In February of 2015, my friend Chelsea and I booked a spontaneous trip to Barcelona, Spain. We sat down in a Starbucks on a Sunday afternoon, no direction or expectations in mind, only a desire to go somewhere unfamiliar. About 3 donuts and two coffees later, we had planned an entire trip seven days before departure. Wahnsinn! All the logistics were in the bag– the cheapest flights, the conveniently located hostel, everything was accounted for except for the fact that I had never even considered visiting Barcelona before Chelsea nonchalantly asked me, “hey, wanna go to Spain next week?”
Fast forward one week, we were at Berlin Schönefeld, leaving the cold and snow of Germany, heading to sunny Spain. The flight itself wasn’t too bad—aerial views of the Swiss Alps and the Pyrenees will always make an early morning flight worthwhile. Once we landed in Barcelona in the late morning, we took a train into the city, navigated our way to the hostel, and got acquainted with the area we’d call home for the next five days.
Now, I will stand by hostels for as long as it’s still socially acceptable for me share a room full of bunk beds with strangers, but I must stay, the hostel, or better yet, some of the guests of the hostel, were interesting. I mean, it’s no surprise that I like going abroad, but at the same time, I like the stability and normalcy of life after a trip. Upon arrival at the hostel, we met a girl in the hostel’s common room. A fellow American, nonetheless, and she immediately offered us some carrot cake she baked (DELICIOUS by the way). We soon discovered that she had been traveling Europe the past few months, and had fallen in love with Barcelona, so she decided to stay there for a month. In the same hostel. And work around the hostel in exchange for accommodations (which isn’t unheard of by any means). I’d normally be totally cool with this, but we just so happened to be staying in the same room as her AND another girl who worked at the hostel, too. It doesn’t seem that odd, but when you stay in one space for awhile, you tend to make it your own, so it kind of felt like we were invading her own personal bedroom or something. Especially at night when she’d put up one her bohemian tapestries from the bottom bunk and make out with her random Australian boyfriend. But all that is besides the point– it was a cheap hostel in a fantastic part of the city with super friendly staff. Who cares if we had a few awkward situations? We were in Barcelona, famous for Gaudi, Picasso, and The Cheetah Girls 2. Nothing could get in our way of a good time! (Here’s my Hostelworld.com review of it!)
Making our way through La Rambla, a main street that goes through the city, was sensory overload. Imagine souvenir stands and men trying to sell you knick-knacks that will almost immediately break upon purchase, knock-off Messi and Suarez jerseys waiting to be purchased by tourists who have never even watched an FCB match, and of course, the smell of paella wafting through the warm, salty air. Although it’s a task in itself to find a good restaurant on La Rambla that is not an overpriced tourist trap with frozen food simply heated up, Chelsea and I decided to eat here, because after a long day of traveling, we needed some sangria, stat. We had our first taste of Spanish sangria and paella, and at that point, I could’ve gone back to Germany and been satisfied because the sangria was so heavenly. Nectar of the gods, for sure.
Most days, we woke up whenever we felt like it; no alarms set, only a “we should probably be out the door by noon so we can grab some patatas bravas before it’s time for a siesta.” We managed to see a lot of the big sights on our first day, like the Plaça de Catalunya, Arc de Triomf, and Cathedral of Barcelona, but on day two of our trip, we decided to go on a free walking tour of Modernism architecture that the city is famous for. Our guide was an American guy, living in Barcelona to work on his PhD in economics. Being a tour guide was his means of human interaction and actually going outside. But we had a small, fun, chatty group and Michael, our guide, was a great storyteller. We got to live the history of Gaudi’s beautifully unique buildings and learn about Barcelona’s important role in Modernism architecture. Fun fact! The “Block of Discord” on Passeig de Gracia is the only place in Barcelona where you’ll see buildings designed by the “big three” (Lluís Domènech i Montaner, Joseph Puig i Cadafalch, and Antoni Gaudi) right next to each other.
The tour ended at none other than La Sagrada Familia, another one of Gaudi’s works of art. Now, La Sagrada Familia, or “the Sacred Family,” has a long past. One cannot simply call it a cathedral or a basilica, because that would put it at the same level as other houses of worship. La Sagrada Familia is a masterpiece. It’s a palace of beauty and color and rays of natural light that resonate on the smooth, white walls and floor. It’s detailed, yet organically simple. It is calming and makes an atheist want to believe. It’s also a Catholic church owned by Mormons. Yeah, you heard correctly. Let me give a brief history lesson…
Construction on La Sagrada Familia began in 1882 and ’til this day, it is STILL being built. Gaudi oversaw construction until the day he tragically died in 1926, and a few years later, construction was put to a halt as to be expected when any dictator comes to power. Once Franco died in 1975 and Spain became a democratic state, construction began once again. But who is funding the construction of such a massive project? Well, apparently two billionaire men from Salt Lake City, Utah! You may be thinking, “oh, Layla, why would these two Mormon guys have any interest in helping complete a treasure of Catalonia and Catholics from all around Spain?” Because lobbying and bribing parliament works, that’s why! Shortly after, Spain’s government passed a bill stating that religious buildings cannot be taxed so long as it is still under construction. So what does that mean? That 15 euro ticket I bought to enter La Sagrada Familia goes straight to the Church of LDS (allegedly). Weird, huh? On top of that (cue conspiracy theory music), that is why so many believe the church is STILL under going construction today. Why complete the project? They’ll just have to start paying taxes! BOO. TAXES. Our guide told us that in the four years he has lived in Barcelona, he hasn’t even noticed any progress– he walks by, the sounds of drills and saws going strong, but perhaps it’s just prerecorded to give the illusion of work? Who knows! The aim is to finish La Sagrada Familia in 2026, aka the 100 year anniversary of Gaudi’s death, but considering how much of that church that is left to be built, I personally don’t think that’s going to happen. Nonetheless, it is an architecturally stunning piece of art and deserves to be seen. After the tour, me, Chelsea, and two friends we made on the tour checked out the “crypt,” where there are some pews, an altar, and Gaudi’s final resting place. Super cool!
If you couldn’t tell, La Sagrada Familia is not only my favorite sight in Barcelona, but probably the most intriguing and interesting place I have ever been to across my travels.
The rest of our time in Barcelona was memorable, too. We continued to hang out with our new friends from Mexico and Finland, usually by getting cheap pinchos and Spanish wine. (Pro tip: if you’re paying more than 1 euro per pincho/tapas, you’re paying too much! Go to Blai Street.). It also just so happened to be Carnaval, so we got to experience a lot of cool traditions, like the time when Chelsea and I were randomly walking across a square, and a horde of people and tall paper maché dolls came out of nowhere and started dancing.
Some other cools things we did/saw were: Picasso Museum, Parc de la ciutadella, the Olympic stadium on Montjuic Mountain, the beach, a Flamenco show, Camp Nou (where FC Barcelona plays), La Boqueria market, and perhaps my favorite (other than La Sagrada Familia), Park Güell. Park Güell is perched on the side of a mountain and serves as Barcelona’s western boundary almost. It was super hilly and honestly a workout at times, but the views of the city were stunning. The park also has a bunch of Gaudi buildings, but unfortunately, an iconic blue tower that I was dying to see was under construction 😥
We also did not bother to pay the entry fee to see the buildings within the park, because honestly, you could still get a view of the architecture, and the best part of the park is already free: the nature. On our way up the mountain, there were flameno dancers and musicians that just added to the atmosphere. When we got to the top, we relaxed, ate some chocolate, then made the hike back down.
This trip to Barcelona was a well welcomed surprise. I did not anticipate traveling there during my Fulbright year and I am so glad I made that last minute decision to go. This was by far the quickest trip I’ve ever planned and I must say, it ended being one of the best. Traveling never needs to be as calculated as we sometimes make it out to be, and it seemed fitting for my first spur-of-the-moment trip to be to a place that embraces this mentality and has traces of it in its culture. So, I guess the moral of this adventure is, don’t be afraid to go into an experience without every little detail figured out. You need that freedom so you don’t pass up on those inevitable, unplanned situations, because frankly, those moments usually end up being the most memorable.
CHECK OUT THIS AWESOME VIDEO CHELSEA MADE OF OUR TRAVELS! SO GOOD!