Finding Magic Beyond the Guidebooks

How a trip to Paris and Barcelona taught me to travel with my eyes wide open.  
Street Map City
Go beyond the guidebooks when you're travelling. Photo: Fabiola Monteiro

We were at the top of the Eiffel Tower, the city fanning out below us. It was almost midnight, and everything – tower included – was lit up. We’d stood in long queues, shivering in the sudden chill that engulfed us that Saturday evening, and even given up our wine bottles (the glass was a potential safety hazard) to be here. This was supposed to be it – the Paris moment. But it was all incredibly underwhelming. Maybe it was the cold, maybe it was the jet lag, but it just didn’t feel special enough.

We had spent our day walking around the city, allowing our feet to lead the way for most of it. We’d seen the top sights on previous visits, so this time around, we only had a few mental markers such as the Musée de Montmartre. But en route to the cosy little shrine to the artsy district, located in the oldest building in Montmartre, I stumbled upon a street corner with artwork by Invader, the anonymous street artist who draws inspiration from the Space Invaders video game. I had first seen photographs of his wonderful mosaic street art a few years ago, and knew I was walking around in the city where he is supposed to live. But little did I know that I would turn the corner to find another piece – or that while getting hopelessly lost in Les Halles, I’d stumble upon another! Three in one day! I was ecstatic. I’d ended up ticking off a life goal that I hadn’t even planned for.

Space Invaders graffiti France

Invader’s street art mosaics in Montmartre (top and bottom left) and Les Halles (right). Photos: Fabiola Monteiro

Musee de Montmartre Paris

The building that houses the Museé de Montmartre has been home to artists like Auguste Renoir. Photo: Fabiola Monteiro

These moments that sneak up on you out of nowhere while you’re engaged in the mundane, are what I find particularly interesting. They’re often fleeting, but can happen at any time, anywhere – while waiting in a cafe, at a layover in an airport, or en route to your hotel. If you’re paying attention, it’s the little things that can become the best memories.


In his book, Homage to Barcelona, Colm Toibin writes about the laidback vibe of La Rambla, one of Barcelona’s most iconic streets. He writes, “Nobody seemed to be going anywhere in particular. Most people seemed to be idly strolling.” Apparently, since only narrow alleys ran through most of the city, the wide La Rambla emerged as a meeting place for locals when it was laid out in 1766.

Columbus monument statue

This Columbus column was erected in 1888 as a tribute to the celebrated explorer. Photo: Ed Menendez/Flickr/Creative Commons (

The boulevard is gorgeous, lined with historic buildings like the city’s opera house, Gran Teatre del Liceu. I found myself eyeing minimalist sketches at one of the numerous souvenir stalls, but when I looked up, my friends were nowhere in sight. I set out towards the pier in search of familiar faces, pulling my tote closer. Like clockwork, I wondered if I should be panicking. My knowledge of Spanish didn’t go much beyond gracias and de nada and I had no mobile connectivity. Yet, it was as though a wave of calm had washed over me. I was on my own on a street teeming with historical wonder and architectural delight. With the outstretched arm of the Christopher Columbus monument pointing to potential discoveries in front of me, everything about that moment felt unstoppable.


When I got back from Barcelona, my editor asked me what I loved most about my trip. There was a lot to choose from: I’d picnicked on an isolated beach in Ocata, bought gorgeous Dali and Warhol prints, lunched on flavourful seafood paella and 90-year-old homemade vermouth, and fallen in love with the city’s architecture and planning.

But the one memory that stubbornly took centre stage was the gastronomic bike tour we’d taken with a local couple through the city’s Gothic Quarter, Barceloneta and El Born. That sunny Tuesday morning, we dipped deep-fried churros into thermocol glasses of hot chocolate at a little churrería and saw artisanal candy being swirled on sticks at Papabubble in the Gothic Quarter.

We gobbled up bombas (fried potato balls served with a delightfully spicy sauce and aioli) at a hole-in-the-wall joint that had no signboard – ask around for La Cova Fumada (they apparently invented the dish) – in the cosy seaside neighbourhood of Barceloneta. And then in El Born, we sampled wafer-thin slices of jamón ibérico (a kind of cured Spanish ham that’s the stuff of legend) that literally melted in our mouths.

Churros Dessert

Xurreria Manuel San Roman dishes out piping-hot churros. Photo: Fabiola Monteiro

La Peninsular tapas bar Barcelona

Barceloneta is populated by tiny little tapas bars like this one. Photo: Fabiola Monteiro

The food was truly stellar, but it was riding a bicycle through the city that had me grinning like a kid with a sugar rush. As we cycled through narrow alleys, past Roman ruins and along the pier, the city opened up to us in a new way. I suddenly had to pay attention to the way the city was laid out, to its smart new orthogonal bus network and the chamfered corners at road-crossings, all signs of the discipline and planning that make Barcelona one of the smartest cities in the world.


Before leaving for Barcelona, I was incessantly worrying about the potential holes in my research. In retrospect though, the memories that sank their claws in, aren’t the ones that I’d have made if we had stuck to guidebooks. I couldn’t have seen them coming.

When you’re in a city, it’s sometimes necessary to lose your way a little. Stephanie Rosenbloom says it well in her New York Times piece on the art of getting lost. She writes, “Freedom is being guided by a mood, not a map.” I think it’s important to remember that if you do find yourself lost and alone, take it all in. If you’re on a guided tour, stay curious. Don’t stress yourself out if your plans fall through or if you don’t know where you’re headed. Walk around. That’s the good thing about travelling, there’s usually something to marvel at. Stay alert and ready.

Barcelona Architecture Spain

Barcelona’s attention to detail is evident in its intricately designed architecture. Photo: Fabiola Monteiro

That night, while descending from my disappointing visit to the top of the Eiffel Tower, we traded the long elevator wait for the stairs. My brain was working overtime trying to make sense of all the hype, when I found myself at a juncture that had the city spreading out again beneath me. This time, I wasn’t being jostled by an unwieldy crowd. I had the entire view to myself. As I stood there, taking it all in, it hit midnight in Paris. The entire tower began sparkling, and I was smack dab in the middle of it all.

Each hour, the tower sparkles (take a look in the video below). I’d seen it lit up and glittering a couple of hours earlier from the streets, but to be privy to the clockwork motions of what seemed like mechanical fireflies from the inside, was surreal. And to think that I’d so nearly rubbished it all away. If there’s one thing I learned that day, it’s to stay tuned in, because when the magic rises from the mess, you don’t want to miss it.


    Fabiola Monteiro is Features Writer on National Geographic Traveller India's web team. She loves beaches, blue skies, and baking, and is most centred while trying a new cake recipe. She tweets as @thefabmonteiro.

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