If you’re in Barcelona and you fancy getting out and about on a bike for a few hours then you could do a lot worse than checking out Steel Donkey Bike Tours.
These guys have been around the block and are consistently recommended on TripAdvisor as a great way to see the city on two wheels.
They kindly asked me to join them one morning, and so, feeling like a modern-day Sancho Panza and on a very comfy set of wheels from Green Bikes, we set off from Plaça George Orwell with our guide whose name escapes me.
This lapse in memory is no reflection on the guide himself. He led the tour extremely well and was always ready to answer my questions. The groups are small, usually no more than 4 or 5, so I certainly felt there was opportunity to pick his brain.
Our first stop was the monument in Plaça de Sant Miquel. This is a sculpture I’d seen before but never realised it’s significance. Far from being a collection of large twisted coat hangers it is an homage to castellers, the people who form the human towers so revered throughout Catalonia. It is a symbol of the strength, cohesion and teamwork that goes into making these towers of people.
We continued to wind our way through the Gótico, Barcelona’s old district, stopping in Plaça de Sant Jaume, past the ancient Jewish synagogue, thought to be one of the oldest in Europe and on to the no longer so secret, Plaça de Sant Felip Neri.
We passed the cathedral cloisters and grand entrance, stopping for explanations from our guide when necessary. We crossed Via Laietana into the district of Sant Pere, Santa Caterina i la Ribera and stopped outside Santa Caterina market, one of my favourites in Barcelona.
Our guide explained to us the significance of ‘Forat de la Vergonya’ (the Hole of Shame). This plaça close to the neighbourhood of El Born was once a battle ground between residents and developers. After developers knocked down old buildings in the area, and before any new building actually started, the residents began planting flowerbeds and set up a community allotment. They reclaimed the land and were eventually backed by the council. It remains to this day one of the largest community areas in Barcelona.
A brief shower forced a coffee break on Carrer Comerç and a stop at Carrer del Petons, the Kissing Street. The unlikely but romantic story behind this street name is that it was the place prisoners on death row in the nearby Ciutadella (citadel or fortress) were led through on their way to their execution, the final place they were allowed to say goodbye to family and share kisses. Whether true or not, you will find couples exchanging a kiss here on February 14th each year.
These little snippets are what you get from Steel Donkey. This wasn’t a scheduled stop, in fact there generally is no prescribed route, so even if you hire a bike yourself and follow the route that we did you wouldn’t get the insight you do with a guide and the route could be slightly different each time. I guess that’s what you pay for.
We cycled past the impressive Arc de Triomf, the grand entrance for the 1888 World Fair, and continued to Plaça de les Glòries Catalanes and the district of Poblenou. After stops at the Design Museum and the Torre Agbar we went for lunch on the Rambla del Poblenou at L’Aliança de Poble Nou which was very nice and a chance to go over our route so far (the lunch is not included in the price).
For me the highlight of the journey was our next stop, Poblenou Cemetery. I have a bit of a cemetery fascination and although not as extensive as the one on Montjuïc this is a wonderful cemetery to explore if you’re into that sort of thing. The ‘Kiss of Death’ sculpture alone is worth the visit, I could have stared at it for an hour. Death is in the form of a winged skeleton kissing a man on the forehead. Underneath is written:
“His young heart is thus extinguished. The blood in his veins grows cold. And all strength has gone. Faith has been extolled by his fall into the arms of death. Amen.”
We joined the beach at Poblenou and continued along the beachfront, passed Port Olímpic and Gehry’s fish, along to Barceloneta, Port Vell and the Maritime Museum. We stopped at the very assuming Post Office building at the bottom of Via Laietana before heading down Carrer Gignàs and back to Plaça George Orwell colloquially known as Plaça Tripi due to the amount of drug-taking that went on there at one time or another.
This was a thoroughly enjoyable 4 or 5 hours that takes you on a tour across an extensive part of Barcelona. I learnt a ton about places I’d walked past a number of times. Guided trips aren’t so bad after all. As long as the guide isn’t holding an umbrella in the air for you to follow.
Steel Donkey Bike Tours depart every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday at 10am. The price is €35 per person. Do check the website for details though. And as always, I’d encourage you to read the reviews on TripAdvisor too!