After the success of our autumn half term trip to Berlin and Easter in London we decided to spend the summer half term in Barcelona. City breaks seem to be relatively immune to the typical ramping up of prices that you get in seaside resorts during school holidays and also provide a greater variety of things to do to keep both adults and children entertained. Barcelona managed to live up to this and more.
We stayed in a great villa around 15 minutes by FGC train to the centre of Barcelona in the hillside village of Les Planes. Staying in a villa or apartment is always more comfortable than standard hotel rooms and can work out somewhat cheaper even if you don’t need all the space offered. The villa we rented for the week was a serendipitous find on Trip Advisor but the details at this link are better. The owner, Cristina, was very helpful in answering email queries before our trip and in arranging taxis to pick us up from the airport. It was an excellent base for exploring the city while giving us somewhere peaceful to go back to at the end of the day (apart from a small drama when a couple of Wild Boar piglets got stuck on the terrace below the villa and had to be let out without letting their distressed mother come rampaging in!).
Getting around was easy because of the nearby station of Les Planes on the FGC network. The FGC is somewhat like the RER trains in Paris or the overland local trains in London (except rather more frequent, punctual, modern and pleasant than the latter!). A carnet of tickets for ten journeys (T10) was only €9.50 and could be used by more than one person. This seemed ludicrously cheap when compared to the cost of tube tickets in London. The modern, clean, air conditioned trains put the tube to shame and there were works going on to build an additional line in the city. However, given Spain’s economic state, the clearly massive investment in transport infrastructure they have done possibly gives the lie to the argument that we need to do the same to pull the UK back from recession. Either that or it demonstrates the weakness of Spain’s underlying economy if even after having made such a brilliant rail network it had and has high unemployment.
The tickets worked on both FGC and the metro system within the city but, despite the transport network being apparently integrated, did not work on local trains in the regional railway network. Also, single FGC tickets don’t work on the metro even though the carnets do. It is rather confusing so the best bet is to stick to buying the T10 carnets as other ticket types end up being expensive if you get the wrong ones to work on all the different networks for your journey. Trains leaving the city centre stop at midnight except for Saturday nights but on the one evening we got caught out we found that a cab from Placa Calalunya to the villa was only around €20 and cabs were plentiful.
One money-saving tip for your trip to or from the airport is to use the ordinary public buses rather than the airport specials – they both take the same time and go from the same places but the public buses cost €2 rather than €5. The saving partly compensated for the small amount of cash lost and large amount of hassle incurred when Mrs B managed to get her purse stolen as we were in a metro station on our way back to the airport on the last day. In retrospect. Partly.
However, although that episode did make us join with seemingly everyone else we’d known who had gone to the city in having had a wallet or purse subtly stolen, it was the only time when we’d felt unsafe and the city in general did not feel like one where there were thronging crowds of would be muggers at every turn.
The quality of busking on the trains was also remarkably high, with a trio of Catalan Eminem’s treating us to some incomprehensible but well-executed political rapping on one train!
I won’t give any particular recommendations for restaurants as we tended to choose on the basis of whether a place looked nice, had things OMB might try and had space available to sit outside.
The Time Out Barcelona app for the iPhone was useful (and worked without incurring data roaming charges) up to a point, but was flummoxed by the rabbit warren of streets in the Gotica area. It was however spot on in its assessment of the erratic service at Taller de Tapas (but the food was good). We ate at a restaurant in the Port Vell area between the city centre and Barceloneta beach on the first night in what proved to be the most expensive of our meals but not the best food. Curiously, the closer into the heart of town in the streets off La Rambla the better value and quality the restaurants became. Our last two nights we ate in restaurants in Placa Reale, which we expected to be expensive and disappointing due to being so touristy, but which were actually very good and good value. Although we never did quite work out why there were such long queues for Les Quinze Nits when other restaurants had tables available. Unless you are going for the full on gourmet experience and hunting out special restaurants it is more fun just to go for pot luck when on holiday.
We also ate a lot of ice creams, which OMB didn’t mind one bit!
It is difficult to go to Barcelona without encountering the work or influence of the architect, Gaudi. I liked Park Guell which gave views across the city coupled with eccentric garden features and a “gingerbread house” designed by Gaudi. It had been intended to have been built out into a new housing development but somehow the houses never really materialised for one reason or another. That seemed to be a bit of a theme after visiting the famous Sagrada Familia cathedral to which Gaudi devoted the final years of his life (right up until he was killed in a tram accident). The cathedral is overwhelming in terms of the detail that is there to look at. There is literally so much to see that even walking around the outside led to a bit of an overload so we decided not to go in – it would have required a couple of hours of careful looking and listening to an audio guide to have got much out of it and the presence of an attractive shaded playground across the road was a bigger draw for OMB.
The top of Park Guell also was home (possibly literally) to the world’s worst busker.
You can see more of my Gaudi photos here.
Montjuic to Barceloneta
We climbed up through the park at Montjuic on our first afternoon in Barcelona with the intention of having a look around and then catching the cable car across to the beach at Barceloneta for dinner by the sea. However, as we had left it a bit late, there wasn’t much time to look around before the last cable car and it was going to be too much of a walk for OMB to see the park and get to the nearest metro station back into the city centre so it will have to wait for a future trip to the city.
The beach at Barceloneta is long, clean and sandy. It was a bit overcast and deserted (both because of the dull weather and the local preference to spend Sundays at home with family) on our first visit but we returned to spend our last afternoon there when we got sunshine and thronging crowds despite it being the middle of a working week. Having an interesting city on hand for such a nice beach made it surprising for me that more families don’t choose Barcelona for a beach holiday in preference to the more “traditional” Spanish seaside resorts.
Theme Parks and Water Parks
Standing over the city at the top of one of the hills to the north is Park Tibidabo. This was one of the locations used in the Woody Allen film Vicky, Christina, Barcelona and gives great views of the city as well as having a small theme park. Unfortunately the blue tram up to the funicular railway was not in public service the day we visited (I’m not sure whether it was the same tram that killed Gaudi) and, after the trip up to Tibidabo we were rather disappointed to find that none of the rides seemed to be operating. We had already read that the modern rides only ran at the weekend but even the more traditional rides seemed also to be deserted. Curiously, after we and a handful of other disappointed looking tourists had mooched around for a while we noticed that there actually were people working at the park and slowly they went about opening up the rides.
The height of the park made the rides much more vertiginous than they would otherwise have been – I’d have been very wary of going on the rollercoaster that clung to the side of the hill had it been running! OMB and I (after Mrs B wimped out) went on a sort of ferris wheel which only had two compartments, both of which were roofless. I’m not sure whether I was there to stop OMB from being scared or vice versa! Staving off vertigo is my excuse if the photos I took don’t quite do the ride justice!
On our penultimate day we went to the Illa Fantasia waterpark a little way out of the city. It was largely deserted other than for a few other British families so there were no queues. We probably had been rather overcautious in booking online before visiting! It was slightly underwhelming after having been to the amazing Siam Park waterpark in Tenerife but good fun nevertheless. Although it did teach me to be clearer in my instructions to OMB after he asked me if he should go on his back down one of the faster slides – I said yes, but then watched in horror as he lay on his back, head first! My punishment, he decided, was that I should be waterboarded under the vat of water that periodically was tipped over in the Pirate Maze kids’ area. As you can see from the photos linked above, this was not something to be taken lightly!
So, should you go to Barcelona for a family holiday?
Yes. We all had a thoroughly good time and had both time for relaxation at the villa and a very varied set of things to see and do in the city without coming near to having done everything on offer.
Without going into any of the politics of it, Barcelona’s Catalan character and the subtle differences with Spanish make it a more interesting place in my opinion than Madrid. Also, as a non-Spanish speaker who has a little French the presence of signs in Catalan was helpful – they’d probably vigorously deny it but in written form quite a lot of Catalan looks like French transposed into Spanishish spelling! Despite us having visited only days before the start of the Euro 2012 championship there was no sign of anything to do with the Spanish national football team around, only a lot of FC Barcelona shops and merchandise and a lot of Catalan flags.