WHERE WE STAYED: We rented an apartment from friendly Elena on the edge of the Gothic Quarter in a predominantly immigrant neighbourhood. Perks: We immediately felt like locals. The area was dotted with pastry shops. Every few days we were drawn into the streets by processions of drummers, street performers and celebrating neighbours.
BEST MEAL: Sharing octopus and chorizo tapas at a restaurant on Placa del Pi.
NATURAL HIGH: Dream-like Parc Guell filled with organic architectural forms and kaleidoscopic tile-work which blend seamlessly into nature.
Stunning Costa Brava, worth packing a picnic & renting a car for.
The beaches of Sitges, a lovely, old resort town a short train-trip away
WILDLIFE ENCOUNTERS: Hundreds of pigeons call Plaça Catalunya home.
Cats, cats and more stray (one-eyed) cats.
DON’T MISS: The contemporary art museum on Montjuic hill, which also amazes with great views of the city and colourful ship yard.
• Shopping at Bouqueria Market for fresh produce (note to self: build stronger biceps for carrying all the cheese home).
• Monserrat, a short train + funicular trip away. The mountains and unusual rock formations are breathtaking and full of surprises (we discovered—and briefly squatted in—an abandoned mansion and several tiny chapels). The real draw is the ‘black madonna’ statue at the monastery.
BIZARRO MOMENT: Watching the explosive “Sant Joan” festival, Barcelona’s loudest. Drummers hold a steady beat while firecrackers whistle and spark and the air is thick with smoke
HOW COULD THERE POSSIBLY BE SO MUCH: Life in the streets!
HIGHLIGHT: It’s exhilarating watching a tower of people form, many stories high in the large public square. The “Castellars” from different barrios of Barcelona compete to build the highest human structure, its peak formed by the tiniest of climbers, only 6 or 7 years old. Their motto: “Força, equilibri, valor i seny” (Strength, balance, courage and reason) explains this bold and sometimes fatal tradition
• The beach alight with torches and buzzing with people until dawn for yet another celebration (start of summer).
• The dizzying climb to the top of Gaudí’s masterpiece Sagrada Familia cathedral (I swear that place is actually and alien spaceship). There was a special warning at the foot of the stairs for anemics, but there's no stopping me.
LOW POINT: The closer we got to the summer peak season the more hordes of drunken, red-faced folk we had to duck.
FIRST TIME: Not feeling like a tourist. A month is a good chunk of time to assimilate. It also helps fool the pickpockets we were constantly warned about. My personal trick for blending in: carry a plastic bag from a local grocery store.
MOST RELAXED: Discovering the charms of Absinthe at the 200 year old Bar Marsella. Still haunted by the ghosts of Hemingway and Picasso (supposedly its famous patrons). The ritual of preparing the drink is the best part: place a small (vintage and perhaps a tad rusty) fork across the top of the glass, put a sugar cube on it, slowly pour water over the cube until it dissolves, and stir. Wait for hallucinations. If they don't happen, you'll have to turn to street drugs
• Beers on the beach (day or night) made easy by the constant beckoning calls from the "Cerveza, agua, colaaa!" guys