Context Travel Barcelona: Story within History

“Christopher Columbus had a pocketful of beans.” This engaging imagery bridged our two Context Travel Barcelona tours: Gothic Quarter and City of Chocolate.

Arriving in a city we’d never visited, we welcomed the opportunity to acclimate ourselves by taking two Context Travel Barcelona tours: City of Chocolate and Gothic Quarter. Little did we realize a single engaging story would bridge and overlap these two seemingly unrelated approaches to educating and entertaining us with Barcelona’s fascinating history and tasty legacy.

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Roman arches in the former Old City wall

Christopher Columbus, whose ancestry is claimed by Catalunya in an ongoing dispute with Italy, Portugal and other parts of Spain, had returned to Barcelona rather triumphantly from the New World. Commissioned by the Crown of Aragon (in the personages of Ferdinand and Isabella) to explore new routes to India and lay claim to any discoveries in its name, he was back with a number of treasures – live turkeys, pineapples, tobacco, woven hammocks, and almost as an afterthought, a handful of cacao beans.

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Without old Chris, there wouldn’t be this!

The story goes that Columbus awaited his audience with the Sovereigns in the courtyard where we were standing in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter. While our Context Travel Barcelona guide pointed out architectural clues as to what had occurred over the centuries as the buildings were repurposed, I daydreamed. Columbus hadn’t been particularly lucky during his explorations: one of his ships had sunk, he’d failed in his original mission, there were huge navigational mistakes during the voyage, and he’d narrowly escaped mutiny. He must have been pretty nervous, I thought, in the moments before they called him in. Perhaps he was wondering whether he could live up to the self-congratulatory hype in the letter announcing his arrival which had precipitated this meeting?

Gothic elements in every facet of construction
Gothic elements in every facet of construction

Later the same day, on our second tour with Context Travel Barcelona – the City of Chocolate tour – we heard more. Columbus hadn’t a clue what his pocketful of beans was for. While he observed that they were used to make a drink popular in the New World, its bitter taste was unappealing in the Old. Not until about a hundred years later would drinking sweetened chocolate become palatable with courtiers and nobles. And a hundred more would pass before mere mortals, like us, would be granted access to the deliciousness.

Context Travel Barcelona provided us with passionate docents, Sonia and Esther, who were enthusiastic experts in architecture and chocolate, respectively. As we walked pre-arranged routes, Sonia and Esther deftly acquainted us with the subject matter by using a variety of senses.

With our eyes, we observed Roman, medieval and modern architectural elements juxtaposed together.

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Roman temple columns remain along with newer construction around them

We learned to spot the faux Gothic. These were 19th-century attempts at “Disney-fication” in the Quarter, which sought to prettify things ahead of Barcelona’s Universal Exposition in 1888.

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How faux can you go? A 19th-century bridge between two original Gothic buildings. Your clue? It’s too perfect.

With our ears, we heard the stories of incredible feats of Medieval engineering.

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Barcelona Cathedral

We were told about the Guilds of tradesmen and artisans, of Christians and Jews keeping their own communities, of politicians and merchants who built the city’s fabled wealth.

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Synagogue stones in the El Call Jewish section of the Gothic Quarter

To our noses came fragrant aromas in the narrow streets of the Quarter and the boulevards of the newer Eixample part of the city.

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Narrow streets in the Gothic Quarter

With our fingertips, we traced the textures of history.

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The Roman wall, with younger fill-ins

And oh, did we ever taste. Cups of rich, hot chocolate devoured with whipped cream by the spoonful.

Thick chocolate in a cup with whipped cream by the spoonful
Thick chocolate in a cup with whipped cream by the spoonful

Flavored confections and sculpted sugary fruits. Chocolate married with floral flavors, salty notes and unexpected spices.

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Confections and goodies

By the end of our day with Context Travel Barcelona, we were satiated. We had been given an in-depth look at the city’s layers of heritage from ancient times until today. This valuable perspective would affect the rest of our impressions of Barcelona during our stay. We had tasted almost too much chocolate, never dreaming this could even be a possibility, loving it as we do! And we will always remember the story of Christopher Columbus, nervously waiting to be called into the Court of Aragon, with a pocket full of New World beans.

Puckering up with the signature chocolate lips from Escribà
Puckering up with the signature chocolate lips from Escribà

Pinnable Images:

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Practicalities, Tips and Information:

Context Travel’s vision is to “bring together local specialists with curious travelers to educate and impassion them; to allow them access to places and cultures that might otherwise remain out of sight to the casual visitor; to invite them off the tourist track and into the real life of the people, history and culture that makes these capitals, destinations.” Context provides specialty tours in more than 30 cities and four continents. Context Travel Barcelona offers private guides and small group walking tours for those who are seeking in-depth experiences in history, gastronomy, art, architecture and other cultural aspects. No more than 6 guests per tour. Prices begin at just over 80€ per person for small groups, just over 345€ for private guides. Tours last around 3 hours, and some include more walking than you may be used to; wear comfortable shoes!

We’ve taken Context Tours all over the world. They are wonderful and highly recommended. Learn More.

Note: We were guests of Context Travel Barcelona in conjunction with TBEX for these two tours. All opinions are our own.

Tips for Trip Success

Book Your Flight
Find an inexpensive flight by using Kayak, a favorite of ours because it regularly returns less expensive flight options from a variety of airlines.

Book Your Hotel or Special Accommodation
We are big fans of We like their review system and photos. If we want to see more reviews and additional booking options, we go to Expedia.

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alison abbott

Monday 20th of July 2015

I love the way you have woven these two tours together Betsy. Context Travel does a really good job. I also took the Chocolate Tour and Ester was loaded with information to bring the history to life. I have taken one of their tours in Boston and learned so much about the city I've lived in all my adult life!

Betsy Wuebker

Monday 20th of July 2015

Hi Alison - Yes, they certainly do a great job, don't they? We're looking forward to touring with Context again in Istanbul next month. I'd love to spend a tour date with them in the U.S.!

Sue Reddel

Sunday 19th of July 2015

I just adore Barcelona and your tour sounds wonderful. I'm wondering if you visited the Museu de la Xocolata. We did a few years back and it was a hoot. Loved the candy lips you and Pete had some fun with shows the light-hearted spirit of Barcelona.

Karen Warren

Sunday 19th of July 2015

The great thing about walking tours like that is that they show you things you wouldn't have found for yourself. I certainly hadn't made the connection between Columbus and chocolate before.

Irene S. Levine

Saturday 18th of July 2015

Hands down, the Gothic quarter is my very favorite part of Barcelona. It sounds like your Context Travel Tours were terrific!

Betsy Wuebker

Saturday 18th of July 2015

Hi Irene - They really were. We fell in love with Barcelona and it's in no small part to the excellent introduction we had with the tours we took.

Lois Alter Mark

Thursday 16th of July 2015

How did I miss that chocolate tour?! Barcelona is one of my favorite cities but we definitely weren't there long enough. I'd love to go back and take those tours and learn more about the city's fascinating history. Thanks for letting me go virtually with you!

Betsy Wuebker

Saturday 18th of July 2015

Hi Lois - We're big fans of Context Travel for that very reason. They seem to offer a little bit of extra that goes a long way toward enjoyment and understanding.