Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports
The two ladies sitting behind me on the flight have it all figured out.
I’m travelling from Canada to Barcelona, Spain to embark an old friend: Silversea’s ultra-luxurious Silver Spirit, for a six-day voyage through some of the most off-the-beaten-path ports in the Mediterranean. And on my Air Canada Rouge flight from Toronto – devoid of any entertainment options whatsoever – I’ve now tuned into the two ladies sitting behind me.
Unlike me, they’re not spending three days in Barcelona pre-cruise. Instead, they’re flying all the way to Europe, day-of, to embark a cruise on a ship I won’t mention, other than to say it holds thousands of guests and definitely isn’t Silversea.
The one lady is schooling her friend on what to do if they encounter any Captain Philips moments. Which seems unlikely; the only pirates you’ll find in the Mediterranean these days run the tourist shops. Either way, she continues to direct her friend on all aspects of their James Bondian maneuvers should the worst happen. I almost wish I was on their cruise, just to see these two kick into action.
After touchdown at Barcelona’s El Prat International Airport just before nine in the morning, I cleared immigration – a wordless and perfunctory stamp in the passport – and collected my luggage. Silversea’s excellent pre-cruise transfer service met me, and whisked met to the Hotel Condes Barcelona for my pre-cruise stay in this gorgeous city.
So it was that, by ten thirty, I found myself at the hotel, wondering what to do next. The classic long-haul traveller dilemma. You want to sleep, but can’t. You want to shower, but your room isn’t ready. What to do?
Long ago, I discovered walking was one of the best ways to stave off jetlag. So I set out to explore Barcelona on foot – and unwittingly ran smack into one of the cities busiest holidays.
It’s called Sant Jordi’s Day, and it happens every April 23. Those of you from the UK might know it better as Saint George’s Day, which commemorates the death of Saint George in 303AD. But the Catalonians in Barcelona celebrate this day through books and roses.
Booksellers sweating it out under makeshift stalls line nearly every major thoroughfare in the city, from the busy shopping mecca of De Gracia street outside the Hotel Condes all the way south to Las Ramblas and beyond.
In between every bookseller: a rose shop, selling roses real and fake. The rose symbolises the ultimate gift among people who love each other, and – according to legend – symbolises the story of Montblanc. You know the one: the knight saves the princess from the clutches of a fearsome dragon.
The crowds are massive. After just a block, I’m in the thick of it, being jostled and pushed around as if I’m going to see World Cup Soccer. A busy day in July has got nothing on April 23; it’s pure bedlam.
And yet, as I fight my way towards the city’s Gothic Quarter, something odd dawns on me. In North America, crowds of this size would inspire petty fighting. Name calling. Some hot-headed moron might even throw a punch. But here, the crowd seems comfortable with their crushing proportions. People push and shove, but politely. No one seems to mind. In fact, no one is in much of a hurry to be anywhere at all.
Because of the shuffling crowd, it took about twice as long to make the 2.1 kilometre walk to Placa Sant Jaume, in the heart of Barcelona’s old town, as it should have. But, with temperatures in the low 20’s (Celsius) and cloudless skies, who needs to rush?
Forget Gaudi. Much of Old Barcelona, including the city’s Gothic Quarter, looks like something Dr. Seuss might have designed if he had been channeling Edgar Allan Poe. At once whimsical and brooding, Old Barcelona is all about contrasts.
And yet, Old Barcelona – set within the city’s Gothic Quarter – has this odd beauty to it. Street performers are everywhere, doing everything from blowing large bubbles for the kiddies to singing full-blown operas.
The old town is linked by Sant Jaume Square, which was where the Roman Forum presided over the city some 2,000 years ago. It’s use today is still political: the headquarters of the Catalonian government occupy these buildings.
Then, there’s King’s Square – now a cozy little placa housing outdoor cafes, but once Barcelona’s preferred spot for executing members of the populace that wouldn’t fall in line. Ah, the good old days…
Of course, the once place you hear about a lot in Barcelona is Las Ramblas. Running for just about 1.2 kilometres, it is an attractive pedestrian zone bordered by two lanes of traffic on either side. It’s also a tourist (and, accordingly, pickpocket) haven, with stalls of vendors selling their hand-crafted wares and restauranteurs beckoning you to try their Tapas – which, they assure you, are the best the city has to offer.
My take? You should definitely walk along Las Ramblas. But, you should also veer off into the side streets. Not only do prices drop and food and service improve on the restaurant front, the side-streets running off of this main thoroughfare are absolutely gorgeous.
Barcelona is highly walkable – if you’re willing to take the time. From the Hotel Condes to the Maritime Museum at the end of Las Ramblas takes approximately 35-40 minutes of strolling on flat, slightly sloping ground. That’s it. On a beautiful day, it’s something you shouldn’t miss out on.
You also shouldn’t miss out on Barcelona’s fantastic Maritime Museum, located conveniently across the street from the first cruise ship berths at the Barcelona World Trade Center.
The Maritime Museum is noteworthy for existing in the space that was occupied by the city’s former shipyard, which dates back to Medieval times. The entrance fee is normally €7 per person, but if you arrive on a Sunday after 15:00 (3:00 p.m.), your admission is free. It’s one of the best deals in the city. Save the €14 per couple and buy a pitcher of Sangria instead.
If you’ve made it all the way to the Maritime Museum, it only stands to reason that you should head towards the Port of Barcelona for a little ship-watching. Cruise ships and overnight ferries of all shapes and sizes litter the port, and while the main pier area can’t really be seen, you can get a great look at the ships berthed on either side of the World Trade Center. You can even go for a cable-car ride over the port, or get your shop on at the massive Maremagnum Shopping Center located at the far north end of the terminals.
Further afar, adventurers shouldn’t miss the chance to stroll around the Els Encants Vells market on Ave. Meridina 73. Built in 2007, it’s the funkiest-looking flea market you’ve ever seen, and vendors are selling everything from old VHS copies of Total Recall to faucets and Black & Decker power tools. One entire table was devoted to cassette tapes. Another, nothing but dolls’ heads. It’s an architecturally-impressive yet decidedly greasy experience. Watch your wallets.
Of course, you can’t go to Barcelona without seeing the breathtaking works of Antoni Gaudi. Intrinsically linked with Barcelona, the famous son of Catalonia has left his mark on the city, with Parc Guell, Casa Batllo and the unfinished Sagrada Familia drawing the biggest crowds.
A tip for Casa Batllo and Sagrada Familia: you should pre-book tickets on-line in advance of your visit. You won’t save yourself any money (both attractions clock in at nearly €30 per person to visit), but you will save yourself time: lines to purchase tickets at both attractions can be overwhelmingly long.
What fascinates me most about these structures (aside from their gorgeous construction) is that they weren’t fully appreciated when Gaudi was alive. Parc Guell was a financial failure, and never managed to attract the business Gaudi had wanted. Of the projected 60 plots of land in the park, only two were ever sold – and one of the buyers was Gaudi himself.
Then, there’s the always-unfinished Sagrada Familia, which has spawned a small cottage industry of workers and artisans who have been trying since 1882 to finish the thing. One completion estimate lists 2026 – the centenary of Gaudi’s death – as a potential completion date. Of course, locals will tell you the timeline for completion has been ratcheting up for generations. Other estimates list 2028, 2030, or 2032 as possible dates to finally finish Gaudi’s greatest masterpiece.
Don’t just look at the exterior – you have to go inside Sagrada Familia to fully appreciate its grandeur and majesty. If it doesn’t take your breath away – I feel sorry for you.
A few images of Sagrada Familia:
In all, three days in Barcelona is barely enough time to see it all. But it is enough time to reduce your jet-lag and, for me, enough time to soak in the sights and sounds of one of Europe’s most famous cities prior to embarking the beautiful Silver Spirit tomorrow. We love Barcelona – but we can’t wait to step aboard Silversea’s gorgeous flagship for a quick jaunt through the Mediterranean.
Our Live Voyage Report from onboard Silversea’s Silver Spirt begins on Tuesday! Be sure to follow along with our adventures on Twitter @deckchairblog.