Bar Marsella, Barcelona

I checked into the Party Hostel Kabul, a vibrant oasis located just a 4-minute walk from the Liceu subway station. Its prime location in Plaza Real, nestled amidst the ancient streets of the old city and a stone’s throw away from the illustrious Picasso Museum, made it an irresistible choice. The name itself evoked an aura of revelry, beckoning me into a world of excitement and adventure.

Arriving exhausted, I opted for a mixed-gender dormitory and immediately crashed into bed. When I woke up at 6 pm, I refreshed myself with a shower and checked my email before venturing downstairs to explore the bustling Las Ramblas. It was there, on my way down, that I encountered a group of friendly backpackers – Brazilians, Canadians, and two adorable American sisters named Meagan and Marcy Miller from NYC.

Curious about their plans, I put on my best Southern twang and asked, “Where y’all headed?”

“Marsella, the oldest bar in Barcelona,” Meagan replied.

“Yeah, Picasso and Gaudi used to frequent that place. It’s still exactly the same as it was in 1820,” added Marcy.

Intrigued, we embarked on a journey through the charming Gothic Quarter, wandering its narrow medieval streets adorned with trendy bars and Catalan restaurants. The district, once a Roman village, juxtaposed ancient architecture with buildings from the turn of the century. Artisans sold leather and jewelry near the 15th-century Barcelona Cathedral, where a delightful courtyard housed playful geese. Meanwhile, working girls roamed the winding streets in search of love and fortune.

“10 Euros,” one of them advertised, while another whistled and winked, provoking a ripple of mixed emotions within me.

Barcelona proved to be a shopper’s paradise, offering everything from large commercial stores on Calle Portal de L’Angel to pint-sized boutiques on Calle Avinyo. Our intended 5-minute stroll turned into a 45-minute sightseeing excursion, filled with cultural attractions and delightful diversions.

Finally, we arrived at Bar Marsella, stepping into a bygone era of old Barcelona that still clung on but was slowly fading away. The walls, stained chocolate brown from years of cigarette smoke, and the century-old whiskey bottles covered in dust created an atmosphere steeped in history. Chunks of paint fell from the ceiling, while thick cobwebs adorned the vault and antique chandelier, adding to the bar’s mysterious ambiance.

Our bartender, Sebastián, greeted us warmly, boasting, “Hemingway was a regular here. We’re famous for our absinthe.”

“Really? Absinthe is banned in the US,” Meagan remarked. “They say it causes hallucinations.”

“Absinthe is a spirit, not a liquor,” corrected Sebastián with a crude smile. “And we serve 100 proof here.”

“Well, we’ve made it this far. There must be a reason why Picasso was such a great abstract artist,” Marcy quipped playfully. “I’ll buy the first round of shots.”

“You don’t drink the absinthe straight. It’s too potent and disgusting,” Sebastián said flashing a crude smile.

“Then how do we drink it? As a cocktail or a mixed drink?” I asked.

Sebastián explained that we could order it in a cocktail, mixed with a mojito, or experience the traditional French way. Intrigued, we opted for the latter.

Sebastián prepared the Marsella, a concoction of one part absinthe and five parts iced water poured over a sugar cube on a fork until it dissolved. He advised us to sip it slowly, warning of a scalding sensation if we gulped it down.

The absinthe’s wormwood and anise flavor proved acrid and potent, but the sugar mitigated the bitterness, while the water diluted the drink, making it more palatable. It was a Mediterranean ritual, marking the beginning of an extraordinary European adventure.

“Swallow this slowly,” Sebastián suggested. “Or else it could scald your throat.”

As the night progressed, Marcy exclaimed, “Ok, the next round, I wanna light it on fire.”

“You can get lit tonight Marcy as long as you live to tomorrow to tell the tale,” Meagan joked.

“And I’ll be sure to wake you up early so we can catch the beautiful Barcelona sunrise,” I added, raising my eyebrows for emphasis.

The next morning, Marcy and I caught a glimpse of the first rays peeking over the Mediterranean Sea at Port Olímpic.  Built in 1991, the marina hosted water sports and sailing for the ’92 Summer Olympics. 

We ran on the spacious stretch of sand alongside sculptures of sea life to the Barceloneta fishing village.  Then we ran past the ferry station and the largest Marine Aquarium in Europe.

“We went there yesterday,” Marcy said, pointing to it’s unique, cylindrical shape. “It’s a Mediterranean-themed aquarium, and they have a large tunnel which gives you the feeling that you are swimming with the sharks.”

“I would love to pay a visit, but I’m running out of time here. Where else did you guys go?”

“We visited Camp Nou. Meagan and I are both Barcelona FC fanatics.”

“Is that right? I’m a big fan of Lionel Messi, too. He’s the greatest of all time.”

As we ran past the World Trade Center, we saw Christopher Columbus pointing to the distant west over an ornate Corinthian column.

“The hostel staff told me that this is the top tourist spot in town,” Marcy stated

We stopped to admire the statue and then approached to read the plaque. 

Monumento a Colón — constructed for the Exposición Universal de Barcelona in 1888. Location of the site where Columbus returned to Spain after his first voyage to the Americas. The monument serves as a reminder that Barcelona is where Christopher Columbus reported to Queen Isabella and Ferdinand after Columbus’ most famous trip.

“Columbus is revered as a hero in this country,” I observed.

“But he’s not adored back home,” Marcy countered. “Many consider him a villain who embraced slavery, colonialism, brutality, and the theft of indigenous land.”

After discussing the significance of the memorial and watching people starting to accumulate, we ran back along the tree-lined promenade on La Rambla. 

“So now that you’re retired from the Navy and pursuing your MBA, do you plan on working for the government?” Marcy inquired.

“I’m not entirely sure. Ideally, I’d like to pursue something entrepreneurial, where I can help people and continue traveling, both overseas and within the US.”

“How old are you?”

“42, and you?”

“24, I thought you were a lot younger.”

“Age is how you perceive it.” I replied with a grin.

Returning to the hostel, we witnessed fellow backpackers emerging for breakfast, enjoying sweet rolls with jam and café con leche. Meagan descended the stairs, stretching her arms and yawning before giving her sister a warm hug.

“Glad you’re alive after last night.”

“We’re very much alive. We ran three miles and saw many Barcelonians jogging,” Marcy uttered. “The city is most spectacular at the crack of dawn.”

“So I’m sorry to see you go tomorrow,” Marcy said with a twinge of sadness. “Where’s your next adventure?”

“Normandy, France, then off to London to see my folks. You guys should join me.”

“Well, it’s not like we have much going on. What do you think Meagan?”

“Thanks for the invitation, but we really have so much more to see and do in Barcelona.”

“Like what?” Marcy inquired, a hint of displeasure in her voice.

“Well, for starters, we have to indulge in the obligatory girly thing and do some more shopping on La Rambla. And secondly, we still have many museums to explore, such as the Picasso Art Museum.”

“Those things are important, but recognizing the sacrifices of the greatest generation is priceless,” Marcy replied, emphasizing the significance of their chosen activities.

Our time together in Barcelona was a whirlwind of adventure, laughter, and thought-provoking conversations. We forged bonds with fellow travelers, experienced the city’s rich history and culture, and indulged in its vibrant nightlife. As I bid farewell to Meagan and Marcy, I carried with me fond memories and a renewed sense of wanderlust, eager to embark on my next escapade in Normandy and beyond.