I did not tell a soul about this trip. Travel seemed so transgressive at this time. There seemed to be an almost universal consensus that ‘we’re all in this together’ and that travel advice must be obeyed. I knew however that people who live alone are on our own in this pandemic and that feel good slogans don’t alter the reality of our lives. I checked the Covid statistics for Spain. They were pretty dire – but this seemed largely centralised in Madrid. Barcelona on the other hand had an infection rate lower than Dublin. It was a risk I was willing to take.
The plane must have been only about 10% full. There was a two metre distance between all passengers on the plane. I’d purchased a seventy-two hour public transport pass prior to departure and took the metro to the Ramblas in the centre of town. My hotel was in a grand old residential district in the old Gothic Quarter which is probably the most popular tourist district in the city. Not this weekend. It was incredibly eerie walking about the abandoned narrow streets. I had stayed in this neighbourhood on my previous visit to Barcelona fifteen years earlier when the alleyways and paths were thronged with visitors. After check-in to my room (where I was upgraded to a double room as I was one of the only guests staying there that weekend) I wandered around the ghost town and found a tapas bar for my evening’s food which I ate on the footpath terrace with a glass of Catalan red wine. I have to admit to feeling very continental and sophisticated.
An old flatmate of mine from my Amsterdam days was now living in Barcelona was the only person who knew that I was in town. I had arranged to meet him at midday after I’d had breakfast at the legendary Boqueria Food Marked on La Rambla, before heading to a barber’s ship for a five euro haircut. We met in front of and old church in the Barrio Gotica and began our stroll. Five minutes after meeting him I tripped over an unnoticed bollard. Luckily my face was unharmed. The same cannot be said for my knee which was a bloody mess. I was wearing shorts – in September the weather was still glorious. We went to a nearby bar for a coffee where the waitress gave me anti-septic and a bandage to repair my knee. Sadly my pride still has not recovered. We walked through the seaside neighbourhood of Barceloneta where we stopped for a fish lunch and then along the seafront which was crowded with people. Nothing like the numbers of people who’d normally be there. The crowd seemed nearly all Spanish or Catalan with only a tiny smattering of other nationalities. Barcelona natives have often decried how the tourist industry has overwhelmed the city making it very inhospitable for locals due to the sheer volume of visitors. That was no longer the case. Mask wearing was compulsory here – even outdoors and was being enforced quite stringently. I had invested in a new fifty pack in Dunnes Stores a few days earlier so I was sorted. After a three hour stroll we went to the sky bar on a skyscraper and had a glass of chilled white wine while looking at the amazing views over the city.
I slept like a baby that night after another outdoors evening meal.
On Sunday I revisited the epic Sagrada Familia by Gaudi. I had been there on my trip fifteen years earlier. However in the intervening time, much progress seems to have been made on the church, which allegedly is now nearing completion. There was no queue to enter and I sailed in in minutes. It’s truly a stunning church. I walked back towards the Gothic Quarter via the Passeig de Gracia so I could see – some other famed Gaudi buildings – the Casa Milà and Casa Batlló. They are truly beautiful. The Passeig de Gracia is the main shopping and business street in central Barcelona and part of the Eixample district. This means the ‘Expansion’ – when the city expanded late in the nineteenth century. I stopped in for lunch at the El Nacional which is a renovated indoor market without stalls but only restaurants. It was very grand.
I made my way via metro to the bottom of the Tibidabo Hill. I took the funicular to the summit of the forested hill where the Sagrat Cor church stands overlooking the city. The views were breath-taking. The sun was shining and in the distance I could see the blue Mediterranean and the Sagrada Familia.
My flight home was late on Monday evening. I had plenty of time during the day to revisit the highlight of my previous trip to Barcelona – the Gaudi designed Parc Guell which was built between 1900 and 1914. It’s a very psychedelic and trippy park which gave free rein to Gaudi’s imagination. I spent several hours exploring the place – I am surprised how fresh it all seemed. I scarcely remembered any of it from my previous trip. It was a colourful end to my secret weekend away.
I arrived home at 11pm on Monday night.
And so began my compulsory fourteen day quarantine…