I’d been living in hostels for months. Exhausted, jet-lagged, cold, and hungry, I dragged my weary bones to my new temporary home at Casa Gracia. The promise of another creaky bunk-bed in a musky dorm room was the least exciting thing about landing in my new city so you can imagine my shock when I walked in the door to this place. “This must be the Hilton of hostels,” I said to myself after the friendly staff suggested I drop my bags and go grab a free cappuccino while they prepared for my check-in.
Casa Gracia is a shining example of a boutique hostel for young “flashpackers.” It’s a new form of accommodation I’ve seen emerging throughout my travels and I’m loving it. The hostel industry has been forced to adapt thanks to the emerging competition from the likes of Airbnb and Couchsurfing, which means we’re seeing a new genre of hostel that absolutely nails the things it does best (well-designed common spaces, group activities, free breakfast buffets, 24 hour check-in) while cutting costs the ways hostels always have (8+ to a room, shared bathrooms, barebones housekeeping). Rooms vary from posh privates to derelict dorms with prices matched accordingly. Travellers get to choose how nice their room will be, but everyone gets to share the incredible common spaces that actually give the place personality.
Here’s the thing, while travelling solo, how long do you actually spend appreciating your bedroom? I’d say 30 minutes max. If I’m sleepy, I’m passed out with earplugs in. If I’m awake, I’m staring at a touchscreen or doing a bag/locker re-org. Why bother charging a guest more for the upkeep of a space they barely use?
If you’re going to Barcelona, I’d highly recommend staying here to see what I’m talking about. It’s in a great location in the Gracia neighbourhood (voted as the best neighbourhood in Barcelona by Barcelonians), a minute walk from Diagonal station, and only a couple of blocks from two of the best “cheap eats” places I visited, Roure and Morrysom. The only downside of Casa Gracia is that their rates vary wildly based on the day of the week and the rooms available, but if you’re going to Barcelona (especially in the low season), I’d highly recommend seeing if you can find a deal here.
The name Antoni Gaudí is synonymous with Barcelona. I’ll admit ignorance and say that I didn’t know much about him before visiting the city other than the fact that he was an out-there architect whose psychedelic cathedral was still being built almost a century after his death. Then I visited the famous Sagrada Família. Now I’m an informed and reverent fan.
From the outer façades to the inner columns and the stained glass that bridges both, Gaudi and his acolytes have created an architectural spectacle that warrants the long lineups. Luckily you can purchase advanced tickets online to beat the queue or go early before the tour buses arrive.
If you’d prefer to appreciate Gaudí’s work in a less crowded setting, head up to Park Güell, an early attempt at a luxury gated community development. It’s just as ambitious (and unfinished) as the cathedral when you admire it as a work of urban planning.
The last Gaudí site I was able visit was La Pedrera. I was staying nearby and I couldn’t resist the temptation of visiting the roof-top terrace to watch the sunset on my way back from a long day of sightseeing. The furnished apartment that makes up part of the visit was almost as impressive as the views of Barcelona bathed in golden light.
In the end, I could have spent weeks visiting all his preserved sites but I would have gone broke doing so. Besides, I need things to do on my next visit, right?
Sometimes when you travel, let’s say when you are half-asleep sitting on the floor of an airport in Qatar tucked behind the potted plant that hides the only socket in the building that isn’t connected to an iPad, all that keeps you going is the idea of some great reward at the end of the road.
Bread, cheese, and wine. “Europe’s trinity awaits me,” I could hear myself say throughout the long journey from Singapore to Barcelona.
As much as I love the tastes of Asia, five months away from the European comfort foods I grew up with was enough for some of my taste buds to rally an insurrection. It didn’t take long after landing in the Old World to gather a peace offering of whole-grain baguette, smoked sheep cheese, Spanish jamón, and bottle of Catalan red wine that promptly put an end to the revolution and my 48 hours of consciousness.
My time in South East Asia had come to an end. It was time for new sights and flavours. Spring weather was sweeping through Europe and I only had a couple of weeks before I needed to meet my family in southern France. I chose Singapore as my last stop in SEA because it’s an international flight hub and my foresight was rewarded. Skyscanner revealed a cheap last minute ticket to Barcelona and the opportunity for a quick jaunt around the Iberian Peninsula.
Flying to Barcelona wasn’t just an economic decision. The city has been on my “to eat” list for years. The first time I went to a tapas restaurant, I wondered why we didn’t eat like this all the time. Anyone suffering from flavour ADD can surely see the genius of simply paying less for smaller servings and the freedom to order as many dishes as you want without fear of judging eyes. Have you ever read a menu and had the urge to order three interesting appetizers instead of a mundane main? Well that, my friend, is the beauty of tapas; and tapas is the beauty of Barcelona.
My desire for bread and cheese was far from satiated so when hunger struck while walking through the park a few blocks south of Quimet & Quimet, possibly Barcelona’s most famous tapas place, I knew it was time to indulge. When I got there the massive wooden doors were shuttered. “No tapas for you!” they screamed. I slunk away, kicking myself for not checking the hours. I was a few steps away when I heard the rattle of its gates opening. Fate smiled upon me and said “Patrick, you cannot leave this city without tasting the combination of crunchy toast, whipped yoghurt, smoked salmon, and truffled honey.” Seriously. The best thing I’ve ever put in my mouth.
I snagged a front row seat at the bar (well figuratively since this culinary cabinet is standing room only) and managed enough of a conversation in my primitive Spanish to charm the owner so I was well taken care of after the the crowds came pouring in. Dishes arrived within minutes of mangling their pronunciation and the montaditos (open faced sandwiches) were only €2.50 each so the evening was only as expensive as I wanted it to be. A controlled bleed instead of the full scale bank account haemorrhage that I’ve been known to inflicted on myself at fancy restaurants.
In short, Quimet & Quimet should be number one on any foodie’s Barcelona restaurant checklist. In fact it was so good that you can check it twice. I rarely eat at the same place when I travel but I couldn’t resist going a second time since it was close-by and the price:quality ratio was just so damn high.
If you’re looking for quality tapas closer to the old city, head to El Xampanyet, one of Barcelona’s best Cava joints. Cross your fingers that there’s space at the bar since ordering is tougher here due to the lack of menu, but you should be able to get by with rudimentary Spanish and an index finger. The pairing of seafood and Cava is well worth the effort and a perfect compliment to the Picasso museum just down the street.
Despite my best intentions, I wasn’t able to fulfill my dreams of hopping from bar to bar drowning in cava, vermouth, and finger food. Singapore helped buffer the wallet-shock of going from Rupiah to Euros, but I was still having a hard time adjusting to Old World prices. I balanced my indulgences with unglamorous salads or pastas thrown together in hostel kitchens, but I also found ways to dine-out on the cheap.
The highlights were the €3.95 “house tapas” plate at Roure and the €9 lunch special at Morrysom that included a massive starter, main course, dessert, and wine. Sometimes just blindly ordering the best deal lead to pleasant discoveries, like learning that a cup of xocolata is not a watery “hot chocolate” we know in North America, but rather a giant cup of melted chocolate; throw in a croissant for a grand total of €1.90 and you’ve got yourself a lavish breakfast for pocket change. Round it all out with cheap bocadillos, pinchos, and cervezas at the local cafes and you too can tame your tastebuds in the flavourful city of Barcelona.