Barcelona is one of the world’s nicest cities … a great place to live or visit. I love it here and have felt that way ever since I first arrived more than four years ago from my eastern European homeland. And, while I am neither Catalan nor Spanish, I have always felt welcome in Barcelona due, in large part, to the warmth and hospitality of its people.
I still clearly remember the day I disembarked from the plane that brought me to Barcelona. I had never before been to Spain and knew very little about the country, its customs and its people. I was a little nervous when I passed through Customs, left the airport terminal and stepped out in the surprisingly hot, sticky, humid and absolutely uncomfortable Barcelona afternoon.
To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t prepared for that kind of weather and I immediately learned my first lesson about Barcelona. Summertime (which was when I arrived in the city for the first time) is incredibly hot and humid – really humid – just about every day.
It’s quite uncomfortable for visitors on vacation and for people moving there – like me – from cooler climates. It gets so damp and humid, in fact, that if you were to open a bag of potato chips in the morning, for example, and leave it open all through the day it would turn into a wet, soggy mess by evening.
And that brings me to the first important thing you need to know about Barcelona before you go there. If you plan to visit in summer (as most tourists do), make sure the accommodations you choose are air conditioned. This is essential to your comfort and enjoyment during your stay in the city.
If you elect to stay in lodging that is more modest and inexpensive than a hotel, such as a low cost youth hostel, be sure your room includes at least one or two fans. I can virtually guarantee that you will not enjoy your stay if your room doesn’t have a fan or an air conditioner.
Importantly, if you come to Barcelona during its winter season, you will find that the weather is mild, refreshing and very pleasant.
Another thing you need to know. The Catalan people and Spaniards, in general, have a longstanding love affair with cooking and eating. They truly enjoy food and can talk about it ages. Literally every conversation – whether it’s at a business meeting, between a group of friends or even during a romantic interlude — includes such references to eating as “how delicious it was,” or questions, such as “which restaurant is the best?”
In fact, “talking about food” is an excellent way to start a lively and enjoyable conversation with a local resident. I know that it has worked well for me.
As you might expect about a city in which everybody loves food, there are an almost endless array of restaurants, bars and cafes with open terraces serving a wide variety of local, national and international cuisines at prices that will fit every budget.
Importantly, most restaurants tend to serve meals for lunch with portions that can best be described as moderate or, in some cases, small. There is a reason for this. Many restaurants and bars that are open for business during the lunch period, offer a menu del mediodia (prix fixe menu) that is often inexpensive. The food portions reflect the modest price.
Meal portions are usually much larger during dinner, sometimes they are even enormous. When dining out for dinner, it may be a good idea to order the second (main) course only.
Some more sound advice. I suggest that, before entering any restaurant for dinner, you take a good look at the menu posted outside (generally right on the front door) to make certain the listed prices fit your budget. Once inside and seated, look around, see what other diners have ordered and the size of the portions in the meals brought to their tables. Unless you’ve chosen a modern, upscale restaurant that serves small portions, you’re likely to receive – and enjoy – a large, satisfying portion.
In fact, it may also be a good idea to ask your waiter about the entrees listed on the menu. His advice may enable you to get a wonderful meal and save money, as well. One more note: restaurants in Barcelona do not “brown bag” leftovers for you to take home (as is done throughout the United States) so please don’t ask your waiter to provide that service.
Now … the truth about “Siestas.”
Siestas are not a myth, but are a fact of life in Catalonia and in the rest of Spain, as well. This unique custom takes place every day from about 2:00 P.M. to 5:00 P.M. (especially in small towns and villages). During this time, the streets become deserted and quiet and most small, owner-operated shops and boutiques close.
You won’t see too much of “Siesta Time” in a big city like Barcelona, though. Here, major retail outlets like Zara, Mango and H&M simply keep their doors open and allow customers to enter as well as major supermarkets like Caprabo, Mercado and Bonpreu. Moreover, most of the restaurants cafes and bars also remain open and accessible to customers.
And yet, even in Barcelona you can find areas in Ciutat Vella (small boutiques and owner operated artisan shops) and other less central districts (such as Gracia, Sant Gervasi, Eixample etc.) that retain the old custom of “Siesta”. It’s a good idea to remember that if you are planning a day of shopping.
A few words about Catalan culture: Catalans are very proud of their language and traditions. It will be very obvious to you during your stay in Barcelona. In fact, you are likely to feel you are visiting Catalonia and you are not in Spain. That’s because all Metro and other public transportation signs are written in Catalan (in Spanish and English, too). All advertisements, billboards, store signs are generally in Catalan, as well. It’s everywhere, even though most of the locals are bilingual.
After living in Barcelona for two years, I realized that it was essential for me to learn and become fluent in Catalan if I ever hoped to become fully integrated into the local society, get access to better job opportunities and just enjoy the pleasure of conversing with people.
I did learn Catalan and now also enjoy everything I’ve mentioned plus the fact that many of the best TV programs – on regional Catalan channels – offer some of the best programming, shows that are interesting, educational and entertaining.
Of course, if you’re coming to Barcelona for a short stay, on a brief vacation, you don’t have to learn Catalan. However, you can please the local population – and add enjoyment to your stay – by learning and using a few simple words – “thank you” … “please” … “hello” … and, of course, “goodbye.”
(End of Part l)