Within the first few minutes of being in Barcelona after disembarking from my Holland America Line cruise, I learn two important things: a new word — chamfered — and the immediate sense that this is a city that wants to be seen. When a building on an intersection has a chamfered corner, that means its right angle looks like it’s been shaved off. When all four buildings on the intersection have gotten this “shave,” then the intersection is actually octagonal. This architectural choice leads to better ventilation, a feeling of openness, and, most importantly, to greater visibility: You can start to see your Catalan cross-street before you even get to it. So each chamfered corner immediately gives me the gift of humanistic urban planning that I can’t recall experiencing in any other city—the geometry and joy of seeing more. Thus, the first two things I learn in Barcelona are really the same thing. The city is a show-off: a vibrant, sunny, sparkling peacock.
I notice this tendency toward display most acutely in the upscale neighborhood of Eixample, on the parallel grand avenues of Passeig de Gràcia and Rambla de Catalunya. As a New Yorker, my reference point for a city is Fifth Avenue — a glamourous boulevard with great people-watching that will lead me to most of the neighborhoods and attractions I want to experience. Both Passeig de Gràcia and Rambla de Catalunya fulfill that role for me, because they cut a straight path to the Gothic Quarter and La Rambla and then to the sea.
Do you ever notice how guidebooks and websites that you rely on after your cruise seem to give every site and street equal weight, which doesn’t really help you find your footing or orientation? When time is limited (and even when it’s not), I want to know a major street or two, its landmarks so I can easily identify it, and where it leads. I don’t want to be staring into a map after my cruise, making lots of turns; I want to join the parade of locals, take in the undulating facades of the Gaudi masterworks (the acclaimed Casa Milà and Casa Batlló are located right on Passeig de Gràcia) and not worry about getting lost.
My dad joined me on my Holland America Line cruise, and now we safely meander down Passeig de Gràcia, stopping to browse in Desigual, one of the most fashionable European brands (headquartered in Barcelona) and eyeing the bright and bountiful salads that everyone is enjoying at the sidewalk cafes. Tip: burrata is on every menu, and don’t hesitate because you’re in Barcelona instead of Rome. As one waiter is quick to tell us, Catalans do Italian cuisine better than the Italians. I don’t know about that, but the burrata fresca de la Puglia I order at La Cuina d’en Garriga is sublime. When I try it at several other places, the quality and preparation are equally good. I pair it with something more local, Spain’s famed charcuterie, specifically the delectable slivers of the beloved jamon iberico.
In no time we’re at La Rambla, which marks the boundary of the Gothic Quarter. I make a mental note that since I’m facing the sea, the Quarter is always going to be to my left. So we wander the narrow medieval lanes, get lost on purpose, find ourselves in the expansive Plaça de Sant Jaume (the Gothic Quarter’s main plaza), and circle back to La Rambla, which is arguably Barcelona’s main attraction for a reason. The U.S. has only a few such pedestrian shopping streets — Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road and Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade come to mind — so La Rambla is rare, and iconic. We grab gelato and watch street performers as we amble for half a mile, leaving the best for last: La Boqueria.
My father, a suburbanite, doesn’t really get why a “market” would be so special, or why — along with Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda shuk — it’s my favorite market in the world. It doesn’t take more than seeing dozens of paper cones filled with manchego cheese and cured ham to change his mind. If three things stand out, it’s these grab-and-go paper cones, the cups of juices arrayed in every color imaginable, and stall after stall of chocolates, especially the photogenic and mouthwatering discs inlaid with nuts and dried fruit. I get out my wallet to make gifts of these hand-dipped confections. I hope I have room in my luggage after everything I bought during the cruise. Then I buy more, and still more, because, well, I know my sweet tooth. And my dad’s.
THAT MOMENT IN BARCELONA WHEN…
…my dad almost walked onto a nude beach.
So the thing about my dad and I is that we’re beachgoers, so passing up the city’s beaches after our cruise would be unimaginable. Barcelona is perfect for this. Once you’ve seen the Gaudi buildings in Eixample and explored the Gothic Quarter and La Rambla, you’re almost at the Mediterranean, and you can just hail a taxi. But as any map will reveal, there’s a line of Barcelona beaches, each with a different name, so how to choose? We want to get away from the city, but not too far away, so I pick the exclusive Bogatell. The cabdriver, though, overshoots to La Mar Bella, and bang, my dad is up and out of the car. I think two things simultaneously: one, no big deal, we’ll just backtrack to other side of the pier; and two, a gnawing feeling that Mar Bella is that popular clothing-optional strand I read about. My dad, though, is looking at his feet as he walks, and I sprint after him (seeing far more skin than sand), yelling over my shoulder at the taxi driver to wait. “I don’t think this is the one we want,” I say to my dad, breathlessly. “Huh, why?” Fifteen minutes later, we’re seated at Bogatell’s Vai Moana beach bar, where the only naked thing is the burrata on our plates.
Overnight in Barcelona after your Holland America Line Mediterranean cruise. The rest of our party hadn’t scheduled this (and would regret it), but my dad and I didn’t want to miss out on this spectacular city. We booked four nights, which was the perfect amount of time.
Do you have your sights set on the beautiful and bustling city of Barcelona? Many of our Mediterranean cruises feature a call at this enchanting port, including Koningsdam’s 10-day Mediterranean Rivieras cruise May 10,2019, Veendam’s 12-day Mediterranean Tapestry cruise Jun. 8, 2019, Nieuw Statendam’s 10-day Mediterranean Dream cruise on Oct. 7, 2019, and more! Join us!
Drew Limsky is the founding editor-in-chief of Holland America Line’s award-winning Mariner magazine and currently is a contributor to the publication, making him an ideal writer for Holland America Blog. As a travel journalist for outlets including The New York Times, Drew quickly realized that destination writing not only was a way of experiencing beautiful places, but also a way of meeting people from all over the world and hearing their stories. Drew broke into journalism as a book reviewer for The Washington Post and an op-ed writer for The Los Angeles Times.