Barcelona – Montserrat - Two Thousand Years of History
By Lilliam and Larry Larsen
There is a reason why several cruise lines select Barcelona as a major departure point. Celebrity is just one of many that believe the
city itself is worth a pre- or post-cruise stay … and we agree.
From its beginning as a Roman Colony in the first century B.C. to its 800-years ruled by
the Moors, Barcelona displays a very strong personality encompassing the independent spirit of the Catalonia Region. A modern city mixes with impressive architecture in the
Gothic Quarter, where the remains of Roman walls are still visible.
Attesting to the popularity of this attractive metroplex today, Barcelona is the fourth
most-visited city in all of Europe after Paris, Rome and London. Since Lilliam's mother's family originated in Barcelona, it was obvious we would need to spend a couple of
days after our Mediterranean cruise aboard the Solstice to explore this unique city.
We stayed at the Grand Hotel Central (www.grandhotelcentral.com) which offered
location for everything we planned during our short stay. This full-service, modern hotel was originally built in 1926 and restored to the most modern standards. One of the most
interesting features is its infinity pool on its roof, complete with a full bar area and stylized seating overlooking the city.
Our guestroom window offered a unique view of one of the ancient
Roman walls, and we were conveniently just two blocks from the Catedral de Barcelona which is in the center of the Gothic Quarter. Accommodations included a
full breakfast daily and we were quite impressed with not only the service but also the great tasting food.
After we checked in at the Grand Hotel Central, we began exploring the nearby streets. This is the only way to truly appreciate the ancient history, which is
frequently accompanied by the presence of spontaneous musicians throughout the Gothic city area. We stopped at the steps leading to the Barcelona Cathedral and admired its intricate fašade which included
impressive gargoyles and gigantic statues of the 12 apostles surrounding the main entrance. Small signs throughout the Gothic quarter led us to the twin towers of the Roman walls which framed one of the
four main entrances to the walled precinct.
We walked through the Plaza del Rey (King's Plaza), the center of the former royal palace during the Aragonese empire.
Here you can also visit the city's History Museum, including the Roman ruins extending under the square. Our walk continued to the famous Las Ramblas, the
pedestrian street extending from the Plaza de Catalunya to the harbor. It's a spacious walking area bordered by stalls of vendors selling everything from fruit to clothing.
We ended up at the Mercat de la Boqueria (Boqueria Market) where locals purchase fresh meats, seafood, vegetables, wines and a huge variety of specialty Spanish delicacies.
I almost wished I had a kitchen to try many of the fresh items we saw! On our walk back to the hotel we stopped for some ice cream and relaxed while listening to some impromptu street
musicians playing a violin beautifully.
Our next day began with a train trip to Montserrat, (serrated mountain) the region's most significant religious and scenic site.
At 4,055 ft. above the valley floor, Montserrat is the highest point of the Catalan
lowlands, and stands central to the most populated part of Catalonia. The stone monolith is ideally located to play an important role in the cultural and spiritual life of Catalonia.
This is one place where we recommend NOT taking a group tour. It's very easy to get on the train, and the 2-hour trip itself passes
through interesting terrain. Once you arrive at the Montserrat station, you walk a few feet to the cable car for a ticket. There is also the option of taking a railcar up the mountain, but
the cable car offers the most spectacular views.
Once at the top the only way to explore is on foot. You can visit the Benedictine Monastery,
built in 1025 and if so inclined can take the long line to see the "Moreneta" or Black Virgin statue at the back of the Basilica. This is also home to the oldest printing press in Catalonia, established in 1499.
Numerous walking trails are available leading to a variety of scenic overlooks,
however, these trails are sometimes slippery when raining and recommended only for those who are fairly fit. A museum (extra charge) houses archaeological and
artistic collections to help visitors learn more about this famous place. A visit to Montserrat is a must when in Barcelona and was indeed a highlight to our stay there.
We recommend you purchase food for a picnic and bring it along for your visit to Monserrat. While there are plenty of food outlets here, they are mostly buffet self-service
and the food quality could be better. Besides, having a picnic in a quiet area off one of the trails is a wonderful way to enjoy the solitude and magnificent views from the mountain top.
On our way back to Barcelona we exited the train at the Plaza de Catalunya station
which is at the heart of the city. The large plaza is bordered by beautiful giant trees and faces some of the city's administrative buildings. It was not unusual to see
some small demonstrations and political signs, but we saw no cause for concern. We felt very safe walking around the city, along with hundreds of other international visitors.
As usual, our short two-day post-cruise visit was not long enough to fully explore
all the other significant sites in the area. We must return with a few more days in our schedule!