italy · spain

#tbt: Hitting Two Of Europe’s “Big Cities”: Barcelona & Rome

When I owned my shop, time off was really scarce. Like, really really. Like, I went almost year without having two days off together.

So when I did find the time to get out of the UK (because leaving the country was genuinely the best – and only – way to distance myself from work), I found ways to hit two places at once. Denmark and Sweden. Amsterdam and Berlin. Gibraltar and Morocco.

This time, we were off to two of the big ones: Barcelona and Rome.

And it’s about damn time I blogged about Italy.

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*follows that statement with a picture from Spain*

Barcelona immediately threw up a fun travel disaster when we turned up to a dodgy-looking building where our hostel should be. (I’ve just realised the photo makes this look like I thought the hostel was inside a “dodgy-looking” building called the Sagrada Familia…) I did venture inside as the door was open, to find myself in a huge hallway with one of those old metal elevators in the middle. Too scared to get in the lift, I started to warily climb the stairs in darkness before chickening out and walking out again. The whole building felt deserted and I was amazed that we had even got inside.

We wandered around more and ended up asking at a hotel across the road if they knew where the hostel would be.

“Oh I don’t know that one, I’m afraid. There are a lot of hostels around here.”

“We do have a lot of people asking where that one is. I’m not sure anyone actually knows.”

Brilliant.

I even phoned my mum in a panic to ask if she could look it up for us, to double check we were even in the right place. It seemed we were, but with no signs whatsoever and the outside door now locked anyway so we couldn’t get in to check again, we took off round the corner to the closest hostel I could see, Hostal Eden.

We explained our predicament and asked if they had any rooms. Thankfully they had some private rooms left, if a little more than we were due to pay at this other hostel, but before they booked us in, they kindly looked up the other hostel for us and tried to get hold of them to no avail. It seemed like the hostel just didn’t exist.

After that fun start to our trip, we were happy to be checked into a different hostel who were so genuinely helpful, and set off to explore the city.

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I wasn’t really feeling Barcelona, to be honest. All the streets were too wide for what I thought should feel like a quintessential European city; everything was too far apart. It took what felt like hours to walk to the Sagrada Familia, although I did enjoy the little stops by the other Gaudi architecture.

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Then we headed back to Las Ramblas, and I started to get it. The atmosphere of the street is infectious. I found myself being amazed by the street artists and performers. I loved all the stalls. I liked the look of all the restaurants, as touristy as they seemed. In the back of my mind I also knew that this was pick pocket central, so I was vigilant with everything and had no problems whatsoever. Yup, it was safe to say I was starting to finally enjoy Barcelona.

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Realising just how spread out the city is, we decided we’d have to get the hop on hop off bus the following day if we wanted to see anything else. Can I tell you a secret?

I’d never been on one of those buses before.

I don’t know. They just feel so touristy and I love walking around and getting lost and working out the public transport for myself in new places (yeah, screw you, Milan! I couldn’t work out your metro for shit!). But for Barcelona, it’s the perfect way to get around.

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There are a few lines you can take, so base it on what you want to see. Our main port of call was Park Guell, but we stopped off briefly at Camp Nou (Barcelona’s football stadium) and a view point that I’m struggling to pinpoint on a map. I think it was the national art museum de Catalunya? The whole day was pretty poorly planned, and by the time we got to Park Guell, we didn’t even have a lot of time there – because that evening, we were off to Rome!

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So with a quick pit stop back by the Sagrada Familia and a late lunch, we were off to destination number two of our four day trip. We flew with Vueling, which was my first experience flying internationally (as in, without the UK being part of the journey), and my first experience flying with an airline I’d never heard of.

Well all I remember is Barcelona airport is a very weird shape (or not a weird shape at all, however you look at it – I’m pretty sure we only walked in one direction the whole way from the entrance to our gate because the entire airport was like a massive corridor!) and Vueling were slightly delayed.

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We arrived in Rome, therefore, pretty late at night and after even joking about it, the first thing we noticed was a lack of signs outside the building our hotel was supposed to be in. Oh God, I groaned. Ash was about to go ballistic (or break down, I’m not sure which), when one of us noticed a small sign next to one of the buzzers along with a TripAdvisor sticker.

We breathed a sigh of relief and were let inside. It was not what I had been expecting at all. All hostels had been booked out and y’all probably know how expensive hotels are in Rome, so I booked us a “budget hotel”.

This was more of a bed and breakfast really, with rooms on one side and the family’s living quarters on the other. We were immediately put at ease though; the mother was friendly and although we were kind of left to our own devices for our stay and not a lot was explained to us, it wasn’t an unwelcome place.

The next day, we walked a LOT.

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And let me tell you something – I absolutely LOVED Rome!

I know it’s cliché to love it, but I really do. Even looking back on my pictures now fills me with wanderlust.

But what I loved about it was that we walked and walked and there was constantly something to see. And suddenly, it was 4pm and we’d seen virtually everything we had dreamed of seeing in Rome – and plenty that we hadn’t expected. Every corner turned up something new – a monument, a church, a ruin that we had never heard of.

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Compared to Barcelona, Rome felt TINY!

I adored the maze of alley ways leading round corners and then BAM! There’s the Pantheon. Oh you know, just a bunch of ancient pillars rising high above me and knocking me off my balance. Round a few more corners and oh, we’re back at the Trevi fountain.

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The fountain, despite being absolutely crowded to shit and almost intolerable in the heat of midday, was one of my highlights of Rome. It is just spectacular and left me in awe every time I bumped into it (oh, so casual).

Another highlight? Surprisingly, the Vittoria monument. I think because it’s so understated in all the guide books and the images in your head of Rome. But it’s so bold and imposing and bright and beautiful that it really took me aback, and we ended up stopping in a coffee shop just for an excuse to sit and look at it for a while.

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Unfortunately my close-up pictures just don’t look as epic, but this lovely piece of scaffolding kind of ruined this view

(We then got surrounded by an entire tour of school kids which was our cue to leave.)

This was where we started to run into problems with Rome. You see, at this point of my travels, I wasn’t used to street hawkers and tourist traps as it was, so I think it annoyed me more than it perhaps would do now. But even looking back, Rome is the worst for it. It even gave our experience of Morocco a run for its money, and THAT is saying something.

What I am good at is saying no. What I’m not good at is knowing what the hell to do when someone runs over and sticks a budgie on your shoulder and then demands money for this incredible and unique privilege. So what did I do? I ran away while he shouted at me!

In fact, I probably ran all the way to the Colosseum (which in fairness probably wasn’t very far away at this point).

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In hindsight, I wish we’d gone into the Colosseum, although I have no doubts that I’ll go back there one day soon. I have the same regrets for the Vatican. But when we arrived, the queues for both were just ridiculous.

Let’s bear in mind that we were there outside of school holidays, in shoulder season (May), and the queue for the Sistine Chapel was nigh on two hours long. We could pay a load of money for a tour to skip the queue, but I just thought what’s the point? (yeah I know, I can feel you death staring me through your screen)

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Look at all those people, just to get inside!

So that was that. We had a quick look around and then headed back into Italy. Where we stumbled across one of our favourite places.

Piazza Navona is a super cute cobblestone square (seriously, it seems I have no pictures of it whatsoever, yet I remember it being cobblestone!) housing loads of restaurants. Don’t ask me to remember where we ate or what we ordered, but I can tell you there was a guy playing soulful guitar just outside our restaurant and afterwards we sat at one of the statues and listened to him as the square lit up around us.

It felt like a magical place, and I wonder now if it’s one of those really touristy places that no one would actually GO, but I’d love to go back and find out.

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And so onto our final day, where we weren’t sure what else we wanted to see. We swung by the (quite frankly disappointing) Castel Sant’Angelo, lost ourselves around the Trevi fountain again, and finally found ourselves at the Spanish steps, where more tourist traps awaited us.

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This time, pieces of string appeared around our wrists, and I jumped back and said ‘no! no money!’ to which the guy laughed and said ‘no, no money. This bracelet represents your safe return to Rome. I do it free.’ Meanwhile a rose was thrust into my other hand by his accomplice and I pushed it back and it somehow kept finding its way back to me again.

At the end, we were asked for money for the bracelets and the rose. I was pissed off, especially because Ash eventually conceded and paid for the damn rose. We had no way of even getting the bracelets off, but do you know the funny thing?

I chucked the rose an hour later, but those bracelets (we did give them a small amount of money in the end but didn’t pay what he asked for) stayed on our wrists for months. I still remember when Ash got out of the shower one day with a sad face on and said his had finally broken. Does that mean we’ll never have a safe return to Rome? Ooooooo.

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After some more aimless wandering and awe-ing over architecture, we finally found ourselves back at the airport for the flight home. Despite a few shortcomings, travel naivety and a little bit of poor planning in places, I really enjoyed this trip.

I wasn’t hugely taken by Barcelona, but I legitimately fell head over heels in love with Rome. The truth is, we didn’t exactly delve deep into either city with barely two days in each. Now when can I go back?!

What do you think of these two cities? Do they live up to the hype or are they overrated?

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