Where to Eat in Barcelona and Not Be Ripped Off, Disappointed or Still Hungry

To say that Barcelona (as a city) underwhelms me is an understatement. And its food? Ugh, I don’t even want to go there. In my half a dozen previous trips to Catalonia, a place renowned for being avant garde – in food and otherwise – I’d never really had a decent food experience. From the overpriced paella on Las Ramblas to reheated pintxos in El Born, I was decebut.

tapas in barcelona

That’s where Eat Guides came in. Written by Regina Winkle-Bryan, an transplant from foodie haven Portland to the Ciudad Condal, and Adrián Benítez Martos, a born and bred barcelonés, did my homework for me. I was thrilled to have Reg send me a copy of the ebook she and Adri had penned to help tourists like me understand catalan cuisine and where to find it.

Using my hotel near La Rambla and the Boquería as a starting point, I had a few hours to kill before meeting a friend and wanted to dive headfirst into real catalan cuisine. The 123-paged book lists food joints by both neighborhood and proximity to big sites, but I was interested in seeing if there was real food amidst the tourist traps in the old city. My rules – I had to be able to reach it on foot, wouldn’t order from a menu translated into English and would try four places over the course of the day.

Granja La Pallaresa

I had already zeroed in on my first stop of the day before touching down in Barcelona. After taking the first flight out in the morning, I was starving by the time I checked into the hotel, so I quickly dropped my bags and walked into the Barri Gòtic. Granja La Pallaresa as literally 30 meters off Las Ramblas, but you would have never known.

Pastry shop in Barcelona

La pallaresa Bakery

ensaimada pastries

This is lo mío: Castillian and catalan blended into one incomprehensible buzz in the wood-paneled bar manned by a portly woman and her husband, who sported a black satin bow tie. I didn’t ask to see a menu, but ordered what Regina suggested: an ensaimada pastry and a cup of French chocolate.

I watched as the other patrons read newspapers in catalan and picked at their churros. My flaky ensaimada arrived with so much powdeed sugar that it left a ring on the table as I paid my 4,15€ and drank down the chocolate.

Carrer Petrixol, 11. Open Monday to Saturday from 9am to 1pm and 4pm to 9pm, and Sundays from 9am to 1pm and 5pm to 9pm.

Bodega

When Catherine and I went to Barcelona a decade ago, we stayed in El Raval. It’s gritty, it’s long been considered seedy and unsafe, and it’s full of old man bars.

I wanted to take the long way to my next stop, but the long way meant passing a whole slew of old man bars, and I always get sucked into them. Just two blocks down, I found that these so-called ‘bodegas’ are staples in working neighborhoods. Much more than just a bar, the bodegas also sell drinks and snacks, as well as canned goods, and locals have their preferred place. I ordered a vemouth at 1,85€, which came with four mussels. 

Vermouth Bodegas in Barcelona

This place was one of the good ones – there was no bar, just coolers in its place. No dishwasher. No cell service. Two adorable grandpas who called the wairess nena. Rock FM on the stereo. Everyone in the neighborhood in the time it took me to drink a vermouth and scribble down some notes on pieces of paper I’d hastily ripped out of a notebook. A woman walked in with a crumpled water bottle and contemplated the taps on the wall. “Pues, moscatel quiero hoy.”

I took Catherine back the next day.

Carrer del Pintor Fortuny, 26. Open daily, though I could never tell you when.

Cervecería Moritz

I knew Barcelona produced Estrella Damm beer, but Moritz is served on tap at many bars in the region. Its namesake was the brewery’s founder, Louis Moritz. Barcelona has long been a haven for foreigners, and Moritz left his native France for the ciudad condal in the 1850s, setting up a small brewery in El Raval.

Cerveceria Moritz

Moritz Beer Barcelona

visiting Cerveceria Moritz in Barcelona

More than 160 years later, Moritz is the only beer in the world whose marketing is done entirely in Catalan, and their swanky headquarters is part museum, part brewery and part gastrobar. Though beer is no longer mass-produced on Ronda Sant Antoni, they do serve two types of unpasteurized beer that’s been made in-house. I had two – one of each flavor – for 3,80€.

Ronda de Sant Antoni, 41 (Universitat or Sant Antoni). Open daily from noon to 2am. Accepts credit cards.

Onofre

My hunger had sometime dissipated by the time I got to Onofre, a tapas bar located just inside the Barri Gótic’s old city walls. Part restaurant, part wine shop, I was actually asked to get up from my seat when a patron wanted to snag a bottle of wine from right behind me. The place felt intimate – there was another lone diner and a group of business people chatting quietly at a table in the corner.

Provolone tapa

Without thinking much, I blindly ordered the menú del día without even checking out the tapas menu. As Adri points out in Eat Guides, quality tapas bars in the center of town are hard to come by, but Onofre does regional tapas and does them well. The menu featured three dishes: a creamy lentil purée, over-roasted provolone with red berries and a spicy carnitas burrito, followed up with a slice of cake. Overall, they were probably the best tapas I’ve had in Barcelona, but nothing terribly special. The four dishes and a beer cost 10,75€.

Carrer de Magdalen, 19 (Jaume I). Open Monday to Saturday from 10am – 5pm and 7:30pm – midnight.

The Take Away

Good food isn’t completely absent of the Barcelona cuisine scene, though you have to know where to look. Any place on the Ramblas and Barri Gòtic (as well as near a touristic monument) is more or less off-limits, though Gràcia, Poblesec and Poblenou are said to be up-and-coming gastronomic hot spots.

Using what I’d read in Eat Guides, Saturday night would be a time to venture out on our own and see if we could find something good. We headed to Sant Antoni on foot to see the neighborhood’s Correfoc, a rain of sparks and firecrackers in the street. Even after a food tour in the morning, we were stuffed. 

tapas at casa Lucio Barcelona

Casa Lucio spilled light onto the dark street. The place felt like a cave, with a small bar, seating downstairs and racks of wine on the wall. We ordered a few glass of Habla del Silencio and asked to see a menu. But there was none, so Lucio, a moody old dog with glasses and a thick white beard, listed what they had orally. The only other person who spoke English in the whole place was the waiter, Patrick.We ordered more than our fill, mainly pintxos of meats and cheeses, as well as a bottle of wine to take with us, for around 60€. 

Carrer de Vildomat, 59. Open for lunch and dinner.

Eat Guides Barcelona

Having shared a meal with Regina as part of the Spain Scoop team, I knew that eats are important to her. It’s no surprise, then, that the Eat Guides ebook is a fun read and more than just a guide on where to eat – each listing has anecdotes, recommendations on what to order and drink from both vegetarian Regina and her carnivore co-author, plus a rough estimate on price for a meal for two.

Eat-Guides-Cover-Barcelona-2014

The guide is also easy to use – there are numbered maps, guides by type of food and neighborhood, as well as a handy translation guide to catalan words that a Castillian speaker likely doesn’t know. And then, of course, there are plenty of listings for watering holes, along with tips for markets and gastro-themed side trips. If you like to eat, this book is a multi-course meal, served simply but that will leave you stuffed.

Regina and Adri are happy to give away one copy of Eat Guides to a SandS reader. If you’re planning a trip to Barcelona in the near future, this guide should be packed (digitally) in your carry-on!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

And if you don’t win, the guide is $4.99 on Amazon, iBooks and Google Play – a small price to pay for a big guide!

One winner will be notified by email on or after February 6th. 

One thing you absolutely must do: tell me your favorite Spanish dish – catalan or otherwise!

Autonomous Community Spotlight: Extremadura

Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: visit all 17 autonomous communities at least once before going home. While Madrid, Barcelona and Seville are the stars of the tourist dollar show (and my hard-earned euros, let’s not kid around here), I am a champion for Spain’s little-known towns and regions. Having a global view of this country has come through living in Andalucía, working in Galicia and studying in Castilla y León, plus extensive travel throughout Spain.  

spain collageOn my first visit to Extremadura in 2009, Tita explained the meaning of the comunidad to me: Extre because it’s extremely far west, cozying up to Portugal, and madura because the hardened plains shaped the conquistadores that grew up there.

Extremadura is one of Spain’s best-kept secrets, and I sincerely hope it stays that way. It’s sandwiched between western Andalucía and Madrid and traversed by the A-5 mega highway, yet most tourists conveniently (and thankfully) leave it off their list. From hidden monasteries to a wine region you’ve likely not tried, these far-flung plains have the potential to attract visitors and their tourist euros.

Name: Extremadura

Population: 1.1 million, a mere 2.36% of Spain’s total population

extremadura collage

Provinces: Two; Badajóz and Cáceres

When: December 2009, 13th of 17

About Extremadura: Despite its reputation as a sleepy, sparsely populated corner of Spain, Extremadura has seen some of the most important developments of Spain, beginning with the Romans. Known back then as Luisitania, the capital of Mérida (then Emerita Augusta) was an important city for trade and culture. Roman ruins, like a beautifully preserved theatre and an aqueduct visible from the highway, rub elbows with the ubiquitous old man bars and banks in the administrative capital.

Merida Spain amptheatre

When the Muslims moved in during the first few years of the  eight century, Mérida was one of the Caliphate’s most strategic regions due to its proximity to Portugal. The Córdoba Caliphate fell three centuries later, and power was jockeyed to the Taifa of Badajoz and remained under Muslim rule until 1230.

During Spain’s golden age, Extremadura took its place in the sun: not only did it produce a great number of conquistadores like the Pizarro, Hernán Cortés and Núñez de Balboa, but a great deal of the riches that arrived from the new world never made it to Madrid, finding a permanent home in Extremadura.

Statue of Pizarro in Trujillo

Nowadays, the region is famous for its cork production and acorn-fed ham, as well as outdoor wildlife areas. If you’ve never heard of it, there’s little surprise.

Must-sees: Extremadura boasts dozens of hidden gems. I say hidden because of the province’s network of lonely highways, many of which curve through mountains and around man-made lakes. Given its crop of conquistadores, you’ll likely see places that share a name with South American cities – Valdivia, Medellín, Orellana – and the medieval cities seem to be living back in time.

view of Trujillo, Extremadura

Mérida’s Roman Ruins are recognized by UNESCO, and the city houses an excellent museum with artifacts from Lusitania. At just two hours north of Seville, it’s beyond easy to get to, and castles and monasteries pop out along every curve.

Cáceres’s elegantly preserved walled city is also a UNESCO site whose mix of Roman, Moorish, Gothic and Renaissance architecture is unparalleled and worthwhile, and I swooned over Trujillo‘s stone churches and Renaissance palaces. On  a whim, the Novio and I also went to see the Guadalupe Monastery (surprise! Also a World Heritage Site) and visited the charming little town of Garganta la Olla. I also love the names of towns, which pay homage to famous residents or local lore.

The Patio of Monasterio de Guadalupe

Food is a big deal in Extremadura, particularly big game, cheese and wine. You can expect huge portions of tender meats from pigs, cows and wild boar, as well as pheasant and quail. As a matter of fact, much of the Extremaduran plains are perfect for birdwatching (and protected!), and the national park of Monfragüe is home to several rare breeds.

But, if you’re like me, you’ll choose a robust glass of Ribera de Guadiana to wash down your migas, or fried breadcrumbs, and stinky Torta del Casar cheese. Paprika is also produced in the cherry tree-dotted foothills of La Vera.

The main square of Garganta la Olla

One thing you could skip? The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’s last residence, Yuste, was a big (and expensive) letdown. 

My take: Sharing a border with occidental Andalucía, Extremadura is closer than my go-to destinations like Granada or Málaga. Its stark plains, hollow sky and long stretches of highway are similar to my surroundings, with blips of civilization on lone roads. 

What really draws me to Extremadura is that it hasn’t experienced the heavy tourism that the coasts and bigger cities have, meaning it’s Spain Spain. From the warmth of locals in teeny towns to the cheap prices and filling meals, I’m a pretty big proponent for Tita’s Extremadura.

Have you ever been to Extremadura? What do you like (or not) about it?

Want more Spain? Andalucía | Aragón | Asturias | Islas Baleares | Islas Canarias | Cantabria | Castilla y León | Castilla-La Mancha | Cataluña

My 2014 Travel Roundup

2014 will be a year that marked just as many beginnings as it did ends. It’s a year that I can’t decide whether or not it goes in the win tally or not, as I just crossed one destination off of my Spain wish list, and a major purchase left me in financial shambles. After a successful 2013, both professionally and in travel, 2014 passed quickly with several small trips in Spain, a life-changing sojourn in India and several personal victories.

sunshine and siestas 2014 Travel

But, ugh, my passport isn’t getting enough exercise lately, thanks to the end of financial whimsy and the beginning of a shared future.

January

My year in travel started with a huge face palm: After a nine-day Danube cruse with my parents – and stopping in Slovakia, my 31st country – I was looking forward to ringing in 2014 with the Novio and his family in Madrid. Instead, my plane was rerouted to Cluj-Napoca, Romania.

spanish airport departure board

Instead of eating my twelve grapes, I spent hours trying to find a way back to Spain, finally paying a local to drive me over the Romania-Budapest border to catch a plane the next morning. I began 2014 with two freshly minted passport stamps, 300€ less and a story of bad travel luck.

Read More: My Biggest Travel Fiasco

February

metro of Madrid

Being a short month, I only escaped to Madrid one rainy weekend for a baby shower. I have a deep-rooted love for the Spanish capital, so roaming a new neighborhood while snacking on tortilla is always a good way to spend a weekend.

Plus, there is thai food in Madrid.

Read More: Rainy Days in Madrid

March

By far the busiest travel month of the year, I spent nearly every weekend away from Seville.

the village of Carmona Spain

I took my friend Phyllis to nearby Carmona, with its beautifully preserved Roman ruins and towering churches, for a day. Carmona makes a perfect little day trip from the capital because of its proximity and the fact that it’s so darn picturesque. We pounded the pavement and visited several small chapels before tucking into local sweets.

The following weekend, I took advantage of a free Vueling flight to visit my friend Julie on Tenerife. Though the island is a haven for sun-seeing Northern Europeans, Julie and her boyfriend have made the less-touristy north their home. They took me all-around the island, from hiking the Teide volcano to eating at local wineries, called guachinches

Tenerife Road Trip - The View from Las Teresitas

And finally, a week later, I cashed in on a contest win in Trujillo, medieval city in Extremadura hat is considered to be the cradle of conquistadors. Using the luxurious Trujillo Villas as our home base, we explored the Yuste and Guadalupe Monasteries, along with the hidden gem of Garganta la Olla

Read more: Carmona, the perfect day trip from Seville | A Tenerife Road Trip | Trujillo Villas

April

My ten days off for Holy Week is always a welcome respite from work, but especially because it gives me a great window of time to explore Europe. While our plan was to enjoy a Berlin springtime and perhaps jet to Poland for a few days, an internet search yielded reasonable plane tickets a little further afield – Hayley and I headed to India.

Learning by doing in India - Taj Mahal

It took us well over a day to get there – five hours overnight to Madrid, two flights, a bus transfer and another flight up to Delhi – but it was worth it once we’d gotten our sea legs (only to be replaced by Delhi Belly..ugh). We spent eight days between bustling Delhi, smelly and cramped Agra, soulful Jaipur and muggy Mumbai.

In short, I loved it, and can’t way to go back.

driving a tuk tuk in India

I have so many more stories to tell of India – it’s been on my heart and mind since our business class ride back to Europe.

Read more about India: The Dream of India | Learning by Watching and Doing | Should I Ride an Elephant in India? | The Colors of India

May

sunset over porto montenegro

While my cousin was visiting in late May, we received a phone call from my mother, asking us to say goodbye to our beloved, if slightly mischievous, grandfather. Those were hard days, being so far away from home, but a week home to be with my family after his passing helped me out things into perspective in the face of my 29th birthday – and soon afterwards, wedding planning began.

Another end. Another beginning.

Read more: Grieving as an Expat

June

new house

Just after returning from the US, the Novio and I signed a mortgage on our new house. This is the ultimate end (of my freedom to travel, to buy clothes and to eat out all the time) and the beginning of a new stage of my life. 

July

July was a weird month – moving into a cavern of a house, having my bank account frozen for 13 days (if that isn’t a sign, I don’t know what is) and having my sister and her now fiancé visit us. We spent a few days around Seville, mostly eating and drinking and eating more.

family travel in Southern Spain

And for the first time in five years, I didn’t head to Galicia for summer camp. Instead, I co-wrote an eBook on Moving to Spain and showed the Novio around the Midwest.

Read more: all of my posts on Galicia and La Coruña | Culture Shock in My Own Country

August – December

When I checked into the Madrid-Barajas airport before Christmas, the warning said it all – It’s been four months since you’ve checked in at an airport. A sad reality when you’re a homeowner struggling to budget after four years of rent-free living.

20141116_133554

I have escaped back to Madrid for another soggy weekend, spent some time in Valladolid visiting my host family, and have managed a few small day trips to places like Ronda and Setenil de las Bodegas, El Puerto de Santa María, San Nicolás and Ávila, but my browser history shows no travel sites or booking portals. 2015 has me dreaming of a honeymoon, or at least a trip away somewhere with my husband-to-be.

As I write, I’m sitting in our Condo in Copper Mountain, Colorado. Mountains truly feed my soul, and getting back on the slopes after six years has my legs fried but my heart happy. After spending eight Christmases in five countries and seven cities, I’d say we’re leaving behind our childhood traditions for a new one: TRAVEL.

Looking ahead

Cat+EnriqueEngagement078

photo by Chrystl Roberge Photography

I don’t have any big things locked in for 2015, but I am looking forward to a new year and what it will bring: turning 30 and marrying the Novio. I’m a follower of the School of Let’s Have an Adventure, so I’m pretty confident that I won’t need an excuse to jump in Pequeño Monty and chase one down.

What was your most memorable travel memory this year, and what’s on your schedule for 2015? 

Reflections in Valladolid (or, the Weird Sensation of Returning to Your Study Abroad City)

Alejandro didn’t even need to tell me where to turn. As soon as I’d passed the Valladolid city limits, I went into autopilot and followed the roads I used to walk as a study abroad student in the capital of Castilla y León. Easing into third, I made my way past the bullring and Campo Grande, along the Rosaleda and the Pisuerga river to Plaza San Pablo, smack in the middle of the historic city. Alejandro was shocked that, nearly a decade after I studied there, I knew Valladolid better than he did.

He also found it hilarious that I remembered my first glimpse of the former Spanish capital – a boy peeing on a tree. A sign of the things to come, I guess. We had a good laugh as I navigated the wide avenues of Pucela.

I parked off of Avenida de Palencia in a square I’d pass through on our my to the university every morning, handing him his bags and giving the standard dos besos as I wished him well. He suggested having a beer, and I was only a few blocks from my host family’s new apartment, but I needed some time to soak up the city where it all started.

the historic center of valladolid

I walked from Avenida de Palencia past the National Sculpture Museum at Plaza San Pablo. Stood next to La Antigua and  in the shadow of the cathedral as the sun inched high into the sky. I was hoping to have a glass of wine in a bar I’d once nipped into, but the blustery November day meant that most things were closed. It was like a metaphor for everything I’d heard about pucelanos before I lived there – closed off and shuttered.

My feet led me back towards Plaza Mayor and its stately buildings and beautiful town hall; my stomach led me to Los Zagales, where my ears were treated to castellano. Just as I was paying and putting on my jacket, a hail storm erupted and the bartender smiled as he gave me another dos dedos of wine. Closed off? Maybe, but stingy the locals are not.

The hail suddenly slowed and then stopped, and I whirled around looking for what I knew would come next: a rainbow, stretched just behind the statue of the sacred heart. 

Plaza Mayor of Valladolid

Aurora’s whatsapp came just as I walked in front of Sotobanco, our favorite bar. She asked how the driving had gone and if I’d like to meet her and her mother to pick up Lucía, Aurora’s eight-year-old daughter. Again, my feet traced the city streets, slick with rain.

Older Aurora grabbed my hand and led me towards Plaza de la Universidad, literally tracing back the steps we’d taken when she first picked me up from the bus when we were assigned host mothers on that day back in May 2005. Back then, she seemed aloof, soft-spoken and overly Catholic. In these nine years, she’s become more than the woman who washed my clothes and made me tortilla.

When we arrived at Plaza de la Universidad to meet Lucía’s school bus, I reminded old Aurora of when I’d been on the bus, the last student to be chosen by a host mother. Be it luck or destiny, she smiled and clasped my hand tightly. “Sí, Cati, lo recuerdo.” The rain began again, a site I’d not seen in Valladolid ever – not when I studied abroad, nor on my subsequent visits.

Reflections of Study Abroad in Spain

The following morning, Aurora and I took Lucía to a children’s workshop in the newly inaugurated Auditorio Miguel Delibes, near the Real Valladolid Stadium. Sitting high above the Parquesol subdivision and a hill that slopes down gently towards the river, I contemplated the cold, gray day, and the nine yeas that had passed since my first moments in Spain.

The city of Valladolid itself didn’t seem to have changed since 2005, save the weather. Back then, we’d spend our afternoons next to the manmade beach, eating ice cream and drinking beer on the argument that it was cheaper than water (viva España).

Now, as I buried my nose in my scarf, I had to breathe a sigh of relief that this place, so emblazoned in my heart and my head and my first digital camera’s memory card, has remained largely the same. The hue of Plaza Mayor was the same fiery red, the naked statue in front of the post office still made me giggle, and the dollar store where we’d meet every morning to walk to class together called Los Gatos was open, despite slowing business in La Rondilla.

ayuntamiento de Valladolid

Returning to Valladolid is always a strange swarm of memories – the euphoria of discovering a new culture and language coupled with the then-debilitating homesickness and language barriers, namely – but Younger Aurora wields a bottle of local wine and two glasses.

A tí, Cati,” she says, pouring me a hefty glass, “and to this Spanish American life you’ve created.” Little does she know just how important she was to making it so. I hand her a Save the Day card and her eyes glaze over, but we toast and gulp down the wine, catching up on the changes our lives have seen in these few years.

Did you study abroad? Have you been back to visit since? If so, what were your impressions?

Is a Madrid Holiday Right for You?

You’re destined for Madrid – a city that’s vibrant but demure, traditional but avant-garde, a big city with a small-town feel.

Should I travel to Madrid

Ok, not that small, but per tradition, many madrileños stick to their neighborhood, making Europe’s third largest city feel like an overgrown village.

Madrid is a city that’s got one foot firmly planted in the past and the other, striding forward in the future. From its humble beginnings as a farming town to a bustling capital, this city of more than three million is Spain’s financial and cultural hub, boasting world-class museums, stellar nightlife and plenty of Spanish charm.

Madrid Plaza Mayor

Madrid truly is a haven for just about anyone – if you flipar for art, Madrid has three of Spain’s most celebrated museums. The Reina Sofia is an enormous contemporary arts collection, including Picassos’s celebrate “Guernica.” The Museo Nacional del Prado boasts fine art from Velázquez, Murillo, el Greco and Goya – and those are just the Spanish painters. The private collection at the Thyssen is also noteworthy, and the three make up the Triángulo del Arte perched on the east side of the center. Then add the dozens of playhouses, a world-class symphony and flamenco shows, and you’ll have an art hangover.

If gastronomy is more your flavor, La Capital has plenty of them to choose from. Visitors absolutely must make a stop to the Mercado de San Miguel for an introduction to the art of tapas, washed down with a glass of wine. The city has several fine dining establishments, as well as hole-in-the-wall favorites. The unofficial snack? A fried calamari sandwich from El Brillante, situated just in front of the Atocha train station.

tapas at mercado de san miguel

Shopping lovers should head to Gran Vía or Calle Fuencarral for specialty shops, or catch the el Rastro flea market on Sunday mornings in the La Latina neighborhood. History buffs will love Madrid’s traces of the Hapsburg and Borbón dynasties, its Egyptian temple and the sprawling palace.

Madrid is also a great landing point for visiting other points of Spain and other parts of Europe – all of Spain’s major highways begin and are measured from Puerta del Sol, which also hosts an enormous party on New Year’s.

Madrid Typical Bars

My advice? Ditch your map and choose a neighborhood. Stop into wood-paneled bars for a caña, or small draft beer, a slice of fluffy potato omelet and a taste of Old Madrid. Café Comercial, despite rubbing elbows with some of the city’s hippest bars and boutiques in Malasaña, is a great spot for jazz, great service and a sweet vermouth, a gato’s drink of choice. Or, head to trendy Alonso Martínez and window shop. Take a stroll in the Buen Retiro park and admire Gran Vía when dusk falls before dancing in a disco until six in the morning and ending the night with churros and chocolate at the city’s most loved churros place, Chocolatería San Gines.

I have to admit that Madrid and I got off to a rocky start – I found it a bit too sprawling, too presumptuous and too full of itself. Local gatos, as they’re called, steered clear of tourist-packed Sol and the streets spiraling out from it, and it was a sticky hot day.

metro of Madrid

But once I’d moved to Spain, Madrid became a frequent stopover on flights back home to Chicago. I take the train up for conferences and concerts, to visit friends and new babies. Slowly, the madrileño vibe oozed into my heart, and it’s now one of my favorite weekend destinations in Spain. 

Should you travel to Madrid? Sin duda – it’s one of Europe’s most complete destinations.

Please check out this quiz to see if going to Madrid is right for you. Wyndham Resorts that are in Spain could be great for your next holiday vacation to get away from the normal and visit the extraordinary.

This post was brought to you by Wyndham Resorts, but my MAD love for Madrid is all my own.

I’ll be spending quite a few weekends in Madrid as the Novio works there for a few months. I’m looking for hidden gems to add to my list of favorites, so leave me comments below por fi!

Autonomous Community Spotlight: Cataluña

Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: visit all 17 autonomous communities at least once before going home. While Madrid, Barcelona and Seville are the stars of the tourist dollar show (and my hard-earned euros, let’s not kid around here), I am a champion for Spain’s little-known towns and regions. Having a global view of this country has come through living in Andalucía, working in Galicia and studying in Castilla y León, plus extensive travel throughout Spain.  

spain collage

Ask any American if he or she has traveled to Spain. If you receive a positive response, it’s highly likely that that person has only been to Barcelona. Thanks to a large international airport, it seems to be on every European itinerary, and its parties and politics have made it a European capital of cool.

In case you didn’t know, I’m not a fan of Barcelona, its capital city. But, at the time I’m writing, Cataluña is still part of Spain and deserves a spot in this Autonomous Communities project. Love it or not, Catalonia is in the news and reaches far beyond Barcelona, from the cradle of catalán in the Val de Aran and the Roman ruins at Tarragona to the whitewashed coastal villages and mountaintop monasteries bordering the Pyrenees – and visiting Barcelona should include visiting Catalonia

Name: Cataluña, or Catalunya in local tongue.

Population: 7.5 million (roughly 16% of Spain’s population)

catalonia

Provinces: Four; Barcelona, Girona, Lleida and Tarragona

When: July 2005, 7th of 17

About Cataluña: Cataluña boasts a large and diverse population, mostly thanks to economic factors and a degree of  stubbornness.

Given its strategic location on the Mediterranean Sea, it had been populated by Greeks, Phoenicians and Carthaginians before forming part of the Holy Roman Empire. Traces of this culture are still present in Tarracó, in present-day Tarragona. The region was wrestled between Visigoths and Muslims, and then came under the power of the Frankish Empire after the battle of Roussillon. 

The Monastery of Monserrat

This change of events would be the origin of Catalonia.

At the end of the 10th Century, Wilifred the Hairy, then count of Barcelona, refused to recognize the king as his own, effectively making all of his successors free from being ruled over. The 1258 Treaty of Corbeil saw the count, along with those of Mallorca, Valencia and Aragón, declare the King of France as their ruler, though the king formally renounced this, and the Crown of Aragón was put in charge of the coastal zone.

Even with the advent of the Catholic Kings’s marriage and the union of the Castillian and Aragonese Crown, Catalonia was able to rule under its own constitution, and a large part of the battle for secession can be pinned on this. Increased tension between the Spanish Crown and Catalonia, the outcome of the Treaty of Utrecht and an industrial boom – which brought workers from all over Spain and Europe – caused the rift to deepen.

catalan flags independence barcelona

After the Second Republic and Francisco Franco’s rise to power in 1939, all catalonian symbols were banned, including language, in an attempt to stifle independence and promote Spain as a unified front after a devastating civil war. It wasn’t until the 1978 Constitution that catalanes recovered some of their political, economical and cultural power. To this day, the question about splitting from Spain is plastered all over the news and spearheaded by the Generalitat president, Artur Mas. A recent referendum was deemed a success by Mas, but a huge failure by mainstream media, as a small number of voters turned out.

Cataluña is petitioning to become a fully-fledged member state under the European Union, though the central Spanish government has quashed any official referendum voting rights.

This post is not about whether or not Cataluña should separate from Spain. I think you can imagine where I stand on the subject, though I ask that you be respectful in comments below.

Must-sees: Nestled between the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean, the region offers everything from ski to surf, and it’s a colorful place with deep-rooted tradition.

parc guell barcelona5

Your trip will likely include Barecelona, the bustling Catalan capital city known for Gaudí and the 1992 Olympics. On my first visit to the city as a study abroad student, I found a region so unlike Castilla or Andalucía, that it had me wondering if I was still in Spain or not.

Haha, I guess that’s the point.

parc guell barcelona8

In Barcelona, don’t miss the colorful markets and neighborhoods – I loved Gràcia and El Born – , Gaudí highlights like the Sagrada Familia and Parc Güell, or the views from Tibidaboo or Montjüíc. Walk the wide avenues and tuck into funky boutiques and hole-in-the-wall bars. Like Madrid, Barcelona is as old school as it is avant-garde.

While I’m not head-over-heels for the cosmopolitan capital, I really do think the region offers many bright spots.

daytrips barcelona

To start with, catalán cuisine is often touted as being one of the best in Europe, thanks to renowned chefs like Fernan Adrià and the Hermanos Can Roca and several Michelin stars. Fuet is a delicious hard, boiled sausage, and springtime brings grilled shallots with romescu sauce. The region is also home to several protected wine regions, as well as Spanish champagne, called cava

Starting from north to South, the Pyrenees are home to several ski resorts, charming villages and monasteries, while the coastal villages on the Costa Dorada like Cadaqués and Tossa del Mar are said to be breathtaking. Apart from Barcelona’s many museums and cultural significance, Tarragona hosts Roman ruins and several wine regions produce whites and sparkling champagne.

My take: Is Barcelona worth a visit? Absolutely. I am in the minority by admitting that the city does very little for me, even though I go gaga when I see Gaudí and love Joan Miró, have read the book ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ multiple times and am proud to have a degree from the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona. 

Spanish abuelos in Barcelona

Eso, sí, but be aware that Barcelona is one of Europe’s most-visited cities, so you’ll be rubbing elbows with tons of other tourists from around the world. This makes Barcelona what it is – about as much of a melting pot as Spain gets – but means that prices are higher, on the whole, and that pick pockets abound. Yes, this happens in other cities in Spain, as well,  but I’ve felt less secure in Barcelona than anywhere else.

If you have the chance, visit the jaw-dropping Monserrat monastery via cable car and cafe-hop in Girona. Take in the small fishing villages and drink cava or white wine in Penedès. Hike in Montseny and the Pyrenees. There is a wealth of small villages

Just don’t make it all about Barcelona!

Have you ever been to Cataluña? What do you like (or not) about it?

Want more Spain? Andalucía | Aragón | Asturias | Islas Baleares | Islas Canarias | Cantabria | Castilla y León | Castilla-La Mancha

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