Barcelona: Cultural Gem of Catalan
“This it it,” I declared, scraping my spoon noisily around my ramekin to ensure there were no remaining traces of burnt sugar. “I’ve found the love of my life.”
”That’s the third time this year,” Aash said. He was so used to my declarations of love by now that he didn’t even look up from his phone. “I’m sure you and your creme de Catalan will be very happy together.”
The fastest way to get to the heart of a place is through the stomach - ergo, the local food. And food is a prominent character in the colourful tapestry that is Barcelona. Catalan cuisine was a new world of culinary experiences that I’d been dying to sample for years. One of our most memorable meals on this trip was sitting on bar stools at El Quim at La Boquieria and tucking into a seafood paella for two. And let’s not forget the patatas bravas I tucked into for brunch on the first day we landed - it was a fiery fanfare for the tastebuds and utterly delicious. But the crowning glory of the city’s foodie scene, for me, were the desserts. I naively thought that churros were the height of sophistication when it came to Spanish sweet treats. But Barcelona opened my eyes to the real MVPs of the dessert menu: torijjas and crema Catalana. Crema Catalana is the Spanish answer to creme brûlée (though don’t ever make the mistake of mentioning the resemblance to a Spaniard!). Personally, I prefer the crema Catalana. The burnt sugar flavour is complimented perfectly by the mild tartness of the orange rind and the delicate sweetness of the milk and cream.
Barcelona isn’t exactly the #1 destination for many travellers at the beginning of December - it’s famously a fantastic summer watering hole for Europeans wanting beautiful beaches and natural sun tans without leaving the continent. But it was lovely to visit as part of the hordes of tourists flocking there in summer. Besides, we love the cold. As Kiwis, living in and travelling to places in the Northern Hemisphere where it’s actually winter in December - and cold! - is still a novel experience. We’re used to backyard barbecues in the sweltering heat on Christmas Day and beach getaways for New Year’s Eve.
Barcelona wasn’t always the pretty seaside city it is today. One of the legends of the city’s founding centres around Hercules and his crew while he completed his twelve labours - while he was travelling with Jason and the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece, they lost their ninth ship on the Catalan coast. After searching, Hercules found the ship wrecked by an island but the crew miraculously alive. They named the island “Barca Nona”, meaning the ninth ship. However, Barcelona’s beginnings were likely humble ones. It was originally founded by the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, claimed by the Romans around the 1st century B.C. Thus began a series of changes in management - i.e. Muslims and Christians - that allowed the city to flourish over the centuries until it became the political powerhouse of the medieval period.
A MOST UNUSUAL BASILICA
If you only know one thing about Barcelona, it’s probably the fact that it’s the home and architectural showcase of Gaudí, one of the most creative architects of the 19th and 20th centuries. Known for his eclectic style, his best-known work is La Sagrada Família, an epic cathedral that is still a work in progress. It is an extraordinary church because of its distinct Art Noveau style; Gaudí is almost laughing at the classical Baroque style architecture favoured by the masses in the Western world. Many have asked us if the audio tour was worth it and the answer is a resounding yes. We learnt tons about Gaudí and the symbolism behind the structure of La Sagrada Família. It helps bring the story to life.
La Sagrada Família is designed to be a tribute to nature. There are myriad botanical motifs embedded in its design; for example, the roses and leaves on the doors, and my favourite feature, the tall columns in the church branching out at the top like trees. Walking into the nave is an otherworldly experience; you’re greeted by a symphony of colour. Kaleidoscopic patterns in various hues of orange, magenta, indigo and emerald dance across people’s faces as they look around in awe. I really enjoyed playing around with the beautiful lighting through the stained glass windows - though I don’t think photography can do it justice!
OUR LADY OF THE PINE
Despite falling in love with the masterpiece that is La Sagrada Família, my favourite church in Barcelona is Santa Maria del Pi, or Saint Mary of the Pine. It’s hard to see the entire building as it is fringed by the buildings of the old Ribera district, where it is situated. We happened across it quite suddenly while meandering through Barri Gòtic (the Gothic Quarter). This beautiful Gothic cathedral doesn’t dominate the skyline like the Sagrada Familia or have an imposing presence like La Catedral, but it does have a quiet charm of its own.
The third and final church we went to see was the eponymous Cathedral of Barcelona, or simply ‘La Catedral’ - which needs no further introduction. It’s impossible to miss as you walk through Pla Seu (or Cathedral Square). Unapologetically gothic, certainly old fashioned and conventional by Gaudi’s standards…but its classic grandeur has stood the test of time. I found out later that the front facade was added on in the 19th century, at a far later stage to the rest of the cathedral which was constructed between the 13th - 15th centuries - which explains its intricate stonework that sets it apart from the austerity of other churches.
This is Barcelona’s main place of worship. It’s dedicated to the city’s co-patron saint, Saint Eulalia, a devout Catholic who was a martyr and endured thirteen unspeakable acts of torture just for refusing to renounce her religion. Finally, she met a grisly end. Saint Eulalia is revered throughout Spain for her courage and faith and is commemorated in a unique way at La Catedral - there are thirteen geese kept in the cloister to honour her memory. Without any context, Ash and I found their presence perplexing…but after reading up we realised that they geese signify the thirteen years of the church’s young saint.
We took the elevator up to the roof of this church for the 360° views of Barcelona. It’s no rooftop bar, but the views do make up for the lack of wine.
PONTE DEL BISBE
Barri Gòtic is a vibrant neighbourhood with quite a quirky vibe. Aside from the beautiful Neo-Gothic facades, the area is always peppered with street artists and musicians. It’s a must-do for anyone visiting Barcelona.
One of the most popular landmarks in Barri Gòtic is Pont del Bisbe - the Bishop’s Bridge. You’ve probably seen it pop up all over Instagram - it’s one of the most photographed sights of Barcelona. It’s almost like a Spanish version of the Bridge of Sighs, and although it looks convincingly medieval we were surprised to learn it was a 1928 addition. It could have fooled us!
The architect built the Ponte del Bisbe as part of a larger plan to update all the non-Gothic structures around Barri Gòtic. Sadly, his scheme was rejected by the government and to express his displeasure, he incorporated a skull with a sword underneath the bridge. Local legend says that if you make a wish while walking under the bridge backwards staring at the skull, it’ll come true…unfortunately I didn’t try it so I’ll have to give it a go next time I’m in Barcelona!
Gaudí, Gaudí & MORE GAUDí
Gaudí is omnipresent in Barcelona. We went on to see Casa Calvet, Casa Milà and Park Güell - a crash course in Barcelona’s rich architectural history. Dragonflies and sea glass were the first images that sprung into my head the moment I laid eyes on Casa Batlló. Of all the works of art we saw on this trip, it was my favourite. The undulating facade is reminiscent of the waves of sea. It’s decorated by lanterns that twinkle during the day as well as by night, make it a striking addition to the architectural legends of Passeig de Gracia.
WHERE WE STAYED
The hotel we stayed at is in a trendy area called El Poblenou. Artsy and right beside Torre Glòries which is quite an iconic building that dominates Barcelona’s skyline (it bears a strong resemblance to the Gherkin in London). Many cab drivers told us it would be easy to find our way back to the hotel even after a boozy sangria night! It was designed by Jean Nouvel, a French architect, who modelled it after the mountain Monsterrat. He also acknowledged that it looked rather phallic (Ash had a similar nickname for it).
On our last night in Barcelona we headed up to the rooftop bar and were treated to the most spectacular sunset we’ve seen all year. It was the cherry on top of an unforgettable anniversary trip…and I can’t wait to be back.