Thursday, July 22, 2010

Barcelona – City of Contradictions

The final stop on my world tour was the romantically alluring city of Barcelona, Spain. Though I had looked forward to this stop for months I was now like a rock star on his last legs, desperate to get home. I had 4 days and I looked to make the best of it.

I was done with vapid Ibiza and needed an infusion of history and culture. One of the important old European cities, Barcelona certainly had both to offer. Unfortunately Barcelona also has enough urban grit to deter the squeamish. Every guide I referred to screamed about the city’s rampant pickpocketing epidemic, and it also has its fair share of poorly lit dodgy streets to be fearful of at night. You see a lot of graffiti and most shops fence themselves off after closing. At times Barcelona was one of the most beautiful cities I had ever visited, and at other times it was one of the sketchiest.

One of the first things a visitor notices upon arrival at Barcelona’s airport is the trilingual translation of all the signs. There’s English, there’s Spanish, and there’s something that looks French or Italian – must be Catalan. It’s a common misperception that Catalan is simply a dialect of Spanish; it’s very much its own language.

I took the airport bus to the city center at Placa Catalunya, then raced to the Metro subway and made sure to cover my pockets. With all my stuff on me I felt very vulnerable, and my eyes darted back and forth as people approached. The Metro tunnels are unbearably hot in Barcelona. Lugging around a 25lb backpack, I broke quite a sweat.

I checked into the Mambo Tango hostel on Poeta Cabanyes street and appreciated the cool air conditioning on a hot summer afternoon. Despite being only 100 miles away Barcelona felt much warmer than Ibiza, and I understood why people in Spain embrace the afternoon siesta. I embraced it myself with a nap.

I woke up feeling much better and made my way towards the Parc Montjuic, a big hill overlooking the city, which was also the home of the 1992 Summer Olympics. Really beautiful – if all of Barcelona was this pretty I was really going to enjoy the place. The old Olympic stadium had a great classical architecture and was very well done – must have hosted a terrific games 18 years ago.

I walked a little further to a building that looked like a palace. “What could that be?” I wondered. It looked like a palace for a great kingdom, but no! It was an art museum! The Museu Nacional D’Art De Catalunya. An absolutely massive structure…how could they possibly find enough art to fill it all?! Being on a hill, the art museum provided a great view of the city – no skyscrapers like many European cities but a couple important buildings do stand out (more on that later). Also a grand view overlooking the Placa Espanya.

By the time I was walking back to my hostel it was getting late, a little after 9PM. Perfect time in Spain to eat! Spain’s timing is unusual for Americans – you eat late, you go out very late, and don’t try to get any errands done mid-afternoon.

I wasn’t super hungry, and there was a famous tapas place next to my hostel. Would have been the perfect introduction to Spanish cuisine, but there was a line out the door, leaving me to scamper around looking for the next best option. After wandering around the block for awhile I poked my head into a bar and sat down. The bartender was an Asian immigrant so I felt safe using my 20 word Spanish vocabulary with him! I recognized “chorizo” on the menu and tried to order it, but it came in two forms. I went for the “bocadillo” variety, and was pleased to see a sandwich come out of the kitchen. It was tasty too, and washed down with a local Estrella Damm beer my total only came out to €5. Great success!

My next day started at the museum of the world-famous FC Barcelona at their stadium, the Camp Nou. Though I’m game for all things soccer, this museum does more than just describe a sports team – it also showcases the Catalan identity and the sometimes violent struggle it has had with the Spanish national government. The club’s Catalan slogan, “Més Que Un Club”, translated as “More Than A Club”, highlights the club’s history as a symbol of Catalan nationalism and pride during the dark days of the Spanish Civil War and the totalitarian Franco regime.

The stadium tour is cool – you get to sit in all three tiers and check out the club president’s box, the finest seats in the house. You then get to walk through the players tunnel to the field and imagine walking out to play in front of 98,000 fans. There are all sorts of cool interactive video exhibits and I think you can watch every famous Barca goal ever scored.

I headed from there back to the Placa Catalunya, more fun now that I didn’t have all my gear with me. Right off of there is the famous La Rambla, one of the most vibrant streets to be found anywhere. It contained all the cheesy tourist souvenir shops that I needed to visit, as I hadn’t yet purchased anything for my family and I couldn’t return from two months of travel without bringing gifts! The street also has a wide array of street people in costume, pet salesman (you can purchase anything that fits in a cage), and of course pickpockets! Walking back to my hostel I got a little lost and stumbled upon what I believe was a street full of daytime prostitutes. They started yelling at me in English and I ran away real fast!

When you travel you meet people, and sometimes they have a way of popping up again. Remember Pam, the friend I made in Hong Kong? She was in Europe on business and heading over to Barcelona for some sightseeing, so she's back in my blog!

After Pam arrived Friday evening we went out for some beers to catch up, then needed to find some food in a foreign country. Sadly my Spanish was even better than her’s, which meant we would have problems! Along the same street where I had been the night previously we walked into a different bar, this one with a picture menu. I picked out a couple tapas and started to try to order in Spanish. Again the waiter was Asian, so when we hit a communications snag after my 20 words vocabulary was exhausted, Pam starts speaking to the waiter in Mandarin. They have a perfectly fluent conversation, and soon food appears! So lesson learned; if you speak Spanish OR Mandarin, you’re fine in Barcelona!

We capped the night off with a beer at a place popular with absinthe lovers and which probably hasn’t seen a paintbrush in 30 years. We got lost looking for a second bar and were guarding ourselves tightly on the dreary urban streets around La Rambla – I’m really glad my hostel was in a safer-looking area.

On Saturday, Pam and I woke up early to catch a free walking tour of the Old City. We started in Placa Reial and wandered a couple hours in the historic Gothic Quarter, learning the histories of Barcelona and Catalonia along the way. This included the majestic city hall and regional parliament buildings, the Barcelona cathedral with its 13 white geese, and Roman ruins.

We stuck to the Spanish schedule, eating their typically big lunch and then retiring to our lodgings for afternoon naps. When we woke up, we returned to the Parc Montjuic and took a cable car ride to the Castell de Montjuic, a big fortress built to protect the city in the 17th and 18th centuries. Though we were too late to go inside we were perfectly timed to see a superb panoramic view of the city near sunset.

We stumbled down the big hill and were heading in the direction of the waterfront when we heard music. We walked towards it and found an exciting street festival! The music was accompanied by “gigantes”, giant mannequin-like figures of traditional Catalonians propped on the shoulders of people who make them dance up and down to the music. Pam and I didn’t quite understand what was going on; a local told us that this was a traditional neighborhood festival.

After a tasty dinner we walked to the Columbus Monument, then along the marina where a pack of racing sailboats where stowed for a regatta. Passing by the aquarium we walked to Barceloneta, the city’s beach neighborhood. Pam and I were disgusted by what we saw – easily the most trash-filled beach I have ever seen!

My final day in Barcelona began with another free walking tour, this one of the buildings by the world-famous architect Antoni Gaudi. His buildings defy traditional form and are uniquely his own – almost every famous residence in the city belongs to him.

Our Argentinean guide showed us the famous residences of Palau Guell, Casa Batilo, and La Pedrera. We learned that what are now some of Gaudi’s most famous works were highly controversial when first constructed.

The tour ended at Barcelona’s most famous landmark of all, the Sagrada Familia cathedral, 125 years in the making and still going! The construction has long outlived Gaudi, but his architectural legacy lives on to this very day as modern contractors try to assemble his intricate masterpiece.

Another long lunch and another nap followed. When we reconvened, Pam and I headed for the final two big landmarks we hadn’t seen – the Parc Guell and the Magic Fountain.

Parc Guell was also designed by Gaudi, but would have been too vast for a 3 hour walking tour. It is, without question, my favorite of Gaudi’s works. The best part is an elevated terrace held up by classic pillars and lined with mosaics. The stonework here is very colorful and appealing to the eye.

We took the long walk from the Parc back to Metro. On the train halfway to the Placa Espanya stop a man boarded screaming "STOP IT! DON'T YOU EVER DO THAT AGAIN!" The use of English was surprising, but the man was a tourist, and he held out his finger to point at a stone-faced woman who had just boarded the car and taken a seat. "SHE TRIED TO PICK MY POCKET! SHE'S THE ONE!" We all sat there dumbfounded, not sure what to do. I can see why a city would have a pickpocket problem -- this incident illustrates how hard they are to pin down -- but I can't understand why the problem would be so much worse in Barcelona than other cities. A greater cultural acceptance of thievery??

The Magic Fountain, a nighttime event at the art museum, is visually catchy. Not as good as the Bellagio fountain in Vegas but similar idea – moving fountains set to music against a stunning backdrop.

Having seen both the good and the bad in Barcelona, I’m now intrigued by Spain and would like to see how Madrid compares. Spain can be difficult for an English speaker, so before I make my next trip I need to improve at my Spanish speaking!

1 comment:

  1. You're correct about Madrid. Reading this post, I was going to comment that if you ever go back to Spain, you should plan some time in Madrid. I went there on my high school Spanish trip and loved every second of it. If you do go back I definitely think you need to bring someone along who speaks Spanish. May I suggest myself? :)

    Btw, I can't remember if I ever thanked you for the postcard from New Zealand. So, thanks! I was excited to get it. It looks like a great place!

    Welcome back home, glad you enjoyed your journey and good luck with the start of school! Let me know if you're ever in LA!