Barcelona, Spain — TRAVELING is like playing a board game.
If you spent hours as a kid trying to win at Monopoly and grew up to be a traveler, you'll know what I mean. All the possibilities for making a fortune in real estate or going to the poor house are laid out before you. You just roll the dice and occasionally make a decision, like whether to buy Park Place.
It's the same way with what I'd call "Travel: The Board Game." A few weeks ago, I played my own "Budget Europe" edition, which is to say I spent a long weekend in Barcelona. I didn't plan it. I just saw an ad for a 1 centime, or 1 cent, fare from Paris to the city of Joan Miro and Antonio Gaudi offered by European budget carrier Ryanair. So I booked it.
In the last few years, the rise of budget airlines in Europe has been breathtaking. Ryanair, EasyJet, British Midlands and a host of other companies have opened secondary cities such as Bucharest, Romania; Ljubljana, Slovenia; and Warsaw to a new class of savvy, young, cost-conscious travelers. To keep prices low, many of the airlines sell tickets only on the Internet (minimizing staff), don't offer free meals and fly, generally at inconvenient times, to airports that aren't near big city centers.
Ryanair No. 9108 left from Beauvais, about 60 miles north of Paris, at 10:10 p.m. and landed at Girona, 60 miles north of Barcelona, at 11:40 p.m., requiring bus transfers on both ends that took as long as the flights.
Guess you'd call that landing on Baltic Avenue.
And 1 centime fare, or 2 centimes round-trip, came to $65.90 with taxes and handling fees.
Add to that the price of the airport transfers, about $30 round-trip. Buses leave from central meeting points in Paris and Barcelona for Beauvais and Girona and meet all incoming flights to take passengers to the city centers. But I had the bright idea of booking a shared shuttle to Beauvais for about $50. The van picked me up at my doorstep but then became the equivalent of "Go Back Three Spaces" because it had to fetch another passenger before heading to the airport, in all a 2 1/2 -hour transfer through rush-hour traffic.
Beauvais Airport, halfway between Paris and Amiens, is clean, bright, but it serves just four airlines: Ryanair, FlyMe, Wizz and Blue Air.
I don't like arriving in strange places late at night, so I had booked a room for $85 at the Hotel Vilobi Park, across the parking lot from the airport in Girona. It was a bare-bones place, but I fell into bed exhausted, with a scratchy throat.
The next day, while waiting to board a 10:30 a.m. bus to town, I noticed a billboard for EasyJet that said, "EasyJet's Barcelona flights fly, well, to Barcelona." As it turns out, EasyJet has service to the Barcelona airport, connected by train to the city center, from Orly Airport, about 30 minutes south of Paris, for about $185 round trip.
That's what you get for jumping at a fare without checking other options.
On the up side, it was about 60 degrees and sunny in Barcelona. When I got to the bus station, I made a good move by buying a three-day Barcelona card for about $38, giving me free or discounted admission to attractions and unlimited use of the excellent public transit system.
I took the Metro from there to Placa de Catalunya, at the western end of Las Ramblas, Barcelona's main pedestrian thoroughfare, where I got my first taste of the city's zeitgeist. Old men sat on benches squinting into the sun. A fellow dressed as revolutionary leader Che Guevara was giving a speech and collecting coins from passersby.
It was an easy walk to the Hotel Colon across the square from Barcelona's landmark Gothic cathedral, where I booked a room for $195 a night. The city has a range of accommodation choices, from budget pensions to the five-star Ritz. I chose the old-fashioned Colon because of its location. My roomy fourth-floor double had a balcony overlooking the cathedral and the rooftops of medieval Barcelona, a magical neighborhood full of churches, pocket squares and museums.
I was tempted to take a nap because by now my scratchy throat had matured into a full-fledged cold. Getting sick on a trip is as bad as getting a "You Are Assessed for Street Repairs" card in Monopoly.
But with little more than 48 hours to see Barcelona, I pushed on, reviving over a cappuccino at the heavenly smelling Bon Mercat coffee shop tucked behind the cathedral.
From there, I rambled down Carrer del Argenteria to peek in at the 14th century basilica of Santa Maria del Mar and visit the Picasso museum, in a series of handsomely renovated town houses on Carrer de Montcada. It follows the Catalonian artist through his school days, early experimentation with Impressionism, Fauvism, Surrealism and Cubism, and mature work too varied to be summed up in an "ism."