First Ports: Barcelona and Valencia
After surviving the treacherous English Channel and rounding our way into the Mediterranean Sea, we finally made our first port in Barcelona, Spain. With our arrival in Barcelona being around 8AM, it was like Christmas morning as many people woke up and went straight to the bow of the ship to see the city, right smack dab in front of the ship.
Barcelona is the fourth most visited country in Europe, and many of its visitors come by cruise ship. Because of this, the cruise ship is nice and convenient to the city. After disembarking the ship, we just need to go through the cruise terminal (kind of like a very small airport), and then we were just steps away from the popular street of Las Ramblas. The ship was in Barcelona for two days and then sailed to Valencia. We decided to stay in an Airbnb in Barcelona, so we traveled overland by bus rather than by ship. This was in part so that we could celebrate our one-year wedding anniversary in one of Europe’s great cities, Barcelona!
I was very excited to revisit Barcelona. I had been to the city in the region of Catalonia two previous times. The first time was one of my two weekend trips while living in London in 2008. I remember being blown away by the city in that trip and absolutely falling in love with the city. The second time I visited was in 2009, and I spent just over a week there in total. Now, eight years later and being able to speak Spanish, I was curious to know how I would experience the city this time around.
After arriving, you can almost imagine the 700 passengers on the ship dispersing all across the city. Many are doing field programs, loading up into buses and visiting different parts of the region. And many others, like us, are simply disembarking the ship and using our feet to see what we find.
We immediately walked along Las Ramblas, the famous avenue lined with restaurants and tourist shops. This is also the place where the recent terrorist attack occurred just a few weeks earlier, when a man drove a van rapidly down this street, killing and injury many. On the north edge of Las Ramblas was a memorial with candles and flowers dedicated to those who were killed in this horrible attack.
Continuing our walk, we went through the Gothic neighborhood with its windy pedestrian streets. We saw the Cathedral as well as several buildings designed by the famous Antoni Gaudi. His works, especially that of Parque Guell, caused my jaw to drop in my previous visits. His modernist architecture style with its curves and colors are unique to Gaudi and Barcelona.
We walked all afternoon around the city center. For dinner, we met up with six other staff members, and I walked everyone to dinner (as if I knew where I was going). We found this little tapas place in a new part of the city, in more of a neighborhood. Because this was our first port after more than a week without internet, it was fascinating to see everyone affixed to their phones. I had gotten used to almost no use of phones on the ship, so it was weird to be sitting at a restaurant in Spain and seven people are on their phones looking like the world depended on what they were doing at that moment. After a while, it became normalized again, and we had a good time. I walked the group through some backroads, again acting like I knew what I was doing, and through some beautiful little alleyways. We finally arrived back at Las Ramblas, where we sat down for a few drinks there to end the night.
The next morning, Chika and I checked into our Airbnb, which was conveniently near Las Ramblas and near the Plaza de Catalonia. We decided that day that we would go to Parque Guell, the famous park designed by Antoni Gaudi. While deciding if we would take the train or walk, we saw that it was a 40 minute train ride with transfers, or it was an hour walk. We love to walk, so it was an easy decision to walk, and we would spend the four euros or so that we saved on food.
Within a few blocks, we already found a bakery in which we bought delicious pastries for less than 2 euros. Then we found other snacks. Then I stopped at a butcher shop to buy chorizo, the Spanish cured sausage. Then we stopped to buy Spanish Serrano cured ham. Then we stopped at a bakery to buy bread. In the end, the one-hour walk took us over two hours as we stopped as we pleased. It was fun!
One advantage of coming back again was being able to speak Spanish. At the butcher shop, I had a request to cut the chorizo into small pieces, since we didn’t have a knife with us. Being able to speak Spanish made it much easier to ask this question. Ordering food, asking for directions, it all is much easier. Plus, when you speak their language, I think most people will treat you better since they feel more comfortable communicating with you.
We finally made it up to Parque Guell soon after noon with our sandwiches in hand. We found out that to get to the sculpture part of the park, we would have had to purchase tickets in advance. So we decided to continue on and visit the free parts of the park, still a beautiful place to get great views of the city and just to walk in a unique place.
On this afternoon, we just kept on walking and walking. By the end of the day, we had taken over 40,000 steps!
That evening in Barcelona was our night in the Airbnb, and it was September 16th, the eve of our one-year anniversary. Since we were in Barcelona, we decided to celebrate with a nice dinner out in a less touristy part of the city, in the Vila de Gracias. This used to be its own town and town square long ago, before Barcelona spread and took over the entire area. We found a restaurant with seating out in the plaza. You may remember that the Spanish eat very late, especially on weekends. We arrived around 8:30PM, and we waited for about 15 minutes for our table. When we ended up leaving the restaurant, it was around 10PM and people were waiting to get their tables. It was a beautiful evening and a nice meal. Chika ordered octopus and I ordered duck with noodles. The dessert may have been the highlight. Our wedding cake a year ago was tiramisu, rather than the traditional cake. Just on the other side of the square at dinner was a dessert place conveniently called “Tiramisu”. It seemed to be a sign – dessert was in order!
Our time in Barcelona was pleasant to say the least. It was Chika’s first time in Spain, and we just enjoyed walking around the chic metropolitan city and see all that it has to offer. The following morning, we jumped on an early bus heading south to Valencia.
Rather than taking the ship from Barcelona to Valencia, we opted to extend our time in Barcelona and then take an early bus to Valencia the next morning. Because of this, we only spent about a day and a half in Valencia, which is really limited time for a new city. Because we had Barcelona to look forward to, I didn’t do any research on Valencia. I didn’t really like knowing almost nothing about the city. No idea of the history, no idea of things to do and sites to see. And with such little time, that meant that I really didn’t feel like I took advantage. Either way, we tried to do as much as we could!
The two main highlights are the historic center, which is a formerly walled with narrow and windy streets and colonial Spanish architecture. This is that classic Spanish old city architecture that you may think about when you imagine Spain. The other highlight is the complete opposite, this is the City of Arts and Sciences, a futuristic complex of museums and the opera. The area was built within the last 15 years and is not at all what you may imagine Valencia to be.
Valencia is also known for its beaches and for being the capital of a famous Spanish food, paella. Paella is rice, spices (including saffron), some vegetables, and a protein. In Valencia, it’s common to have rabbit and chicken, whereas other parts of Spain usually have seafood. Even though it’s one of the most famous foods in Spain, I was never too impressed with the paella I had tried in the US and other cities in Spain. This was different though, and by far the best I’ve had!
Before we even knew it, our time in this Mediterranean country was done and we were on our way south to Africa!