“It’s too early for this”, I thought as my taxi pulled up outside Dublin Airport at 5.15am. I sleepily stumbled out into the faint light of dawn and made my way inside. I was flying to Barcelona for a whirlwind two-day visit, where I was to meet an old friend who was flying in from Manchester. We hadn’t seen each other in three years, and on a recent Skype chat when I told her that I was planning a short trip to the Catalan capital, she exclaimed “Can I come?!”, and two weeks later we were on our way.
By the time my flight landed it was after 10 in the morning and I was more awake. I had a 40 minute wait before Sammie arrived, so I found an airport cafe and sat over a cup of tea. Eventually she emerged from the arrival gate wearing a blue sun dress and a full face of makeup and pulling a pink carry-on case behind her, looking much fresher and brighter than I felt in my tracksuit bottoms and t-shirt .
We took an airport bus to Plaça de Catalunya, the main square in the city centre, for €6 each, and made our way to our hotel beside the Arc de Triomf.
After checking in and freshening up, we set out to wander the streets of Barcelona. Our first stop was the famous La Rambla, a long, wide pedestrian thoroughfare running from Plaça de Catalunya to the sea. The street was lined with trees on both sides, offering shade from the sun, and the busy crowds made their way in and out of various gift shops, bars and cafes. We made a quick stop for Sammie to withdraw money from a cash machine, and then paid a short visit to the slightly gimmicky Erotic Museum, which was filled with little other than symbolic phalluses and pictures of Marilyn Monroe, before veering off toward the Gothic Quarter, to the East of La Rambla, with its narrow, winding, cobbled streets and old stone buildings. Our first stop there was the overwhelmingly impressive gothic Cathedral, with its intricately decorated spires.
We paid the €3 donation to go inside, and wandered through its cool chambers, sheltered from the sun outside by thick rock. As old churches go, this was a particularly beautiful one, with light shining in and through its architecture in lovely rays. In an internal courtyard in the cloisters, perfectly white ducks played in a pond.
Emerging again into the sunshine, we wandered a little longer through the Gothic Quarter’s attractive streets and squares, stopping for lunch at a cafe on the palm-tree filled Placa Reial, with its archways matching those in many former Spanish colonies I had visited in Central America and Cuba.
Tired from our early morning start, we then strolled back to the hotel to rest. The sun was beaming and it was a mild April 18 degrees celcius, so we took ourselves to the roof of the hotel, where sun loungers sat along a rooftop pool. There, we relaxed and soaked up the heat while chatting and catching up on each other’s lives.
While sitting sleepily in that lovely sunshine, my mobile phone rang. It was a number from Ireland that I didn’t know. I answered it, and it was my bank. I had forgotten to let them know that I was going abroad, and they were afraid that my card had been cloned. I reassured the woman on the phone that I was travelling.
“So, a debit card transaction in Barcelona at lunchtime today, that was you?” she asked.
“Yes, that was me”, I replied.
“And an ATM withdrawal in Dublin at 4.30 this morning, that was you as well?” she probed.
“Yes, I stopped to take money out to pay the taxi driver who took me to the airport”, I said, unconcerned.
“And a withdrawal in New York last night?” she queried, finally.
New York? No. There had been no transaction in New York.
“No, you must be mistaken”, I said.
The agent told me that unfortunately a transaction of $5 had been made in a New York shop the previous night, and that if I didn’t recognise it, she would have to cancel my card and send me a new one. I agreed that she should definitely cancel my card right away, but I was abroad in Barcelona – how would I survive with the very little cash in my wallet for the next two days? The bank agent on the phone suggested that if I was near an ATM machine I could go to it and withdraw as much cash as I needed right away and that she could wait 5 minutes, but that she would have to cancel the card as quickly as possible. I told her that I was on the roof of my hotel in a city I’m not familiar with, and that it would take at least 15 minutes to find an ATM machine. She was unable to wait that long.
Sammie assured me that she had plenty of funds in her bank account, and that she could pay for both of us for the next two days, and that I could just transfer the money to her account. I agreed, and told the agent to go ahead and cancel my card. This was inconvenient, but not the end of the world. I quickly got over it.
After relaxing a little longer on the hotel roof, we retreated to our room to shower and change for dinner. As we got ready to leave, Sammie cried out.
“Where’s my bank card?!”
My heart sank for both of us. Sammie frantically searched all of her bags and pockets, before eventually calling her bank to see whether they had a record of where she had used it last. The money she had withdrawn on La Rambla was recorded, but she had forgotten to take her card back afterward, and it had been eaten by the machine. Her bank helpfully promised to send a new one to her home address right away, but it left us both stuck.
We had just begun to wonder how we would manage to eat and see everything that we wanted to in Barcelona, when I remembered a credit card tucked into the inside pocket of my suitcase with a small credit balance on it. Logging onto my online banking, I found that there was just enough to get us both by for the next two days, if we were careful.
We decided not to let it ruin our trip, and went out to dinner as planned, only with a little more care paid to what we ordered. We took the underground back to the Gothic Quarter and browsed its streets, now alive with lamplight, for a place to eat. We decided on a tapas place near the port, and ate course after course of well-priced and delicious small dishes, including cheeses, salads, peppers and tortillas. After smiling and saying “Gracias” to the waiter a number of times as he brought the first three or four rounds, I finally picked up on his Irish accent.
“I was wondering how long you were going to keep trying to speak Spanish”, he said with a grin. “By the way, they speak Catalan here.”
He told us that he had been living in Barcelona for four years, that his wife was from here, and gave us tips on where to go for after-dinner drinks. We found an outdoor table on Placa Reial and enjoyed a bottle of wine before wandering back in the direction of La Rambla to find a taxi. Along the way we took photos of the impressive architecture and statues, as well as detouring past the Cathedral again for an eerily-lit nighttime view.
At one point, we found that we had stumbled unwittingly into a roudy area with a fight and police on one side of the street, and passed out drunks on the other side. We turned another corner, and were back on the main road again.
The following morning, feeling tired but looking forward to another day of exploration, we walked from the hotel to the famous Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi’s still unfinished masterpiece of a church. The architecture is influenced by the gothic, but also takes on another aspect that makes it seem part fairytale and part surrealist. Hundreds of interesting carved figures protrude from its beautiful facade, making it seem like it was crawling with creatures from heaven and hell.
After that, we took the metro slightly out of the city centre to Park Guell, probably Barcelona’s most well-known icon – another of Gaudi’s fantastical creations. Walking up the park’s hills, we passed its many colourful mosaic pillars, doorways and landmarks.
When we arrived at the top, we rested, looking out across the unusual park below us. The view across the city reached all the way to the blue Mediterranean Sea.
At this stage, it was lunchtime, and we were exhausted from all of our walking in the sun. We made our way back to the underground and back to our hotel, where got ready for the last thing we wanted to do on our visit to Barcelona: visit the beach. We changed into beach wear, the underground took us down to the seafront district of Barceloneta. There, we ate a late lunch of Caprese salad with creamy mozzarella, rich tomatoes and aromatic basil at a beachfront bar, and finally caught an hour of warm sunshine on the soft sand.
Barcelona has often been a contender for best beach city in the world in many lists written by travel bloggers or journalists, and it’s well-deserved.
As we lay relaxing in the late afternoon sun, we marvelled at how much we had managed to pack into our two days, despite having such an unexpectedly constrained budget to work with. We had seen everything we wanted to for a first, short visit to Barcelona. We both agreed that the city was beautiful and fun, and merited another longer visit in the future to properly soak up its culture. Hopefully next time cash won’t be such a concern!