Saturday 30 April 2016

Barcelona and Dia de Sant Jordi

Spain, 20th – 23rd April 2016

Situated between the Serra de Collserola mountain range and the Mediterranean Sea, Barcelona is the second largest city in Spain after the capital Madrid, and is the capital of the region of Catalunya (Catalonia).  It’s ideal city break territory, with lots to see and do between sightseeing, art museums, shopping and plenty of beaches.  We’d also been warned by a couple of people that it’s supposed to be rife with pickpockets, and is a hotspot for campers having their vans ‘done over’ (meaning having it broken into and stuff nicked).  I’m glad to report that the van is still safe with no broken windows or busted locks, and if anything has been stolen from our pockets it can’t have been anything of more consequence than lint.

Camping Barcelona

All the horror stories we’ve heard about the area always seem to happen to someone’s friend of a friend rather than someone we know directly, but that being said we weren’t about to tempt fate and so checked in at a campsite outside the city.  There are a couple of secure parking areas within the city, but at €20-30 a night for what were reportedly noisy spots, we weren’t too sold.  Instead we decided to go with Camping Barcelona, which despite the name is not actually in Barcelona but at the nearby resort of Mataró, and came recommended to us by a reader (thanks Wayne!).  We went to reception to check in, and using our ACSI card we got the price at €19.99 a night (€19 + tourist tax), which is the most we’ve paid for a place to stay in almost seven months now.

When we were allocated a pitch I initially wondered if we’d been placed in a Discount Card Holder Reject’s Corner, but as it turned out the pitch was rather ideal for me.  It was in a less busy area of the campsite, where rather than having to stare out at the sight of other pitches we got a view of, amongst other animals, baby goats!  Someone in charge of the campsite must be an animal lover, as there’s a paddock with a few farm animals in and the welcome back makes a point about the fact that they’re a Pet Friendly campsite, even going so far as offering to take you to the nearest adoption site and cover the costs if you’re looking for a pet.

It might have been more than we were used to paying, but I think as campsites go it was a good choice.  WiFi was free, the electric was 16A, and it has an amazingly generous check-out time of 8pm.  There’s a bus service in and out of the centre of Barcelona, which ran four times a day during our stay but increased to six as we were leaving, and it’s free out of summer.  It does get popular though so you need to book it a day in advance, but if you can’t get a place they also have a free, more regular shuttle service running into Mataró which stops directly outside the train station (€4.10 for a single ticket to Barcelona), which we used on our first day when we were too late to get the campsite bus.  If you take the campsite bus rather than spending around €16 on public transport, the campsite almost pays for itself already.  The site also offers a lot of free activities like guided tours and wine tasting; we may have visited on the wrong days to catch the free course on making Mojitos, but we certainly utilised the free wine tasting session; we’re not alcoholics, I swear!

What I lacked in a sense of smell I made up for in
"Hello donkey friend!"
"Go home Jo, you're drunk."


The Ramblas
Our guidebook usually has a few pages on information for the cities we’ve been visiting so far, but Barcelona has a whole chapter dedicated to it.  It meant that when we first turned up I was feeling somewhat overwhelmed as there was just so much to see.  We spent our first day just exploring some of the main areas with no intention of going inside any of the attractions just yet.  First stop was the Ramblas, a long promenade street which stretches from the main square—Plaҫa de Catalunya—down to the harbour.  It’s considered to be where the main heart of the city is, and is home to various stalls (selling mostly tat) as well as artists and street performers.  Halfway along the Ramblas you can find the entrance to the food market which is an explosion of colour, where fruit and veg stalls are interspersed between stalls selling herbs, dried chillies and artisanal goods, as well as fishmongers with all manner of unusual species and lobsters still moving around on the beds of ice.

It was tempting to snack at one of the many stalls in the market offering tapas, paella and various street foods, but we still had more to see before lunch so after a wander around the harbour (Port Vell) we carried on to the Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter), east of the Ramblas.  I’m not generally one for cities but the Gothic Quarter is my kind of place.  The buildings tower up over the narrow streets in a way that give it a dark, gritty atmosphere, with plenty of bars, restaurants and small shops dotted around.  By contrast the newer Eixample area to the north had more of a generic city feel with fairly square blocks of buildings divided up by roads, although every so often you’d come across some interesting architecture, usually the modernista style favoured by Gaudí, Barcelona’s most well-known architect (more on him later).

The Barri Gótic
For all your duck related needs!
Some Gaudí buildings in the Eixample (Casa Battló left and Casa Milà right)
Someone's got the right idea!
Of course, we may have also drifted into some less desirable neighbourhoods...
On the second day we planned to visit the Sagrada Familia, one of the biggest attractions of the city.  We checked the prices online quickly in the morning and at a glance it didn’t appear to be discounted online so we decided we’d sort it out when we got there.  This turned out to be a mistake; not only was it around 20% more to buy on the door, but the only timeslot they were offering was in the middle of the afternoon, right about the time we wanted to find tapas bars.  In addition to this it was also raining buckets, so with a bit of a mood on we walked into the nearest McDonalds, ordered a couple of coffees and attempted to buy the tickets over WiFi.  The connection turned out to be horrendously slow, making it impossible to order tickets without the website timing out, and so we decided that it just wasn’t happening today and we’d come back tomorrow with online tickets.

Plaҫa d'Espanya

Palau Nacional
After having a wander to see some more landmarks, we ended up back in the Gothic Quarter to check out a recommended tapas bar, a little place called Bar La Plata.  It’s a traditional bar with just six tables that’s been running for over 70 years serving the same handful of dishes on the menu, with its specialty being in anchovies/fried fish.  We were stood at the bar with an anchovy pinchos (or pan com tomate for Matt), when two customers walked in and ordered some fried fish.  After the bartender dished up their portion he gave us each one to try.  I don’t know whether they were anchovies or sardines, but they tasted so good that even Matt was sold on them and we had to order a plate of our own.  If you’re in the area, I recommend looking this place up.

Some more wandering brought us out near the bull ring.  Amongst the little knowledge I had about Barcelona before we intended to visit was that it was a haven for shoppers, and never was this more evident than in their bull ring; they’ve phased out bullfighting but they’ve made good use of the remaining building by turning it into a smart shopping complex.  From the roof of the building there are views out across the city, accessible by going inside the building, taking a glass lift to the top floor and then taking an escalator from there.  When we left we went by an alternate lift that was exactly the same except it was outdoor and stopped outside the building; it was only when we were walking away having already used it that we noticed there was a sign charging people €1 to go up!

As we were going into town the next day for Gaudí’s Sagrada, we padded out the day by visiting several other landmarks made by the same architect.  Proud Catalunyan Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926) has works all across the city as well as in other nearby areas of Catalunya, and he’s well known because his work has such a distinct style.  This is perhaps most evident in Park Güell, a hilltop area to the north of the city funded by his friend and patron, businessman Eusebio Güell.  It was originally designed to be a private housing estate in a parkland area as a retreat from the fumes of city living, but in the end it was a commercial failure, likely due to overly ambitious house designs and a lack of convenient public transport.  In the end it was opened as a park, and the few buildings and areas that were built have a strange, Alice-in-Wonderland style feeling.

Gaudí’s crowning glory however has to be the Sagrada Familia.  Construction of the cathedral started in 1882 under a different architect and was going to be a fairly simple modest piece, but when Gaudí took over it became something else entirely.  The project was so ambitious in scale that it’s still being completed today over a century later, and is due to be completed in the next decade.  Between finishing work at Park Güell and 1911 and his death in 1926 in an unfortunate tram accident, Gaudí devoted himself to the Sagrada and it’s clear that the place is a labour of love.  He left detailed plans for the building so it could be completed without him but much of this was lost in 1936, when his workshop was destroyed during the Civil War.  There are more recently completed areas of the build where they’ve had to make assumptions about how he intended it to look, but it’s still a sight to see.  The columns inside the building, some of which were over two metres in diameter, branch out towards the ceiling like a canopy of trees.  The way that light worked in the building was of particular importance to him, and there’s stained glass windows everywhere letting different colours into different sections of the building.  At €15 it was pricier than we’d normally pay for an attraction, but it really is a spectacular building.  With the combination of the architecture, the natural lighting and the scale of it, for Matt it's the most impressive one we've seen.  Money saving pro tip: audioguides are pricey at €7 a pop, so we only booked one and swapped the provided headphones for our own, sharing the guide using one earbud each; if any of the staff noticed, no-one commented on it.

Dia de Sand Jordi in Mataró

Whilst we were in Catalunya we happened to be around for April 23rd, Dia de Sant Jordi (St. George’s Day).  He’s the patron saint of Catalunya, and naturally as the Spanish are much better as festivities than we English they have a national holiday to mark the occasion.  In the build-up to the date there were stands all over the region selling books and roses; the tradition is that the man gives his lady a rose, and she gets him a book.

We got the shuttle bus from the campsite to Mataró town centre, and by the time we stepped off the bus we were already being approached by a woman attempting to sell us a rose.  Unfortunately it was pelting it down with nonstop rain so the stalls were all covered with plastic sheets, which put a dampener on the festivities (I know, terrible pun, I couldn’t help myself) as we huddled in our waterproofs and dodged passing umbrellas.  It seemed there was meant to be some things going on around 6 in the main town square, but given how wet it was not much was happening when we investigated.  Matt did get me a rose; I wasn’t sure how he might appreciate a Spanish novel, so he instead got a frankfurter, which I believe was well received.
The costumes that would have been worn if weather permitted!

After three nights on the campsite and well utilising the late check-out to get a fourth day, it was time to carry on.  We paid up, and moved to the nearby aire at Blanes (GPS: 41.66892 2.78461, Free), which was technically a dozen official motorhome bays in a large mixed car park, but cars were parked in these bays and motorhomes were grouped in a cluster further from the road noise.  It wasn’t a particularly inspiring place and a group of youths parked up near the vans late at night causing noise so I can’t really give the place glowing reviews, but it was a free place to spend the night at least!



  1. Oh, Barcelona ... I could live there for a while! And at 19 euros a night, ... City tripping in a hotel would cost more, wouldn't it? And safety sometimes comes at a price!

  2. Great post. Sagrada Familia is something special isn't it? The massive contrast between the outside & in interior. Glad you liked the Campsite, we also justified the the €19pn by off-setting it against the free bus service. Looks like you had a good trip around Barcelona, we also loved it. Kindest...Wayne