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Mar 23 2015

Barcelona Part 1

Momentous occasions call for big celebrations, so when my twentieth wedding anniversary loomed I knew I had to do a little better than a pair of earrings.

Being a confirmed travel hacker meant it was time to assess the point balances in my airline and hotel accounts and see where I could whisk my lovely, but near-sighted bride away to.

After some research, I settled on Barcelona. This was partly because reaching it via American Airlines was very affordable. Two round trip tickets set me back 80,000 points and $118 in additional charges. This is really reasonable compared to other European destinations. When I looked at London I could get there for 80,000 points but AA was adding on over $900 in fees. Ouch. Check out this article for some reasons on why “Free” award tickets can be so expensive.

I found a Marriot Renaissance property on Pau Claris, just blocks from the Passeig de Gracia, the Placa de Catalunya and Las Ramblas. Cha ching…160,000 points gone, but a gorgeous corner room in a beautiful hotel. Smile.

So, beautiful destination, beautiful hotel. All I have to cover is fun and food once I get there. Easy, right?

Fate occasionally has other ideas.

One of the downsides of taking the cheapest point flights to Europe is that the carriers offer you what is convenient for them, not for you. That means we flew to New York LaGuardia and then caught a cab to JFK for our flight to Barcelona. We grabbed a late lunch and then boarded a plane for the long overnight to Barcelona El Prat airport.

As we crossed into the last third of the flight, my wife and I had drifted into that uneasy, sitting straight up in economy kind of sleep that doesn’t really make you feel any better. About ninety minutes before descent my wife bolted upright and told me she didn’t feel right.

Then her eyes rolled back in her head, and she fainted dead away. Nothing like a little panic to punctuate a trip.

I spent the next hour fanning her as if her life depended on it (it may have)…and telling her everything was going to be alright. I was not terribly convincing I’m afraid. Then once we got to Barcelona there was the walk through the airport and an interminable wait in customs. She was about the color of chalk and I was pretty sure she was going to faint again at any moment.

We finally got through the lines and the bureaucracy. I had originally intended to catch the train into the city center, since it stopped about a block from our hotel. Given my wife’s current condition I opted to grab a taxi, because leaving the navigation up to someone else seemed like a good idea at the time.

Twenty minutes later we rolled into a Renaissance by Marriott Hotel and it was only a bit after eight AM. We can now add motion sickness to my wife’s list of maladies, as all big city cabbies like to prove to you how aggressive they can be.

bcndm_phototour44

I asked if we could check in early. The front desk person immediately took one look at my wife and said, “She is white as a ghost!” He came out from behind the desk, took her into the lounge area and sat her down in a booth…then commanded the person attending the breakfast to take care of her. Within the hour they had tucked us into a beautiful corner room with a gorgeous view of the city.

We have since done a fair amount of research and visited a doctor who described what she experienced as a “Classic vasovagal episode“. In nosing around it seems that it is not uncommon in air travel. The best advice I have accumulated so far is to not eat heavily on the plane or for three hours before and to carry some salty snacks like pretzels to nibble to keep your blood pressure up. If the feeling starts to come on (roaring in your ears, light headedness, tunnel vision) figure out a way to elevate your legs above your head, or at least get them level. I know…SO EASY on a plane, right?

It is amazing what a bit of sleep in a normal position will do for someone’s attitude. Thankfully my wife rebounded quickly. We decided to not travel at our normal frenetic pace and opted for a stroll through the Plaça Catalunya and down the La Rambla to the port.

The Plaça de Catalunya is the heart of the city of Barcelona. It is the terminating point of much of the city’s public transport and is the emotional center as well. When we strolled through it, there was an open air market with cheeses, meats and local artisans showing off their wares. The vendors will happily pack their goods for travel, but make sure that cheese or meat is vacuum packed if you want to bring it back to the United States.

La Rambla is a boulevard mall with cafes, shops and souvenir kiosks. It is open and airy during the day and brightly lit at night. Because of its popularity with tourists and locals, it is also a spot that pickpockets like to frequent, so make sure you are careful and vigilant. It is the division between the Gothic Quarter and the Raval and there are lots of intriguing side streets just begging to be explored.

About halfway down the road on the right as you face the port is the Boqueria.

Boqueria

The entrance to the Boqueria from La Rambla

The Boqueria is a large farmers’ market for food of all sorts. It is a riot of colors and tantalizing scents. Everyone will want to give you a sample, so going while you are hungry can be dangerous!

Just a few of the stalls at the Boqueria...

Just a few of the stalls at the Boqueria…

Grab a coffee and a pastry and stroll the aisles looking for something to carry away for a picnic or just window shop and think of the tapas you will order for dinner.

Or…walk directly across the La Rambla and take in the Jamon Experience.

jamon

The Spanish take their ham VERY seriously, which is why they have a museum dedicated to this Iberican delicacy. The Jamon Experience is a museum of sorts which walks you through how Jamon and its different quality levels are created. The multimedia tour is mildly cheesy, but it is informative. At the end of it comes the fun part: the tasting.

Jamon at five o'clock

Jamon at five o’clock

The guide addressed the various differences in the types and levels of the ham as he cut paper-thin slices directly off the leg of the ham. We really could taste subtle differences between the different types and the comparison was fascinating. At 19 Euros a person, the charge here seems a bit high until you realize that a jamon plate at most tapas restaurants runs between 12 and 18 Euros and the Jamon Experience actually includes two drinks in the cost. I really liked having a Cava (Spanish sparkling wine) as a palate cleanser to be able to tell the difference between the hams.

Biggest shocker for me? The ham is not actually cooked…it is salt cured and dry aged. Pork sushi. Who knew?

The Jamon Experience made for a good appetizer as we prepared to head for dinner. A bit of education is called for on this front.

First, if there are pictures of the food all over the front of the restaurant, keep walking. Ditto for multilingual menus on display…or a barker out front trying to drag customers inside.

Second, Spaniards eat late. Typically there are two seatings at a restaurant for dinner. 8 PM is the early seating and 10 PM is the second seating. Some places will even have a midnight seating. Reservations are highly recommended and most places will not seat you if you show up at 8:30 until the next seating.

No reservations for us our first night in Barcelona…which is how we learned our lesson. We tried to go to Bar Mut and they tsked and said they had no seatings available. They sent us around the corner to La Pepita where they steered us two doors down to their sister restaurant, La Cava.

Octupus salad, olives and of course, bread with tomato. You don’t really get a choice in Barcelona. Bread with tomato is a Catalan staple and it will show up on your table (and on your bill) whether you order it or not. If you try not to order it they will look at you like you are crazy…and will probably bring it anyway.

Dinner at La Cava was light and lovely after a long day. Afterwards we strolled back down the Pau de Claris to our hotel to get some rest for the next big day of touristing in Barcelona.

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