Friday, January 10, 2014

Barcelona on the sea

Barcelona originated as a Roman port village, called Barcino. Over the centuries, as the village grew into a city, Barcelona eventually encompassed multiple ports, most prominently its Port Vell ("Old Harbor"). By the late medieval period, Barcelona was a Mediterranean power and a major trading post between Christians to the north and Muslims to the south. Columbus's return from his first voyage to the Americas was to Barcelona, where he met King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Barcelona's nineteenth century industrial boom hinged on its location on the Mediterranean and its status as a major shipping port.

Today's visitors to Port Vell see a rebuilt harbor constructed for the 1992 Summer Olympics. The old harbor has become a yacht basin, surrounded by a tourist zone of beaches, aquarium, malls, IMAX, and public art. Commercial shipping is further down the coast. The hordes of cruise ships which call on Barcelona do so across town, near Montjuïc.

Yacht basin in Port Vell.
We used the harbor and beaches as a respite from our tourism throughout the rest of the city. As I've mentioned before, I have a tendency to overschedule our days and plan too much of an itinerary. On our trip to Barcelona, however, I made sure to allow time for wandering, meandering, and relaxing. We spent two afternoons and evenings within Port Vell, and on our last full day we spent the afternoon enjoying the beach.

This port authority building was built in 1907.
Overlooking the port is a column capped by a statue of Columbus. It's a bit ironic that Barcelona honors him at its port, since it was Columbus's voyages to the New World that led to diminished trade within the Mediterranean and the concurrent loss of power and influence of Barcelona itself.

The monument rises 200 feet.
Columbus points out to sea.
Heading east from the Columbus monument is a broad promenade that follows the port and eventually curves out toward the sea. At the start of the curve is the Barcelona Head, a sculpture by Roy Lichtenstein for the 1992 Summer Olympics. It honors Pablo Picasso with its cubism; Joan Miró with its vibrant colors; and Antoni Gaudí with its tilework.

The head has Lichtenstein's usual comic-newsprint style of dots.
Our favorite stop along Port Vell was the Barcelona Aquarium. It is one of Europe's largest aquariums, with more than 450 species and 11,000 animals. Ticket prices are quite high at 20 Euros per adult, though Jackson was free -- as determined not by age, but by height; another inch taller, and the kid would have had to pay 5 Euros. Although the price is steep, the aquarium is large enough that you can easily spend half a day, especially factoring in playtime and a snack or meal.

Follow the ramp down to enter the exhibits.
Posing for a too-expensive photo-op on a plastic shark.

The big draw in the aquarium is the gigantic "Oceanarium" tank -- holding more than 1,000,000 gallons -- with oodles of fish, eels, and sharks. A transparent tunnel, 260 feet long, passes through the tank.

You can ride a slow walkway through the tank, or step off it to move at your own pace.
The "Oceanarium" tank contains only Mediterranean species.
A generously-sized play area for the little ones helps them burn off some energy and provides them interactive displays.

 We also appreciated that the aquarium had a little fun with Halloween:

Barcelona's aquarium is a neat stop for families and anyone who simply loves aquariums. Without a doubt, it's one of Europe's best.

Port Vell at night is pleasant but not romantic. There are still plenty of tourists out, and a small army of sidewalk hucksters. An IMAX theater sits beside the aquarium, and an upscale mall stays open late with bars and restaurants. But even amongst the bustle you can enjoy the views and feel the sea breeze and listen to street musicians.

Looking over the harbor toward Montjuïc.
The yacht basin is well lit for a stroll.
Beyond the harbor are nine sandy beaches along three miles of the coastline. They are mostly family gathering spots, though at least one is clothing-optional. Like many other modern attractions in Barcelona, these beaches were created for the 1992 Summer Olympics by tearing down old industrial centers and clearing away unsightly slums.

The beach in Barceloneta, a neighborhood created in the 18th century to house sailors and fishermen. The Spanish king had razed their traditional neighborhood to make room for a military citadel to keep an eye on the pesky Catalonians.
To the southwest, the W Hotel rises in the background in the shape of a windblown sail.
To the northeast stretch miles of beaches. Note the Frank Gehry shiny fish in the 1992 Olympic village.
If we had known it would be so warm in November, we would've come better equipped for a day at the beach.
Having lunch at a beach bar, called a chiringuito, and celebrating the closing on the sale of our house in North Carolina.
Not many major tourist cities in Europe come with a great beachfront, too. You can spend days in Barcelona touring important sites, but you could also spend happy days lounging on the beach and enjoying the hip vibe. Even better, you can be a good tourist for part of the day and still have hours of sunshine to hang at the beach.

Barcelona does not quite have the level of tourist attractions that Paris, Rome, London, or other major cities in Europe. Its attractions, collectively, are at least a step or two down from such cities. But Barcelona is an extremely pleasant metropolis to visit and absorb. It deserves a relaxed and balanced mindset from visitors.

Ice cream selfie.


  1. Ok, I'm officially sold on Barcelona as a must-visit locale when we finally make our way across the pond.

    1. And I haven't even gotten to sights on Montjuïc, or the very best thing in Barcelona, the Sagrada Familia basilica! Barcelona is great. But honestly, if you haven't hit Paris, London, or Rome, I'd suggest seeing those first for the most bang for your buck.

  2. Congrats on selling the house!

    1. Thanks. It's great to not have that expense and worry hanging over us.

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