The monumental neo-Gothic Church of the Sacred Heart  of Jesus, on the summit of Tibidabo, overlooking Barcelona.

The monumental neo-Gothic Church of the Sacred Heart  of Jesus, on the summit of Tibidabo, overlooking Barcelona.

Editor’s note: In March, our writer Vanessa Salvia accompanied some friends and their 2-year-old son to Barcelona, where her friends were participating in a conference. Here, she shares what it was like to fly overseas, and the highlights of her experience there.

It’s been said that traveling is the only thing we buy that actually makes us richer, and I wholeheartedly agree. Getting out of the country, seeing how others live, and stretching outside your comfort zone, can actually lead to better health.

I’ve always wanted to travel outside the United States, and now that I’ve done it, I know it’s both fun and attainable.

Getting there

I went with two friends and their young son. The longest I’d been on a plane was six hours, so looking ahead to a 10-hour flight to Amsterdam felt long and daunting. It wasn’t so bad, and here’s why: First, I splurged on a good set of noise-canceling headphones because the idea of listening to plane noise for that long seemed very unpleasant. I highly recommend making the investment, as my headphone substantially cut down on plane noise, and provided the opportunity to listen to music or watch an in-flight movie.

Overseas flights use bigger airplanes, which allowed me to move around the cabin to stretch my legs. And despite all the snacks we brought, our airline kept us well-fed. We received a menu of three entrees to choose from, and all drinks (even beer and wine) are free. I watched in-flight movies and TV shows, played games and even got some sleep. The time actually went by faster than I had expected.

Money is often something travelers are nervous about when going abroad, so being able to exchange money before leaving the United States, and having an international ATM next to our apartment in Spain that actually allowed me to withdraw money from my U.S.-based bank in the form of euros, was very comforting. There is even a taxi app that allows you to hail and pay a cab using your bank account, thus avoiding the transfer of money. There are abundant options for public transportation, but since we had a baby and stroller, we opted for cab rides, most of which were less than $20 per ride.

Speaking of expenses, I was surprised at how affordable it was to fly overseas, especially considering the current cost of domestic flights. We bought our tickets to Barcelona only two weeks before the flight and paid $523. Contrast that with a flight to Florida, which can be $800 to $1,000. And flying to Barcelona from London was just $30 euros.

Our flight path from Eugene took us first to Seattle, then Amsterdam and finally to Barcelona. We took a cab to our apartment in a suburb of Barcelona called L’Hospitalet de Llobregat, translated roughly as “hospitality of the river Llobregat.”

Getting around

I knew enough Spanish to order my morning espresso, but Google Translate came in quite handy, especially because most of the people speak Catalan, a language with both Spanish and French influences. We often opened the translation app on our phones and held the camera over printed materials and signs, which would translate them into English on the spot. It can also translate speech using the microphone.

My travel companions booked our two-bedroom apartment through AirBnB, searching for the area, size requirements and price range. Because they had a toddler, we found a place that had a crib and high chair.

Jetlag was significant for all of us, considering the nine-hour difference. We arrived at our apartment at 3 p.m., and partly due to excitement, I didn’t get to sleep until 3 a.m., even though we had been traveling for more than 20 hours. I highly recommend trying to get your body into a natural sleep rhythm as quickly as possible. Don’t give into exhaustion and sleep during the day or you’ll never get on the right schedule.

Like a local

The sites we visited were simply marvelous. It’s Barcelona, after all. I loved our visit to see the Mediterranean Ocean, as well as our trip to Figueres, home of Salvador Dalí. We visited a museum devoted to his work and ate at the Hotel Duran, where Dalí spent a lot of time. We hired a private tour guide for this part of the trip, and it was worth the money. Our guides, Christina and Peter of ToursByLocals.com, were extremely friendly and even watched the baby while we finished our museum tour.

After Figueres, our guides drove us to the 12th-century medieval town of Besalú, where we crossed over a stunning fortified medieval bridge into the small city. Here, the Benedictine monastery of Sant Pere was founded in 977 A.D. It’s almost impossible to imagine something so old, but here we could feel, see and experience it for ourselves. One of the city’s most significant features is the well-preserved purification baths – called mikvehs – in the old Jewish quarter. These ceremonial baths are one of just four remaining in Europe.

Back in Barcelona

We walked along Las Ramblas, a beautiful tree-lined pedestrian street that leads out from the Plaça de Catalunya in the heart of the city and travels along the edge of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, or Barri Gòtic. The Gothic Quarter is a charming maze of narrow cobblestone streets, small storefronts and a mix of well-preserved buildings, some hundreds of years old co-existing with newer 19th-century brick buildings.

The Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí’s name is synonymous with Barcelona, the city where he spent most of his life. Construction on the most famous site in all of Barcelona, La Sagrada Familia, began in 1882, when Gaudí was only 30. The church is still unfinished, and construction continues all day long with a mind-boggling system of workers using ropes and pulleys. Gaudí’s La Pedrera, also known as Casa Mila, is located on the Passeig de Gràcia, one of the most important avenues in Barcelona. It’s where you’ll find the most expensive shops and the highest concentration of modernista/Art Nouveau buildings in the city. You can walk around the outside of Gaudí’s iconic buildings, but if you want a tour, I recommend purchasing the tickets in advance to avoid very long lines.

Art, even in the form of graffiti, is common all over Barcelona. American pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, for example, created El Cap de Barcelona (the Face or Head of Barcelona) for the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, and this statue and others can be found near the port area. We found the Olympic Park on a hill called Montjuïc, or “Jewish Mountain,” so-named because of Jewish graves found there. There you’ll also find a botanical garden; a museum devoted to Joan Miró (a Spanish painter, sculptor and ceramicist born in Barcelona) and the Palau Nacional, the main site of the 1929 International Exhibition and, since 1934, home to the National Art Museum of Catalonia.

Opposite Montjuïc is Tibidabo, a 1,680-feet mountain overlooking Barcelona. On Tibidabo’s summit is an amusement park and the monumental neo-Gothic Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, accessed by two grand outdoor stairways, completed in 1961. We took a taxi to Tibidabo just as sunset approached, allowing a view of the evening’s twilight enveloping the enormous bronze statue of Jesus at the top.

Good eats

With all that we saw and did, the food in Spain was one of the most satisfying aspects of our trip. Whether it was an honest-to-goodness tapas with my beer, or markets full of fresh bread, fruits and vegetables, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Our best meals were also the simplest: bread, cheese, cured ham, olives, nuts, thin slices of sausage and potatoes with a spicy mayonnaise sauce called patatas bravas.

Safety first

We read numerous articles warning about pickpockets and crime in Barcelona but took proper precautions and had no negative experiences. If you need to look at a map or dig into your backpack, step into a cafe or put your back against the wall so that no one can sneak up on you. We kept our passports and money in a zipper travel wallet that we wore around our necks. We never put our purses on the back of our chairs.

The most unpleasant parts of the trip involved waiting in long lines at the airports to have our passports scanned. But now I have two passport stamps to show for it. Even though travel can be stressful in some ways, a 2013 Stress in America survey conducted by the American Psychological Association found that vacations can help manage stress and negative emotions by removing us from environments and activities that are the sources of our stress. An earlier study conducted by researchers at the University of Surrey found that simply planning for an upcoming trip was enough to boost happiness. I’m happy, just thinking about the trip I took.

Thank you, Barcelona, for everything.

Of note

The thought of traveling, particularly when you’re facing a 10-hour flight, may seem overwhelming at first. But don’t let that stop you. Choose a small group trip so you have support or start with something closer. Cruises and tour groups specifically for older adults are well-prepared to handle special requests.

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