Sandy beaches, warm Mediterranean water, a gentle breeze. We couldn’t wait to claim our slice of paradise on Barceloneta beach in Barcelona.
Our trip itinerary up until that point had been ragingly hectic. As we neared the end of our time in Barcelona we’d already hit the highlights of Paris, visited Versailles, marveled at Gaudi’s masterpieces, and meandered Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter. Our art museum/cathedral count was inching toward triple digits.
And to be honest, we were burnt out and cranky. We were in Barcelona, one of the most amazing cities in Europe, and all I could do was fantasize about napping in our cramped budget hotel room.
So to cure our travel burnout, we figured a relaxing beach afternoon was precisely what we needed. We’d come away from the day refreshed and with a renewed desire to hit the next 578 museums and cathedrals on our itinerary.
We researched online and found a bike rental shop not far from our hotel. We planned to rent bikes, take a nice ride down the boardwalk, then spend a tranquil afternoon splashing in the water and sun-tanning at the beach.
Unfortunately, as so often happens in our travels, things didn’t play out exactly as we’d envisioned.
While I’d imagined taking a leisurely bike ride along the boardwalk, what I hadn’t considered was actually making it from the bike shop to the boardwalk. With my bike. Alive.
The shop we found online was located near our hotel. But to reach the beach, we had to complete a death-defying ride along a multi-lane, congested thoroughfare with traffic zipping back and forth like bumper cars. Had I wrapped my body in seal blubber and hugged a hungry polar bear I would have felt more confident about my odds of survival.
After one look at the traffic, we abandoned our bike-riding plan faster than Taylor Swift ditched her last 6 boyfriends.
Instead, we walked 30-minutes in inappropriate footwear, and arrived at the beach sweaty and with blistered feet. Our afternoon was already off to a stellar start.
We chose Barceloneta beach because it’s easily accessible from the city. But the ease of access also means it gets more crowded than a Mumbai train station on warm, sunny afternoons. As we scanned the mobs of people, we realized every other person in the city had the same idea as us. We’d be hard-pressed to find an unclaimed sliver of sand.
The next thing I noticed was that Spanish beaches have a vastly different dress code than those in North America. All around us we saw women contentedly sunbathing clad in nothing but skimpy swimsuit bottoms. The decision to appear half-naked in public wasn’t restricted to a certain demographic either, as we saw everyone from young fit women to elderly grandmothers lounging bare-chested and gleeful in the sunshine.
No one around us seemed to care or even notice. And I’d like to say I’m a veteran traveler who never gets fazed by cultural differences (Boiled tarantula as a cultural delicacy? Delectable! Dancing barefoot over hot coals as a tribute to the sun-god? How fun!) But I admit this one threw me. I’m an extremely private Canadian who spent most of my childhood bundled up like a marshmallow. The closest I ever came to public nudity was unzipping my parka.
I spent most of our time at the beach staring at my feet, cheeks burning. I might as well have plastered a sign to my forehead that said, “Look at me! I’m from North America and I’m extremely uncomfortable with this situation!”
Of course, I didn’t have much time to think about the topless women, because I was busy avoiding eye contact with the aggressive hawkers trying to sell us everything from a beach blanket to a massage to a mojito. I got the impression they would have sold us their kidneys if we’d offered the right price.
While I admired their tenacity, I find it hard to relax when someone is shoving a different item under my nose every 4 seconds and trying to take my money. As soon as we shooed one away, someone else would take his or her place.
Their tactics were hands on. Literally. One woman trying to sell a massage to a guy sitting beside us simply plopped down on the sand and started rubbing his back as a “preview.” She didn’t stop until the guy’s not-so-entertained wife told the woman in startlingly clear language to stop touching her husband.
Making us even more conspicuous was the fact that we didn’t have a towel or blanket to sit on. We hadn’t packed any because we didn’t want to carry them around for two weeks. So our only option was to plop ourselves directly onto the scorching hot sand, which it turns out is not exactly comfortable.
The two of us sitting awkwardly in the sand made the hawkers target us even more forcefully. We found the only way to avoid interactions was to close our eyes, lay our heads back, and feign sleep.
We stubbornly stuck it out on the beach for about an hour before both admitting we were miserable and wanted to leave.
In truth, the beach itself was beautiful and we probably would have enjoyed it had we been better prepared and less grouchy. But though we both loved Barcelona, our time at the beach was not the highlight of our visit to the city.
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