Silversea Pre-Cruise: A Weekend In Barcelona

Strolling Spain’s Most Famous City

Gaudi's unfinished Sagrada Familia is one of Barcelona's key attractions. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
Gaudi’s unfinished Sagrada Familia is one of Barcelona’s key attractions. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

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 Hotel Condes de Barcelona, nestled comfortably on Passage de Gracia. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
The Hotel Condes de Barcelona, nestled comfortably on Passage de Gracia. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

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.

Barcelona's got the right idea when it comes to breakfast. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
Barcelona’s got the right idea when it comes to breakfast. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

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.

A Rose On Every Corner; A Book On Every Street

On Saturday, booksellers were out on the streets of Barcelona to celebrate Sant Jordi Day, or St. George's Day. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
On Saturday, booksellers were out on the streets of Barcelona to celebrate Sant Jordi Day, or St. George’s Day. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

 

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.

Roses are also a huge part of Sant Jordi Day, so much so that even Gaudi's Casa Battlo was adorned with them. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
Roses are also a huge part of Sant Jordi Day, so much so that even Gaudi’s Casa Battlo was adorned with them. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
Don't forget to buy a rose for your sweetheart. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
Don’t forget to buy a rose for your sweetheart. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

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.

Crowds - particularly when a marathon is utilizing the adjacent streets - can be an issue outside Sagrada Familia. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
Holy crowds, Batman! Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

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?

Old Barcelona

A weekend in Barcelona? Why not! It's a great way to spend a few days pre-cruise. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
A weekend in Barcelona? Why not! It’s a great way to spend a few days pre-cruise. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

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.

Gothic Barcelona is definitely worth a stroll. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
Gothic Barcelona is definitely worth a stroll. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

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.

Sant Jaume Square is one of the oldest areas of Barcelona, and was the seat of power during Roman times. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
Sant Jaume Square is one of the oldest areas of Barcelona, and was the seat of power during Roman times. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
Take time to have lunch in the striking surroundings of Plaza Real, just off Las Ramblas. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
Take time to have lunch in the striking surroundings of Plaza Real, just off Las Ramblas. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

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…

A Walkable Feast

Las Ramblas: 1.2 kilometres of pedestrian (and tourist)-friendly amenities. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
Las Ramblas: 1.2 kilometres of pedestrian (and tourist)-friendly amenities. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

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.

The Mirador Column marks the end of Las Ramblas...Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
The Mirador Column marks the end of Las Ramblas…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
...and the start of the Port of Barcelona. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
…and the start of the Port of Barcelona. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

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.

Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

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.

The Barcelona Maritime Museum is fantastic, and well worth the visit. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
The Barcelona Maritime Museum is fantastic, and well worth the visit. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

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.

Visiting after 3:00p.m. on a Sunday? Admission to the Maritime Museum is free from 1500 hours until closing. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
Visiting after 3:00p.m. on a Sunday? Admission to the Maritime Museum is free from 1500 hours until closing. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
The Barcelona Maritime Museum is housed within a former Medieval shipyard. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
The Barcelona Maritime Museum is housed within a former Medieval shipyard. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
An old lighthouse lamp. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
An old lighthouse lamp. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

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.

Indulge your wallet at the Maremagnum Shopping Center in the Port of Barcelona. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
Indulge your wallet at the Maremagnum Shopping Center in the Port of Barcelona. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

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.

Barcelona's Encants Market: architecturally-stunning...Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
Barcelona’s Encants Market: architecturally-stunning…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
...if vaguely junky on the inside. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
…if vaguely junky on the inside. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
Faucets, anyone? Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
Faucets, anyone? Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

Gaudi’s Barcelona

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.

The facade of Gaudi's amazing Casa Batllo. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
The facade of Gaudi’s amazing Casa Batllo. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

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.

A new guided tour also provides a virtual look at how Casa Batllo once looked when it was in-use. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
A new guided tour also provides a virtual look at how Casa Batllo once looked when it was in-use. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
Seussian decor. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
Seussian decor. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
Casa Batllo is Gaudi's imagination at its most whimsical. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
Casa Batllo is Gaudi’s imagination at its most whimsical. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
Definitely don't miss out on Casa Batllo's...Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
Definitely don’t miss out on Casa Batllo’s…Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
...rooftop terrace. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
…rooftop terrace. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

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.

Gaudi's unfinished masterwork: Sagrada Familia. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
Gaudi’s unfinished masterwork: Sagrada Familia. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

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:

We arrived at 6:15pm, and the lighting could not have been better inside Sagrada Familia. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
We arrived at 6:15pm, and the lighting could not have been better inside Sagrada Familia. Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders
Photo © 2016 Aaron Saunders

The Voyage Begins

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.

Join the Conversation

s. quartey says:

Great piece Aaron. I have been contemplating Barcelona for some time. But I’ve told myself I will only vacation as cruises now so that I can get ‘value for money’ and so that I only have to unpack and pack once…….so for 2018 Valentine’s Day, I will be looking for a sail on a romantic medium or large ship for my 25th Anniversary. Thanks for all the wonderful pictures. We have never been to Spain. (Earlier in your piece you mentioned, ‘And on my Air Canada Rouge…should that be route??) Have a great cruise. S. Quartey

Aaron Saunders says:

Regrettably, Air Canada Rouge is the name of Air Canada’s “low cost” carrier. How “low cost” it is is debatable, but sadly, the name is not! Cruises are a wonderful value-for-money. If you’re looking for a romantic vacation, a medium-sized ship around the Med is tough to beat. Big ships are nice, too, but with so many passengers onboard, the atmosphere can be a bit overwhelming. Silver Spirit has just 540 guests onboard, and half the time I wonder where they all are! Thrilled you’re following along; good luck planning your anniversary voyage!

maggiwun says:

Being recently widowed, I will be alone on Silversea Rome-Barcelona later this year and am a bit nervous about protecting myself from pickpockets and walking around by myself in those two cities, especially in the crowds you mention (I will be there three days pre and post cruise).

ENystrom says:

Have never been to either of these cities but I know many who have. If I were staying alone in one of these cities, I not go anywhere by myself if at possible. With the pre-cruise, this might be difficult but by the end of the cruise you should have friends to tour with. Hope you don’t have any issues. Ralph is right, avoid dangling bags, fanny packs, etc. Don’t know if those gangs of child pickpockets are still around, but they will snatch bags and run off.

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