When my mum turned eighty it was during the pandemic, forcing us to postpone our planned girly trip to celebrate with my three sisters. We re-planned to combine the celebration with my ‘big’ pending sixtieth birthday, and had intended heading to the East Neuk of Fife. But though one of the sisters who lives ‘down south’ has had a lovely sunny summer, those of us in the north have had a rubbish wet and windy one as ever, so when when Baby Sis had the genius idea of changing the location to Barcelona, we all leapt at it.
It was my first trip abroad since the pandemic, and though we have regular girly weekends, it was our first trip outside of the UK together. We were all looking forward to it hugely – our WhatsApp group was jammed with messages about who was taking what toiletries, weather reports and packing reports for weeks. A minor hiccup with the meeting arrangements when ‘down south’ sister’s plane was delayed was the only problem with the travel arrangements. Not too long after we all met up at Barcelona airport, we were sitting outside in the sunshine drinking cava and consuming the first selection of tapas – the first of many, many little plates. None of us speak Spanish, but we’re all willing to have a go and two or three of us at least knew the vital things – how to order cava, how to read a menu and ask for the bill, and how to ask where the toilets are!
The website told us that our apartment in the Eixample area of the city had a sensational view, but until we stepped out onto the balcony on the 17th floor, we didn’t appreciate how sensational. With the sea at the end of one vista, the Sagrada Familia looming up like a Disney castle on the other side, and the whole lot encircled by mountains, we were all pretty gobsmacked. There was a swimming pool on the roof too, and we’d all brought our costumes, but 20 floors up proved to be too intimidating for this bunch of Scottish wooses even to investigate it.
Three of us had been to the city before, but we tried very hard not to repeat experiences. Though we’re a very close-knit bunch, we don’t all like the same things either, so we agreed that we’d stick to mostly wandering, eating and drinking, and not overdose on culture.
You can’t come to Barcelona and not drink in a little bit of Gaudi’s architecture though, so we did one pre-booked tour, of his amazing La Pedrera apartment building. Wow, wow, wow – and I had been before! It is utterly beautiful, entrancing, and truly visionary.
Of course we paid a visit to the Sagrada Familia, to see close-up what we saw every time we looked out of our apartment window. But we didn’t join the queues to get in. Too little time, too many other things to do.
In fact all of Barcelona’s city centre is entrancing. The buildings are all so different and yet there’s a real unity to them – the curves, the elegance, the way each apartment block has its own identity, and yet they all work together (hmm, is this a cue for a metaphor for sisters?). Old and new-build harmonise, and when you wander – and it’s a city made for wandering – you find yourself looking up and saying, over and over, I would love to live there, or, if I lived there, I’d sit in the window and never get any work down.
It’s a city that people live in too – and it’s such a very striking difference from our city centres. People shop locally – everyone has those wheely trolley things – they go to grocers and greengrocers and butchers and cheese shops, and there are markets on every square. We saw one launderette that was also a coffee and wine shop – imagine! The concept of the twenty-minute neighbourhood that my strategic planner sister is so passionate about lives and breathes in Barcelona. It made me wish fervently that we could have that.
With the city centre it’s easy wandering through the main areas, from Eixample where we were, to the Barri Gotic and El Ravel, over to San Antoni and down to the port and the seaside, but if you want to use public transport, it’s incredibly easy. And cheap. And joined up. What a contrast to our system. At home, if I want to get, for example, to the seaside town of Largs on the Ayrshire coast just on the other side of the Clyde, I have to buy separate ferry and bus tickets, and if I want to carry on another few miles outside Largs to Ayr I have to buy another ticket from another bus company. It all adds up. In Barcelona you pay for one ticket that gets you a journey on any form of transport, or you buy a weekly ticket that does the same. It’s like the Transport for London System – so it can be done here, it just isn’t. And while I’m on the subject of transport, I’m going to have a moan about airport transport. One ticket from Barcelona out to the airport costs 4.50E, less if you buy for three or four people. The trains run regularly, cleanly and efficiently at all hours, every day of the week. My mum and I landed back at Glasgow Airport on a Sunday. The bus service was cut to a quarter of the week-day service, and the bus we waited on didn’t turn up (we didn’t know until it didn’t show that it wasn’t going to turn up, there’s no such thing as an automated announcement system). Our only alternative to get the very short journey from the airport to the train station (less than five miles) was to wait in the taxi queue. We waited for over an hour! A lovely impression this created for the hundreds of visitors arriving in the city – not. And it was freezing cold and blowing a gale. And when we got to the train station, my train was down to one an hour instead of three. And there wasn’t even a coffee shop open.
Back to Barcelona in the sunshine, where the women manage to look intimidatingly elegant even when they’re riding one of the city bicycles, and you can eat and drink at any time of day anywhere. (Another thing, how do Spanish women manage to eat so much and stay so slim?) Tapas. Oh, how I love tapas. And seafood! My mum, who will eat pretty much anything that swims, was in seventh heaven when we went to the market and shared the seafood platter.
It has to be said that we ate a lot. Pastries at breakfast. Pre-lunch tapas. Lunch tapas. Post-lunch tapas. Dinner tapas. The food is rustic, peasant food – so they say. Lucky Spanish peasants. And it was very reasonable. It would have been a lot more reasonable too, if Sterling had been worth more than a few pennies. Octopus, squid, cuttle-fish, clams of all sorts, mussels, I couldn’t get enough of it all. And the bread! And the anchovies. And the tuna! My mouth is watering just thinking about it. Not everyone of our party loved the food, but for me it was the very best way of eating.
Barcelona was amazing. A city on the sea – what’s not to love! It was a trip worth waiting for. It’s a lifestyle I covet. I’d go back tomorrow. The only thing I’d change would be leaving a bit more room in my suitcase for shopping – I still regret not buying that bag I saw.
PS Thanks to my sister Catriona for sharing some of her amazing photos. And if you want to see more from this trip, you can check out my Tiktok post here.