Running with the bulls: Barcelona ---
July 12, 2006
The next stop on our itinerary was Barcelona. With all that we had already experienced it seemed odd that we were actually only a few days into our journey across Spain, and I was a little concerned that everything else might seem mundane by comparison.
Upon our return to her home, Mabel’s husband David was kind enough to drive us to the train station, and we arrived about an hour in advance of our departure time. This was to be our first experience with the Spanish train system, known by its acronym RENFE, and I had reserved our tickets online to avoid having standing in line at the station. Since our tickets were already booked, I figured all we had to do was show our passports and collect them. Unfortunately there was no dedicated queue for this purpose, so we ended up standing in line anyway. Although it wasn’t an especially long line, the ticket agents seemed to be moving in slow-motion, and much to my consternation we had barely made it to the tracks when our train pulled into the station. As I settled into my seat for the seven hour ride to Barcelona, I began to thumb through my Rick Steves’ guide to Spain, and smiled broadly when I spotted his wry observation that RENFE actually stands for “really exasperating, not for everyone!”
We arrived at the Barcelona Sants train station at about 7:30 PM and made our way to the connecting metro station. After several stops, we emerged from the metro, somewhat disoriented, onto the broad expanse of the Ramblas, Barcelona’s main boulevard and tourist venue. We wandered the maze of streets constituting the nearby Barri Gotic (Gothic Quarter) until we finally found our hotel, Ciutat de Barcelona, cleverly disguised and hidden within a cluster of aging edifices. Much to our surprise however, the hotel’s interior, with its dramatic modernist décor, was a marked contrast to the hotel’s surroundings. (You can check it out at http://www.barcelonahotels.es/Spain/Barcelona/hotel-ciutat-de-barcelona-eng.html )
Barcelona is a city with a great deal of history and a lot to see. We knew we couldn’t do it justice in the two days we had available, so using our Rick Steves guide, we made a short to-do list which included strolling the length of the Ramblas down to the harbor, wandering (some more) through the Barri Gotic, exploring the Picasso Museum, and taking a tour of the Sagrada Familia.
I sometimes wonder if my previous travel experiences have made me jaded. Often when I am told that this or that sight is a “must-see” my skepticism surfaces with a dismissive shrug or vacant nod. The plethora of European churches and cathedrals usually fall into this category – virtually every European town has a massive cathedral that was commissioned by the local monarch and undoubtedly took decades, if not hundreds of years, to complete. All are laid out in a standard architectural style with a massive dome in the center surrounded by a series of individual chapels along the periphery, with the overall plan visually approximating the appearance of a massive crucifix. In reality only a handful of these churches is truly impressive, for example the Vatican, or Westminster Abbey – and after you’ve seen several of these you develop cathedral fatigue. So I’ll admit that my reaction to the verbal hype regarding the Sagrada Familia was a bit cynical, that is until I saw it.
I have to admit, this church was different. For starters, its new – well, its new in the sense that its still being built! According to the tourist literature, work on the church began in 1883 and its not expected to be completed for another 25 years or more. It was designed by Antoni Gaudi who, we learned, has left his imprint all over Barcelona in the form of some very unusual designs. Its hard to accurately describe the Sagrada Familia – it almost looks like the type of sandcastle you might make at the beach by steadily dripping wet sand from your hand until you’ve formed a series of free-form spires. Apparently Gaudi personally supervised its construction until 1926 when he met his untimely demise by being struck by a streetcar!
While touring the structure, there are the sounds of construction all around you, as the various craftsman tend to the intricate details of the façade and interior. Its certainly a far cry from the sometimes damp and dingy interiors of other European churches.
The Picasso Museum was next up on our list, so we made our way back to the Barri Gotic near where its located. Ostensibly it has one of the largest collections of Picasso’s early work and clearly documents his transition from a novice painter of more traditional paintings to the type of abstract art he’s now know for. We found it odd that the museum’s collection, which presents Picasso’s work in a timewise progression, seems to have a post-war gap such that you don’t see much of his later, mostly abstract, work. However, Teresa and I were both mesmerized by Picasso’s apparent preoccupation with the artist Diego Velazquez’s Las Meninas (painted in 1656). A number of Picasso’s cubist interpretations of the original painting are on display and it’s a brain-teaser to try to correlate Picasso’s characters with those in the original.
Later in the evening we wandered along the Ramblas. It was crowded but unlike the Paseo we’d experienced in Vitoria, the crowd was mostly tourists. We were disappointed by the lack of local flavor, and when we checked out several restaurants we found them all to be overpriced and inauthentic, clearly catering to outsiders. By the time we headed back to our hotel we were thinking that two days in Barcelona might be adequate after all!
The next morning, sensing that perhaps our disillusionment the previous night might have been due to fatigue, we agreed that we would try to slow down a bit. We’d been going non-stop for nearly a week and even though we’d finally gotten past the jet-lag, we hadn’t really had much down time.
So we decided our first stop today would be Parc Güell, another of Antoni Gaudi’s unusual creations that’s located in the “new” part of Barcelona, north of the Old City. Although it’s a 30 acre park dotted with hiking trails, its most significant feature is the dramatic main entrance emphasizing the decorative use of highly detailed and colorful mosaic tile on sculptures, columns, buildings and benches, all arranged in a sprawling configuration overlooking the city. It almost has a fairy-tale feel to it.
After a short hike followed by a light picnic lunch, we took the Metro back to Barcelona’s main square, the Plaça de Catalunya, then decided to walk the entire length of the Ramblas down to the waterfront and check out the beach. (There’s always something appealing about a beach, especially when it comes attached to a substantial body of water!) Prior to the 1992 Olympics the waterfront had consisted of aging industrial buildings which were subsequently bulldozed and replaced with an expansive and now popular sandy beach.
The Ramblas by day was not appreciably different than the Ramblas at night, with long stretches that appeared quite sleazy, among clusters of obviously low budget hotels.
At the far end of the Ramblas was an impressive statue of Christopher Columbus that (supposedly) stands where he was welcomed home from his first voyage to the new world by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. As we continued our walk past the harbor toward the beach we noticed an interesting collection of higher end resort-style shops as well as a motley variety of vacation dwellings nearby. (It was a bit reminiscent of Santa Cruz or Venice Beach.) We also noticed a cable car that ran from the top of Montjuic off in the distance to end of the wharf nearby, clearly a tourist attraction but also an easy way of taking in an aerial view of the waterfront, harbor and beach.
Our curiosity was piqued by Montjuic (“Mount of the Jews”), one of the main venues for the 1992 Olympics, so after meandering along the beach and wetting our feet in the surf, we hopped back onto the Metro which took us to the base of the mountain, then boarded a funicular train to the top. Although we’d noticed the sky growing overcast late in the afternoon, we were still surprised to find it raining when we emerged.
It seemed oddly deserted (perhaps because of the lateness of the day) so using a map that was available just outside the funicular station, we walked over to the Olympic pool overlooking the city and admired the spectacular view below us. In addition to a nearby stadium, there were a couple of museums, but otherwise there wasn’t much to see. (It kind of felt like arriving late to a party and finding it already over.) I’m not sure what we expected but we were disappointed that there was so little to see, so we headed back to the station.
Once down below, I spotted a train already at the platform and hurried on board thinking that Teresa was just behind me. But to my dismay, she was several hundred feet away, and as the doors began to close I grabbed at them to keep from leaving her behind. In doing so, I stumbled over the gap between the train and the platform and fell flat on my face. My effort to keep the doors open was successful, but moments after Teresa boarded, two transit police appeared and ordered us off the train! They were obviously angry and although I got chewed out I didn’t have a clue as to what they were saying! I simply nodded and after several serious finger wags they finally left us to our own devices and we caught the next train ten minutes later. I was embarrassed and somewhat shaken, but relieved that there had been no one around to observe my foolishness.
Back on the Ramblas, we found an outdoor café where we settled in for a few drinks and watched the street artists before eventually returning to our hotel.