Not-so-totally-touristy guide to Spain, Part I – Barcelona and Zaragoza

Coming out the doors into the arrival area of Barcelona El Prat Airport took me back to a year earlier: same location, totally different state of mind. This time I was glad not to be expecting anyone to pick me up at the airport. I was glad not to be running the risk of plunging into desperation when realizing that the person I was so eager to meet there had gone to the wrong airport, 100 km away, and booked a hostel in Girona rather than Barcelona, and that there were no longer any trains or buses going there at midnight and I’d have to take a taxi, for €110, and this after begging for a discount to the very nice driver in the dark and pouring rain, a suitcase strapped to my back, limited cash in my wallet. No, sir. This time all I had to do was find the right train and metro, make it to the indicated stop and meet a friend at his apartment where I’d be staying, in the same city as the airport, in broad daylight and dry weather, with a much lighter backpack and heart.

Parc de la Ciutadella, Barcelona. Photo by A. Ribeiro.
Parc de la Ciutadella, Barcelona. Photo by A. Ribeiro.

And so it went: breezily. I found my friend’s place without too much trouble, asking around when his and Google’s directions I’d printed out didn’t suffice (I had no functioning mobile GPS). He lives in the Barcelona neighborhood of El Poblenou, which, as I’d soon find out, is well-served by bars and restaurants, but not overrun by droves of tourists. It’s not far from the suffocatingly crowded La Rambla (if you take the metro), but not that close either (if you walk). It is, however, close to beaches, with warm water to wade in and some nice little rustic clubs called chringuitos – an easy pleasant walk from my friend’s apartment. If you can find a place to stay in Poblenou, I’d say do it. (There are some obligatory sights in Barcelona if it’s your first time there, though – Gaudí’s architecture, for one. Although I generally avoid using sightseeing buses, I’d say in Barcelona it was pretty effective for the basics when I initially visited back in 2006.)

A bonus for me in Poblenou was that the old buildings and the gates in front of some of them, along with the urban beach vibe and parks, reminded me of the Flamengo neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, where I’d so often visit my grandma and other close relatives growing up. At the same time, the sidewalk cafes and streets with “islands” of bar tables and umbrellas reminded me of Lincoln Road, my favorite hangout spot in South Florida (also leading to the beach), where I spent my high school and college years. I felt totally at ease, and drank up the balmy air and the liveliness of the people who were sitting at or walking around the “islands” talking animatedly, or playing football with their kids at 11 p.m. at one of the beachside parks, or making out on benches on the seaside promenade. I was happy to be hanging out alone and simply absorbing things, at my own pace, the key to my friend’s apartment in my purse, being able to come and go as I pleased. During the day I took one very long walk that led me through the gorgeous Parc de la Ciutadella and ancient narrow streets to Mercat de la Boqueria, the latter of which I frantically fled after a mere two and a half minutes, rowing against a torrent of tourists. I took refuge in the metro and immediately went back to Poblenou.

The friend I was staying with was quite busy, and I didn’t get to see much of him. He looked much the same as he had when we’d shared an apartment in Wroclaw, Poland, except with longer hair. The fish he’d often prepare and eat in our kitchen were missing, but the vodkas were there, and he kindly gave me a welcome beer, cereal and boiled egg (it was too early in the evening for vodka). We sat at the kitchen table as we used to, and caught up and gossiped a bit. He’s doing well at his job and in his romantic life. Traveling a lot. Going for another degree. Being in Spain, gainfully employed and with bright prospects, he’s living the dream of many other Polish people I’ve met… and Spaniards as well faced with a very tough job market and having to look elsewhere in Europe.

I was in Barcelona for only a day and a half, because I needed to get to Madrid before my longtime Brazilian friend living there traveled to his hometown to visit his family. But I did manage to find a very nice and seemingly authentic tapas and wine bar to have dinner my first night in Barcelona: Els Tres Porquets. It called my attention because it was all lit up and full of people who appeared to be locals. The staff was nice and didn’t mind my constant questions despite being busy. I can recommend the dish timbal de huevos con morcilla de arroz (timbale of eggs with rice pudding) and the red wine Les Galinettes. The price was €14; a tip is not mandatory like it is the U.S., though I did put a euro or so on top of that. (On a side note: Paella and sangria are definitely not the best delicacies you can have in Spain, as you probably know or guessed. You can find it almost as easily and cheaply as fast food, and the paella photos will indeed often look, though not usually taste, like fast food when advertised outside of restaurants. And sangria sometimes comes out of a squeezy bag, so look for homemade instead… or opt for good ol’ wine.)

Another advantage of where I stayed is that it’s within a 30-minute walk of bus station Barcelona Nord, where I was to catch my bus to Zaragoza at 7 a.m. I found it easily. It made sense visiting Zaragoza because I found cheaper bus tickets going from Barcelona to there, then from there to Madrid than going directly from Barcelona to Madrid. I had several hours to explore the city. Not knowing where to start, I asked the nice lady at the information desk/luggage storage which bus to catch, and she told me Línea 34, which would take me to la catedral.

The cathedral in question, Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar, is not visible from the bus, however, and I missed it, and decided to keep going until the end of the line, where I found a beautiful cemetery (I’ve yet to find an ugly cemetery anywhere, actually), Cementerio de Torrero. I walked back part of the way, following the bus line, then gave up and hopped back on the bus when it started getting too hot. I got off where I thought the cathedral could be and asked a gentleman for directions, to which he responded by personally taking me to the entrance of Mercado Central – meaning almost all the way to the historic site where the cathedral is – while waving to his daughter and grandchildren. Such acts of kindness never fail to amaze me, but in Spain they don’t seem to be uncommon.

To be honest, I did not leave the cathedral area until it was time to get back on the bus and return to Estación Delícias. I am sorry I will fall extremely short of doing Zaragoza justice, but it was simply way too hot for me to do anything further there other than sit and eat and drink that mid-August day. Besides the discomfort from the heat, the light-colored stones of the historic site reflected the sun intensely and blinded me, which gave me a major headache.

The migas aragonesas I had in Zaragoza. Photo by A. Ribeiro.
The migas aragonesas I had in Zaragoza. Photo by A. Ribeiro.

I stretched out my lunch as long as I could: a two-course meal, wine, water bottle and dessert for €12.

This kind of offer you will find at lots of restaurants in Zaragoza and elsewhere in Spain, but I will mention this one because the staff was friendly and I did like the food I picked kind of randomly: Restaurante España Punto Y Coma. I had migas aragonesas (Aragon crumbs), which I liked very much since it reminded me of my favorite Brazilian side dish, farofa. (Yes, I found quite a few similarities with my own Latin culture and environment, including, I must mention, the love of meat; but the “cult of the bull” in Spain is another level entirely.)

After I’d finished my meal, I managed to walk to the bus stop while my head was pounding and, a bit disoriented, caught the wrong buses trying to get back to the station and almost missed my long-distance bus to Madrid. (Tip: The stop “Delícias” is completely not the same as “Estación Delícias,” and not even close to it at all; I learned that the hard way.) Luckily, I found a cab just in time… and ended up paying, for a 10-minute-or-so ride, more than I did for my (punctual) long-distance bus. I passed one hour of the scenic four-hour ride chatting with a very young law student from Madrid, the other three listening to music while looking out the window. I was looking forward to going to Madrid, but I must confess that, after my Madrid-residing friend’s warning of “it’s 38 degrees Celsius, feels like 860” and my afternoon in sweltering Zaragoza, I was fearing the temperature would deter me from fully (or at all) enjoying Spain’s vibrant capital.

Was luck on my side in Madrid? Come back next Saturday to find out!

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A Global Studies doctoral degree holder and former newspaper reporter, avid eater, pseudo-philosopher and poet, occasion-propelled singer, semi-professional socializer, movie addict, Brazilian-American nomad. In this space, she will share some of her experiences and (mis)adventures regarding various topics, with special attention to social issues.

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