Barcelona, Spain

We've all heard the tales of horrible English weather. Well they're all true! It does rain quite often, but that's not really the problem, in my opinion. The problem is the constant state of cloudiness, especially in the winter months. The "gray months" (as we call them) begin when the time changes in October and lasts through the end of March. Sometime after Halloween what little sun we see begins setting around 3:30 in the afternoon and doesn't show itself again until 8:00 the next morning. It can be quite depressing at times. There are millions of people throughout the world that suffer from light deprivation and become severely depressed. The name of this condition is SAD - Seasonal Affective Disorder. To help people suffering from SAD companies such as Electronic Healing are marketing such things as light boxes. Don't believe me? For some reason I find this topic interesting, but don't worry, we're not suffering from SAD. Although, we did plan our trip to Barcelona in search of sunshine and a little warmth! So back to the original topic - Barcelona!

After spending a quiet Christmas together in England, on December 28th, we took off to the Iberian Peninsula - more specifically Barcelona, Spain. And Barcelona did not disappoint us. We didn't feel one drop of rain the entire time we were there, but more importantly, everyday was sunny with no clouds in the sky AND it didn't get dark until 5:30 pm. Oh, it was heavenly!

The city of Barcelona is divided into several different and distinct areas: El Born, Gothic Quarter, Las Ramblas, Eixample, Gracia and the beach area. We stayed in El Born near the Santa Maria del Mar church. El Born is an area within the Old Town that has been recently transformed into one of the trendiest neighborhoods in the city. There are lots of shops and unique restaurants as well as restaurants serving traditional Spanish cuisine like Paella and Tapas.

On our first day, we decided to explore our new surroundings first stopping in the fourteenth century Catalan Gothic church, Santa Maria del Mar. This church is called the people's church because it was built by workers for workers. The church sits in the middle of a very busy square encircled by narrow pedestrian streets with shops on the street level and apartments typically rising up four more floors. The narrow streets along with the height of the surrounding buildings make it extremely difficult to get a good picture of the church. This is the case throughout Barcelona. Unfortunately, due to the lighting the pictures just don't look the same as the actual sites looked in person, but I'm sure you'll get the idea! After leaving El Born, we walked toward the Gothic Quarter in search of the Cathedral of Saint Eulalia. Along the way, we passed several sections of the Roman Wall dating back to the 4th century. Arriving at the Cathedral we noticed a familiar site in Europe - scaffolding covered with a picture of what the church or monument should look like due to exterior cleaning in progress. Our picture will reflect this! The construction of the Cathedral began in 1298 under James II, king of Aragon and was dedicated to Saint Eulalia. St. Eulalia was a young girl who was tortured and killed for her Christian faith in the 4th century. The crypt, which displays the sarcophagus of Saint Eulalia, is most unusual because the entrance is an open staircase directly under the main altar. Normally one would visit the crypt through a side doorway and then down stairs to the underground level. After walking through the church, we took the elevator to the roof for some beautiful panoramic views of the city. From the roof one can look east to the Mediterranean Sea, south to the mountain Montjuic, and gazing northwest you can't help but see the imposing figure of Gaudí's Sagrada Familia. After leaving the Cathedral, we walked through the streets of the Gothic Quarter to the Plaça de Catalunya in search of Tourist Information. Plaça de Catalunya is in the center of Barcelona and connects Las Ramblas, the Gothic Quarter and Eixample. On any given day one can hang out here, feed the many pigeons or just enjoy people watching. With our map in hand from Tourist Information, we were off to Gaudí country and some lunch!

We made our way down Passeig de Gracia and stopped for lunch at Tapas Tapas almost directly across from Gaudí's Casa Batllo - #43 Passeig de Gracia - and Manzana de la Discordia (Apple of discord), which is the name of the block. This block of houses has been made famous by the Catalan modernist architects Antoni Gaudí, Domenech i Montaner and Puig i Cadafalch. From there we continued on about 3-4 blocks and ran right into Casa Mila or La Pedrera (the stone quarry). We highly recommend going inside. There was a line but it moved quickly - thank goodness it was the off-season! Gaudí started construction on Casa Mila in 1906 and finished in 1912. Once inside, there is an apartment that has been decorated to reflect the styles of an early 20th century bourgeois family. Some of the highlights are the parquet floor in the living quarters as well as the overall layout of the apartment, which allows an incredible amount of light to filter through the rooms. There is also a Gaudí museum that is quite interesting if you are into Gaudí and architecture. If you're running short of time you can walk through quickly and take the elevator to the must-see roof. I read somewhere that the chimney pots on the roof of Casa Mila are the most photographed in the world, and I must admit they are extremely unique and beautiful. The facade of Casa Mila is said to represent waves with the balcony railings representing seaweed designed for Gaudíís love of nature.

Believe it or not, we still had some daylight left, so we decided to see more Gaudí architecture - the unfinished "Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Familia" (Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family). Gaudí started work on the temple in 1883 and worked up to his death in 1926. He is buried in the crypt of the temple. There are three planned facades (Birth of Christ, Passion of Christ and the Ascension or Gloria), but Gaudí completed only one - the Birth of Christ. Each of the three facades is supposed to have four bell towers representing the twelve apostles, but only eight are currently built. Gaudí's Nativity facade has three portals, which represent Faith, Hope and Charity. The statues in the portals are among the most beautiful I've ever seen. We actually approached the temple from the east and were blown away by the incredible facade of the Passion by a local sculptor Josep M. Subirachs. We walked through the temple, which is basically a hollow shell on the inside - there are cranes and building supplies everywhere, and ended up looking at Gaudí's Nativity facade. Mike tried his best to get a picture of the entire facade but it's next to impossible. We were able to queue up for a climb to the top of one of the towers. Little did we know it would be a two-hour adventure with the last 30 minutes in the dark!

Our second day in the city was spent walking, walking and walking. We meandered down La Rambla to the Portal de la Pau where the famous Monument to Christopher Columbus stands. From there we crossed the Rambla de Mar bridge to Port Vell. We walked along the marina to the beach, and to Barceloneta where we caught the underground to the northern sector of Gràcia for our last Gaudí masterpiece - Parc Güell. The original plan was not for a park but for a revolutionary garden city residential development based on the English garden cities and was financed by Count Eusebi Güell i Bacigalupi. When the developer's only sold two of the sixty lots, the project was abandoned. The land was later bought by the city in 1922 and made into a public park. Getting to Parc Güell was an adventure in and of it self but was definitely worth it! We somehow entered the park from a back entrance and arrived about 45 minutes before sundown. Luckily, the highest peak in the park lies near the back entrance and we were able to get some fantastic panoramic shots of the city before the sun went down! Ordinarily, we would suggest entering at the front entrance in order to take in the whole experience, but definitely allow enough time to explore the winding paths throughout the park. When entering through the proper entrance, you will first encounter two edible-looking pavilions - similar to Gingerbread houses! After passing the pavilions, walk up the stairs and take in some of the most famous mosaics in Barcelona, especially the Dragon or Lizard - that is if you can get close enough to actually see it. (Even during the off-season there were tons of people trying to get their picture taken beside it.) At the top of the stairs you've entered "the room of the hundred columns" - actually there are only 86. From there, walk up more steps to the upper terrace. The upper terrace is so unusual with its curved benches encrusted with ceramic shards of various colors and sizes, which Gaudí arranged in the form of a huge abstract collage. The park is a definite must-see!

On our last full day (New Year's Eve) we decided to take a day-trip to Montserrat - the serrated mountain. It was about an hour train ride outside the city. Tourist flock to Montserrat for several reasons: the uniqueness of the mountain itself (the rock formations seem to lure mountain climbers as well as hikers) and spiritual pilgrimages. Goethe wrote this about Montserrat: "man will find rest in no place except his own Montserrat". Human presence on Montserrat dates back to the Neolithic period - around 3,000 B.C., however the first written record wasn't until the 9th century by Wilfred, the first Count of Barcelona. Currently, on the mountain there is a Benedictine Monastery with around 80 monks, a 16th century Basilica, a nature park, the Sanctuary of the Virgin of Montserrat, a museum, and The "Moreneta" - the Black Madonna. We spent the entire day exploring these sites. The Basilica is one of the most exquisite churches I've ever seen. The queue to view the Black Madonna starts outside the Basilica and runs along one of the walls, through the chapels, up stairs to the shrine behind the main altar. One must remain silent at all times so as not to disturb worshippers. The Madonna sits above the main altar for all worshippers to see at Mass. The ritual gesture is to touch Her right hand, which holds a sphere representing the universe. After we finished seeing the church and square, we took one of the funiculars to the top of the mountain where, unfortunately, we only had time to take a few pictures because our main focus was finding the Holy Cave. However, we did get some wonderful pictures looking down on the village on Montserrat. Scattered all over the mountain are the remains of fifteen chapels or former hermitages. These haven't been used since the French invasion in 1811 and would have been worth the adventure if we'd had time. Next, we took the funicular down a few hundred feet to the Cami de la Cova (Path to the Grotto) that leads to La Santa Cova - the Holy Cave. The path is approximately one and a half kilometers and there are fifteen sculptural groups corresponding to the fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary along the path. At the end of the path is the Chapel where it is thought that the image of Our Lady of Montserrat was found. The Chapel looks as if it's literally clinging to the side of the mountain. Next to the altar inside the Chapel is a room where pilgrims leave personal items - some with written notes, some without - as offerings to the Madonna. It's a very moving and spiritual experience seeing this show of faith. After spending as much time as we could in the Chapel, we decided we needed to get back to the city. The next train would leave in 30 minutes and fog had started rolling in. We thought if we returned quickly to the funicular, then ran to the cable car, we could catch the next train no problem. Best laid plans...well we missed the funicular by one minute and were stuck waiting for 15 minutes for the next one. Once we got to the cable car, no one was in the office and the cable car was just sitting there unattended. We waited 10 minutes for it to leave. We still had high hopes of making the train until about 4/5 of the way down when we saw the train round the bend. As the cable car stopped, we took off running for the train. We didn't make it...but there was a bar next to the train tracks, so we stopped in for a beer and a bite to eat while waiting thirty minutes for the next train. All in all it was a very good day.

New Year's Eve was unusual. Barcelona does not put on a big NYE celebration like other cities. In fact most of the restaurants are closed and the one's that stay open have a set menu for the night. Some were outrageously expensive but we found an Italian restaurant for fifty Euros each. This included dinner, wine, a glass of CAVA and the Spanish tradition of 12 grapes at midnight. After celebrating the New Year with the patrons of "Made in Italy", we wondered down the street to an Irish Pub we found a few nights earlier and got to ring in the New Year again (an hour later) - Irish and UK time!

Click here for a very cool virtual tour of Barcelona.

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