We’ve been in Barcelona a few days now, and most of our time has been spend wandering around the city. Our first impression was the towers and oversized, grandly-columned  buildings of the Plaza de Espana, where the airport shuttle dropped us off, followed by the Avenue de Paral-lel, one of the city’s many grand boulevards.

It is the most walkable place we’ve been during this trip so far, even though treks to some sights will be longer. Unlike Chiang Mai and Penang, we don’t have to dodge vehicles to cross the road or navigate narrow quasi-sidewalks; unlike Lisbon it is mostly flat, so no tedious hills on the way to the waterfront or the store! Of course, our 5th floor apartment is in a building with a sketchy elevator, so we still deal with at least a couple of good climbs a day.

La Boqueria Market and Santa Madrona in Poble Sec.

In Barcelona, life takes place out of doors. There are plenty of open spaces and playgrounds. Behind our apartment is Montjuic, a hill topped with a castle and with gardens around its sides. The waterfront also features lots of public space – amid the docks is a massive mall, restaurants, and a large promenade.

There are cafes on virtually every block with tables outside, even on chilly evenings. Fruit shops have merchandise sitting outside their doors, the city’s meat and produce markets spill over onto the sidewalks. The market nearest our apartment is Sant Antoni – the beautiful structure it is housed in is undergoing renovation so, for now, vendors are all squished into a glorified tent across the street. It is very much spiritually akin to Pike Place.We waited in a cramped line to buy a local fish, dourada, that ended up being really tasty baked whole in the oven.

Statue on Montjuic, an pretty building serving as art space, Venetian Towers at Plaza de Espana, the harbor.

Staying in town for an extended period has some extra perks, like being able to schedule our museum visits around free days. Our most touristy sight so far was Montjuic Castle (free on Sunday after 3pm!) – at the summit of a decent hike past gardens. The current castle was built during the second half of the 1700s as a defensive fortress, there are well-guarded entry points surrounded by walls 12 or more feet thick. The under-defended seaward side was at one point shored up with massive cannons, the picture of ferocity from every direction.

We were taken by the 360 degree views of the city, the port, and the Mediterranean. A light house was documented here as far back the 1070s – it definitely would have been the best position for one. The port sits right at the base of the hill, and it appears as large or larger than Seattle’s. One of the grain terminals must have been loading rice because the entire area smelled like it all afternoon, making me hungry. There were probably 20-30 cruise docks, and one of Norwegian ships in port was larger than any I’ve ever seen. (And it looked like there couldn’t possibly have been enough life boats, though I’m sure they did the math.)

Montjuic Castle: the inner courtyard, the Catalonian flag, the tunnel entry, the immense ramparts.

The castle has played an important role in the history of the city, and has been used at various times by French, Spanish, and Catalan forces – oftentimes the cannons were even turned on the city itself. The democratically elected President of Catalonia was executed by Spanish forces here in 1940, and it was used as a jail and place of torture by both sides during the Spanish Civil War.

The front of Montjuic Castle, Barcelona and the port from its roof.

Barcelona itself is beautiful, ringed by low mountains and the sea. Aside from the Gothic Quarter and Poble Sec, it is laid out in a ridiculously consistent grid, countless lengthy blocks with 6- or 7-story buildings around central courtyards. A scattering are taller, but the Basilica of La Sagrada Familia towers above, as do some of the larger hotels and financial buildings along the waterfront. Montjuic would be great for sunset views… on a day with a little less chill in the air…