Coffee in Catalonia Part 1: A Sanity Saving Getaway

Introduction

In mid 2014 when I was at my lowest point I dreamed of gradually slipping off the grid, slowly moving across the globe and silently dropping out of the world with every passing country. When I was running my escape plan through my head there was always one consistent element to my route; I needed to spend the first part of my retreat in Barcelona as I knew it would help me unravel all the craziness in my mind. In the end I never made this return trip and I eventually decided to embrace my issues rather than run from them. But why the obsession with this particular city? I thought I might find an answer from one of my favourite movies shot in the Catalan capital. It certainly wasn’t the bright colours of Pedro Almodovar’s All About My Mother (1999) as beautifully tragic as it was. Though there might have been an element of art imitating life, imitating art, imitating life! It probably wasn’t the the art of Puig as we stayed largely clear of the galleries on our trip. Though it could well have been the beautiful Mordernisme of Gaudi’s architecture that made for quite the backdrop to Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008). Even though I felt like escaping from life, the vibrant Barcelona of 2013 we visited felt much more than a world a way from the grey, industrial, crumbling city depicted in Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975). I’m still not exactly sure why I loved Barcelona so much, but perhaps after I share my 2013 visit with you you’ll feel the same way too. So let’s go back to a year where I’d already enjoyed two trips to France, a steam powered holiday to the seaside and had just finished booking the most luxurious holiday of my life. Sadly I was feeling so low back then that whatever I had it was not enough, so with only one further introduction let’s get on with the tale!

Planning

By my own low standards this was a late booked and poorly planned trip, but my goodness it was needed! After a chaotic month at work and a very late approval of my holiday request Anne-So and I decided to head to the sunny shores of Barcelona for some late autumn rays. On our way back we would pay a quick visit to my in-laws, which would be a lot less fun than normal as my sister-in-law and her partner (N & G) were in the middle of their tandem bike ride from France to India. Initially rather than a trip to Spain we had hoped to meet N & G in Istanbul for our autumn break but sadly by the time we were able to travel they would have moved on to Georgia and with the majority of our spare funds and near enough all of our Avios spent on an upcoming Indian Adventure we finally settled upon sunny Barcelona.

Although we were disappointed not be headed to Istanbul, a trip to Barcelona was hardly bad news and I was looking forward to trying the local food, seeing the sights as well as riding the high speed Spanish AVE train. As I could not be trusted to find a cheap hotel for us to stay at Anne-So booked us a room at the Meliá Barcelona Sky and I sorted out the flights and trains. At least I tried to… In the end we managed to book our flights with British Airways; a Reward Flight Saver from London Gatwick to Barcelona at a pretty decent time and a not so fun priced one way home from Lyon to London Heathrow.

Once again BA was not the absolute cheapest option available but as was often the case their flight schedule was much, much better for maximising our holiday and lounge time compared to the low cost carriers. The trains on the other hand were a different story. After much fussing around and reading through The Man in Seat 61 we learnt the following: booking your train less than a week before departure is a pain when you have a Franco-Spanish itinerary!

In the end we booked via the SNCF website as that gave us the full choice of routes and also allowed Anne-So to make the short trip to Piccadilly Circus to collect the tickets for a few extra pounds the day before we left. This was the first and most likely last time we’d ever have to collect European rail tickets from a travel agency outside of unplanned refunds or exchanges. And why did we have to jump through such hurdles? First of all the estimated delivery time for having the tickets posted was seven days and we had booked our tickets less than a week before departure. Secondly for some unknown, but I’m sure perfectly logical reason SNCF didn’t offer e-tickets for international journeys between Spain and France (by the looks of things this issue is thankfully no more in 2020). Phew, with just days to spare our travel was sorted, now what were we going to do when we get there?

With only a few days in Barcelona and little time to plan, a Time Out guide was purchased and Chowhound was fired up for foodie recommendations and our plan went something like this:

  • Day 1 Sea
  • Day 2 Old Town
  • Day 3 Pretty Buildings
  • Day 4 No idea, just don’t miss the train to France!

Sadly Chowhound was proving equally frustrating. Whilst back in 2013 this site was normally a good source of reliable recommendations across all price ranges, nearly everything recommended was a Michelin starred splurge that was either booked up or when I quoted the price, Anne-So responded, “That’s for two people, right?” The last time my restaurant planning went this badly we ended up glad to queue for half an hour at the McDonalds in Hamburg’s Hauptbahnhof whilst we wrung out our rain drenched clothes and I, like so many before me lost a battle with the infamous McRib…

Departure

Thankfully for you and me both, the trip was finally upon us and I was genuinely excited. My half-baked plan had been supplemented with a bunch of washed out Google Maps print outs that existed solely to re-assure me that we’d not go hungry, not get lost and definitely not get bored. After losing my mind the previous day at work with a catalogue of fatigue induced errors it was nice to just relax and go with the flow for a few days.

It was time to leave for the airport and the usual air horn and bucket of water combo were required to gently awaken Anne-So from her slumber whilst I was continually checking the time to make sure I got to try out the BA lounge at Gatwick. Interestingly the next time we flew out of Gatwick on BA some six years later the airline would have completely upped their game at London’s second airport by moving to a new terminal with an impressive business lounge which was part of an overall excellent premium passenger experience.

Gatwick was a pretty easy trip for us back then. Living in one of the nicer parts of West London and assuming you left before sunup to beat the rush hour traffic it was around half an hour by bus to Victoria Station and then onward to the airport. Despite the sometimes rip-off prices, the Gatwick Express was certainly more convenient when travelling with anything more than hand luggage back in 2013. After our previous trip back from Gatwick Airport resulted in us catching some dirty, godforsaken and now thankfully retired Class 319 Thameslink train back via London Bridge crammed to the gills with passengers with absolutely no luggage space for anything bigger than a designer handbag, the Gatwick Express sold itself for actually having somewhere to place your case that didn’t involve wheeling it over every other persons foot and then cramming it and yourself in to seat and aisle. Thank goodness these days there are the glorious Class 700 Thameslink trains to supplement the new Class 387 trains on the Gatwick Express.

It felt like time had stood still that morning whilst Anne-So readied herself. As we left our flat it then seemed to slowly work its way backwards. We sat down at the bus stop and for the next six minutes our transport towards Victoria continually showed it was six minutes away from arrival. After these six long minutes had passed the board indicated that our bus was now just eight minutes away. A few more minutes passed by and our bus appeared to have given up completely, vanishing from not only the electronic departure board but also from the face of the earth. By this point I’d become increasingly irritable. A month of working at 100 mph with barely a hint of respite and my body had forgotten I was supposed to be on holiday! After wearing out the refresh button on my bus app the number 70 finally reappeared and within moments we were back on schedule. After a quick transfer on to the 52 we made it to Victoria in record time, in fact with a few minutes to spare before our train left.

Train: Gatwick Express VIC – GTW
Depart: London Victoria 08:00
Arrive: Gatwick Airport 08:30
Seats: Standard Class Unreserved
Locomotive: Class 442 Wessex Electrics Top Speed 100 mph

I wish I had the time to tell you about how much I loved Victoria station as a child, first of all because it was where the British portion of the famous Orient Express departed and secondly due to the unusual repurposed rolling stock used on the Gatwick Express back then, but we were in a rush that morning and not being one to run for public transport, at least not when anyone could see me, I had already decided to give up and catch the 08:30 departure. For some reason my attempted retreat only spurred Anne-So on as she sped towards the lurid red signage that, “Welcomes you aboard this Gatwick Express.” Despite my fumbling around for the tickets, the gate inspector must have noticed that I was a trustworthy chap, as who else but a madman would have the itinerary for each day of their trip in a series of pristine print outs held in an immaculate clear binder. He quickly ushered us on to the platform where we were immediately herded on to the last carriage of the express. At last we had a moment to catch our breath. I’m not sure we quite realised it but we were finally on holiday!

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again but for me many of my favourite trips have begun on the train to the airport. I love nothing more than watching people slip out of their daily routine whether they are preparing to head off to places far and wide or are nostalgically thinking of home. As we excitedly trundled up the aisle I tried not to drag my case over our fellow daydreamers’ feet whilst looking for somewhere to perch our bags during our thirty minute trip to Gatwick. It felt like we had walked half the train looking for space before we gave up and just dumped our bags next to a hotch-potch pile of others and hoped they didn’t fall over. After receiving a much needed lecture from Anne-So for not remaining calm whilst looking for a seat we had long passed East Croydon and were fast approaching Gatwick. By this point I’d become well aware of the irony of booking the more expensive express service for a comfortable seat and plenty of luggage space and struggling to find either!

We pulled into the first and final station stop, Gatwick Airport where we quickly exited the train. I headed straight for the lift whilst of course Anne-So walked off somewhere else entirely. It was going to be one of those days I thought, as on trying to leave the station I got stuck behind a woman who had clearly never used a ticket gate in her entire life…

As you will have no doubt noticed by now this trip report is lacking the usual volume of photos and truth be told between the rushing and my heart still racing as if I were at work, I wasn’t really in the mood for them. Finally beginning to calm down to a healthier beat we took an enjoyable monorail ride over to the North Terminal where BA was based and looked to check in. I always have fond memories of that monorail from the first time I caught a plane for a family holiday to Greece where we travelled in style on a Caledonian Airways Tri-Star.

As we arrived at check in I was taken aback a little, after the relative calm of the our last few years flying with BA at Heathrow’s Terminal 1 and Terminal 5 this looked like carnage. There were masses and masses of people looking like they were doomed to queue for all eternity, from check in desks to the back wall and beyond, almost as far as the eye could see. Unless of course you had my eyes that is, as they had spotted something in the distance, the rarefied air of the premium check in area! With a craftily AMEX acquired Cathay Pacific Gold Card in hand it was time to beat that queue, get back into Anne-So’s good books and enjoy some interesting people watching at the adjacent First Class desks. We managed to join one of only two moving queues at the airport that morning and we were soon warmly welcomed to Gatwick by a very friendly BA check in lady and before we knew it we were all checked in, through security and following the directions to the lounge.

British Airways Galleries Club Lounge Gatwick North Terminal
Access For Oneworld First Class, Business Class and Emerald or Sapphire Status
(Now Closed)

On arrival at the lounge we were again greeted by a friendly agent who was a world a way from the evil lounge dragons you sometimes read about and were soon though the doors to airport nirvana. Whilst the space was a little more shabby chic than the coordinated class of Heathrow Terminal 5 Galleries Club lounges, it certainly had more love and definitely a little more life in it than the sorry and thankfully now scrapped London Lounge at Terminal 1 that we had used on our last BA trip to Lyon. We soon found a quiet space, freshened up and treated ourselves to a well earned breakfast. After a month of stress I lapped up the simple joy of slowly unwinding over some croissants and a coffee whist calmly watching the planes go about their business. Plates were cleared regularly, staff seemed reasonably cheerful and although it would have been nice if they had served up some hot bacon rolls as per the guest book suggestion it was still an otherwise pleasant way to waste an hour or so. One thing I did notice was that it was certainly a very different crowd to Heathrow Galleries Club Lounges, definitely a lot more bucket and spade than briefcase and bowler (or laptop and roll-aboard but that really doesn’t sound as good does it).

Flight: BA2708 London to Barcelona
Depart: LGW 11:05
Arrive: BCN 14:30
Seats: 10A and 10B (Euro Traveller – Economy)
Aircraft: Boeing 737-400 (Reg Unknown)

We headed off to the boarding gate where thankfully priority boarding was in action and unlike on some flights we’d taken the boarding process was largely relaxed and unhurried with people on the whole following the instructions given out by the staff.

Again, we were warmly welcomed aboard the plane, a rather tatty looking 737-400 with well-worn seats that were almost hanging off their frames but were still perfectly comfortable especially when compared to some of the more thinly padded seats on the market.

After we were airborne and with accounting for the time difference I figured we had now reached the afternoon so I could allow myself a G & T to wash down my tasty but rather salt laden British Airways BLT wrap. Oh the days of free food and drink in economy! I then browsed the in-flight High Life magazine and all that was left was to take in the beautiful views along the Spanish coast as we came in to land at BCN Terminal 1.

We were soon off the plane and before long admiring the long forgotten sun through the terminal windows as we passed through security and continued on to baggage reclaim. After a short wait and a quick trip to the cash machine for some Euros we tried to find our way to the train station to get us in to town.

There were plenty of signs for public transport with a nice picture of what looked like a train but bizarrely all of them seemed to point to the bus station. After much arm waving I worked out that we needed to get the bus across to Terminal 2 in order to catch the train to the city centre. The inter-terminal bus soon turned up, though it was a rather strange airport bus in that it had absolutely zero luggage space. As everyone and their suitcase packed on to this poor little hopper we began our drive round the airport towards Terminal 2. I got excited when I spotted the train tracks though that joy soon faded upon spotting the decrepit, rusting shed-like station we’d be departing from.

To get to the trains we first had to enter the terminal building. We then marched up a huge escalator and continued walking across a long overpass that looked like once upon a time it had a moving walkway built into it which had then been enhanced away. We continued our way down to the ticket gates where we tried to buy a ticket from every machine in the station. Despite the broken English help offered by a kindly soul from customer services, each ticket machine we tried either broke, displayed an error or otherwise timed out at various stages of the process. We then queued up to buy a ticket from the office which was actually a blessing in disguise as we were able to buy a carnet of ten tickets each which when doing my research for the trip I had read were not valid to and from the airport. Oh well… At this point karma caught up with me again as I struggled with getting my ticket to be accepted by the gates, feeling an awful lot like someone who had never used a ticket gate before… Sorry!

Unlike the station, the train to the city centre was clean, modern and even provided some musical entertainment in the form of a man murdering “Let It Be” at 100 db and expecting us to compensate him after he had stopped singing. Clearly he would have been better off to have kept on singing and only stopped on receipt of a sizeable payment. Whilst I’m by no means a musical expert his choice of song excerpts were questionable as was the motive of the person filming him on their phone.

Thankfully it was soon time for a quick interchange at Passeig de Gracia for a brief hop on the L4 to our hotel. At least that’s what the metro map suggested. Upon exiting the station we were not the only ones who were confused as instead of the expected interchange passage or signage we were expelled from the depths, blinking confused into the autumn sunlight with no trace of any kind of metro station as far as the eye could see. After a quick look at the map it turned out the station was more like three to four blocks away. It was at this point I noticed that for some reason my suitcase seemed to be dragging as if something were stuck in one of the wheels. On closer inspection it turned out that one of the wheels had snapped off its bearings. After much anger was exchanged I lowered my head and dragged this newly cursed case that had survived a real battering from America to India only to now fall apart on a smooth Spanish street. My look of rage took some time to subside.

After what felt like an hour later traipsing in the desert sun we finally found the oasis that was the L4 metro line and after a further ten minutes of dragging that cursed case up and down stairs we eventually reached the platform for the L4. It is only when travelling abroad that one comes to love the ordered crush of the London tube. Whilst I cannot orientate myself with a street map to save my life, as soon as I find myself in any kind of airport or train station I rarely get lost. This turned out to be a useful skill as whilst Anne-So who had now lost all patience with me was still trying to get us on the wrong train I was fighting her back in the right direction. After a few stops we were off the train and back out in the afternoon sun. We enjoyed walking the small streets as we passed some tasty looking cake shops and after walking the wrong way for a few minutes we re-orientated our way back towards the hotel as I continued to drag my poor suitcase along on its one working wheel. I’ve since been told that it’s a much better idea to take the bus straight into town from the airport rather than faff around with the train.

Hotel: Meliá Barcelona Sky
Room:
 Meliá Room
Status: None

Often first impressions go a long way to dictating your stay and our time at the Meliá Barcelona Sky was no exception. The shoddy service started at check where the lady checking us in seemed a little off hand and with her basic understanding of Spanish Anne-So was convinced that she and her colleague were more interested in gossiping about the previous guests they’d served than helping us check in.

At first glance the lobby looked pleasantly modern but like everything else at the hotel after even the briefest inspection the quality was less than fantastic. The best way to describe it was like a Le Meridian furnished with dusty IKEA cast offs. Now checked in we exited the lift into a near pitch black corridor filled with the worrying scent of damp mixed with perfume and soon found our way to the room that was thankfully, with the condition of our case, right next to the lift!

There was a nice view of a half built tower block from our window, which then gave way to a more pleasant view of the surrounding area.

On the plus side there was plenty of storage, but inexplicably despite there being a whole host of lighting options in the room, none of them did much to illuminate the space making the bunch of bedside switches near enough redundant.

Anyway, it felt wonderful to finally arrive, sit down, relax and not worry about the world for a few minutes. We unpacked a little and loosely planned out our afternoon including our dinner options and even though we were frustratingly booted on and off the free hotel WiFi we thankfully managed to book ourselves a table at Agua, which according to our guidebook had the draw of “a large terrace overlooking the beach” and a rarely changing menu popular with the many regulars. What more could we want!

We left the hotel and got back on the L4 to Barceloneta where we enjoyed a relaxing walk around the harbour area which had been transformed over the past quarter of a century from industrial wasteland to a modern luxury of bars, restaurants hotels and sea front living. We started our walk by the gaggle of boats at the high end Port Vell Marina.

It was approaching the magic hour and there were some amazing views to be had of the setting sun over the ocean with the huge W Hotel on the one side and the cable car up to Montjuic on the other. Other than the cable car none of that existed back when the reporter Locke (playing gun runner Robertson) visited the city in 1975 and unlike the sanitised marina we saw on our trip, back then the port was really just a port with large cargo ships, cranes and a grimy mosaic of colourful containers rusting merrily away. Interestingly enough, other than a paint job the cable car cabins appear largely unchanged from 1975, including the ability to lean out of the window and do your best Titanic impression, not that I’d recommend doing so! (See 1:39 in the trailer below!)

Walking along the sea front we looked out across the imported golden sand, planted palm trees and sporting endeavours. I found the whole experience surreal yet calming.

We continued our walk along the beach and arrived at Agua just before 20:00 where despite our early arrival we were unfortunately denied a spot at one of the coveted ocean facing outside tables but other than that unfortunate mishap the rest of the evening was excellent. We were a little worried at first to be the only ones sat inside but the room soon filled up and was definitely as “buzzing” as our guide book promised.

I had the confit lamb with a rich olive oil mash potato.
Anne-So went for the recommended monk fish tail.

Both were excellent especially when washed down with a lovely bottle of Rioja.

For dessert I went with a delicious and decadent chocolate cake.
Anne-So played it safe with some ice cream.

Thanks to the food and more likely the rather excellent bottle of wine the stresses of the day were well and truly washed away. We wondered back to the hotel slightly sozzled and other than me getting caught a little short on the way home it was the perfect end to our first day in Barcelona.

Coffee In Catalonia

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