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Europe Revisited
Alan Walker

Port City:
  • Barcelona, Spain
  • Northeast coast of Spain, on the Mediterranean Sea
  • Catalan and Castilian Spanish
  • Spanish peseta

    Barcelona, October, 1997, prior to a cruise on the Splendour of The Seas.

    I'm standing on the very large deck of our hotel room in the Rivoli Ramblas Hotel in the centre of Barcelona, with an absolutely magnificent view. I can see wonderful churches and public buildings, but I can also see a forest of roofs and red tiles, television antennae, people's washing hanging out on the balcony, people sunbathing on the roof, a confusion of air conditioning apparatus and other rooftop equipment. It does look so very European. In the background I can hear much more noise than you would usually expect: there are helicopters flying around, cathedral bells tolling, fireworks are exploding (and it's only 2 o'clock in the afternoon), and people are cheering in the streets. No, it's not my arrival -- it's the day of the Royal Wedding (October 4, 1997). There is a royal procession to the Barcelona cathedral where Princess Christina, King Juan Carlos' second daughter, is being married to the Spanish national hardball champion.

    Our flight to Barcelona was a tiring one, but essentially uneventful. We flew overnight, over the Pole from Vancouver to London Heathrow, and then picked up a direct flight from London to Barcelona.

    Our downtown hotel was about a 25-minute drive in the rush hour. It was an amusing ride; our taxi was so small that only one of our large suitcases would fit in the trunk, another huge suitcase sat on the front seat with the taxi driver, and we had the other two big cases between us in the back seat. It was a cozy fit . Our taxi driver spoke no English, but we were smart enough to have written the address of our hotel out ahead of time on a piece of paper, and simply gave him that. He was very friendly and tried to communicate with us in Spanish, as we tried to communicate with him in English. The shock absorbers on the taxi were shot, and we all laughed as the taxi kept hitting bottom as we tore along the freeway from the airport, sometimes at 70 miles an hour.

    The rush hour in Barcelona is somewhat different, with police standing at every entrance to the freeway, and only allowing cars on to the freeway when there was a suitable gap in the traffic. I have never seen so many police in such a short time. On the way downtown from the airport, we passed the dock area where we could see the Crystal Harmony, the Pacific Princess, and some other smaller cruise ships which I did not recognize. The cost of our taxi was 3,000 pesetas, which was about $21.50 U.S. As is typical in Europe, there is a basic fare plus an additional charge for each bag that the taxi driver lifts into the cab.

    Our hotel was delightful, funky, and modern. You could still tell you were in Europe, however, with such different things as a tall wardrobe to hang clothes, and a plumbing system in the bathroom that defied easy explanation. I must admit it took me a few minutes to work out how to get the shower to work. One of the ladies in our group, apparently, had more trouble than I did. She could not find any way to get the water to move up to the shower head, despite pulling and pushing everything in sight. She eventually looked at the far end of the bath and found a little cord which she pulled, and coincidently, a small amount of water started to run out of the shower. She kept pulling on this cord until it stretched all the way across the bath, but the water still did not flow properly. After she called her husband in, and he stopped laughing, he showed her how to get the shower to work, and pointed out that what she had been pulling was the clothes line cord which you often find in European bathrooms, and elsewhere.

    Barcelona, like most European cities, doesn't really blossom in the evening until at least after 9 o'clock. We enjoyed pre-dinner drinks with members of our group of twenty-six, who arrived in two by two's during the evening from various other places, including the U.S., Canada, Belgium and the Channel Islands.

    Once most of the group arrived, we went off to find somewhere to eat. Within a hundred yards, there were about twenty restaurants, so we had all the choice we wanted. We found a lovely little spot where we enjoyed pizza and langostina (large prawns). The owner, who was also the waiter, did not really understand English, but we had no problem communicating our wants. We enjoyed watching another table in the restaurant with about twenty students celebrating some occasion. While we could not identify it, we kept saying it looked different from anything you might see in a North American restaurant.

    The next day, recovering from our overnight flight and our celebration of the night before, we did not even get out of bed until 12:30. And then we were off to explore the Ramblas . . . Las Ramblas is Barcelona's best known landmark, and the most famous street in Spain, despite Madrid being the capital. It is a wide, tree-lined avenue, about twenty blocks long, but with only one narrow lane of traffic in each direction. The rest of the avenue is for pedestrians, and there are thousands of them. The center of the avenue is filled with markets, flower stalls, buskers, book sellers, caged birds, clowns and other entertainment. It is jam-packed with people morning and night, and is an absolutely fascinating experience to wander along it. Las Ramblas extends from the Placa de Catalunya down to the docks, where you will find the cruise ships.

    Don't overlook visiting the public market which is about halfway along, on the right hand side if you are walking towards the seafront. The displays of vegetables and fruits are exquisite, and there are interesting meat shops, including lots of unusual organ meats, which would be a vegetarian's nightmare.

    The mimes are unbelievable in their costumes, and antics. There are stalls with birds to buy for pets, birds to eat, baby chickens, baby ducks, guinea pigs, rabbits and almost every kind of small animal you can think of. One common and amusing sight walking down the Ramblas is waiters dodging between traffic as they carry their trays from the restaurant on the street side, to the center boulevard. There are lots of fantastic sketch artists as well as oil and water color painters.


    At the end of the Ramblas, Port Vell is a destination in itself. From the pedestrian bridge which crosses over to Port Vell Island, there is an exciting view of the expensive and colorful yachts parked in the marina. At Port Vell itself there is a huge complex containing the aquarium, the maritime museum, an Omnimax, a great shopping center, and lots of indoor and outdoor restaurants and cafes. When we were walking along the Ramblas, we saw a number of obvious security vehicles, emblazoned with the sign "CIA". We thought "wow, we thought the CIA only did covert activities". Then we realized that the side doors were open on the vehicles, and the actual name was "Policia" .

    We enjoyed our meals on the Ramblas, and found them slightly less expensive than meals at home. The waiters did not seem to expect a tip, but we always left one. Although we sometimes left tips in U.S. dollars, Barcelona is not a place where one should assume that U.S. dollars can be used everywhere, and we exchanged our money for pesetas. There are numerous foreign exchange places where you can change your U.S. dollars. Although the Ramblas ends at the waterfront, the cruise ships are not docked at that part of the waterfront. A short taxi ride will be needed to get from where the ship docks to the Ramblas.

    Tip: There are at least two cruise docking areas, one on each side of the Ramblas. If you are catching a taxi to the dock, it is important to specify which dock. Although the cruise areas are not that far away from each other in a straight line, they are a considerable distance apart when travelling by taxi. The Splendour of the Seas, which we were on, was docked at a different location from where we had seen the Crystal Harmony and the Pacific Princess dock a few days before.

    As our cruise began in Barcelona, no shore excursions were offered, but the cruise was a round trip, and shore excursions were offered at the end of the cruise -- either to fill in time until your scheduled plane flight, or because you were on a post-cruise package. The two excursions were the "Barcelona City Tour" for $35.00, for a duration of 3-1/2 hours and the "Montserrat Half-day Tour" for $40.00, taking 5 hours. The latter tour does not include Barcelona itself, and its main focus is seeing the statue of the Black Madonna at Montserrat.

    I guess from what I have said already it is clear that I think one could easily spend a day on the Ramblas, and not take any formal ship-organized excursion. If one has more time in Barcelona, or you simply wish to see more than the Ramblas, then the Barcelona tourist bus might still be a better alternative than a ship organized excursion. A one day fare was 1,400 pesetas, about $10.00. You can get on and off the bus as many times and for as long as you like along its route. There are 18 stops at Barcelona's most interesting places. The buses run every 30 minutes, and the total journey time (without getting off the bus) is approximately 2-1/2 hours. The bus pass also gives you discounts on entry fees into the major attractions, and there is a free guide explaining each of the attractions in various languages, including English. The discounted attractions include the cable car across the harbour, the Olympic gallery, the maritime museum, the Funicular, the Joan Miro Art Gallery, the Golondrinas (the harbour sightseeing boats), the zoo, omnimax and the aquarium. There is also, amusingly, a discount on Kentucky Fried Chicken, should you already have a hankering for North America.

    The previous time we visited Barcelona, we elected to take a bus tour to the Costa de Sol, and missed all the fun and excitement of Barcelona itself. If you have only one day, I strongly recommend a walk or tourist bus ride around town, rather than an expedition to the Olympic site, or to anything that is out of Barcelona itself. Barcelona is quintessentially European, and sitting in a sidewalk cafe on the Ramblas is as European as you can get.

    Tip: The public bathrooms on the Ramblas are self-contained cubicles with a sign "W.C." (presumably from that funny old English expression, "water closet"). You need coins to open the doors of this funny little cubical thing.

    To the left of the Ramblas (as you are walking towards the water) is the Gothic area with a cathedral and other buildings. There are lots of side streets off the Ramblas which make interesting exploring.

    Warning: Although we always felt safe wandering around the Ramblas area, locals warned us that there are "gypsy" children who are pickpockets, and who sometimes surround somebody and simply take their fanny packs or wallets. It makes sense not to put all your eggs in one basket, so one might consider only carrying so much money and perhaps one's passport, and leaving some other money and credit cards, and a photocopy of the one's passport back in their hotel room. Our hotel room had a locked safe.

    Some places to see (within walking distance of the Ramblas):

    • One of Barcelona's most famous residents was the architect Gaudi. One of his most famous works is the cathedral "La Sagrada Familia" on Calle de Cerdena (a bit of a hike from the Ramblas). The Cathedral, begun in 1882, is still under construction although Gaudi died in 1926. Gaudi is buried in the crypt. It is possible to take an elevator to the top of one of the towers for a panoramic view. There is an admission charge.
    • Palau Guell, just off Las Ramblas, is another of Gaudi's works.
    • The Picasso Gallery, located on Carrer de Montcada, houses a collection of over 2,000 exhibits of Picasso's earlier works. (Picasso came to Barcelona to study art at the age of 14). Admission charge. Not open on Mondays.
    • The Cathedral of Santa Eulalia, located in the Gothic Quarter. The stained glass windows are over 500 years old.
    • Columbus Monument, at the waterfront end of the Ramblas. Great view of the city from the top. There is an admission charge to take the elevator.
    End notes:
    • In Spain, and most other places in Europe, it is frowned upon to wear shorts, sleeveless T-shirts or blouses, or otherwise revealing clothing, when visiting churches.
    • Most stores (except department stores and some souvenir stores) close for siesta from 1.00 p.m. to 4.30 p.m. each day.
    • All stores close on Sundays except for some souvenir stores on the Ramblas.
    • Very few stores accept U.S. dollars, although most accept major credit cards.
    Enjoy Barcelona!

    Alan Walker resides in Vancouver and is the Sysop for the Cruise Ports/Destinations section of the CompuServe UK Travel Forum. Alan loves email, and can be reached at: 74671.3046@compuserve.com.

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