In which I went to Barcelona, and came back again (reluctantly!)
My last trip (which I still haven’t blogged! oy!) was a mini-vacation to Miami last August… and although it was wonderful, it wasn’t long enough or far enough away to really be restorative to me. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to travel as often as I do, but my last 18 months or so have been intense . Given that I hold down a demanding full-time job as deputy director of a nonprofit AND a full-time photography practice, I really needed a break! I started planning this trip, almost by accident, in November, when I jokingly asked friends where I should go, and the overwhelming answer from several people was “Barcelona!” So when my dear grad school friend Krista, who lives in Oakland, said she would love to go with me, I booked a flight on points about as fast as my fingers could fly over the keyboard, and off we went. My dears, it was a FABULOUS trip.
We stayed at a little flat on the edge of the El Born neighborhood near the city center. One of my favorite things about our street was this fantastic, seemingly random or abandoned mosaic on the corner of the block. We walked past it multiple times a day, and it became sort of a wayfinding sign for me to know exactly how close I was to home!
My favorite way to vacation is to relax, with a small side dish of touring. Krista, bless her, is the same way! We booked our travel and our flat, and we both had a few things we’d looked at in a shared Google doc, but we didn’t have a big schedule or any firm plans. One of the big, touristy things we both wanted to make sure we did, though, was the Sagrada Familia. If you’re not familiar, Sagrada Familia is a gorgeous Catholic church, still under construction(!), designed by the architect Gaudi (quite prolific throughout Barcelona) and slated to be finished in the coming decade. It’s not a traditional Catholic cathedral; instead Gaudi’s design is built on a traditional layout but has a gorgeous, more modern, organic feel to it. You can go up in some of the towers during your visit, but sadly the day we went the towers were closed.
Most of our trip, honestly, we just spent wandering the streets of the city, to great effect. We visited the City Park (home of the Catalan Parliament palace, among other worthwhile sights), walked the tiny streets of El Born (until we ALMOST knew where we were going), El Gotic, and El Raval. I took a lot of photos, obviously. :-P
When we were searching for a flat on AirBnB, the system kept popping up “experiences” we could also book: walking tours, cooking classes, and the like. Krista booked us a paella-cooking class at The Paella Club (it was fantastic! I’ve already made paella again last night! It was in my regular cooking rotation, but I seriously upped my game learning more than the basics) — and I booked a documentary photo session with photographer and now-friend, Francisco Blanco. (So almost all of the photos of me that aren’t iPhone photos were taken by Francisco. Thanks, friend! Come visit DC!)
The verdict: two thumbs up on AirBnB experiences.
Yes, Krista and I walked bits of La Rambla (the touristy pedestrian plaza) and bought a snack at La Boqueria (the most famous market), but mostly due to a case of FOMO. As it turned out these were lovely enough, but felt more like a suburbanite’s awe of a central city’s sights, than anything particularly Barcelona. I guess we’re urban snobs. :)
Okay, let’s talk about the FOOD. I vacation basically for three reasons: (1) is it pretty? (2) is it a place I can vacation without having to drive myself around (okay, Iceland excepted on that one, but Gabby mostly drove on that trip), and (3) will a foodie like me be happy there? Food is one of my great joys in life, so things better be pretty darn perfect for requirements #1 and #2 if the food doesn’t measure up. Well, Barcelona’s food definitely measures up.
Food is one of the few things I’d spent some time researching a bit (read: scrolling through food blogs on the internet), and Krista and I hit a glorious mix of low-key and fine dining, both pre-planned and spontaneously found. For my fellow foodies, here are some of the places we went that would merit a return trip:
Bicos - Like many people, I think, we stumbled in here looking for lunch after our visit to the Sagrada Familia, but wanting to walk far enough away to avoid blatant tourist spots. We had a lovely little tapas-style lunch of a cheese place and open-faced ham sandwiches. Totally great, totally sweet staff, and really great people-watching between the charming couple to one side of us, and the stylish older ladies-who-lunch celebrating a compatriot’s birthday on our other side. The restaurant also sold adorable canvas tote bags and cutting boards with line drawing of animals on them. Krista and I both took home a hedgehog canvas bag.
Bicnic - Conde Naste Traveler is one of my favorite travel-snob, foodie guilty pleasures. When I came across the description of Bicnic in it, I knew I wanted to go. It was only ~5 blocks from our flat, and even though Krista and I took to the Spanish habit of siestas in the afternoon (ours were usually pre-dinner), when we arrived for dinner at 8:30 the place was still EMPTY. We sat at the bar (which oddly but delightfully was playing cat memes on a screen), ate very-well-executed tapas, and were happy.
Hemingway Bar - Someone recommended this fun little gem to Krista, and so after dinner at Bicnic, we set out on our “bar crawl” night. At the Hemingway Bar, we were mercilessly flirted with by the bartenders, and Krista had a full-on tiki drink, and I, a classic daiquiri. The people-watching was fab in the 20-seat bar, and we watched a few locals seriously hit on two other American women (“You look like the girl from 50 Shades of Grey.” Honestly, I could see the resemblance.)
Ideal Cocktail Bar - Another of my Conde Naste Traveler finds, this was the other stop on our “bar crawl” night. I asked for, and received a flawlessly-executed boulevardier (my go-to cocktail), in a space that felt very old-school DC: dark wood paneling, and a bartender with a white jacket and bow tie.
Elsa y Fred - We ate a lot of lunches and dinners at cute little gastropubs, most of which did tapas with various levels of skill. Elsa y Fred was one we wandered past, wandered into, and absolutely loved. I’ll be trying my hand at recreating their citrus salad with herbs, goat cheese, and a honey dressing sometime soon.
The Juice House - Despite the English name, this spot in Sant Antoni made me feel a bit more authentic when the lady who greeted us didn’t speak English. A healthy place with lots of fresh, house-made veggies and juices. Krista and I both hand the three-course meal of the day, and the lemon-yogurt pancake things were one of the best desserts we had all trip.
Bar Cañete - My final CN Traveler pick, this was the only reservation we made all trip, and boy was it WORTH IT. Also our only fine-dining adventure, this place is well-known both to locals and to visitors — and only takes reservations for lunch not dinner… so lunch we did! A repast of fried seasonal artichokes, an AMAZING dish of Nebraska beef with foie gras that changed my mind about foie gras, a gorgeous pork dish with to-die-for mashed potatoes, and a classic creme catalan to finish. It. was. so. good.
Tantarantana - The first time we tried to wander into this cute little gastropub in our neighborhood, it was packed and we would’ve had a 60 minute wait… so we came back at American dinner time on our last night, and had a gorgeous meal of risotto with mushrooms, ravioli, pan y tomate with Iberian ham (finally!), and of course, patatas bravas. Plus the best cava I had on the trip! A perfect way to end our Barcelona food adventures.
Left to right: steak and foie gras at Bar Cañete, violet ice cream-topped brownie, vermouth, and cheesecake from the cute cafe down the street, a flawlessly executed off-menu Boulevardier from Ideal Cocktail Bar, citrus goat cheese salad with herbs from Elsa y Fred, Krista enjoying our night one deserts.
One highly-underrated thing about Barcelona (maybe I’ve always lived places that are flat?) are the “mountains” visible just outside the city. The other major touristy (and yet AMAZING) thing we did was visit Montjuïc, (pictured in the distance above), above the old port, and complete with an old military fortification castle on top! How did we get to Montjuïc? In the best way possible… we walked to the beach, and took the Port Vell Aerial Tramway (totally go read about it, it’s cool) from the beachside Barceloneta neighborhood. In other words, for my transit/urbanist nerd friends… GONDOLA! 🚠It. Was. AMAZING.
Coming down from the mountain, there was… are you ready for this?!? ANOTHER gondola! This one is known as the Montjuïc Cable Car, and it goes from the castle about halfway down the mountain. Usually, you can take a funicular (diagonally-sloped train) down the rest of the way, but the funicular was closed for maintenance, so Krista and I took this adorable little goat path down, that reminded me a lot of the Georgetown overlook here at home. The second gondola was great (I took a video!), the walk down was great (we met some cute dogs)! and we ended up in the Sant Antoni neighborhood, which was great because I wanted to visit this “hipster’s Barcelona” neighborhood, so I could visit The Juice House (see the food listing), and make a pilgrimage to Rooftop Smokehouse, which I’d read about. Rooftop Smokehouse was closed, because it was Monday, Pro-tip: always check if things are open before you plan.
The trip was also a really valuable visceral reminder to get the heck out of my own (American, DC) bubble more freaking often. I’m embarrassed to admit with 2018 being as personally challenging as it was, I’d really kept my head down and was living in my own little world. But the world is BIG, and lots of things are happening that I should’ve known about — and Barcelona exposed me to just a few of them. There’s been ongoing conflict over ride-hailing services in Spain, and there was a big-deal taxi strike while we were there. It took Krista and me two days of seeing all of the cabs parked in main thoroughfares to shut them down to understand/Google/realize what was going on. But guess what, it made a difference — because as we were heading home, there was news of a plan to heavily regulate ride-hailing in Madrid and Barcelona. And Uber may be pulling out of the country entirely.
Francisco, my photographer friend, is from Venezuela, and I hadn’t really been paying attention to the situation with Madura there. It’s outrageous, and we should all be outraged. While I wish the US media covered these more, it does cover them some, and I should be better at reading that, and also seeking out news sources from a non-US, and a non-local-DC-politics-land perspective. I picked up a copy of the Economist on the plane ride home, and dammmn, I’ve been missing a lot. (If you, like me, had been living under a rock, here’s a bit to get you started from the Economist, Washington Post and Vox.)
Another serendipitous favorite that we happened upon in our wanderings was the El Born cultural center. The gorgeous old restored market building now serves as the protection for old-city ruins found under the building when its future was being decided decades ago. And it also housed an exhibit that Krista and I basically fell into on war, and its impacts on children in Spain. One of the exhibits, below, showcased a single piece of child’s hand-drawn art reflecting on the Spanish Civil War on each black podium. The exhibit was free, the only museum we visited at all in our trip (sorry, Picasso), and was easily one of the best and most powerful museum exhibits I’ve ever been to.
On our last day, we kind of batted cleanup — checking off things that either Krista had explored and I hadn’t, or visa versa. We started by heading back to City Park to see this gorgeous botanical garden structure we’d discovered on our first day… and that later, I’d learned on my AirBnB experience photo session, is actually open, just only in the mornings! Even before we went inside, Krista and I had fallen in love with the structure on day one, and we DEFINITELY needed to get inside and see it in all its glory. I took some of my favorite photos of the trip in this slatted semi-greenhouse; you can read all about it on my Instagram, but really, the tiny size of Instagram on your phone doesn’t do justice to this series. I’m thinking about where I could hang a print from these images in my apartment…
On a whim, I asked Krista as we were walking back that last day from lunch at Bar Cañete, as we walked past the Barcelona Cathedral again, if we could go inside (she’d already been on a morning I decided to sleep in). It was spectacular. I felt both that if I were to feel the presence of a deity, it would be in a space like this… and simultaneously, I felt a little bit like I was in some sort of video game. It was unreal in its beauty.
It was a fantastic trip. Coming home, I have a few personal takeaways from my time away from DC, as well.
At home, even during winter, I need to WALK MORE. It does more for my mental health (therapy included) than almost anything else. It’s easy, it’s free, and when I don’t make it a priority, my resilience to stress plummets and anxiety rears its ugly head.
I need to unplug a bit more, and do things I love and have let fall by the wayside because they’re not convenient to my current lifestyle and responsibilities — like reading and like sitting in the sun.
I need to do less work just overall — both detaching a bit and not being married to my advocacy job, but also just taking on a lighter photography schedule. Getting out from under both of these things was revelatory for me — and nothing I didn’t already know, but needed to re-experience to prioritize. To that end, I’m both excited and sad to say that with the exception of clients who’ve already reached out to me, my 2019 datebook for weddings is completely full. I may still take on a passion project or two this summer, and a portrait session here or there, but 2019 is otherwise full! The earliest ever for me (it’s still January)!
Thanks for reading along on my amazing trip. I hope you loved the photos. If you want to see all of my photos from the trip, including a collection of weird signs Krista and I couldn’t help laughing over, and the wonderful bike infrastructure in Barcelona, I store all of my personal photos over on my Flickr page.