Exploring Barcelona on Foot - A taste for the city and visiting an old friend

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Thursday 4 December 2014

Exploring Barcelona on Foot - A taste for the city and visiting an old friend

Stepping off the train into Estacio Sants right in the centre of Barcelona, Spains second largest city, was a big culture shock following our summer of hiking, cycling and mountain tranquility. Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, home to 1.6 million people, host of the 1992 summer Olympics, the largest metropolis on the Mediterranean Sea, bursting with art and culture and home to the second richest football club in the world. Quite a world away from some of the isolated summits we had been enjoying for the past few months. It was a lot of fun to keep singing the opening line of the famous theme song from the 1992 Olympics by Freddie Mercury as we arrived though. ("Barcelona....")

After sitting tight for three days through some horrendous thunderstorms just south of Perpignan we had finally crossed the French-Spanish border at Le Perthus on Tuesday and driven several hundred kilometres south to reach Vilanova i la Geltru where we had checked into the busy Camping Vilanova around an hour south of Barcelona City. Although any dreams of beach walks and sunshine would still have to wait since camping was set 4km away from the sea that didn't trouble us too much. We were here primarily to visit an old school friend of Esther's who had recently moved to Barcelona and spend a little time stretching our legs after the bad weather which was still very evident in the mucky streaks left on the motorhome.

Arriving in the city around 2pm after the 45 minute train ride the density of people, traffic noise and smells, advertising and the press of tall buildings all around took a while to readjust to. Without any prior planning for our visit and no map we had no idea where we were or which way to head. Spotting a pretty church-like building in the distance we decided that was a good place to start so began threading our way through the streets.

The first open space we arrived at was the impressive Plaza de Espana adorned with a giant monument, 2 Venetian towers and a bull ring which then led up towards the building we had seen from a distance. This building turned out to be the Palau Nacional, built in the late 1920s (along with the Plaza de Espana) for the International Exhibition and since 1934 the home of the Museu Nacional d'Art De Catalunya. Built in an impressive Spanish Renaissance style, topped with a huge dome and situated at the end of an impressive street decorated with fountains it is an imposing sight and a great place for a first stop off in the city.

Passing the 'Magic Fountain' (a huge array of water jets where musical light shows are staged in summer) and climbing the steps up to the entrance we were also lucky to find an expansive view over the sprawling city allowing us to get our bearings and make a plan. Perhaps the most prominent building we could see was the towering Sagrada Familia, the huge Roman Catholic church designed by Gaudi and still technically under construction despite having been started in 1882. Esther, who had visited Barcelona once before for a rowing event, could recall visiting the cathedral and with some time to go until we met with Sarah we decided to stretch our legs and make the walk several kilometres through the town towards those imposing spires. The only drawback was that once back at street level we had to navigate by instinct and the occasional bus map! (Why didn't we find a tourist info?)

After around 50 minutes of power walking (having shunned the numerous metro stops) we did eventually arrive in the now dusky light of early evening. Having almost given up hope and feeling lost we rounded a corner to be confronted by the 170m high spires and elaborate facade of this incredible building. With intricate, angular designs adorning every visible surface and rising up high above us it is a magnificent sight. The side we had arrived at is the Nativity Facade and since it was early December we also discovered a Christmas market taking place in the small park just opposite the cathedral, adding an appropriate festive feel which helped make up for the significant amount of scaffolding and cranes covering up much of the building. With the fading light and the long queues still stretching from the turnstiles we also sadly didn't have time to go inside and view the amazing stained glass windows and colourful ceilings we could see on postcards throughout the city and which Esther remembered, but immediately resolved to do so on our next visit to Barcelona (perhaps on the return journey north).

After a few minutes enjoying the cathedral and some brief photos we then set off once more to meet with Esther's old school friend, Sarah. Very kindly Sarah, who had only moved here 3 days earlier from Madrid, had picked up a map from tourist information and suggested we continue exploring on foot. Leading us through some of the inner city parks, past Barcelona Zoo and down towards the coast as the sun set we walked along the sea front enjoying the fresh sea air before heading inland through a maze of narrow streets in the gothic quarter of the city to find a cosy vegetarian restaurant Sarah had picked out for us to try. This was our first meal out since leaving the UK and with such good company, reminiscing and sharing stories, we really were having an amazing time after having felt so phased just a few hours beforehand. (Just as with meeting Phil in Lausanne, the chance to see a friend face to face was very exciting and poor Sarah had to cope with the initial barrage of talking from 2 excited motorhome tourists!). Also, having not seen Sarah for 8 years there was a lot to catch up on.

Sadly before we knew it, it was time to think about catching the train back to Vilanova. Saying our farewells we boarded a metro back to the train station and then onwards into the dark wintry night back towards our camping. It had been a very different day to what we had been used to, but with so much to see and having explored so far on foot we felt we had been able to get a really good appreciation for the atmosphere and layout of this enormous city that we might not have got by cherry picking a couple of main attractions. Stretching our legs along some of the main streets and hidden corners of Barcelona had been a lot of fun and left us with an appetite to visit again soon.

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