Aside from having a little, nearly long-forgotten bit of Spanish blood way back in my family genealogy, I’ve never felt much of a personal connection with or inclination to visit Spain. Not that I didn’t have a vague notion that it was stunningly beautiful and perpetually sunny and home to that one verb tense I learned in my high school Spanish class but never really had a reason to use, but, to tell the truth, I didn’t have particularly strong feelings about it either way.
That was, until studying abroad meant that a flight to Spain was shorter, and cheaper, than a one-way flight between Portland and Los Angeles. Then, well, Spain moved to the top of my travel list, and after a quick Google image search edged out technicolor Barcelona over a rather drab-looking Madrid, and reminded me of just how much I’ve missed sunshine, there was no question that a mid-winter Spanish holiday needed to happen.
Making our way to Gatwick through a drizzly London evening, I couldn’t imagine anything better than a weekend of sun and surf, and in about the time it took me to settle into my window seat and get a few songs into my travel playlist, we were already touching down among the sand dunes of Barcelona International and, after a quick taxi ride, at our beachside Airbnb. The flagging Spanish economy combined with the falling Euro meant that spending the weekend in a private apartment a block from the beach made more financial sense than a hostel, and aside from what I understand to be a nation-wide lack of central heating in homes, our humble abode was perfect for our needs. And it proved to be the perfect home base for me to fall in love with Barcelona in no time at all.
Maybe I’m just a little homesick for my adopted home city, but Barcelona reminded me frequently, and distinctly, of a sort of rustic Los Angeles; the mountains, the beach, the breezy palms and open-air cafes bypassed by bikers and joggers. And yet, it is distinctly un-LA in its lack of smog and loud tourists, bumper-to-bumper traffic and frequent crime. Even late at night, the streets were peaceful and safe and neighborhood parks teemed with children, and all the pick-pocketers I had been warned about were nowhere to be seen (though perhaps this has something to do with the fact that Barcelona is so walkable we never had to use public transportation.) Whether we were buying fresh baguettes from the bakery around the corner or mingling with locals at hole-in-the-wall bars, Barcelona felt instantly comfortable and familiar. It is a place that in many ways seems to be a crossroads between the Mediterranean and the Middle East, with a bit of a Southern California sensibility, a place where English is spoken just as frequently as Spanish and Catalan, and where Arabic and Indian cultures mingle, too.
Despite having an initial, though very minimal, worry that we might run out of activities to fill our three days and four nights in Spain, actually being in Barcelona quickly dissolved this fear, and in fact each time we thought we had nailed down our must-sees, more cathedrals and parks and museums appeared as if out of thin air. Between the Gothic Quarter, La Sagrada Familia, Boqueria Market, Park Guell and so many more incredible sites, Barcelona is ripe with history and culture. Most attractions, like the famously rainbow-bright Park Guell, were fairly affordable, and those with admission costs on the steeper side, like La Sagrada Familia and the National Museum of Catalan Art, were just as impressive from outside. Other free and inexpensive experiences not to be missed are a coastline tram ride up to Montjuic Castle and the old Olympic stadium, sunset on Barceloneta Beach, biking along Port Vell, and taking in an awe-inspiring panorama of the city from Placa Espanya.
With beautiful weather every day, Barcelona was an absolute breeze to get around whether on foot or by bike. Barcelona is an incredibly bike-friendly city, the rental are cheap and plentiful, and it’s a fast and fun way to cover a lot of ground. And once you’ve burned off all those calories and worked up and appetite, there are dozen delicious restaurants, bakeries, gelaterias and more mouthwatering eateries waiting on every block. Spain, and Barcelona in particular, is known for its seafood paella, and it certainly lived up to the hype. Also worth writing home about were fresh made tapas like spinach empanadas and crispy tequenos, basically cheese sticks with a sweet chili sauce, as well as creamy gelato and indulgent, but necessary, churros con chocolate. Barcelona didn’t slack on the beverages, either; between fruity sangria, fresh squeezed orange juice, Spanish beer chilled to perfection and to-die-for pina coladas, we were certainly well-hydrated for all of our adventures.
Throughout our three days of meals and excursions, I had an overwhelming sense of calm; having left my laptop at home, and frequently without WiFi and completely off the cellular grid, disconnecting had never felt so good. Sure, there were still the obligatory Instagram posts and status updates, I couldn’t resist in a place so beautiful, but (at the risk of sounding like a tourism advertisement) I truly felt the deadlines and commitments and general stress of city life melt away as we strolled along the beach, wound our way through the labyrinth of narrow streets, found ourselves serenaded by street musicians and squealing over Barcelona’s many resident dogs.
I think the best word I can use to describe Barcelona is captivating. It’s absolutely charming, transfixing, all-encompassing, it has a warmth that washes over you, a magnetism that pulls you in and doesn’t let go. The people are friendly, the food is filling, the sea breeze feels like it’s clearing your lungs, while the sun turns everything it touches into the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. The whole city feels like a little piece of paradise, a hidden oasis, like it’s keeping secrets and concealing mysteries from the outside world, and the visitors who pass through are lucky enough to be in on it, just for a moment. The weekend after we visited, Barcelona paid host to a study abroad music festival, and I can only thank my lucky stars for missing it and the hordes of rowdy tourists that came with it, because the city felt like the realest place I’d been in a while, like everything was unequivocally true, and yet a sort of waking dream, the escapism I needed, a safe resting place for my body and mind and a chance to chance to catch my breath for a little while.
I’ve always found one of my greatest difficulties is to be fully present in any given moment and contented with where I am. No looking ahead, no mulling over things said and done, just breathing and being and experiencing something to the fullest. Fortunately, in Barcelona, this was as effortless as it’s ever been. I suppose the thought that there are already places I’ll never visit again, that I risk losing something irreplaceable in stepping outside of a moment for even a second too long, may sound melodramatic to some, but in truth I think it’s always somewhere at the back of my mind. I’m not sure when, if ever, I’ll return to Spain again, as much as Barcelona captured my heart, though I’ve already found myself plotting my way back. Europe is thousands of miles away from my permanent life, from the people and things I’ve committed myself to, and so here I find that I can be who I want to be, even if just for a weekend. Here, I have an obligation to live fully and deeply and experience to the fullest what might never come again.
It isn’t all that often that I miss a place while I’m still there, that I replay in my mind memories that are still being made, that I allow myself to be cognizant enough to realize when something perfect is unfolding, and that I should take it as it comes. I know without a doubt that my time in Barcelona is an experience that I will remember dearly and distinctly above many others, not only from my time abroad, but from many of the things that I’ve been able to experience in my life thus far. It was a much-needed reassurance that, somewhere within an effortless mix of natural beauty and delicious food and wonderful people and a weekend without worry, there are layers of myself that haven’t been eroded by worry and doubt, haven’t been armored by self-consciousness and fear. That there remains a part of myself that can attempt a nearly forgotten foreign language without hesitation, that can pose for pictures and smile without reservations, that can laugh and let things roll of my shoulders because it’s all going to happen anyway, and everything is going to be okay.
All photos taken and edited with Samsung Galaxy S5.