Hola and Olé! Celebrating old friends and new discoveries in Barcelona.

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Sand beach and historical Old Town in mediterranean resort Sitges near Barcelona, Costa Dorada, Catalonia, Spain

by Leslie A. Westbrook

I arrived at 8:30 pm from London to the newly renamed Barcelona-El Prat Airport right on schedule for dinner – Spanish diners are famous for eating late. After passing through customs, meeting the COVID health paperwork checkers and eyeing a doctor in a white coat questioning another traveler, I was excited to revisit Barcelona for the third or fourth time to see friends who are like family.

The author and her goddaughter on the beach in Barcelona. Photo by Leslie Westbrook

I braved traveling in the time of COVID in late October/early November of 2021 to visit my goddaughter, who had recently lost her mother to the terrible plague. I needed to hug her – and I could use a hug myself after more than a year and a half of monastic life. I was feeling fine, thankfully, after having taken two lateral flow tests a few days earlier in London, both of which came back negative. 

Paella on the hill

A dear friend, Jordi Pujol of Fresh Sound Records, met me at the arrivals gate (who does that anymore?) to take me to dinner, Catalan time! A narrated tour of the city by car included a climb up to historic Montjuïc. One of the city’s most famous destinations, this hill — Montjuïc is a medieval Latin/Catalan word that translates to “Jewish Mountain” — overlooks Barcelona and is considered its birthplace. Today the hill is home to a 17th century fortress (Castle of Montjuïc), the Palau Nacional (site of the 1929 World’s Fair, now the National Art Museum of Catalonia), the splendid Magic Fountain, a botanical garden and other landmarks. One can also access the top of the hill via a transport network that includes the Funicular de Montjuïc and the Montjuïc Cable Car, a trip which promises an extraordinary bird’s-eye view.

Paella with shrimp at restaurant Martinez. Photo by Leslie Westbrook

For this outing, however, our destination was Martinez, a stellar restaurant with amazing views of the harbor and city that is frequented by locals for special occasions.

We found the cuisine to be equally riveting. A video I shot on my iPhone of the sizzling, garlicky gamberini (large shrimp) on my Facebook page garnered a plethora of thumbs up. Jordi and I enjoyed a lovely seafood paella — Spain’s famous rice dish best shared with friends — and a fantastic bottle of Camino del Puerto, an apropos white wine for Halloween weekend with its skull label. We topped off the late evening dinner and energetic visit with an after-dinner stroll amidst the ancient olive trees and night time lights of the city sparkling below.

Catalonia chic

Jordi dropped me off around midnight at my hotel, the Almanac, where I was warmly welcomed to the stunningly modern five-star hotel set in the heart of the city and located just a few blocks from lively Plaça de Catalunya and luxurious Passeig de Gràcia, famed for its upscale shops (rumored to be the most expensive street in all of Spain) and fine architecture.

In addition to the thoughtful staff (always a huge plus in my book), the highlight of this newly launched hotel are the rooms with window boxes that feature a white settee tucked in for amazing views — but not if you suffer from vertigo! I wondered if those on the street below could see into the rooms (they can, so keep those motorized shades drawn if you don’t want to be on display). Almanac also boasts a chic rooftop bar with a small pool (more for dips than laps), indoor and outdoor seating, cocktails, nibbles and the ubiquitous disco drone in the background.

Pool and Rooftop Bar, Almanac Hotel, Barcelona

“If the concept works here in Barcelona, it will work in Vienna where the company is headquartered and other locations,” noted charming Andreas Korakas, the manager on duty. Korakas swiftly assisted me with booking an onsite COVOD-19 test, which was infinitely more convenient on a Sunday when pharmacies were closed.

The joy of discovery

I had hoped to re-visit Mercado de La Boqueria, the city’s famous and popular food market. But being November 1, it was the holiday of All Saint’s Day, and La Boqueria was closed. With no particular plans or destination, I decided to just wander and see where the wind blew me on the lovely warm and sunny day. I walked to Las Ramblas, Barcelona’s popular and bustling thoroughfare, and had lunch for breakfast (a lovely, warm sandwich of cheese and cured meat on bread smeared with tomato) and dessert for lunch (the gelaterias had been calling my name). 

From there, I strolled Barcelona’s wide boulevards and winding passages, people watching and taking photos along the way. I bought some delicious Torrons Vicens nougat candy bars (the company has been in business since 1775) from a kiosk, to take home for gifts. On my last day I joined my goddaughter and her husband for a lovely, slow Sunday lunch of calamares (fried squid), “rustica” corn on the cob with coti cheese, rice with shrimp and local beers, of course. We dined seaside at Gallito, an open-air restaurant at the base of the “W” Hotel, and followed up our meal with more leisurely strolling, this time along the Mediterranean Sea.

SUNSET at Barceloneta Beach. Photo by Leslie Westbrook

I had noticed a lodging called “Jazz Hotel” on my map, and decided to take a peek in. The front desk clerk told me it was named that because they used to feature jazz on the rooftop terrace, but not since the pandemic. “Hopefully next summer it will resume,” she said. 

Before I knew it, my too-short time in Barcelona was coming to an end. I was grateful for the opportunity to revisit a city I adore and could explore over and over again, thanks to its plethora of fine art museums, world famous architecture ranging from Gaudi to Mies van der Rohe (who designed the modernist German Pavilion for the 1929 World’s Fair) and, of course, the fantastic cuisine — tapas to paella — and great wines.

But, more importantly, I got to hug and spend a wee bit of time with people I love. After all, isn’t that the best reason of all to travel? 

TRAVEL NOTES

Getting there

I flew British Airways from London Heathrow’s Terminal 5, a flight just under two hours, after a weeklong stopover in the UK. Gratis bag of chips and mineral water staved off hunger pangs. Iberia has 12-13 hour nonstops LAX-BCN.

Where to stay: 

From historic, elegant spots to snazzy modern lodgings, Barcelona has a great array of places to slumber in varying price ranges as well as some fantastic Airbnb choices like a penthouse I almost booked that had killer views of a Gaudi building.

View of La Sagrada Familia from rooftop bar Azimuth at the Almanac Hotel. Photo by Leslie Westbrook

Almanac Barcelona
Where I stayed on this trip. Conveniently located, sleek and modern, this five-star hotel includes a nice restaurant and rooftop bar, wellness center with steam and sauna and small workout facility. Terrific views and very quiet with little street noise. The hearty breakfast buffet includes omelets, pancakes, avocado toast with poached eggs and freshly squeezed smoothies with ingredients of your choice. For about $50, enjoy the pleasant prix fixe three-course lunch, which includes a glass of wine and tea/coffee. Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes, 619, 621, 08007 Barcelona,
www.almanachotels.com/barcelona

Hotel Pulitzer
Do you like your hotels chic and boutique? If so, try the charming Hotel Pulitzer, just a short three-minute walk from Plaça de Catalunya. Carrer de Bergara, 8, 08002 Barcelona, www.hotelpulitzer.es/en/

Hotel Arts
Fifteen years ago, when I first traveled to Barcelona for a wedding, I checked into this striking hotel located in the harbor/seaside section of Barcelona. It’s known for the Frank Gehry fish sculpture, designed for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, that changes color and appearance as the sun moves across the sky. Marina, 19-21, 08005 Barcelona, www.hotelartsbarcelona.com/en/ 

Hotels Majestic, Miramar
If you prefer historic elegance, consider these hermosa damas! 

Hotel Majestic, Passeig de Gràcia 68, 08007 Barcelona,
majestichotelgroup.com/en/barcelona/hotel-majestic

Hotel Miramar, Plaça de Carlos Ibáñez, 3, 08038 Barcelona,
hotelmiramarbarcelona.com/en 

Where to eat

Martinez
Hard to beat the stellar location, fantastic views of the city and terrific food and wine list. If asked what I wanted for my last supper on death row, I’d probably beg for the garlicky sizzling shrimp. Look for the big red neon signs “M” and “Martinez” up on the hill in Parc de Montjuïc. Carretera de Miramar, 38, 08038, Barcelona, martinezbarcelona.com

Paco Meralgo
Popular and lively tapas and wine restaurant – be sure to book in advance. Carrer de Muntaner, 171, 08036 Barcelona, restaurantpacomeralgo.com/ca/el-restaurant/

Other stuff

Blue Sounds CD and vinyl record store
If you love jazz, be sure to visit this gem of a shop that is the home base for award-winning Fresh Sounds Records label, owned by my good buddy Jordi. Stop in, browse, say hola…and be sure to tell them Leslie Westbrook sent you! Jordi or his store manager, Esteban, can steer you to the best live jazz in town, too! Carrer de Benet Mateu, 26, 08034 Barcelona, www.freshsoundrecords.com

Barcelona Tourism Bureau
For general information on visiting Barcelona and its myriad sites, museums and tourist offerings, go to www.barcelonaturisme.com/wv3/en/. Don’t miss the “10 Reasons to Visit Barcelona this spring” list!