In December 2016, one friend request changed my life.
I was added as a friend by someone named Miriam: a woman from Catalonia, Spain, who was learning English. I accepted her friend request, and we began to talk. Little did we know where it would all lead.
Striking up a friendship very quickly, and finding that we both shared a love of travel. she invited me to visit her in her hometown of Manlleu, Catalonia. Over the next month, the friendship blossomed into a long distance relationship, and we began to seriously plan my visit to see her in Catalonia.
After four months of waiting to see each other, we set the date and booked the flights. After countless nights together talking over Skype into the early hours, it was time for us to be together.
On 12th April 2017 I packed my bags and set out to see my girlfriend in her homeland…
DAY 1 - ARRIVAL IN CATALONIA (12/4)
I landed in Barcelona in the early hours of the morning. Waiting in the queues for passport control and baggage, knowing that Miriam was somewhere in the airport waiting for me, were the longest minutes of my life to date. But finally I fought my way through the crowds and emerged, bleary-eyed, into departures.
Miriam was standing in front of me. We were together.
For two hours (which went by like minutes) we sat in a cafe in Barcelona Airport and talked like a couple who had spent the last three months together. Then I met Francesc (Kiko) and Isabel, Miriam’s parents and my hosts for the next two weeks, and my adventure into Catalonia began.
We drove back to Manlleu in near total darkness, but through the gloom I could make out towering mountains and beautiful rows of palm and olive trees along the road. By the time we got back to Miriam’s flat it was 4 am, but we were too excited to sleep. I spent the morning in the flat, talking with her parents whilst Miriam worked and beginning to already suffer from the alien heat. Braving the sun, I walked out into Manlleu for the first time and wound my way through cobbled streets to Miriam’s work.
We returned to Manlleu in the evening, and Miriam picked out a little restaurant and bar in Manlleu’s main square for our first meal together: The Manlleuet. A dinner of tapas (including spicy potato braves, iberic ham and llonganissa) followed by botifarra was washed down with a local Manlleu beer. Both of us exhausted from the long day and the rush of emotions that had come over us, we staggered back to the flat and ended my first day in Catalonia.
DAY 2 - MANLLEU (13/4)
After another morning in the flat, bonding with Kiko over a love of Deep Purple, Pink Floyd and Rainbow, Miriam took me out further into Manlleu: we travelled through the town, walking down cobbled streets with white houses that shone in the sunlight: even those that had been abandoned and had fallen into disrepair had a beauty to them, and Miriam lamented that there were stunning abandoned houses and buildings scattered all over Catalonia, just waiting to be renovated.
Following the track of the river, which was flanked on one side by miles of green vegetation and on the other by disused textile factories from decades past. Despite the town pushing up against one side, this natural space is incredibly peaceful and was a perfect romantic spot for us to spend our afternoon.
We walked along the riverbank until the sun began to dip behind the horizon, and by the time we found ourselves in Manlleu’s Old Town shadows were creeping in. The buildings here marked out the track of the old wall, with some of the walls being formed from its cobblestone. This was the last evidence of Manlleu’s past, and before long we were back in the modern streets with its bars, restaurants and shops. But, for a moment, we walked alone through Old Manlleu Town.
With the end of the day fast approaching, we retired to the flat with a shop-bought pizza and a film, watching the sun set from the balcony.
DAY 3 - TRAVELLING TO BARCELONA (14/4)
Early starts were neither of our strong points, so our trip of Barcelona began rather unceremoniously with us running for the train. One missed train later, our trip to Barcelona began as the train took us through the city of Vic and through the low valleys and hills that surround Catalonia’s capital city.
We emerged into Barcelona a mile from our hotel, and weaved our way through back streets until we eventually found the gorgeous four star Vilana Hotel, which would be our home for the next three nights.
Dropping our bags in the room, and taking some time to cool down from the heat that had battered us on our mile-long trek to the hotel, we boarded the tube and travelled into the heart of Barcelona.
Our first stop was Catalonia Square.
The stunning feature of water fountains and statues, which is abuzz with visiting tourists and locals alike, is surrounded by towering buildings which looking down impressively onto the square. Street vendors and market stalls sell their wares, each vying for the attention of the tourists.
If you do travel into Barcelona, you’ll become accustomed to declining offers from sellers every few minutes. Whilst these men and women are only looking to make a living, they can be highly persistent and a traveller can’t be afraid of turning them down. The first few times, I felt guilty to be denying them. But by the end of my stay, after seeing literally dozens of sellers selling identical wares, I was much more accustomed to the atmosphere, and the sellers became just another part of the ambience and experience of Barcelona.
After stopping at the restaurant König for a lunch of tapas and a burger, with another beer (it was a holiday, after all), Miriam led me to Las Ramblas, the main thoroughfare of Barcelona and the site of every shop, bar and restaurant that you could imagine.
This street is easily one of the most-visited tourist sites in the city, but the restaurants on it are also without doubt some of the most expensive in Barcelona. If you want to eat for cheaper, find a restaurant off the main street: the food will be the same, if not better, and easily half the price. Doing this trick saved us both a small fortune.
Our next stop was Port Vell, the harbour at the edge of Barcelona not far from Las Ramblas. Crossing over the harbour bridge, which splits and turns as yachts and boats sail underneath, we took a visit to Maremagnum Shopping Centre before returning to the main part of Barcelona.
Passing through Barcelona França train station, we sat together in Parc de la Ciutadella until the night had long since set in. Our first day together in Barcelona ended with us looking up at the Arch of Triumph before having a late dinner the Sehari restaurant just outside the hotel. Finishing our meal at near midnight, we staggered back to the hotel room and settled down for the night in our beautiful room.
DAY 4 - SECOND DAY IN BARCELONA (15/4)
Saturday in Barcelona dawned bright and hot, and after a late start we threw together our backpacks and set out for our full day in Barcelona. Our first visit was, arguably, the highlight of Barcelona: the stunning Sagrada Família.
This masterpiece of architecture was created by the renowned architect Antoni Gaudí, who went on to build may stunning buildings all throughout Barcelona before his tragic accidental death in 1926. In scale, it truly is “awesome” in every sense of the word. The temple’s first stone was laid in 1866, and it still hasn’t been fully completed to Gaudí’s vision, and likely won’t be until 2026.
Stopping on the way back to pick up some postcards (as every tourist should at least once), we took a long journey on the tube to the other side of the city and ended up strolling through the residential side of Barcelona. Needing a break, we found a restaurant and were stopped by a security guard who asked if we had a reservation. Explaining that we just needed to use their bathroom, the security guard radioed through and we were shown into an ornate restaurant. Miriam disappeared, and I was left standing by the entrance as the head waiter eyed me up and down, in my shorts and t-shirt with a backpack slung over my shoulder.
It was only when we’d left that we realised that the restaurant was Can Cortada, part of the prestigious Grup Travi: a group of restaurants where the smallest starters range in price from 10 Euro upwards, which is to say nothing of the rest of the menu. Feeling equal parts amused and horrified, we sheepishly passed the security guard on the way out of the restaurant and tried to disappear as quickly as we could.
We wound our way around the roads (including scrambling up a steep 30ft embankment by the side of the main road) until we found ourselves at our intended destination: the historical garden of Parc del Laberint d’Horta.
Returning to Barcelona after hours spent exploring the labyrinth and the gardens of the abandoned Royal Palace, we both realised that we hadn’t eat anything all day. We took the tube back to Las Ramblas and, deciding to try the expensive restaurants at least once, had a lunch of roast chicken in Navarra Restaurant. We set of again, our wallets considerably lighter, to Miriam’s favourite place in all of Barcelona: Montjuïc.
We sat in the gardens of this colossal building, looking out over the views of Barcelona in the valley below. We soon realised that’s we’d spend hours sitting alone on the grass, with our backs to the building, and we decided on a quick dinner of Subway in a nearby shopping centre (converted from an old bull-fighting arena, the shopping centre was completely circular).
Stopping off at a pool bar for a few drinks and games of pool, we (perhaps, drunkenly) decided that it was time to go back to the hotel. Our final night in Barcelona ended with us sat in our hotel room, looking out over the landscape as the city refused to sleep around us.
DAY 5 - RETURNING TO MANLLEU (16/4)
Our final day in Barcelona fell on Easter Sunday, so we knew that to go into the city centre would be suicide. Since neither of us are religious, and going to church didn’t seem like a fun way to spend our last day in Barcelona, we did the natural next thing.
We went to Barcelona Science Museum, of course.
Spending the morning in the museum, we were well entertained. The normal exhibits which you would expect were all there, with helpful translations into English which gave Miriam a much-needed break from constant translation.
But the ordinary exhibits ended suddenly at a floor-to-ceiling glass wall.
Beyond it is a small slice of tropical rain-forest, complete with fish, flamingos and snakes. A path winds its way through it, with the animals living in large enclosures that are only separated from the public by glass (in the case of the dangerous animals) or a metal railing. Small birds fly overhead, free to roam throughout the space, whilst fish have a small lake which flows into the depths of the museum’s structure. It really is a sight to be seen to be believed.
All too soon, the time came for us to leave Barcelona. Stepping onto the tube, the train soon swept us out of the bustling city and into the gorgeous countryside. After a long journey through the mountains, the train pulled into the tiny train station of Manlleu and we collapsed back in the flat. Exhausted, but having loved every minute, we spent the rest of the day together in the flat and ended Easter Sunday with a meal and a glass of Catalonian red wine.
My first few days in Catalonia with Miriam were truly incredible, and if I’ve done something to portray the beauty of this area of Spain, then I’ve done my job with pride.
There were many, many more little moments that I could have shared, but I think by showing you where we stayed and the main things we did, you’ve got a picture of what that area is like and just some of the things you can do there.
Enjoyed what you’ve read so far? Be sure to come back next week for part two of my Catalonia Travel Diaries series, where I cover our trip into the Pyrenees and more adventures in and around Manlleu.
Until next time,
~ Ross M. F. Firth
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You can read my previous blog post (ANNOUNCEMENT: I’m Going Travelling (And What’s Next…)) here.
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