Story and photos by Heidi Sarna
Barcelona is a very old city. Pieces of history are everywhere, from the remains of a Roman aqueduct dating back two millennia, to the pointed arches and flying buttresses of the Gothic architecture in the medieval El Born quarter.
While Barcelona offers a wonderful historical heritage, a mélange of architectural styles and a proud Catalan culture, its huge student population and the city’s famous football team, FC Barcelona, keep the city young at heart and on the cutting edge. There’s no shortage of funky boutique hotels, fashion statements and trendy bars. Barcelona is Europe at its best.
What better place to celebrate a friend’s 40th birthday than in a city that looks older than it feels? In early November, three of us headed over for a girls-only boondoggle. We flew from Singapore on an overnight flight and at the crack of dawn landed in Barcelona; we hit the ground running, as only three freedom-seeking women who have left their children and husbands behind can do.
We checked into the cool, minimalist Casa Camper hotel, built within a 19th-century Gothic tenement on quiet Elisabets Street, conveniently central and within walking distance of tourist haunts like Las Ramblas and Plaça de Catalunya.
Our four days were a perfect balance of travel objectives. We shopped in the funky boutiques of El Born and the luxe stores on Passeig de Garcia, and went sightseeing, too, strolling through the Picasso Museum and lunching at Els Quatre Gats, the café where Picasso and other Modernist artists hung out and where he exhibited his first paintings.
We toured the imposing Gothic-style Barcelona Cathedral whose construction started in the 13th century, and gazed in awe at Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia cathedral and his Casa Mila and Casa Batllo apartment houses with their crazy shapes and undulating lines. We ate tapas, especially enjoying them at Cerveceria Catalana and Tapas 24, and drank plenty of cheap and delicious Spanish wine at outside cafés as well as swank places like Hotel Omm and the Eclipse Bar on the 26th floor of the W Hotel.
Still, even more memorable than all of this great stuff was the time we spent on the seats of bicycles.
We completely lucked out with gorgeous crisp autumn weather, and on Day Two set off on a three-hour guided city bicycle tour with Cruising Barcelona. Each of us hopped on a brightly coloured Electra Cruiser bike with a kitschy basket covered in even brighter plastic flowers. We followed our cheerful guide Marion through the streets of Barcelona, stopping for brief commentary along the way and a glass of cava (Spanish sparkling wine) next to the beach.
We covered some 10 kilometres at a leisurely pace, riding through the neighbourhoods of edgy Raval and also L’Eixample, the Gothic Quarter and the 18th-century La Barceloneta, which borders the beach – in fact, Barcelona’s wide band of sand is considered one of the best urban beaches in the world.
At the waterfront, we stopped in front of the 200-feet-tall Columbus Monument at the foot of Las Ramblas, the spot where Columbus returned to Spain after his first voyage to the Americas, and snapped photos of the massive and ornate 1896-built Customs House nearby. We biked along leafy side streets into the Parc de la Ciutadella (Barcelona’s version of New York’s Central or London’s Hyde Park), and rode under the city’s towering redbrick Arc de Triomf, built in 1888 for Barcelona’s first Universal Exposition.
The Big Ride
The next morning we hooked up with Gabi, an excellent guide from Barcelona by Bike, and set off for a daylong tour to Montserrat – which means “jagged mountain” in Catalan – the mountain-top Benedictine abbey 50 kilometres from Barcelona. We lugged our bikes onto a train for the one-hour ride there, switching for the last steep bit onto a rack railway. Gabi watched over our stuff while we three walked around the monastery, built in the 19th century over the ruins of the much older original. We had a look at the stunning gilded mosaic niche that is home to the Virgin of Montserrat, a small black statue of the Virgin Mary, Catalonia’s favourite saint.
Then it was time to start our 45-kilometre bike ride, gliding down the mountain from a height of about 2,000 feet on a snaking road and revelling in gorgeous views of the peaks above and the valley below.
This was biking at its best. As we went lower, the road had its ups and downs, giving us a better workout than we’d expected, but the air was fresh and views of olive groves and vineyards were constant companions. The carrot that spurred us on during the most challenging uphill parts was the treat that awaited us at the end of the ride: the 16th-century Codorniu winery, still owned by the same family after 18 generations.
Our cheerful young guide Xavi, who had a cute mop of thick brown hair and a great sense of humour to go with it, took us seven floors below ground to the cave-like cellars to see thousands of dark green cava-filled bottles in various states of production. We were whisked around the maze-like aisles in a small tram that Xavi expertly drove between the narrow walls of glass bottles like an amusement park ride.
At the end, we hopped off the tram and headed for the tasting room for a refreshing and delicious glass of pinot noir-based rosé cava, followed by one of a classic cava, savouring the crisp bubbles.
By the time we got on the bikes again for the short ride to the train station, the sun was setting on a fabulous day that we wouldn’t soon forget.
Singapore Airlines flies direct to Barcelona several times a week, while other airlines including Qantas, British Airways and Air France fly there with a stopover.
Travel writer Heidi Sarna is the co-founder of QuirkyCruise.com, a site dedicated to small-ship cruising.
Like this? Read more at our travel section.