Ironically, you can thank a figure skating anime setting its Grand Prix Final in Barcelona for why I spent the hottest days of European summer in the muggy heat of Barcelona’s Gothic quarters, but thank goodness for soft power marketing and Spain’s belief in air conditioning (looking at you, London Underground). It was sign I’d been in Europe for too long when I took one look at the 35C prediction on my weather app and wanted to pass out but, weather aside, I went to Spain with absolutely zero expectations and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it.
Having picked a (slightly dodgy) Airbnb just off La Rambla and an alleyway away from Mercardo de la Boqueria, the Barcelona I experienced close to my lodgings was every bit a tourist centre — street artists, musicians, restaurant tables in blocks all along the street, accompanied by the irate ‘tourist invasion: go home’ sign hung above a balcony right at the entrance of Mercardo de la Boqueria — but here are five lessons I learnt from four days in Barca.
The noontime siesta is a godsend
My model for travelling in Southern Europe during summer is this: get up at 5AM/6AM, explore until 11AM, take a noontime siesta (nap) during the most raging, sun-damaging midday, and go back out to explore around 4PM/5PM into late evening. This model saved my life. As someone easily drained of energy by the heat, a 1hr nap took care of the sleepiness and grumpiness that came with exhaustion and left me fresh and ready to explore in the evening, with the golden hour light I loved best. Note: I heavily recommend shelling out extra so you can book accommodation close to the centre so this is possible.
This may be an extension of my ‘noontime siesta’ evangelising but I fully understand why Spaniards can be stereotyped to be a nation of ‘chill’ people. Summertime sunset wandering by myself, stumbling upon hidden photography exhibitions, interesting secondhand stores and handmade shoe stores without any sort of goal, a camera in hand and just looking up and soaking in the early evening atmosphere, the communal feeling of a bustling city full of people tightly squeezed together but also taking the space to enjoy the weather and time really forced me to be fully ‘present’. They really do things a bit differently in Spain.
The one student-budget-friendly quirk I have is that I basically lose my appetite when it’s hot, so a small cone of cured jamon, cheese and breadsticks and a cup of freshly squeezed coconut and pineapple juice from the Mercardo de la Boqueria was enough to tide me through basically two meals. But, if you try nothing else, you must have the jamón ibérico de bellota, and maon, a cheese made from cow milk from Menorca island. And possibly visit a Mercardo that isn’t the main one, they’re much more relaxed and local-heavy. This is much easier to do on a food tour, I’m just saying ; )
There’s beauty in complexity
The main theme of my Barcelona wandering was undeniably Gaudí and his many works - I think I ticked off basically everything available in Barcelona, even taking a 30min bus trip north to see Casa Vicens (regrettably, I visited after hours and really wish I hadn’t because I found Casa Vicens the most fascinating and outwardly ‘aesthetically pleasing’ of Gaudí’s works. Casa Vicens and Casa Batllo were my favourites by far). To be honest, I found most of Gaudí’s work quite overwhelming, complex to the point of overdoing it, especially for the Sagrada Familia’s facade. Here was someone who had not listened to Coco Chanel’s ‘take one accessory off before leaving home’ mantra. But if you stop to ‘zoom in’, so to speak, on a lot of Gaudi’s architecture and designs, it also reveals incredible beauty, somehow capturing the vibrancy and spirit of Barcelona and Spain. I found myself sitting and trying to capture the trencadís in Park Guëll with my pencil, admiring the organic swirls and naturalistic forms he built into his interiors, the true ‘underwater effect’ of the glass panes in Casa Batllo.
I also have to wholeheartedly recommend Palau de la Música, designed by Gaudí’s master Lluís Domènech i Montaner. More classically restrained than Gaudí but still a visual confection of incredible details, I found it such a beautifully preserved piece of living art.
Get up early
Related to the above, one of my favourite days of travelling ever was beating the crowds to Park Güell in the morning. If you get there before 8AM, admission into the steps is free. You can watch the sun rise over Barcelona and avoid wrestling with people to get a photo at the lookout (and take some self portraits). I remember sitting on the marble benches, in the shade of the trees, sketching all the tourists I saw going to the ledge to take a photo out in Barcelona. Such a peaceful time. I’m not a huge fan of walking around gardens (I generally find them pretty similar to each other and not particularly remarkable) but Park Güell was the exception. Like a fairytale wonderland, with every stone and corner designed to create a fantasy, it was like exploring a storybook.
Enjoy a cathedral
I’d seen my fair share of ridiculous, opulent European cathedrals by that point of my trip but the Sagrada Família - for all the opinions I have about Gaudi’s lack of design editing tendencies - was truly a unique experience inside, and possibly one of the most uniquely beautiful places I’ve ever been. Walking inside, you understand completely what he was trying to achieve; the naturalistic feeling was absolutely there in the unconventional interior columns. Looking up and watching the light softly dance reminded me of walking into a fairytale forest with rainbow light filtering through the trees. The scale, the size, the odd modernity and that warm feeling of space was like something I had never experienced — and while it’s truly impossible to look up at the highest point and know this is only apparently 1/3 of what is intended, it’s the rare “tourist bingo” attraction I think is totally worth the hype.