Tag Archives: Spain

Our Trip To Europe: A Recap

After 9 plane rides, 8 train rides, 7 hotels, 1 AirBnB rental, 8 cities, 5 countries, 5 different languages, 3 currencies, more than 60 meals in restaurants, and 26 days of traveling, we have returned home from our trip to Europe.

Our adventure began in mid-June with a full day in Cinque Terre, Italy, where we hiked between the villages of Monterosso and Vernazza, ate pizza and local pesto, and sunbathed on the beach. We loved the peach, butter yellow and sunkissed pink colors that made up the landscape of this iconic beach town.

Cinque Terre (24)

From Cinque Terre, we took a train to a small village outside of Venice called Arqua’ Petrarca to attend Alina and Alberto’s wedding. The setting in the middle of the Italian wine country couldn’t have been better for this Ameican-Italian wedding. The meal at the event lasted four hours, not including appetizers, fruit or dessert, and the wedding itself lasted nearly 12 hours, going into the wee hours of the morning. Italian’s really know how to savor the best things in life!

Arqua Petrarca (29)

The best hotel and coffee on our trip was found here. We stayed at Villa del Poeta hotel and had the most incredible customer service we had ever experienced, along with divine Italian coffee. We couldn’t have asked for anything better.

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Our final stop in Italy was Lake Como. We took a cooking class, sunbathed, drank a lot of wine and toured the lake and a village by Ferry.

Lake Como (16)

 

Alex’s family was with us on this leg of our journey and we enjoyed getting to spend several quality days with them, especially his Great Uncle Larry and his wife, Jayne, who live in England.

Lake Como (22)

One of the highlights of our trip was the first day we spent in Switzerland where we took the Glacier Express train from the alpine city of St. Moritz to the ski town of Zermatt. We wove our way around mountains, through tunnels and across expansive landscapes dotted with brown and white Swiss mountain homes until we ended at the foot of the Matterhorn in Zermatt.

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My favorite city of our entire trip was Zermatt. Alex and I adore being in the mountains and I loved the small-town feel of the mountain town, as well as being able to look up and stare at a mountain peak as majestic as the Matterhorn. We had an incredible time hiking, taking in the scenery and eating fondue, which was our favorite meal on our trip. The meat fondue {pictured below} is from Whymper Stube and we also had a phenomenal cheese fondue from Restaurant Stadel.

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The customer service in Switzerland and Italy was by far the best in our trip. We were so impressed with the level of care and consideration that every person we encountered in the service industry in Italy and Switzerland had. The hotel we stayed in {Hotel Bristol} was great too!

{my little slice of paradise}

{my little slice of paradise}

The third country in our trip was Spain. We split a week between the bustling, cosmopolitan city of Barcelona and the quiet beach town of Alicante.

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Barcelona provided a lot of culture and tourist activities, a phenomenal wine tour through the Priorat wine region, as well as incredible sangria. Our two favorite restaurants in Barcelona were 15 Nights and Bilbao-Berria.

{overlooking the Priorat wine region}

{overlooking the Priorat wine region}

We were able to relax and work on our tans as we laid out on the Postiguet Beach in the coastal town of Alicante. By this point in our trip we were beyond tired of any type of ham, jamon or prosciutto and were really looking forward to a new type of cuisine. Even so, we had two exceptional meals at La Taberna de Tito and Piripi, where we dined with some new friends, Jose Luis and Conchita.

Alicante

Enter London, the fourth of five countries on our trip. It was a big change going from Spain to London, not just because of the language difference, but the architecture and overall feel of the city drastically changed here. We had the most idea of what to expect in London since there are so many iconic photos depicting the cityscape.

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It was really fun to visit places like Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abby, ride the London Eye, as well as see the bright red double-decker buses and telephone booths.

{view from the London Eye}

{view from the London Eye}

Other than simply walking the streets, the best parts of our trip in London were seeing the Tour de France come through and eating Indian food at Gopal’s.

{part of the Tour de France}

{part of the Tour de France}

The final city in our Euro-trip was Amsterdam, Alex’s favorite. We both loved how quaint the town of 700,000 people was. It didn’t feel crowded or over-run with tourists. The weather wasn’t great at all until our last morning in Amsterdam, but being Seattleites, we didn’t let that ruin our time there. Both of us adored the architecture and structure of the city, where it was situated alongside semi-circle canals. The people were very friendly and we really enjoyed the food.

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We are really looking forward to being able to return to Europe again one day. As Rick Steves says, plan to be back!

Trip to Europe: Alicante, Spain

The sixth stop on our Europe trip was Alicante, Spain, a small city on the Costa Blanca {located on the Eastern coast of Spain right on the Mediterranean Sea}. We chose to go to Alicante for two reasons: the beach and to re-visit the location where I studied abroad in 2006. I was excited to return to the location where some of my favorite college memories were made and I couldn’t wait to show Alex that special spot.

Alicante

The first bit of excitement in our Alicante trip was our taxi ride from the airport. The driver was very quiet and then halfway into our ride he decided to turn on some music. Not just any music, mind you. He picked an album from the group Two Live Crew, which if you’ve never heard of them before, you should not listen to their music. It was all in English and their lyrics are notoriously vulgar. Alex and I have a good sense of humor and were sitting in the backseat holding our breath trying not to burst into a fit of laughter. We were curious if the taxi driver had any idea what the lyrics were saying.

Our first day in Alicante was a bit silly. I thought I had made it perfectly clear to anyone who I discussed my study abroad trip with that my priorities for my summer abroad were as follows: go to the beach, go to the beach, go to the beach and go to the bar. My priorities had only slightly changed for this trip and included going to the beach, going to the beach, drinking sangria and wine and eating good food.

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Alex was noticeably surprised that I had not been to any of Alicante’s “attractions” nor did I particularly know my way around town, except to the beach. He was also surprised that the city I lived in is not the nicest city in Spain. Alicante has seen better times and has been hit pretty bad with the recent recession in Spain. There are certainly very cute parts of Alicante, which we explored, but there are a lot of areas in shambles, too. Also, Alicante is not a tourist town, which I’m certain has an impact on its appearance.

Alicante (2)

What Alicante does have going for it, though is its beach. This was our first stop after checking into the hotel. We postponed unpacking so we could set up shop on the Postiguet Beach, a good 10 minute walk from our hotel. The beach was everything I remembered it to be. Crowded, sunny and gorgeous. The water was so clear. I had forgotten how beautiful it was to simply look out at the sea. The shallow water glistened a lovely turquoise color while the deep water was a mystical blue. It was so inviting!

{the weather for our beach trip was absolutely perfect!}

{the weather for our beach trip was absolutely perfect!}

Most of our time in Alicante was spent laying out on the beach. I went through a few riveting beach reads {Where’d You Go Bernadette, The Best Medicine: A Bell Harbor Novel, and A Hundred Summers} while Alex got lost in his book about neuroscience. And then he read another one called Sound Investing or something thrilling like that. Opposites do attract… Really, though, the stop in Alicante was like a vacation from our vacation. We loved having a few days to simply do nothing and recover from being on the go for two weeks, as well as the hustle and bustle in Barcelona.

Alicante (5)

We had a few mediocre meals followed by two really great meals. The first of the really great meals came as a surprise. We were so tired of Spanish food – it wasn’t my favorite to begin with, but the thought of eating another piece of jamon {ham}, no matter if it was jamon serrano {like Italian prosciutto}, jamon York {like American sliced ham – the worst offender!}, jamon iberico {this stuff is pretty good – a classy jamon serrano} or better yet, “bacon” {fatty slightly cooked jamon York} really made me sick. We ended up at a spot called Taberna de Tito, a restaurant I had found on Trip Advisor. This was an awesome restaurant! We had several rounds of tapas, a fabulous bottle of wine and then a great steak dish. Oh and we may or may not have finished our meal with ice cream accompanied by a Kit Kat bar and Oreos. Don’t judge.

Alicante (7)

The second great meal came on our last day. We met Jose Luis and his wife Conchita, both of whom are longtime friends of my uncle Brian and happen to live outside of Alicante. We met them at Pripi, a classy Spanish joint on the other side of town from our hotel. It was a lovely lunch not only because of the food, but because of the company. Since the two of them frequent Pripi we let them pick the meal.

We started with jamon iberico {more ham! But this was GOOD!} and pan y tomate {baguette with rubbed tomatoes} and some really lightly breaded eggplant slices and romesco sauce. It was lovely. Our main course was paella. I have had paella a few times in the past, including one time on our present trip, and it had always been dry and virtually flavorless, so I was ready to give up on the paella movement. Pripi proved me wrong. We had the exact same paella as we had ordered in a different restaurant in Alicante and it was incredible how much better it tasted. Paella is a rice dish that hails from the Valecian province of Spain. Actually if we are being matter of fact, paella is a type of pan, but the dish paella is one of rice that is made in a paella pan {a bit redundant to say paella pan – kind of like saying pan pan}. All paella includes saffron which gives the rice its notorious yellow hue. The dish includes meat, vegetables and/or seafood. It is all cooked together and served straight from the paella {the pan that is!}.

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We had a lovely time in Alicante. We were well-rested and ready to take on London!

Trip to Europe: Priorat Wine Tour Outside of Barcelona

Some time ago Alex and I fell in love with Spanish wines, and in particular, those that reign from the Priorat Region. This region is known for its difficult growing conditions, as it is at a higher than usual altitude (over 2,000 feet) and the terrain is basically slate – the lower elevations are black slate, then red slate and the highest elevation is clay. Can you imagine growing anything on a slate mountainside??

{Welcome to the Priorat!}

{Welcome to the Priorat!}

Basically no one thought you could grow grapes here, but thankfully way back in the 1100s the Spanish monks mastered the practice until the region was basically destroyed by phyllaxora {a nasty underground bug that ate away at the roots of the grapevines}. Some resilient wine makers stayed put and then in the 1980s some wine lovers decided to give it a go and came to the Priorat to try their hand at the region and the rest is history.

View overlooking the region

{view overlooking the region}

Mid-way through our Europe trip we had scheduled a tour of the Priorat wine region through Spanish Trails {a tour company}. This was one of the few pre-planned activities we had put together, but one that we were most looking forward to.

{some of these vines are close to 100 years old!}

{some of these vines are close to 100 years old!}

Our wine guide, Andrew, was extremely knowledgeable on the region, the wineries and on wine in general. He also had a good sense of humor. He began the day by telling everyone I was pregnant so I had to sit up front. Unfortunately {for me} no one heard me follow up and say “I’m not really pregnant!” so that made for a few interesting looks once I started drinking wine…

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We started our day at Cellar Passanau, named for the Passanau family, where we took a stroll out to the fields. Mind you I was not dressed for a “stroll” across the slate mountainside… It was very worthwhile, though. We got to see how the 100 year old vines grew compared to the newer 20 year old vines, and we got to really look at the “soil” {aka slate} of the region. It was really fascinating.

{our guide and another wine drinker inspecting the old vines}

{our guide and another wine drinker inspecting the old vines}

Lucky for us, we got stuck at the first winery. Literally. The streets in the Priorat are hardly wide enough for a Smart Car to pass through, but a big semi-truck was making its rounds through town and the driver locked his keys in his car, so we were stuck tasting wine after wine after wine at the first winery until the driver was able to get into his truck. I think we tried seven wines. And when I say we “tried seven wines” I mean we drank seven bottles of wine between the eight of us.

{this is a street that cars drive on!}

{this is a street that cars drive on!}

Alex ended up buying a 2002 wine that we had tried. It was out of this world. And it cost 10 Euros. We were blown away by the low cost of buying wines at the wineries here. It is so different from buying wines directly at the wineries in Washington. The distribution has made it so that it is cheaper, often, to buy a wine at the grocery store than it is at the winery. This is not the case in Spain, anyway.

{this is what 10 euros can get you in Spain!}

{this is what 10 euros can get you in Spain!}

From here we drove about 15 minutes to the Clos Figueres winery. Alex and I had been fortunate enough to try a wine from this wine maker back in Seattle before we left. Henri at our favorite spot, Bottlehouse, knew we were going to this winery and he was able to get a bottle of their wine from his distributor and allowed us to try it. Needless to say, after we tried this wine we were even more excited to take the trip!

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Our experience at Clos Figueres was our favorite of the day. They prepared a fabulous lunch for us that they paired with their own wines. We tried four wines here, a white and three reds, one red was from grapes from new vines, and the other two were from old vines {vines that are older than 70 years}. It is hard to pick a favorite, but really I think my favorite was wine we had already tried. We began our meal with the white wine, which was paired with some cheese, bread, their own olive oil, slices of salami and sausage, and some liver pate.

{heading down to the cellar at Clos Figueres}

{heading down to the cellar at Clos Figueres}

Next came the wine from new vines and my favorite part of the meal – the tomato bread. In Spain they love to smear tomato guts all over crusty bread. It tastes great, but here they let us do the smearing of the tomatoes. They gave us each our own little station with a slice of crusty bread, a clove of garlic, homemade olive oil and then a whole tomato. We rubbed the bread with a little garlic, drizzled on some olive oil and then sliced our tomato in half and smeared the cut side of the tomato all over the garlicy bread. Mmmm.

{I want to say this cellar is 600 years old}

{I want to say this cellar is 600 years old}

The third wine was our favorite. It was paired with a simple but divine salad. The salad was mixed greens with enormous chunks of heirloom and cherry tomatoes. Did you know that Spain has unbelievable tomatoes?

{one of Clos Figueras' wines made with grapes from newer grapes}

{one of Clos Figueras’ wines made with grapes from newer grapes}

Finally, the main course was served. We were given the choice of lamb or sausage. Both Alex and I selected the sausage. It was lovely. So was the wine. It was paired with Clos Figueres’ top wine.

To finish off the meal we were given two platters with an assortment of desserts. As if we needed more food. It was an exceptional meal and experience.

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On to Clos Dominic! We made our way through a teeny tiny town and met up with the wine maker, whose wife, Dominic, is the namesake of the winery. This wine maker is the heart and soul of the operation. He does it all. His production is quite small – only about 13,000 bottles of wine each year, but truly, I cannot believe how much he does.

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We started our visit by taking a trip out to the field. Again, I was not dressed properly for what we came across. This field was a very steep, sandy and rocky plot of land and it was hot. That is putting it mildly. The wine maker does everything from planting the vines to weeding, harvesting the grapes and then completing the process of making and bottling the wine, giving wine tours and tastings and selling the wines. I was tired just thinking about all he does.

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After our trip into the fields we went back to the cellar. Truly a cellar – we entered at ground level which was very basement-like. This is where he does a lot of the fermentation in the steel tanks, as well as the bottling process. Then we went down to the real cellar. We learned that this was over 600 years old! I cannot even comprehend. The cellar was quite musty and cobweb laden but our host had set up a lovely glass table for us to drink around. He prepared some bread and olive oil {likely some that he made himself}, a glass for each taster and had lined up a row of all of the wines we were about to try.

{The wine cellar at Clos Dominic where we did our final tasting}

{The wine cellar at Clos Dominic where we did our final tasting}

These wines were some of the biggest, boldest red wines I have ever tasted. No whites for this guy. He is strictly a red man. His “entry level” wine is served in the restaurant that is named the best in the world, then another one of his wines is the wine of choice for the Swiss government. There was some stat for each wine, but please remember I had been drinking for nearly 12 hours at this point so my memory from here out was a bit foggy.

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We would have been happy to just go to one or two of these wineries, but to go to all three and get the chance to drive through the region and see the vines was such an honor and a treat. Our appreciation for wine and what it takes to be a small production winery grew exponentially as a result of this experience. We have already started looking at wine {and its cost} in a new light. We only wish we would have been able to buy more wines from these guys while on our tour, but we didn’t really have anywhere to keep it. We’re crossing our fingers we can find it in the states!

Trip to Europe: Barcelona, Spain

The third country in our recent trip to Europe was Spain. We visited two Mediterranean cities in Spain: Barcelona and Alicante. First up, Barcelona…

{Christopher Columbus statue at the foot of La Rambla}

{Christopher Columbus statue at the foot of La Rambla}

After a long train ride from Zermatt, Switzerland to Geneva, a lengthy wait at the airport, a reasonably quick flight and an easy bus ride to the city center we arrived at our hotel in Barcelona late in the evening on a Saturday at the end of June. It was the perfect time to get checked in and grab a bite to eat since the Spanish enjoy eating dinner at 10 p.m.

We hadn’t figured it out quite at this point yet, but our hotel was situated in probably the most ideal spot in Barcelona. We stayed at the Portal de l’Angel hotel just off the Placa Catalunya, which we found out was the hub of the city center.

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Upon check in we asked the receptionist for a recommendation for dinner that night. She pointed us to Bilbao-Berria, a restaurant closeby that serves pinxos {pronounced “peen-chose” – the letter “x” in Catalan makes a “ch” sound}. We had a great time at the restaurant. It is almost like the concept of a high-class cafeteria or buffet where you walk up to a very long bar and pick out which tapas you would like. Each pinxo comes on a skewer, then when you’re done with the dish you put your skewer in a little cup on the table and the waiter just counts the number of skewers you had to know how much to charge you. Some of the pinxos we had were skewers with meat, veggies and cheese, others were croquettes {basically fried mashed potatoes with some meat in them}, and sausages. It was a great introduction to Spanish food.

{Spanish food wasn't our favorite European cuisine, but we certainly had some great meals}

{Spanish food wasn’t our favorite European cuisine, but we certainly had some great meals}

The next morning, our first full day in Barcelona, we didn’t have a huge agenda but wanted to check out some of the sights that were closer to our hotel. We set off for the Picasso Museum and got a chance to walk through that before it got too crowded. Both of us appreciated getting a chance to see Picasso’s works from an early age because it demonstrated his serious ability and showcased how he came to find his niche.

From the Picasso Museum we strolled around and wound up at Placa Catalunya, near our hotel, and at the start of La Rambla, one of the main tourist walking streets in town. Some say this is the heart of Barcelona, but both of us felt it was too crowded and way too touristy.

{Down on the port at the end of La Rambla}

{Down on the port at the end of La Rambla}

We ventured off La Rambla and came upon Placa Real {the royal plaza}, a big open courtyard with butter yellow buildings adorned with wrought iron balconies and beautiful palm trees in the center. The perimeter of Placa Real is all restaurants. We settled on a restaurant, Quince Nits {15 Nights}, and plopped ourselves down for our first Spanish lunch.

{Placa Real}

{Placa Real}

Much like the Italians, the Spanish love to eat and enjoy a laborious meal. Being on vacation we learned to love this, too. We found it quite enjoyable to settle in for a slow, leisurely meal once a day. In Spain, that leisurely meal was lunch, which is typically eaten between 2:00 and 4:00 in the afternoon, then a light dinner follows around 9:00 or 10:00 in the evening. Rarely did we eat dinner that late, but I can understand if you stuff yourself so much in the middle of the day all you want is a salad or fruit later in the evening.

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This meal in particular ended up being one of our favorite Spanish meals. We enjoyed a liter of incredible Sangria, then shared a variety of tapas, followed by a roasted duck breast and beautifully prepared pork tenderloin.

After lunch we strolled through el Barri Gotic {the Gothic Quarter neighborhood}, stopped for ice cream and retreated to the courtyard pool oasis back at our hotel.

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We had completely forgotten that this little section of paradise existed so we were extra happy when we were able to take our first siesta outdoors next to the pool. It was perfect.

Thanks to our siesta, we were well-rested and ready for an evening on the town. We had tickets to see a flamenco show at the renowned Palau Musica, an absolutely stunning music hall. We arrived a little early for the 9:30 show so that we could see the stained glass while it was still light out. Before I get ahead of myself, we stopped for an “early” {8:00 p.m.} dinner of tapas and wine at Ohla, a gastropub, which was awesome, on our way to the show.

{all dressed up for the Flamenco show!}

{all dressed up for the Flamenco show!}

 

The flamenco show was something we are glad we saw but wouldn’t be in a hurry to see again. It was a fun experience but the best part was seeing the stained glass inside the Palau Musica.

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{this is the ceiling in Palau Musica… no big deal}

Our second day in Barcelona was one we had been looking forward to for many weeks prior to the trip. This was the day we had signed up to take a tour of one of our favorite wine regions, the Priorat. We met our guide and trip companions at 9:00 sharp and made our way through the Spanish mountains {the Monserat Range} about two hours until we reached the rugged, beautiful Priorat.

{overlooking the Priorat wine region}

{overlooking the Priorat wine region}

The wine tour was awesome, to say the least. We drank our way through three wineries and sampled around 15 wines over a 12-hour period. Each winery had its own way of doing things and we appreciated the variances among the wines. It was one of the major highlights of our whole trip and warrants its own blog post… Stay tuned!

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After drinking for 12 hours neither of us was particularly interested in going out to dinner. Thankfully we were on the same page and decided to order room service and watch a movie. Luck was on our side when the movie Knocked Up was just starting as we turned on the TV in our hotel room. Both of us were very happy to have a low-key night at “home.”

The next day was our last full day in Barcelona. We had a lot of ground to cover so we decided to do a hop on/hop off bus tour of the city. It is not something that either of us had ever imagined doing but we were very glad we did it. We got to see a vast part of the city that we otherwise would not have seen, plus it was just awesome to be riding around in the sun on the upper deck. We stopped at the Sagrada Familia, Hospital de Sant Pau and Parc Guell.

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Since I had been in Barcelona eight years prior, a lot of progress had been made on the façade of the Sagrada Familia. I had been inside previously and the wait to just buy a ticket was more than 3 hours, so we walked around the outside and kept on our way.

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Our next stop was a beautiful hospital that was intentionally built to be a design sensation. Hospital de Sant Pau was designed by the same architect who designed Palau Musica, where we saw the flamenco show two evenings prior. Both of us agreed that this was our favorite stop of the day.

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Parc Guell turned out to be a ridiculous tourist trap – much more so than it was in my past visit. The park is very unique – Gaudi, the artist, used mosaic tiles to design benches, fountains, and sculptures around the park, as well as two houses.

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It is lovely, but somewhere along the line it got over-hyped and now they charge admission and ask you to buy a ticket for a particular time to see the park. All of that was new since I was there not that long ago. Even since they regulate the number of people in the park it was so crowded all we wanted to do was leave. It was neat to see but also very disappointing.

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After our day of tourist activities we were very happy to return to our hotel for a siesta by the pool.

Our overall feeling of Barcelona was really that it was a very, very crowded, but very cosmopolitan city. The people of Barcelona are extremely trendy and they love to shop! We felt that the customer service here was lacking, generally speaking, but especially compared to the exceptional service we received in Italy and Switzerland. The Spanish seemed to be more direct and in a hurry than the Italians or the Swiss. We really enjoyed the gothic architecture in Barcelona and being able to explore a city with so much culture and history.