Barcelona: Finding your way through Barcelona

With Christmas just around the corner, the first thing on my list is finding the perfect place to spend a few days away from the hustle of Manila before the holidays finally set in. And thanks to its undeniably cheap outlet and boutique stores perfect for shopping, pre-Christmas celebrations similar to home’s own festivities, good food to enjoy before the Christmas feast, and the idea of jamming at one of the party capitals of Europe, I zoomed in on Barcelona as the top choice.

One of the things that attracted me to Barcelona is its annual party to celebrate the night of San Juan every June. Though I’ve missed the music, the dancing, the flowing drinks, celebratory fireworks, and what’s probably the biggest beach party this side of Europe, I still have the other side of Barcelona’s charm to enjoy – the cobblestone pathways leading to a spacious plaza, modern buildings beside old structures, historical and religious sites that are now considered artworks, and various cultures converging as one people.

It is with this paradise in mind and stories after stories of friends who have enjoyed their Spanish vacation after graduation that Barcelona has become the epitome of the ideal Euro trip destination in my mind.

Imagine being in a place where past traditions perfectly preserved alongside a continuously evolving culture. It is no wonder Barcelona has been the go-to-destination of new graduates, study tour participants, and loaded vacation enthusiasts.

In this age of fast lifestyles, instant access, and quick bites, where the hubbub of city life erases the measly weekend trip to the province, Barcelona’s merging of old and new traditions is one of the most inviting places to de-stress and simply live.

A quiet place to rest your head

First things first—booking the lodgings. Flying is a surprisingly tiring thing, when a span of the entire trip consists of boarding, waiting, changing flights, and more waiting. So upon stepping on solid ground, the first thing I wanted to do was get some shut-eye on a comfortable bed.

A tip for tourists: find a hotel that has easy access to the tourist hotspots or the center of the city. For Barcelona, travel guides have pointed to Hotel Colon as one of the good choices. Some hotels offer a room with a scenic view of the Cathedral of Santa Eulalia. While the rates are relatively high to mildly costly, Hotel Colon stands at a very accessible place.

The Cathedral of Santa Eulalia itself features medieval and Renaissance styles with columns and arches that culminate in the crypt of St. Eulalia, the patroness of the cathedral. History tells that she was a virgin daughter of a high-class family who was then burned at the stake alive for her beliefs. To pay tribute to the patroness, the cathedral’s cloister houses a gaggle of white geese, whose origins or purpose remain unknown. Still, it’s fun to see and hear geese calling out to each other inside a cathedral.

Also within the visible vicinity of Hotel Colon are the Casa de l’Ardiaca or the Archdeacon’s House and the Plaça del Rei, which is just a fews teps from the cathedral.

Unfortunately, budget determines the place to stay. I’m more attracted to cheap hotels that still offer great lodgings and service, so I tried to look for one that was not too far from the Barrio Gótico or the Gothic Quarter. If there’s anything online tour blogs have taught me, it’s to never stray too far from the activity center of the city.

Thrifty travelers like me will find Catalonia Albinoni to be a good pick because it’s just off Plaza Catalunya where most of the events are happening. A few blocks away is a line of hotels just along Las Ramblas or those near the Plaza Catalunya, which also provide an ideal headquarters and lodging ground.

Eat, shop, walk

While sightseeing is the main point of touring a foreign country, stories of friends who just came fresh off the Spanish land shifted my interest to something every girl can relate to: shopping. In between flashing their new half-the-price Zara cardigans or colorful Spanish fans and sombreros, they would be going on about how Spanish shopping was already worth the plane ride to halfway around the world.

Not only do they slash up to 75% off regular prices, boutique stores such as Zara, Topshop, Bershka, and H&M have three to five levels each. My friends have already told me that if I can’t find my size in one store, I can just take my search to another branch. Since my size is the most common one there is—and one of my pet peeves is finding a style I love but realizing that the store only has one that’s a size too small or too big—this is comfort news.

At first, the ideal shopping place was La Roca Village. Based on online write-ups and accounts from friends, La Roca Village struck me to be almost like the outlet shops in the U.S. It’s the haven for bargain hunters, especially those who love designer brands like Carolina Herrera, Loewe, Diesel, Burberry, and Billabong. Along with the 60% discount all year round, non-European shoppers such as myself have the bonus of enjoying tax-free goods.

The invitation of a hundred boutique shops, some local shops, and conveniently placed cafés and bars in La Roca Village are almost hard to turn down, if not for the 40-minute drive to get there. As much as I love driving, renting cars in Europe isn’t really worth the money that should’ve been spent on clothes or food.

It didn’t help that upon further inquiry, I learned that those who are on a tight budget won’t exactly enjoy a carefree shopping splurge in La Roca Village. Though Spain is the cheapest European shopping hotspot, its high-class stores can still burn a hole through my pocket.

Here’s where the Gothic Quarter came to the rescue. Its many vehicle-free callés feature a wide array of quaint shopping lanes and eateries. I’ve always wanted to give genuine Spanish products as Christmas gifts to family and friends, and due to my bargain hunter blood, I decided this was better than resorting to an outlet shopping spree.

What’s more, the Gothic Quarter is almost comparable to a mazelike arena, where there’s a sure surprise or a treat at every turn. On one corner, there’s a pleasant shop of musical tinkles and colorful paraphernalia. On another, there’s a shop of porcelain figurines or paintings on sale. And off to the farther end, there’s a bakery café, selling fresh churros con chocolate at only 2.50€.

Since siesta hour is part of Spanish tradition, it wasn’t a surprise to find some shops closed during the early part of the afternoon. I realized that just as we were taught to take siesta as kids, the Spanish culture still holds this true to adulthood. Siesta time for tourists is better spent walking around the city. It is times like these when I can whip out my trusted camera and try to capture the culture of a new place.

Savor each bite

I’ve always had a small snack some time from three to five in the afternoon, while dinner time clocks in after dusk. In Barcelona, as in the whole of Spain, it is impossible to find an open restaurant or eatery before seven in the evening.

Getting stranded in the middle of one of the plazas during this time isn’t such a hassle, especially when the view and architectural structures are just too astounding to ignore. Hanging out or just walking through the streets is a nice way to pass the time, because other people are doing the same thing. As the restaurants open to allow customers a taste of tapas and dinner, there’s the undeniably mouth-watering and exquisitely genuine aroma of Barcelona’s specialty: Catalan cuisine.

It’s wise to have reservations, because the restaurants are always packed with hungry customers. Generally, eating time in Spain is different from what I’m used to. Aside from this, the trademark languid pace of dining is also a big contrast to how I usually wolf down my dinner to get back to the TV.

Lunch time for me always means noon on the dot, with only one hour to eat instant noodles or fast food. So I was surprised to see just how much of an activity eating is in Barcelona. It’s not so much as to regain fuel for the next few hours at the office, than a quality time spent at the table with friends and family.

Dinner is done in a similar fashion. Restaurants open around 7:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., so it was a must to loiter around the front door around that time or else it would be impossible to grab a table to get a fill of Catalan cuisine.

I found one such restaurant that offers genuine Catalan food. Located on a side street, Meson Jesus offers a gastronomic experience with the combination of high quality food and low prices. Amid old Castilian decors and obliging and friendly waitresses, they served sumptuous feasts of sautéed green beans with ham, grilled prawns, paella, and Catalan crème.

More so now that it’s almost Christmas time. The Christmas season officially begins on the feast of the Immaculate Concepcion every December 8. While some schools hold a special mass on this day, Spain has a more grand tradition that involves a ceremony done in front of the great Gothic cathedral in Seville.

It’s the closest thing to feeling like home.

Religion depicted on a stone

Barcelona’s love affair with Antoni Gaudi has brought forth unique pieces that I’ve always wanted to see for myself. Gaudi, the most renowned architect in Barcelona, was responsible for many of its major historical attractions, most notable of which is the yet to be finished Sagrada Familia.

While Gaudi’s works are scattered within the city, there are two of his works that are easily accessible from the Gothic Quarter: the Parc Guell and the Sagrada Familia. Since these sites can better be admired while walking through them, the weather should be cool enough for long walks but sunny enough that it won’t rain on my parade. This means that the perfect time to visit Barcelona would be anytime between October and June.

The first destination is one of the most fascinating sites that Barcelona has to offer. Admittedly, it is too far for walking from the center of the city, but the mere 30-minute bus ride heading in the Carmel was worth seeing those twin staircases and the mosaic salamander sculpture at the entrance of the park.

It’s hard to suppress the urge to touch the architectural sites, mostly because they all seemed to have shot straight out of fairytale books. There are the two buildings that look like twin offshoots of the famed gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel. Just seeing the textured surface immediately made me think of a chocolate muffin and the uniquely checkered gray and white rooftops only give a lasting aftertaste of frosting and whipped cream.

The moment the park opened at 10 a.m., a crowd of tourists flooded through the gates and took their spots in various parts of the park. It was hard to explore and take photos without a crowd of people blocking the view.