Can former nomads find freedom again travelling with young kids? Bridget de Maine lets her little ones set the pace in Barcelona.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a long-haul flight is infinitely longer for those travelling with children. Yet here we are, shifting our 18-month old son between our laps while our four-year-old daughter sprawls across an aisle seat. Of all the things Ben and I have done in our previous lives – hiked through the crevasses of Kyrgyzstan to yurts warmed by turd-fire; scrambled to the top of a Guatemalan volcano; flagged down an overnight bus bound for Aleppo – taking our two small children from Sydney to Barcelona currently seems the most ill-advised decision of the lot.
It’s a selfish pursuit, of course. When two of four family members would be satisfied with a trip to the zoo, this is our self-serving attempt to reclaim a sense of us. We’re after adventure. We’re after spontaneity, freedom, cheap wine… and we’ve decided to take two young kids to Barcelona to find it. What could possibly go wrong?
Yes, you can stay somewhere cool
We check into The Hoxton, Poblenou, an elegant jumble of vintage furniture and local art, just 15 minutes north of the Gothic Quarter by metro. Tiled in Catalan terracotta and furnished with a deep bathtub, dining area and kitchenette, there’s something for all of us in our “Homey” room – pink velvet couch bed for Delfina, a cushy cot with nappy pail for Atticus and, for us, medicinally strong coffee bags from local roastery Three Marks Coffee. Turns out families are as common here as designer sneakers. We pass prams in the ground-floor bodega, which is stocked with lo-fi wines and tinned fish, and even at the incredible Tope, the rooftop bar and Mexican eatery with an uninterrupted glimpse of La Sagrada Familia’s scaly spires. With a setup like this, staying in for the kids and their jet lag isn’t a hardship.
Yes, galleries can be good with kids (kind of)
We go bold for our first outing, with a morning at Fundació Joan Miró near the lively neighbourhood of Poble Sec. We cut through the peaceful Parc de Montjuïc and as Atticus toddles compliantly and Delfi picks flowers, I briefly entertain the idea that we did something right. Upon entry (free for children under 15), the littlest is suddenly possessed by the necessity to move. He chases after Miró’s spherical sculptures, shouting “ball!” and readying his arms to collect them. Delfi allows only short pit stops at the hovering, cosmic dream of Painting (1925) and the celestial The gold of the azure (1967), a fit of scribbles and hot yellow. I regret everything.
Thankfully, the boxy, Rationalist building has pockets of outdoor space throughout. In these areas, the dynamic shifts. On one terrace, Atticus sits and quietly begins herding white pebbles into an imaginary pen. Delfi takes the existence of a gathering as an invitation to loudly deliver a self-composition, “The River Song”, to visitors taking pictures of the city below us. Away from the art, the absence of rules seems to calm them.
We sprint through the remaining collection and collapse in a quiet courtyard next to the museum café. There’s a circle of cushions, picture books, pencils and paper laid on the decking and the kids wordlessly invite themselves to enjoy it. Delfi scribbles on some cardboard. “This postcard’s for you, Mama!” she says, writing in hieroglyphics. We all sit, silently. Two minutes turn into 20. Ben and I order cortado after cortado, relaxing into the morning as expectations loosen their grip.
Yes, art can be family-friendly
Poblenou’s incredible IDEAL Centre D’Arts Digitals is a place that’s actually enjoyable for the whole family (free for kids under three). In between placards detailing Salvador Dalí’s fascination with theoretical physics, there are tablets set at reachable heights for virtual colouring. The kids soon gravitate towards a huge screen populated with crowds of surrealist eyes that fling around when you poke them. Finally, things they’re allowed to touch. The main event is the projection room, where Dalí’s dizzying compositions spring to life on walls, floors and ceilings in a 30-minute loop. Delfi sits on a stool, stupefied, while Atticus is energised into chasing the projections around the delightfully hazard-free room. I’m also mesmerised by the live rendering, as the artist’s famous stilted elephants and melting clock faces liquify, pixelate, vaporise, collapse and split, like a dropped puzzle resolving itself.
No, you don’t have to eat at 10pm
Spaniards are notorious for their evening meals, which often stretch late into the night. After a few years of evenings that have stretched late into the night without our consent, we’d actually like to avoid “late into the night”, thanks. But when do we eat in a city of night owls?
At the Mercado de la Boqueria, the answer is: whenever. Folded into the narrow streets of the Gothic Quarter, this touristy knot of food stalls is an all-day affair so, at a totally unrespectable 5pm, we pull up stools at Bar Boqueria and test the classics. The kids eat everything – the jamón, pan con tomate, even the pricey, salt-crusted anchovies – and we chalk up the spontaneous stall selection as a success. Other local favourites open earlier, too. On Sundays, El Born’s Eldiset opens at 6pm, securing us a second successful night of early evening grazing. The sizable list of low-intervention wines from Catalonia keeps us grown-ups happy (and the ubiquitous croquettes achieve the same for the kids).
No, Park Güell isn’t the only Gaudí
We didn’t plan on visiting Gaudí’s Casa Vicens but tickets for the wildly popular Sagrada Família are exhausted for the few days we’re in town. There’s only a trickle of people at this Modernist summer house (free for kids under 11) and I can’t understand why. It’s a thrilling collision of a Moorish-red exterior, florid ceilings and geometrically sliced shutters on a peaceful Gràcia street. With ice-creams in hand, we wind deeper into the neighbourhood, heading for the metro. The streets open into a plaza, walled by modern apartment blocks. It’s teeming with kids; there’s a tangle over a jungle gym, while some are pinging their soccer balls to parents. The spontaneous discovery takes me off guard. I’m soothed by the familiarity of the sight and thrilled by its unfamiliar setting. The kids fold into the crowd and we rest on a bench. Lingering on the unexpected is one of the gifts of travel and also happens to be a child’s specialty. Travelling with Delfi and Atticus forces Ben and me to pause in places that weren’t on our hit list. Our kids aren’t (always) obstacles to discovery – sometimes they’re facilitators.
Image credit: Raquel Guiu