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A Week in Barcelona and Madrid

Author: soliteyah
Date of Trip: June 2003

To celebrate my last final exam during my year abroad at the University of Glasgow, I treated myself to eight days in Spain (Barcelona and Madrid, to be specific). I went by myself, which I was a little bit nervous about — I worried about safety, understanding the language and even being lonely. Those proved to be viable concerns, but it all turned out fine, and it helped me feel a lot more confident about traveling alone in the future.

I flew on Ryanair (a super-discount airline) from Glasgow’s Prestwick Airport to Barcelona — though in typical Ryanair fashion we ended up in a secondary airport over an hour’s bus ride from the city. I stayed at the Gothic Point hostel, which I eventually found after heading the wrong way through Barcelona’s Gothic neighborhood and running into the cathedral — a nice surprise. It was lovely, dark and ornate, and unfortunately covered with scaffolding. Ah, well. After wandering through the nave I headed back outside and finally found the hostel, which offered free Internet! I was quite impressed (though understandably there was a bit of wait to use the computers). The hostel itself was fine: clean, okay shower, okay breakfast, probably about 10 of us in one room.

I started my first full day of sightseeing at Park Guell, designed by Barcelona’s famous architect Antoni Gaudi. I took the metro to what seemed to be the closest stop, but it was still quite a long, hot walk to get there. The park’s entrance is the sort of fanciful work Gaudi is known for, with its colorful mosaics and curving walls and spires in sort of fantastical designs. There was a broad sort of terrace where you could look out over the city, which was cool. Once you got beyond the elaborate entrance, though, the park is pretty much a typical park as far as I could see — trees, green hills and meandering paths. I saw a lot of couples there, and folks chatting or jogging with friends, and to be honest I had a little lonely moment, thinking about how I’d be traveling alone for the next week.

I had banished the self-pity by my next stop — Passeig de Gracia, where there were several more famous Gaudi creations. Casa Batllo was too cool for me to adequately describe (and also too expensive for me to go in!). Just down the street was La Pedrera, an apartment building with lots of curves, wavy lines, bright colors, oddly shaped windows, etc. I did go inside that one and got to up on the top balcony to look out over the city again. Inside was an apartment furnished the way it would’ve been earlier this century when the building was first constructed.

After that I continued along the Gaudi trail to la Sagrada Familia, an enormous church whose construction has been in progress since about 1883 — and it’s only a little over halfway done. Unbelievable. I initially felt a bit ripped off when I had to pay eight euros to get in and then another two euros just to ride up one of its towers, but then I figured it was helping to support the construction. Maybe I’ll go back to Barcelona in 30 years or so and see it when it’s done! Inside it was very much a work in progress, with cranes, scaffolding and building materials all over the place, but you could see the church taking shape. There were these crazy-looking columns somehow made of rotating polygons in two different directions (?) — according to my guidebook they were supposed to represent trees in a forest, which I guess I could go with!

The coolest part of my visit was going out to the opposite side of the church from where I’d entered and catching a first glimpse of the absolutely amazing facade — I think I actually said “Holy crap” out loud when I saw it. The amount of detailed sculpture is breathtaking. Going up in the tower was cool too — you could see the details of the other towers nearby, including the brightly colored fruits (cherries, grapes, strawberries?) carved in the stone at the top. They had some sort of symbolic meaning (fruit of God’s love?) that I sadly can’t remember any more. I do know that the 12 planned towers of the church will represent the 12 apostles and will surround one massive super-tower in the center (Jesus, obviously). However, only a few of the towers have been built so far. I can’t even get my mind around the magnitude of this project!

After that I went to Placa Catalunya, where I started down La Rambla, Barcelona’s most famous street. Lined with trees and shops and street performers of all sorts, it was fun and crowded. The street performers were definitely interesting — a lot of times they’d have matching clothing and body/face paint (ie silver clothes and silver paint) and would stand very still, pretending to be statues, until inspired to move and start their act. (A few euros usually did the trick to make them move!) I saw a pretty good Michael Jackson impersonator. La Rambla continues down to the statue of Christopher Columbus and the old port, where I sat and relaxed for a while.

Then I made my way back through Barri Gotic toward my hostel, stopping in a few pretty plazas — particularly Placa Reial, with palm trees and lovely historic buildings. I also popped into the cathedral again to see the cloisters, where I saw more palm trees and some friendly ducks. Barri Gotic (Gothic Neighborhood) is a great place to get lost, with narrow streets, flowered balconies, wrought-iron railings and traditional street lamps.

The next day I decided to visit Mont Juic, where the Olympic Village from the 1992 summer games is located, along with some parkland, a fairly unimpressive castle/fortress, and Poble Espanyol, a model Spanish town that had some really pretty buildings and lots of artisan crafts. One neat part was watching the workers in a glass-blowing shop, making vases of some sort. I did pop into the Olympic Stadium (free! but that’s because there’s nothing really to see) to shelter from a brief spot of rain.

I made a pit stop at my hostel to grab an umbrella, even though by that point it was sunny again, of course. Then I continued to the Picasso Museum, which wasn’t as exciting as I’d hoped. A lot of the stuff there was very early work, sketches, etc., that was okay but not all that memorable. The same can’t be said for the Museum of Erotica, which I visited next! Highlights included a six- or seven-foot wooden phallus, some truly crazy S&M photos, erotic postcards, etc. It was pretty fascinating. I left the museum and walked along the port on my way to Parc de Ciutadella, with its huge fountain in the center. I snapped a quick pic of Barcelona’s version of the Arc de Triomphe before heading back to the hostel.

The next day was taken up by my flight to Madrid on Spanair (which ended up being faster and not that much more expensive than taking a train). It was one of the noisiest flights I’ve ever been on; there was a group of rowdy men somewhere behind me who cheered when the plane landed.

Madrid was HOT. Barcelona had been in the 80’s, which was warm but fine, but Madrid’s temperatures were near 100 on a few occasions. (Keep in mind too that I had been in living in Glasgow, where temps barely ever reached 70, even in June). The heat definitely sapped my energy after a while. The first day I wandered through Puerta del Sol (a busy plaza) on my way to the Palacio Real and the cathedral (Nuestra Senora de la Almudena) beside it. I loved the cathedral, nice and cool inside, with cream-colored marble and pretty stained glass. The Palacio Real reminded me quite a bit of Versailles, but with fewer crowds (and therefore more pleasant). It’s a big blocky building with lots of elaborate rooms. The throne room was particularly impressive. I also spent some time in the gardens next door, which were very orderly and full of couples holding hands and kissing. Then I headed back toward my hostel, stopping at the Plaza Mayor, which was a pretty square marred by this huge white construction in the center of it, filled with booths and vendors selling stuff.

That night I got to see a little of Madrid’s famous nightlife (because it’s so hot during the day, folks eat dinner very late and then go out even later). In my hostel room were two friendly American girls, an American guy, and four crazy British guys basically on a drinking holiday. One of the latter kept trying to pressure me into going out with them, touching my arms and hair and even trying to physically pick me up. I ended up going out with them because the American girls said they didn’t want to stay out too late (I had lots of sightseeing I wanted to do the next day, so I didn’t want to be up all night). We ended up going to a couple different bars, and having an okay time — frankly the company could have been better! I ended up leaving with another girl around 2 a.m. The streets were still kind of busy as we walked back through what appeared to be a red light district.

The next day I dragged myself out of bed to catch a bus to El Escorial, another palace. On the bus I met a middle-aged American couple, with whom I toured the palace. They were sweet enough to treat me to a sandwich and a Coke for lunch too! The palace was nice, though I have to admit my memories of it really blend in with those from the Palacio Real the day before. It did have a nice basilica where a wedding was starting just a few minutes after we toured it. (The bride looked gorgeous, as did many of the guests; Spanish women are quite fashionable in general, I discovered.)

After lunch I caught a bus to el Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen), which was by far the coolest part of the day. It’s a huge cross atop a basilica built into a hill, overlooking a wide, forested valley. I met a few girls from Toronto, and together we tried to figure out how to climb all the way up to the base of the cross — but we couldn’t find the path till about 10 minutes before the bus was due to pick us up. Ah well.

The next day I stayed in Madrid and went to the Prado and the Reina Sofia Museums (both free). The Prado had a lot of older art, from the Renaissance until the 1800’s or so, while the RS covered the 20th century (including Guernica by Picasso and some very neat but puzzling stuff by Dali). I enjoyed both, and then stepped out into the afternoon heat to find el Retiro, a huge park behind the Prado. There were lots of Madrilenos there, lying on the grass, playing football, etc. It was so hot that I couldn’t stand to be in the sunlight more than a few minutes at a time, so I slunk from tree to tree trying to ignore my growing headache. I did see the lake in the middle of the park, as well as the Crystal Palace (completely empty — what was the point?), lots of fountains, and lots of performers — two girls with flutes, two guys attempting to sing, and a guy reading poetry to the backdrop of really cheesy New Age music. The park was pretty, but I was feeling lousy and staggered back to the hostel feeling like I would melt in the heat.

I briefly went out for drinks (well, a water — I couldn’t seem to drink enough) with a couple guys from the hostel. One gave me some healing balm thing to rub on my temples for my headache, but it didn’t quite work, alas. Luckily the noisy Brits from my dorm room had gone to a bullfight and didn’t return till 5:30 in the morning — and then checked out the next day. Hurray!

Not so hurray: I woke up the next morning feeling like absolute crap. Clearly I wasn’t just dying of the heat but had actually picked up some sort of bug (headache, sore muscles, chills/hot flashes, legs weighing 10 tons each, etc.). But who knew when I’d visit Spain again, so I pushed on with a day trip to Segovia, a historic town famous for its huge Roman aqueduct. I crawled through the day by stopping to rest on pretty much every bench I saw, and then lying down for about an hour and a half outside the Alcazar — a fairy-tale-looking fortress. I liked the aqueduct and the Alcazar, and the narrow streets of the old town were gorgeous, but I had no energy or enthusiasm whatsoever.

Back at the hostel in Madrid, I flopped on my bed and tried to work up the energy to go out to a pharmacy and get some aspirin. Luckily for me, an Australian girl who’d just checked in gave me some ibuprofin, which perked me up considerably.

The next day I went with her to Toledo, which is a lovely, historic town with both Spanish (Roman?) and Moorish influences. The cathedral was absolutely breathtaking inside — incredibly ornate. We spent a lot of time just wandering the narrow, hilly streets and browsing some of the prettiest tourist shops I’ve ever seen. (I am not a shopper at all, but even I was impressed.) I ended up buying a handpainted wooden fan.

Back at the hostel, we were amused at our new dormmates — a group of 13- and 14-year-old girls from Austria that were in Madrid on a school trip. They were eager to practice their Spanish (and their English — made me feel like a bumbling, monolingual American!) and were generally much better roommates than the noisy Brits from the first few nights, though their whispering did keep me awake for a while — felt a bit like I was sitting in on a slumber party.

The next morning it was back to Glasgow. I was glad to be back but eager to return someday to Spain, perhaps in the spring or fall when the temperatures would be a bit more bearable. Next up? Seville, Granada, perhaps a few places along the coast. Someday…

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