What Frank and I have in common – Barcelona do’s and dont’s

While Marina and I are away for the week, we’ve turned over the blog to veteran Notes from Spain contributor and guest blogger Gary Child, who was recently let loose for a fortnight in Barcelona. In this final instalment, how to survive in Barcelona…

Mr. Sinatra’s most famous offering begins with the lyric, “And now, the end is near…”, and so it is for me. I have just finished my last intercambio of the fortnight and there is one grammar session and two conversation classes between me and the flight home.

The fortnight has flown by and “…regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again too few to mention…”.

But I will anyway. I booked the course which included a fiesta and so lost a day’s tuition. No biggy. The thing I did that I won’t do when I repeat the experience is to book so many intercambios. Two a day is wa-a-a-ay too many when added to three ninety minute classes. No, next time, the standard course of two sessions in the morning and probably three intercambios in each week will be enough. You get all Spanished out.

But “…I did what I had to do, and saw it through without exemption…”, thank God I had two cancellations.

Of the seven people that I have met there are two with whom I have an arrangement to meet for a drink and a chat at New Year when I’m back in town with my beloved. Strictly social though, no classes and no formal intercambio.

I love Barcelona and I have been here often enough now that I feel no compunction to traipse round all the usual tourist gaffs unless there is someone with me that necessitates ‘tour guide’ mode. I have always tried to do something on every visit that I haven’t done before. This time it was to be a visit to Tibidabo, but with all the intercambios I just couldn’t face the hassle. Maybe next time, maybe not.

I stay in a shared flat with a charming English lady to whom I was introduced via the language school. I have also stayed with her on weekend breaks with my son, and though student accommodation may not be appropriate when traveling with Mrs C, we will make a point of calling in when we are in town. It has become a home from home, a pied-a-terre in BCN, and it is sufficient for me that I come and live in the community for a couple of weeks, learn a bit and relax a lot.

I suppose it must fall upon me to write a little about the city at the end of this series.

If you’ve never been then do make the effort. It has taken me the best part of five years of visiting a couple of times or more a year to get round all there is to see and, as no series of articles on the web would be complete without a list of dos and don’ts here’s mine:

DO make use of the public transport system. Frankly, I cant imagine anywhere that is better organised. The Metro is awesome and runs like clockwork, added to this is a comprehensive network of buses and local trains to the Costa Brava and Costa Dorada. There are funicular railways, chair lifts and a cable car and with the exception of the latter two, within the city limits, one ticket fits all.

I usually buy a T10 – 10 rides for just under €7 – that’s 50p a ride to you – Boris take note. Further, the price is per journey so if you get off the Metro and catch a bus to continue your journey the system knows and only charges you once. Fantastic, If transport was like this in my home town I’d sell the cars.

For those that can remember the old white bicycle thing in the 60’s whereby if you came upon a white bike in the street you could purloin it, ride it and leave it for somebody else to use when you’d done, there’s Bicing (pronounced Bee-thing).

Not really for tourists, this – you set up an account on the internet and you get a card. You swipe the card at the Bicing station and take a bike for which you are charged a pittance until you drop it off at any other Bicing station. More and more of these are cropping up and they seem very popular. Barcelona is a city built on a hill and on a sunny day many bikes are ridden downhill to the beach but folk prefer to take the metro home. No matter, good for the planet. (sigh!)

I reckon for a tourist to take one of these bikes out on Barcelona’s streets would be on a par with crocodile wrestling and free fall parachuting – check your travel insurance carefully.

DO make a point of seeing the Magic Fountains. For those that can remember the TV series the Persuaders – this is the fountain in the title sequence with Tony Christie singing “Avenues and Alleyways”. It never fails to entertain and its not often you get the chance to see a crowd of thousands applauding coloured water. Strange but true.

DO extend your vocabulary by trying things on the menu about which you have no idea – nothing is poisonous and some things are remarkably good. I discovered the Catalan word for sea snails in this way. Yes, I ate them all. I was dining with an Austrian bloke I’d met at the language school and didn’t want to let the side down, maybe it’ll be a while before I have them again.

DO remember that no one goes out much before 10pm to eat or for a drink. This can be hard to get the hang of, but try to have a light snack about 5pm to put you on. Once you get into the habit of eating so late it’s a dog to break once you get back to the UK.

DO make a point of finding Plaça San Felipe Nuri. Amongst all the bustle of Barcelona this tiny square is a haven of peace and tranquility. Round the church door great chunks of masonry have been removed either by bullets or shrapnel, it depends which version of the story you believe. The politically correct story is that a bomb dropped in the square during the civil war, the other story is that locals were taken into the square and executed with machine guns. The concentration of the zone of fire seems to me to support the latter but who am I to say, CSI I ain’t. The atmosphere in the square is very intense. Beware, the coffee shop belongs to the 4 star hotel and is un poco caro.

DO try to find Los Quatre Gatos. Walk down Portal del Angels from El Corte Inglés in Plaça Catalunya. There’s an alley on the left before the Bicing station somewhere. It is well worth a visit, like stepping back in time. I recommend the menu del día. Dress reasonably well and don’t take any truck when the Maitre D’ tries to sit you in the bar area. Gently insist that you would like to sit in the main sala. This is as close as you’re ever likely to get to Picasso – it was one of his favourite haunts.

DO explore the back streets of Barceloneta. The front drag next to Port Vell is set up to take the money from tourists. Real people live real lives in Barceloneta and the multitude of bars and restaurants is a testimony to this. La marcha is good here. My particular favourite is Maians on Carrer Carles.

DO enjoy la marcha but remember that nobody loves a borrach@ – especially the Mossos. These are the local, Catalan police. They are a youthful, particularly good looking squad of enthusiastic young officers. By and large they are helpful and charming but if you find yourself on the wrong side of them back off sharpish as their youthful exuberance is likely to lead you to biting off more than you can chew, and chewing may be difficult without your front teeth…

Do visit the Boquería – the market half way up Las Ramblas. Marvel at how bright and shiny the fruit is and the breadth of varieties there are. Hover around the sweet stall looking hesitant and they will ask you if you want to try some. Tour the fish market – no need to ask if is fresh, most of it is still wriggling, snapping and gawping like a silent choir.

DO take pot luck and explore one of the barrios away from the tourist traps, Eixample is a safe, well heeled area with many cafes and bars and a stroll up Avenida De Gaudi from La Sagrada Familia to Hospital de San Pau passes a pleasant hour, Gracia is good too.

DON’T wear your “Mug me, I’m a guiri” uniform. I have never had any trouble but better safe than sorry. First, when you reclaim your baggage take off the baggage handling label that was put on at check-in, it says “I have just arrived and may be a little less than orientated”. Wearing the classic guiri attire of beanie, shirt and shorts complete with sunburn, socks and sandals does mark one out somewhat. Ask yourself, if you went to London, who dresses like that? The Americans used to when they could afford to come and it marked them out for the unscrupulous as easy to over charge and rip off. Decide for yourself…

DON’T carry your wallet in your back jeans pocket. If you don’t know why, go to the Video Shop, rent a copy of Oliver and fast forward to the scene where Dodger takes Oliver back to Fagin’s den. Not quite as prevalent as Madrid but they’re there, looking for the easy mark. Beware, ladies, of slinging your bags over the backs of chairs and ten cuidado if anyone approaches you in a group with a map looking for directions…

DON’T be tempted to walk home if you’re out after the Metro and the buses are shut down. Like any other big city there are small areas in which you might feel uncomfortable. For me these are few and far between – coming from one of the less salubrious barrios of Leeds, I have never felt particularly threatened – but I have been with friends that were a little jumpy on occasions There are tons of taxi’s in Barcelona and I have never paid more than €6 for any ride, ever – so get one, its almost as cheap as the Metro if there are four of you and, of course, they run door to door.

DON’T cross the eight lane roads anywhere except at the crossings, the locals don’t and they have loads of time to practice. This is good advice even on the piddly side streets. Remember that traffic turning into the road you are crossing can go if no one is using the crossing, there is a flashing amber light to tell them this, and it can be confusing at first for pedestrians. But, when the green man is lit, walk and they will wait for you. Continually tell yourself to look the other way for the traffic – especially after a few drinks.

DON’T walk anywhere uphill in the heat and humidity, get the bus or Metro. By all means stroll down the hill back. Parc Guell is very nice…

DON’T get duped when buying a beer on Las Ramblas. You say, “Una cerveza.” He says “¿Grande?” and you nod. The bloody thing will be a three litre stein like a bucket when it comes and cost the best part of £20. Buyer beware. Best order a caña, and if you want more order another – at least it wont get warm that way.

DON’T dally watching the blokes playing the game with three shells and a pea, or any other variation of same, and certainly don’t make a bet. This is usually a blind for pickpockets. Beware, also, when watching the street entertainers, they are making a living but the pickpockets aren’t fussy.

DON’T buy the cardboard cutouts of the Simpsons that dance to the music… it’s a con, come on, wise-up…

DON’T pay over a tenner to go inside the Sagrada Familia and up the lift for the view. There are building sites all over Barcelona you can see for free and if you want a view of the city go on the funicular railway from Paral-lel up to Monjuic, the price of the ride is included in your ten run ticket. Better to walk round the back of the church (the newer bit) sit and have a beer and look at the building from there. It really is remarkable.

DON’T go to Starbucks unless you have a very good reason, the coffee is better and cheaper almost everywhere else. Mind, the Starbucks on Muntanner/Tevasseria de Gracia is permitted. Not for the coffee – for an intercambio – its quiet, empty, and has aircon.

To continue the Sinatra theme “…and so I face the final curtain…”.

Here’s hoping you’ve enjoyed my letters from BCN. I’ve had a great fortnight, met some lovely people and learnt a great deal. What was hard this time last year seems easy-peasy now, but there are more challenges.

I would encourage you to have a go if you are tempted but I have deliberately refrained from recommending a school or giving details in case anyone follows in my footsteps and is disappointed. You need to do the lot from scratch, do the research, book the flights and the accommodation to get the the most out of the experience.

I did, but then (I can’t resist)…

“…I did it my wa-a-a-y”

Cue applause.

(Mr Sinatra has left the building)

When not living it up in Barcelona, Gary Child works on great Free educational resources for the Primary classroom.

18 thoughts on “What Frank and I have in common – Barcelona do’s and dont’s

  1. Pepino

    Great list Gary. Yep, Bicing´s not for the tourists as you pay for a full year´s worth of use at a time. If you´re in town a short time though, hiring from a regular hire shop is an option and the cycle lanes are good (new one being painted outside my flat this very morning!). I have my own bike and know what you mean about the traffic, but it doesn´t take long to get the measure of, and around Eixample there´s an art to jumping red lights which nearly all the local cyclists do (including me!). People know which junctions are the worst though, and where to just sit and wait for a green light. For example, no one who values their life would take on all 10 car lanes, two tram tracks, walkway, and grass verge of the Diagonal near Francesc Macià!). It´s dangerous enough on a GREEN light! jeje. There´s a map of the cycle lanes on the web, I´ll try to find it.

    The T10 metro/bus card has gone up a smidge and now costs €7,20 but still a HUGE bargain!

    The fountains are touristy, but beautiful, and even though I´ve seen them loads, I still have a stroll up there once in a while to watch them.

    And finally, you´re of course right about going out late… I´ve just arranged to meet friends tonight, and we´re not even going to meet until midnight 🙂

  2. ValenciaSon

    Perhaps this American will take a quick jaunt to Barcelona with family in haul, while visiting Valencia in 2010. I’ll skip the language courses but will go for the marisco and occasional caña, and oh yeah, Churros! any good churro place in BCN? I’m sure they have quite a few? Thanks for this series, Gary. I’ve really enjoyed reading it. While your coin is so golden, you should pay a visit to the US. I can’t recommend any language course but I bet you would have a great time in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, DC and other great places on the east coast. I would love to read your blogging on that experience.

  3. gary

    @Tom – I did get caught a long time ago with the bucketful of beer on Las Ramblas… and I do have the guiri sunburn and the gorro when Im at tha costas, but apart from that, no…

  4. Pepino

    @VC. I´ve yet to find a good Churros place that would match the one in Madrid (who´s name escapes me but you know the one I mean). Maybe churros is more of a Madrid thing?? (total guess there).

    Whenever there´s a festival of any kind, the mobile churros vans always show up, but the permanent churreria cafés that I know tend to be a bit small and scuffy compared to the luxury of the famous Madrid one. In BCN maybe it´s more a case of go in, buy your churros over the counter, and leave? (another wild guess).

    Despite being a chocolate addict, churros is something that I haven´t really bothered with. For example, in 2 years of living in BCN, I´ve never once rounded off a night out with churros. Perhaps I should start! 🙂

  5. Parubin

    @ Pepino,
    Your guess is spot on. There are ‘churros’ everywhere in Spain but it is something more of a Madrilian thing. Also in Andalucía they have good ones too.

    @ Gary,
    Nice post.
    This has to be the first time I hear an Englishman’s complaint over the big size of beer in Spain.
    It is usually the other way around, as something smaller than a pint is considered a heresy in the British Isles, while in Spain, as you know, we like to go for the smaller type of ‘cañas’, ‘zuritos’, ‘minis’ or whatever you call them.

  6. Urgellenk

    BCN is not as strong in churros as other regions of Spain. In Catalonia they have a kind of soft biscuits called melindros usually served with hot chocolate (xocolata amb melindros). My favourite place to have them is in GRO, but they are also widely available in BCN. The most traditional venues are located around Petritxol St. but I prefer the Cacao Sampaka version. Their dark chocolate is to die for.

  7. Pepino

    Gary´s not the only English beer drinker that ironically prefers the smaller Spanish glasses…. me too! I especially like a cold beer to be served in one of those wine glass shaped glasses (but with the chunkier stem). That´s a perfect beer for me these days 🙂

    When I go back to the UK (which I´m doing next week again) I always baulk at the thought of having a pint nowadays, and although I manage it, I don´t enjoy it as much.

    And like Gary says, you can always order another 🙂

    Thanks for the confirmation on the Churros too! It´s always nice when I get something right even though I haven´t given it a moment´s thought before! jeje

  8. gary

    @ parubin – yep, but all the different sizes are not standard, a tubo at one place is only half of what you get wlsewhere, plus the caña is such an elastic measure!!

    I usually have a ‘doble’ or a ‘pinta’, the 500ml measure has different names in different towns. caña is okay but the minis are just silly… I swallow more mouthwash after brushing my teeth!!
    @ John – never seen a segue in use bt the public, though I have seen reps and officials use them at the trade fairs near Pl España…

  9. Jordan

    Hi there Gary,

    This is just to say I have enjoyed reading your blog entries this week. You’ve done a good job, taking over from Ben and Marina! I’m actually going to Barcelona next Friday, in preparation for my Master in Translation Studies. Even though the course ends in June next year, my aim is to stay out in the city and hopefully find a job, and eventually live with my fiancée!

    Que todo te vaya bien, y adéu,

    Jordan

  10. ValenciaSon

    @Parubin: I don’t think churros is strictly just a Madrilian, Valencia has an excellent churros con chocolate place known as Santa Catalina! Timeless, classy and delicious!!

  11. John

    Gary, thanks for the very interesting blogs on Barcelona; I’m there next week and then on to Calonge; and thank you for the response to the segue, I had no idea they were illegal in the UK. We seem to throw cold water on everything.

    Have a good trip back,

    John

  12. Barcelona Guide

    I loved to read your post. Barcelona is very nice city. I can’t pass without repeating you that this city has incredibly well organized public transport. Besides the metro (subway) that passes in every 2-4min during the night night buses operate in every 20min. Here I would like to note that as far as I know Barcelona is the city with the cheapest connection between the airport and the city center by the train R10 (renfe cercanias) – costs 0.72 euros if you have T-10 (1 ride).

    I think you was a bit critical about the mossos (local police). I think they are great – the most friendly (amable) police I have ever seen, unless you are stepping beyond the low. Definitely not comparable with the US police.

    As many readers of this block, I would support that bicing is more for locals rather than tourists. Instead tourists can hire a bike for a day. There are many places around Barceloneta that rent bikes – also they have guided bike tours.

    Another new attraction here are Go Cars. They are a bit expensive but very unique and authentic. Recommend trying them.

    About the Taxis in Barcelona. I agree that they are OK even would go further by saying that taxis are very honest and wouldn’t cheat the client regardless if (s)he is a tourist.

    About the restaurants in La Rambla. I agree again and think that this is the worst place that one can eat or drink something. A friend of mine says whoever goes to a restaurant in Rambla never returns 🙂

    Nice post.

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