BARCELONA — This is our recollection of the first time we enjoyed Barcelona, four years ago…
Drive in from a beautiful seaside resort. Pay a small fortune to park the car, somewhere near the tourist haven known as La Rambla. Wander the narrow streets. Get lost. Stumble across a church that's been in a state of construction for decades. Eat at a tapas bar. Re-locate the car. Drive up a long hill to see Olympic Stadium. Leave.
It was fun but our second time around was better, on a shore excursion from Oceania's new Riviera.
We feel compelled to make a recommendation to anyone who might find themselves on a cruise stopping in this capital of Catalonia.
Whether you take a shore excursion from a cruise ship or just get off the ship and take a local bus tour, it's the best way to get a feel for Barcelona. And take a map. Follow the bus route on the map (not that hard) and you'll see, for example, that it's an easy walk from one end of Las Ramblas, by the sea, to the other, by the main square.
You'll get a glimpse of where the 1992 Olympic Games were held, mostly up in Parc Montjuic, which overlooks the city. It's a tough walk to get there, but possible, and a funicular runs constantly to transport visitors. The funicular was built for the World Exposition in 1929 but was extensively renovated for the Olympics. You'll also get a sense of how far apart everything is, which makes it easier to plan your visit.
Those two stops, plus the church we stumbled across in 2008, are recommended for first-time visitors. If you're lucky enough to get a tour guide like ours, Marija Vasiljevic Nadina, you'll find out as much as you need to know about La Sagrada Familia (the church), Antonio Gaudi (the man who designed it) and how the face of Barcelona has changed.
She is quick to point out that if you were here before the Olympics, this is a different place.
"The Olympics changed everything," she says. "It's different."
In a word, tourism.
Barcelonians were known for "turning our backs to the sea." By "turning around" they opened up the waterfront in a way it had never been open. The Olympic Village was built there at a time when it was a decaying area to be avoided, and as post-Olympic apartments they were all sold before the Games even began.
In turning its front to the sea, Barcelona opened its arms to the cruise ships. Now it is the largest cruise port in Europe, No. 3 in the world and the European home of the Riviera, which was christened here last week. Beaches, previously ignored, are beautiful. There's a large casino, and Starwood has built a tony W Hotel in the shape of a sail.
Tourism is king. As an example, the bull rings were all closed because there were demonstrations every Sunday by people carrying "blood-stained" blankets. It was bad for tourism. Now there is only bull-fighting in the south of Spain, where legislators decreed than the "art" of bull-fighting be classified as a "celebration of national interest" so now it is protected by law.
Then there's the church.
Construction has been stopped and re-started several times, primarily for lack of funds. Now, it is almost wholly supported by tourist dollars. There are often line-ups to get in, more than two million visitors a year and so many buses in the area that they are being outlawed from the front of the church to be parked a few blocks away.
It's a church that has inspired contradictory credible comments that it is both "sensual, spiritual, whimsical, exuberant" and "one of the strangest-looking, even hideous, serious buildings in the world." It is probably both. Even Barcelonians don't like the final facade, under which is buried its only permanent resident, Antonio Gaudi.
"You have a word in English…gaudy?" says Marija. "I believe it means 'too much'? Yes, maybe that is Gaudi."
His sometimes-bizarre architectural tastes are everywhere around Las Ramblas, the best place to taste local cuisine. We went looking for two dishes: paella and zarzuela. Paella was everywhere but zarzuela, seafood-based like paella but without rice or noodles, was tougher to find.
Then, along came "Rodolfo King of The Ramblas."
Rodolfo Crespo's job is to coax tourists to a restaurant, called Living Barcelona, a block off the main drag. He didn't approach us, we approached him, in search of zarzuela.
"Si," he replied.
We dined at Living Barcelona. One of us had paella, one zarzuela. Were they good?
June 11, 2012
Miami, St. George's, Azores, Ponta Delgada, Motril, Valencia, Barcelona
Cost per day: $153