It’s 3:15am on a cold March morning, which by my reckoning is officially the dead of night. It’s a time that’s probably a bit too late for night owls, but also too early for even the earliest of risers. Most people will only ever get up at this time if they are off to catch a flight with a budget airline – airports charge more to airlines for a takeoff slot in the middle of the day, so if you want a truly low fare, you’ll most likely be heading off at this sort of unsociable hour.
We’re part of this not-very-exclusive club today, heading off to Barcelona to photograph Cabin Max’s latest carry-on – the Icon 2.0 and also to give it a thorough road-test too.
The Icon 2.0, as you may have guessed, is the second generation version of one of Cabin Max’s best sellers and features a number of notable improvements over the original. Something that hasn’t changed though, is that it will happily be accepted on over 20 European airlines but has been specifically designed to fit the strict 55x40x20cm cabin luggage dimensions of airlines like Ryanair, Aer Lingus, Thompson and Thomas Cook.
We’ve all experienced that moment of trepidation when it comes to putting your luggage in the sizer to ensure it is compact enough for the airline’s regulations. There’s no such moment when travelling with the Icon. It may seem obvious but as the Icon is made of sturdy, robust ABS thermoplastic, there is no worrying about your belongings bulging out if you over-pack, as can be the case with some soft-sided bags, even if they are built to the correct size regulations. The Icon breezed through the Ryanair luggage sizer under the beady eye of the Ryanair check-in staff.
By 10am local time we had touched down in Barcelona. It’s a small but nice feature of Barcelona that El Prat airport is so close to the city centre – 20 minutes was all it took to get to our apartment on the Passeige de Gracia. Taxis are plentiful in Barcelona and reasonable in price – if there are a few of you and you aren’t entirely sure of your destination they can be preferable to public transport.
After a quick pit stop at our apartment (more on that later) we were off and out into the city with the Icon. Let’s not beat around the bush, we were going to walk a lot of miles with the Icon today – probably more than the average person would cover in several years of using the case, and on surfaces that are a world away from the smooth airport tiles that most trolleys are designed for.
The Passeig de Gracia is one of many pretty avenues in the centre of Barcelona. We’d barely walked out of the door when we came across one of Barcelona’s biggest draws – Casa Batlló, one of several architectural masterpieces by Antoni Gaudí. It is amazing to think that this striking building is a heavy renovation of an existing building, such is the weird, wacky and abstract nature of the transformation. Whilst the spectacle of Casa Batlló is something to behold, it really is the incredible attention to detail that defines this building. If you are lucky enough to visit, make sure to look beyond the big, bold features and focus on the small intricacies, like the stained glass windows or the beautiful mosaics.
Early March turned out to be a great time to visit Barcelona, as it meant that architectural marvels like Casa Batlló weren’t obscured by the trees that often line most of Barcelona’s avenues. This might be one of the better times of year to visit Barcelona if you are an architecture aficionado thanks both to the lack of vegetation, but also due to the reduced visitor numbers.
On towards the Placa de Catalunya and after just a few minutes walking through Barcelona, something that becomes apparent is how wonderfully clean and tidy the streets are. This is a city that is very proud of its appearance and it shows. Head to the popular landmarks of some cities midway through the day and you’ll be greeted with a mornings worth of litter and debris. Not so in Barcelona. Placa de Catalunya was both beautiful and spotless in the mid-day sun. As well as being a great photoshoot location for us, this picturesque square is a lovely place to sit and people-watch as locals and tourists alike chase pigeons, gander at the beautiful fountains and skip across the smooth marble plaza.
After breezing over the seamless paving of the Placa de Catalunya, the Icon’s next test would be the narrow, medieval, often cobbled streets of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter. We can quite easily understand how you might lose a whole afternoon in this characterful and intricate labyrinth of streets and squares. It is very easy to get lost in the narrow, tall passageways that weave their way through the quarter. The mixture of medieval and Roman buildings mean that this is an area with a variety of pavement surfaces, lots of steps and occasional cobbled sections – a nightmare for a trolley suitcase in other words – but the Icon managed fine, with its wheels skipping over the tough surfaces and shaking off any impacts I managed to give it when thumping up curbs. It’s just as well that it coped as there was a wonderful variety of specialist and alternative shops here that mean you might have your eyes on the window displays rather than the path ahead; we stumbled across a record shop with many rare vinyl’s inside, next to a shop that sold beautiful handmade dresses; there really is something for everyone.
This isn’t a district to rush through; take your time and appreciate the many pretty squares you will inevitably find, like that next to the Parroquia de Santa Anna church which offers a quiet, reflective environment in contrast to the hustle and bustle of the main streets. Placa Reial offers what feels like a taste of Cuba to your Catalonian jaunt, whilst also showcasing many pleasant café’s and street performers too. On a side note, the Gothic Quarter and La Rambla are pickpocket hotspots, so make sure you keep valuables close to hand. We used the Icon’s integrated lock to enhance our security – a handy addition in an age where zips are no hindrance to an experienced criminal.
We decided to take the Photo-postcard edition of the Icon to Barcelona, as we thought it would really stand out amongst Barcelona’s picturesque streets. It certainly did, garnering looks of approval at all stages of our journey and even a thumbs up from one couple at Barcelona’s beautiful modern port area, Port Vell.
Port Vell is a large floating complex extending out into Barcelona harbor, housing an Aquarium and numerous restaurants. We got some great shots of the Icon in front of the complex, but also used it to test the how robust the wheels were. The slatted wooden decking provides high frequency vibrations that can shake spinner wheels to bits, but the Icon 2.0 experienced no such problems, thanks to the improved multidirectional spinner wheels we fitted to this second generation case.
Port Vell was constructed as part of a regeneration program to prepare the city for hosting the 1992 Olympics – an event is widely believed to be one of the most successful Olympic games ever and one that arguably turned Barcelona into the global city it is today. The city’s regenerative model for the Olympic saw only 10% the $11 billion investment spent on sporting venues, with the rest contributing towards large scale improvements to transport, irrigation and much more. You can see evidence of this all over the city, with infrastructure notably better than several cities I could mention. The vast majority of the sports venues are still in heavy use too. The main stadium may be without a permanent tenant, but almost all of the other venues built for the games, from equestrian to tennis and swimming, are still being used heavily for their intended purpose.
Back to the Icon, and with well over 6 miles under its belt on a variety of surfaces, it still felt tight as a drum as we wheeled it into our apartment at the end of a long first day. As we were visiting out of season, we got a fantastic deal for a palatial apartment on Booking.com. These skyrocket in price in high season, as you’d expect, but if you are visiting from October to April, consider an apartment instead of a hotel. They offer a much more characterful experience and you generally get more bang for your buck!
Day 2 and we wandered down to the Placa de Catalunya to hop on one of Barcelona’s many tour busses. We used these in conjunction with an i-Venture card to get a discount. The i-Venture scheme allows cardholders to get up to 40% off many popular attractions in Barcelona and in some cases lets them skip to the head of the queue too. You pay an upfront fee which varies depending on how many attractions you plan to visit, but it is worth keeping an eye on the website for any offers which may reduce the price of the card for your visit. We used it in conjunction with Barcelona City tours and found it useful. The Icon 2.0 weighs in at 2.6kg which is a handy 0.5kg lighter than the previous version – small savings in weight really add up when you are carrying a case up a flight of bus stairs I can tell you!
First stop for us was the promenade at Barceloneta beach. At the time we visited, March 2016, the areas around the beach were being refurbished in preparation for the summer high season so there were a few construction vehicles around, but nonetheless this is a nice place to sit and watch surfers riding the waves. Most likely this beach will be packed in the summer months so take advantage of its clean and quiet nature in the winter months if you can.
Most tour busses will take you past the Sagrada Família – a Gaudi-designed Temple that combines Art Nouveau and Gothic influences into one of the wildest buildings ever seen. As you arrive, you’ll be in no doubt that this is very much still a huge and active construction site – cranes sit along side the huge spires and large areas, both inside and outside are partitioned off from the public. This could probably be considered one of the longest running construction projects in history, with initial groundbreaking taking place 134 years ago in 1882.
Park Guell is one of the most popular attractions in Barcelona, offering a spectacular view over the majority of the city from its vantage point in the west. It is another example of Gaudi’s impact on Barcelona and is typical of his style, with large expanses of dazzlingly detailed mosaics and intricately sculpted rock structures. The vast majority of the park is free to enter, but Gaudi’s mosaics are in an area that costs money to enter. That’s fine as the area in question does offer a fantastic view and probably requires a lot of upkeep, but don’t go expecting to be able to get into this part of the park for free. Park Guell gets quite crowded in the middle of the day, but is open from 8am to 9.30pm; visit in the morning or evening for a more relaxed experience.
One place that is definitely best experienced in the evening is Montjuic. Situated on a hill overlooking the city and home to a lot of the city’s Olympic facilities, as mentioned earlier, but the main reason you should visit is because of the staggering view out over Barcelona. We headed up at sunset to take some pictures in the ‘golden hour’ before sunset and enjoyed the most incredible view across the city as the sun went down. This is a view that has been incorporated into many music videos and adverts and even as a backdrop to the diving at the Olympics and you can see why; it simply never gets old. We used the wonderful light to get some great pictures of our Toulouse and Danube bags, with the Icon 2.0 holding our photo gear and coping well with being pulled over the semi-loose gravel that occupies a lot of surfaces here.
Walk further along and after enjoying the Olympic stadium, make sure to have a wander in the pleasant Jardins de Joan Maragull gardens which meander down towards the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya and the spectacular ‘magic fountain’. A spectacular light and music show involving the fountain occurs mostly on Friday & Saturday nights at half an hour intervals. Thursday and Sunday shows occur during the high season too and show times are generally quite variable so make sure you check the Barcelona Tourism website to ensure you can attend one of these vivid and colourful events.
With our 48 hours in Barcelona drawing to a close it was time to reflect on the Icon 2.0. Over the course of two days it had been pulled more than ten miles on a variety of tough surfaces including cobbles, decking and gravel and taken on numerous bumps, curbs and steps without missing a beat. Seeing as most trollies only really see action on smooth airport concourses, this was a very good showing for a suitcase that costs so little. We also found the integrated combination lock ensured peace of mind in storing our valuables, whilst the size of the bag itself was more than enough for all the clothes you could wish to take on a short city break. Most importantly, it flew through Ryanair’s luggage sizer, ensuring we were able to save time at the airport and enjoy more of Barcelona.
The more time that you spend in Barcelona, the more you realize why it is a ‘bucket list’ city for so many. There are few places in the world that are so culturally rich and even fewer that mix old and new so favorably. From the UK at least, Barcelona seems to have become a weekend city break destination; in 48 hours you will barely scratch the surface of Barcelona, but with flight prices generally reasonable and a case as robust as the Icon 2.0 at your side, you’ll be able to return again and again to experience more and more of what this world class city has to give.