one appreciate what went into the building of our own great cathedrals; this one has been on the go since 1882, and isn’t scheduled for completion until 2026 – a full century after its architect’s death.
We didn’t have to queue too long for tickets, as we got there for about 9.30am and it was January, so there weren’t as many tourists around as I’d imagine there are in summer. We had to pay a total of €30 to get into the cathedral, which we resented very much. We don’t think one should have to pay to get into religious buildings (I mean, you can get into the most famous church in the world, St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, without paying a single cent, so why should one have to pay to get into anywhere else!). And €15 each was the absolute basic admission fee. If you wanted an audioguide, or to go in the lift up the towers, that was extra, so we didn’t do that.
Standing right beside it, I thought the carvings on the outside were completely over the top.
Thankfully, given how much money had just been extorted from us, the inside did live up to reports that it was better than the outside. The space was huge, and the light pouring through the stained glass windows lit the inside in an array of different colours. It’s hard to give an impression of the scale of it from these photos, but I’ll let them do most of the talking.
There’s something other-worldly about all those columns. Almost like you’d imagine a cathedral would be on some other planet in Star Wars.
The columns are designed to look like a bit like tree trunks.
An unexpected view when one looks down: a whole other place of worship underneath the main cathedral. There was a sign that implied that you could only go down there if you wanted to pray, though these people don’t look much as though they’re praying. We didn’t go down, in any case.
Underneath the cathedral was an exhibition about the building of it, which was interesting and we nearly missed it on the way out. The building in this picture is another Gaudi work – the Schools of the Sagrada Familia, right outside it, which I think was originally meant to be for the sons of the men working on the cathedral.
As well as being a nice shot of the orange trees, this photo gives you an idea of what other parts of the exterior were like – shrouded in scaffolding!
We found that it was worth crossing the street to enjoy this view of the cathedral, as there’s a pond in front of it with nice reflections of the towers, and it’s easier to get the whole thing in one frame.
Our next stop after the Sagrada was Gaudi’s other very famous Barcelona work, Park Güell. This was a bit of a walk from the nearest Metro station, but there were escalators to help you up the steeper bits of the hill.
No surprise to discover, on reaching the top, that although the main park was free, you had to pay to get into the so-called “Monumental Zone”, where all the Gaudi stuff is. So we coughed up a further €16 (€8 each) for the privilege of witnessing a few walls with mosaics on and a view of the city we probably could have enjoyed without having had to pay.
Don’t get me wrong, Park Güell was a pleasant enough place for a stroll.
It was generally quite chilly despite the sun, but all the walking made us warm enough to take our coats off for a short while.
The view was great from the top, although it was such a shame that the building in the foreground had scaffolding on it. The cranes you can see on the horizon are the ones over the towers of the Sagrada Familia.
(It would have been even better had there not been a huge horde of horrid noisy Spanish school kids, not pictured, sitting along the entire length of the mosaic seating, getting in the way of the view and generally ruining the atmosphere.)
The pine trees reminded me of Rome. Oh, how I pined (get it?!) for Rome!
Before leaving the park we had a look around the little Gaudi-designed porter’s lodge. Remarkably, they didn’t try to charge us extra for seeing this.
There was a nice view from the window, but other than that it was a whole load of nothing.
Leaving Park Güell feeling that it hadn’t really been worth another €16 of our rapidly dwindling funds, we made our way back to the Metro and travelled to Placa de Catalunya, from which we could enjoy a walk down Barcelona’s most famous street, La Rambla. I had high expectations of this pedestrianised thoroughfare. I quote my guidebook: “There may be no better place in the country to indulge in the Spanish ritual of the paseo (stroll) than on this wide, pedestrian street that is anything but pedestrian.” What we found was that although the middle bit is pedestrian, traffic can still go down roads either side, which means that it’s still noisy with traffic. As far as places to stroll are concerned, I can think of many more much better places. It was so unexceptional that I don’t even have a photo of it.
I had seen the Gothic cathedral in the guidebook and it looked impressive, so we diverted from La Rambla into the side streets in search of it. At length we found it, and indeed it did look impressive. But guess what! It cost money to get in! That would be another €12! So here’s a picture of it from the outside, because no way in hell were we going to be forking out yet more money to get into a religious building, which should be free to everyone.
Even the narrow alleyways off La Rambla seemed almost entirely devoid of atmosphere. One did not feel the ever-present weight of history one feels when exploring Rome’s gorgeous backstreets, with their ochre buildings and green shutters; nor the pleasant artistic vibes of Paris. This bit near the cathedral was the nicest, but there was nothing in particular to write home about.
I come now to another major bugbear of the trip: the food. Both its quality and price were scandalous. The first night, we picked a restaurant near our hotel and Lee had a burger and I had tapas. Lee’s burger turned out to be two extremely thin bits of “meat” of a Tesco Value standard – no buns as they’d run out – a few chips and a few bits of lettuce. My tapas was a few very thin pieces of Manchego cheese arranged on a plate and a small segment of Spanish tortilla served with three small slices of tomato. I had Fanta to drink and Lee had a beer. The bill came to a staggering €44. This was just a normal restaurant, nothing fancy. The meal was totally crap and I didn’t even have wine. They saw we were tourists and they fully exploited us. It’s going to take me a while to get over that one.
Next day we vowed to do better. In the morning we picked a nice-looking little cafe for breakfast, where we had coffee and a croissant. The bill came to €10, which was a total rip-off. It’s not like the cafe had a great view or anything, it was just on a normal street. In Rome, you can get coffee and a croissant for €1.50.
Still hoping to find decent, affordable food, we decided to relax after a lot of walking and have a nice long lunch, Mediterranean style. I’d read in the guidebook that lots of restaurants offer fixed price lunch menus between 1.30 and 4pm at very affordable prices, so we picked one on La Rambla that was offering three courses for €9.95. We decided to share it as we weren’t massively hungry, and for the tapas we picked Greek salad, patatas bravas and some sort of chicken croquette things. For the second course we shared a pizza and for dessert we were given ice cream (no choice in the matter). Thinking that this would be a nice affordable way of eating, since we’d shared it, we were astonished to find that the bill came to €31!! This was because instead of the small glass of wine I’d asked for, they brought me a whole half bottle of wine – opened at the table before I realised what was happening – which was far too much for me to drink. They charged about €11 for this. And, instead of the half litre of beer advertised outside the restaurant for €4 that we thought we were ordering, they brought Lee this massive tankard for about €10. We were truly appalled. And the food was totally bog-standard!!
I’m sorry to say that that evening we made the decision that it would be McDonald’s for the remainder of the trip. The cheeseburger I had that evening was the tastiest thing I’d eaten since we arrived, and the only thing that represented good value for money. We had breakfast there next morning too. You can’t argue with a €1 cappuccino.
After the extortionate lunch we had a wander around the port area, which was nice enough but nothing special.
We’d had enough of walking by then so we went back to the hotel and started packing, as if this would somehow speed up the time so we could get home quicker. We would very happily have flown back that night rather than waiting til the following afternoon.
The expense of everything was one of the main things that really cheesed me off about Barcelona. You can do several full days of sightseeing in Rome without paying a penny, and the food in Rome, as well as being arguably the best in the world, is cheap. The people are really rude in Barcelona, too (admittedly they are in Rome also, but the city itself is amazing enough to compensate for that). If we were walking along the street and there wasn’t room for a couple of approaching Spaniards to get past us, they just kept powering towards us and expected us to get out of their way. If we stood to one side to let someone through a narrow bit of pavement, there wouldn’t be a word of thanks or even acknowledgement – they’d just march haughtily past as if we weren’t there. Seriously, it made me want to stick out a foot and trip them up! They were so rude. Other nations ridicule us Brits for our politeness, but good manners cost nothing and the lack of them totally winds me up.
One thing that is worth mentioning is Barcelona’s reputation for pickpockets. Several people warned us about this before we went, but I have to say that we never felt unsafe and we only saw one or two beggars the whole time we were there. It was nowhere near as bad as Rome or Paris in that respect (not that I’ve ever had a problem in either of those cities, but you’re a lot more aware of dodgy people there). It might be worse in summer though.
Lee remarked on the way home that he feels “hurt” by how much we were exploited during the trip to Barcelona, and that’s a good way of putting it. We agreed that we shan’t bother going again, and that at least it’s made us appreciate home.
So, if you’re a fan of Gaudi, by all means go to Barcelona. If it’s an enchanting city break you’re after, go to Rome or Paris instead.