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Chapter 3 - Barcelona
We awoke on the train when our compartment-mates stared moving around. The sun was up and the ride was a breeze compared to the overnight plane trip we'd taken to get to España. We'd had our doubts when we first saw the train's tiny cabin but now I'm sold on the concept - it got us from Granada to Barcelona cheaper than a flight and saved us a night's expense in a hotel.
The Mediterranean was flashing by outside the train windows. Cataluna, the section of España in the eastern corner, is much greener than the area around Madrid. It's a hilly region just south of France along the coast. Barcelona is the capitol and its people speak Catalan instead of Castillian Spanish. Franco tried to put a stop to that but since his death local pride has soared. The language is like a mix of Castillian Español and Francais, but closer to the familiar version of Español so it comes out sounding (and spelling) like mushy Español. Fortunately, almost all the locals speak Castillian Español as well, in addition to healthy doses of English and Francais. (If all that fails, just point at what you want and hand 'em the money.)
At the station we caught a cab to our hotel, in the most Catalonian neighborhood in Barcelona, Gracia. Barcelonenses are a shade lighter than their cousins to the southwest but they smile almost as much as the Granadans, making Madrid seem dour and ugly by comparison. It's like the difference between New Yorkers and Atlantans. Probably not coincidentally, the cities also compare in size - 3 million in Barcelona compared to the 4.5 in Madrid. It would be an interesting sociological study - at what point is critical mass, the point where people just don't seem happy any more? And is it a matter of density, or an overall population total?
Sociology aside, the architecture in Barcelona is enough to keep me smiling. Tons of Art Nouveau/Modernista buildings by Gaudi and company, on streets with wide pedestrian avenues and shady trees. It is, perhaps, the most beautiful city I've seen. I've seen more picturesque towns, but no city of that size has me smiling on looks alone. Add to that a smiling, attractive populace, a museum on every block, the food and the nightlife and you've got a fantastic city. Only the tourists and the language confusion are its drawbacks, and we were tourists ourselves. We quickly got past the language barrier and bonded with the guy behind the counter of the restaurant, Bar Tip Tip, next door to our hotel.
We got a bite and a quick siesta then hit the streets. A few blocks down we stumbled onto Casa Mila, AKA La Pedrera, a large apartment building designed by Gaudi. Outside, it looks like a wavy, slightly melted building that might have some interested stuff inside.
You can catch a glimpse of the freakadelic cloud-like ceilings in the ground floor bank, and a hint of what's going on up on the roof from the street, but the only way to really get the full effect is to take the tour. They've converted one of the upper floor apartments into a museum that houses period furniture. The doorframes, ceilings, and balconies all have that organic curviness of the Art Nouveau period. This particular building is less busy than some of Gaudi's others. Clean lines, open space, and everything in white or light colors all help give the building an open, airy feeling. The inner courtyard and some of the entrance halls hint at how colorful and busy his work can get, but Casa Mila is comparatively simple. The attic has been renovated and currently houses a multimedia exhibit explaining Gaudi's methods and a bunch of models of his buildings. From there you can catch the stairs to the rooftop terrace, a freaky series of steps, balconies and towers that reminded me of an amusement park.
The towers are supposed to symbolize soldiers but they're done in such an abstract form that they look more like abstracted vegetables and phalluses. The view of Barcelona is impressive as well. On weekend nights in the summer they have a party up there after dark, complete with live music. We passed by later and the line for that event went down the block so we gave it a miss.
We decided to splurge for degenerate SW's 30th birthday and got an expensive meal at La Taberna near our hotel. We started off with bread, a wonderful plate of olives and other pickled vegetables, and a bottle of local vino that was delicious (thanks to our waiter's recommendation. He was the friendliest, most helpful waiter I've ever been served by in any language.) For the main course I got a steak that was so rare it was bloody, despite me asking for medium well. The older American group next to us had to send theirs back. Just a warning - apparently the Catalunyans have a different tradition on how beef should be cooked. Regardless, it was a damn fine steak. SW got roasted chicken that was delicious. We topped it off with some dessert, a frozen coffee thing for me, ice cream with berries for SW. The Germans next to us got a platter of seafood as big as their table that looked wonderful. The crustacean shells piled up quickly, confirming it tasted as good as it looked.
If you're like me, after a few days in-country encountering English in your vicinity comes as an unwelcome invasion. SW was frustrated with her half-forgotten Spanish and longed for some English. A few minutes later a group sat next to us and started blathering on in U.S. English about the most inane things. SW was irritated, "Watch what you wish for." She said. There are a large number of morons on the earth but I'm convinced the vast majority of them speak English. Spoiled rich kids abroad, traveling on their parents' money with zero appreciation for anything they've seen, are the worst. Old folks who refuse to learn or use ANY Español are a close second - the type who won't even use "si" or "gracias" to their waiter, who is bringing them only dishes they recognize by name. It makes me wonder why they bothered to travel in the first place. Don't they have cable at home?
The discos and clubs of Barcelona are rumored to be very expensive and very late-night experiences, so we opted for a chatty college bar, Velodrom, for a few cheap drinks instead. It's big, bright and loud, and almost entirely locals so it's not the easiest place to make friends if you don't speak the language.
Only mildly hungover in the morning, we stopped in our neighborhood restaurant for chocolate con churros, something everyone said we absolutely must have in España. It's basically a mug of hot, thick chocolate sauce for dipping and a plate of fried, doughy pastries much like thin doughnuts, topped with sugar. (Not exactly health food, but we were getting plenty of exercise.)
We cruised a few Modernista buildings before stopping at the granddaddy of them all, La Sagrada Familia, the massive, ever-under-construction church Gaudi started before his death.
|It's 100 years in the making so far, and Gaudi himself estimated it would take another 100 years to complete. It looks like it's about 1/4 complete now so, despite advances in construction tools and methods, his estimate may be accurate. Four 100 meter spires tower over everything else in the city, and the tallest 160 meter spire has yet to be built. One façade has recently been completed, much to everyone's dismay, by another artist with some very cool cubist sculptures that just don't match the rest of the structure at all. (I pasted this picture together from three different ones - it's just too big a building to get in one shot from within 4 blocks of the building!)|
Another of the side facades has a very gothic look to it, but then we walked around to the only façade that was completed before Gaudi's death, the only façade that has his original designs and intent. It's overwhelming. I'm not saying it's beautiful, because frankly I don't like it. But it is overwhelming. It looks like a nativity scene in an expensive shopping mall with lots of fake snow and icicles and excessive ornamentation, complete with a Christmas tree atop the whole mess. Some of the details taken individually are beautiful, but taken together it's a mess.
|On the other hand, get a little farther away and the church is stately and beautiful - the towers are magnificent. It's a complex building.
Since most of the building is open and unfinished you get a good idea of what the insides look like now, so we didn't feel like paying for the tour. But if you're a big Gaudi fan you might want to go for it.
We caught the metro back to the hotel for a siesta. The metro in Barcelona is frequently cited as one of Europe's best and we saw why. Even the ticket vending machines are easy to use, offering several language choices and they take cash or plastic. The metro system covers the city very well. I doubt anyone walks more than 4 blocks except by choice.
Afterward we were off on a wild goose chase in search of "Barcelona's shrinking red light district" according to Let's Go Spain. It's shrunk alright, down to a couple of strip clubs (labeled "live sex peep shows"), a few lingerie stores, and a scary intersection where men crowd around awaiting street-walking prostitutes. Sounds more like my old neighborhood in Atlanta more than a red light district. But maybe I'm jaded after visiting Amsterdam a few years back.
But it was en route to The Fonts Luminoses, a series of illuminated fountains and falls that lead up to Font Magica, the Magic Fountain. On weekend nights they have a light and water show that is absolutely amazing. The Magic Fountain changes shapes and colors every 30 seconds or so and each setup is beautiful in it's own way. In the background towers the Palau National, a palace built in the international style for the country's Expo in 1929. (It looks much like the capitol building in any U.S. state, but bigger.) A near-full moon hung above that and the whole scene was fantastical. The crowd oohed and aahhed with each change of the fountain. This sight alone would have been worth the trip to Barcelona. The only irritant was the souvenir dealers making their rounds with cheap, crappy electronic toys (such as toy dogs that walk and bark, with glowing red, satanic eyes.) But even they were easily ignored with the titanic fountain behind them.
Up early the next morning, we hit the Picasso museum shortly after opening. It features a lot of his early works, including some very nice realistic paintings, as well as some of his later works but very little of anything in between. It's housed in a fortress-like structure right in the heart of Barcelona's Gothic quarter, Bari Gotic. If you like Picasso you should probably see it.
A few blocks away is a pretty little park that contains Barcelona's zoo, as well as our next stop, Museu d'Art Modern. "Modern" in this sense means the genre, not "new." There is a nice collection of Art Nouveau furniture, as well as paintings and sculptures from the late 1800's to the early 1900's.
At some point we swung by Picasso's favorite bar Els Quare Gats, The Four Cats, but we could tell at a glance it was out of our price range. Instead, we ended up at La Oveja Negra, The Black Sheep, a very popular, big basement bar with cheap drinks. We arrived early, like 11 PM, and the place was near empty so we began to doubt those who'd recommended the place. We struck up a conversation with Declan, a nice Irish lad in town on holiday. By midnight the place was packed wall to wall. When a group of cute girls stood around looking for an extra seat we thought we'd offer them ours.
"They're from Ireland." Declan notes.
"Well then we should get them over here!" we replied.
Declan backpedaled, saying his girlfriend would be arriving the next day and he was trying to stay out of trouble and Ireland was so small they probably knew some of the same people.
So, of course, SW and I insisted the girls join us.
It turns out they did know some of the same people. Apparently this group of 4 girls and Declan made up about 1/3 the entire population of Ireland.
Maureen, the youngest of the girls, was frustrated that the rest of her crew had been avoiding anything vaguely Spanish. "They woke me up this morning to go have breakfast at McDonalds!!" she said, beautiful blue eyes flashing, "I just went back to bed." After long drunken conversations with them we realized we'd closed the place. The staff herded us to the door and gave us paper cups to take our drinks with us, reminding me how much easier it is to have fun in Europe than it is in the States when alcohol is involved. Since fewer people drive they have fewer problems with D.U.I., but it's also just a difference in cultures. Few Europeans drink like we Americans (or Irish) do - to the point of serious intoxication.
SW and I were ready for bed but the Irish wouldn't hear of it. They dragged us down the street to Maremagnum on a pier in the bay. It's basically a mall by day that turns into a giant series of discos by night. The place they picked had no cover but it cost us about $5 for a couple bottles of water. We shook our groove thangs for a few tunes until the Brittany marathon started up, one irritating tune after another, so we beat a hasty retreat, leaving the Irish, overjoyed with the bad teen pop, to dance the night away. We caught a cab and noticed it was after 4 AM, an early night for Barcelona. (One Sunday afternoon we were having sandwiches at lunch when the club across the street started to empty out, around 2 PM.)
Up late and blurry, we tromped across town to Parc Guell. It's a park that was designed by Gaudi to be some kind of garden city for aristocrats but none of the upper class wanted to live there so it's been turned into a public park. If you go, take the metro but do NOT follow the street signs when you exit the station. The signs are for vehicular traffic and take you by the longest route imaginable up the backside of the hill. Instead, follow your map and you'll end up at the entrance where the small Gaudi houses sit on either side of the gate, and a large mosaic lizard sculpture fountain trickles water over mossy stones.
You'll see this lizard on postcards and other touristy trinkets all over town.
Up the hill from that is the world's longest park bench, forming the railing of a terrace that overlooks the entire city and the sea beyond.
We probably would have been more impressed if we hadn't taken the long way around and arrived winded and sweaty.
After the abuse the Irish heaped on us the night before ("I could drink you under the table!" bragged Maureen, "I usually drink about 14 shots of vodka." After watching the 19 year-old suck down beer like it was water and still manage a cross-town trek in heels so she could dance until dawn, I believe it.) we were too pooped to party hardy that night.
In the morning we caught a train to Sitges, a beach town about 45 minutes from Barcelona. Soft sand, hot sun, half-naked people all over - perfect.
The water was cool but not cold and it was just what we needed after a week of urban jungles. The town has some good shopping too. In August Barcelonenses abandon the city for the beaches. In September they've all gone back to work, leaving the beach a little empty. One small section was packed with buffed gay German men but otherwise it was pretty quiet.
We returned to Barcelona determined to enjoy our last night. We had passed a restaurant on the strip several times called El Glop and made fun of the name, but it was highly recommended by Let's Go Spain so we gave it a shot. I started with a plate of Catalan hors devours - toast that you smear with tomato, garlic and oil and a plate of various cold cuts. It was tasty. Next up was a side of roasted red peppers, one of my personal faves. SW got a side of white beans soaked in oil and enough garlic to make your eyes bleed. Then the main courses arrived. SW had ordered "pork chops" which turned out to be a grilled rack of ribs. She balked at first and we confirmed we'd gotten the right thing but after one bite she said "Oh, I'll be fine" and tore into the pile. It was very tasty, particularly when combined with the beans. I got two big salmon steaks, grilled and spiced to perfection. A couple of bottled waters and a giant beer washed it all down, all for about $30.
We took one last walk down Las Ramblas, a pedestrian avenue that runs the length of the Gothic quarter. The street is crammed with street performers, trinket stands, living statues, pickpockets, pet shops (selling an amazing variety of birds, from pigeons to roosters to parakeets), con men, flower stands, tourists, magazine stands, musicians, and even a few locals. It ends at the bay where there's a monument to Christopher Columbus atop a tall column, near the entrance to Maremagnum. Since our flight was at 7 AM we couldn't decide if we should bother to sleep at all or just party on, but our blistered feet made the decision for us. We got one last beer at La Oveja Negra then caught a couple hours sleep.
We had to get up in the dark to catch a cab to the airport, reminding me of the chilly mornings when my folks took second jobs doing newspaper delivery and they had to drag me and my brother along for the ride. The same chilly air, the same bumpy ride in the back seat, the same grumpy feeling, wishing I were still in bed. But the near-full moon lit Barcelona up in pale blue, saying goodbye to us.
18 hours later I'm at home, hungover, jetlagged, broke, with a sinus infection and the whole trip seems like some wonderful fever dream - did it really happen? Was I really there? If it weren't for the 14 rolls of film I'm not sure I'd believe it.
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