September 16, 2013

A Mediterranean Spain

It was a big drive from Nice to Barcelona stopping in Avignon on the way. It looked like a pretty interesting town with a whole lot of Papal history behind it, so after the long drive, it was getting late. The bus arrived in Barcelona and stopped on a main road, leaving us to walk over, past a pretty considerable row of sex shops and finally on to the Be Sound Hostel which was one that I decided not to stay at and from the walk in and the tiny staircases up and as I saw the narrow little staircases up and down the hostel, I was pretty happy with my choice. I got myself on to their internet and figured out where my bed actually was then said goodbye on my walk up to the Barcelona St Christopher's Hostel.

My walk took me north along las Ramblas to the Placa de Catalonia. This hostel was the newest in the St Christopher's franchise and was fully configured with key card lifts, floor access barriers, room lockers, bunk curtains, hostel-wide wifi, a bar and free breakfast in the morning. Definitely the better choice. After I settled in to the room which even had its own little lounge area, I went out again, back towards the Be Sound to catch up with some friends for dinner. We were pretty keen for tapas as it was the sort of thing we were expecting to get out of Spain. I suggested a little square lined by restaurants that I'd passed on the way through. A couple of drinks down in the open air of the square under trees. A big group of school kids ran past on what seemed like some school physical education class. It was 7pm. Even though we were all pretty peckish at this point, 7 is really a pretty early dinner in Spain and we thought we'd have to force ourselves in to a new routine, We only lasted till 7:30pm before we succumbed to hunger and ordered a big 7 dish tapas pack. The tapas would always be ordered separately to the drinks it would seem, something different between the Catalonian area and other parts of Spain. One of a couple of cultural things we were struggling to figure out. It seemed to us that there were some quirks and lots of know-how about eating and drinking in Spain. A little past 10 and the same group of 40ish kids ran past, making us wondering what schedule they could possibly be operating on. Night over and it was time to sleep so I said goodbye as they would be heading out of Barcelona the next day.

The next day I woke up to the rustling of a girl in one of the other bunks of the room who I had met when I came in the day before. I let her know about the bike tour I had signed up for the day before and she jumped at the chance to join albeit without time for breakfast. Sophie and I walked on down to the old town where the tour was due to start from and with some pastries on the go; she was ready for the adventure.

Once on these fat wheeled bikes, we were gliding through the narrow lanes of the Barcelona old town, amazed at our brazen tour guide and his cavalier attitude to pedestrians. We heard about the old town hall and the earlier leaders that I can't remember so much about anymore. Over time we made it to the Sangrada de Familia, The single craziest structure I've ever seen. We learned about the architect Gaudi making his home in Barcelona and his demise during the construction of his masterpiece. This church resembled a melting sand castle with tall spires and great bunches of fruits adorning their tops. While this was my top destination in Barcelona, I would have to wait till another day. The tour took us past the biggest brick triumphal arch in the world and an old moor inspired bull ring. Lunch at the beach and then a little more history on the Spanish absorption of Catalonia and some of the reasons behind an independence vote and also the futility of it.

Sophie was pretty impressed by the Gaudi art we saw so the afternoon became a bit of a building hunt. We found two apartment block-type buildings including one which resembled a dragon in some way. The bombastic curves really thrilled me and while pretty amazing; I couldn't help but sympathize for the poor engineers that had to make it work.

That afternoon we considered trying to make it out to Park Guell for a picnic dinner but the weather closed in on us. Just as we were heading from the hostel to the metro station, the rain started pelting down with thunder following soon after. It would have to wait.

Tonight would be a big a big one. With the Hostel bar (Belushi’s) pumping up for the night, Sophie and I went down and introduced ourselves to a bunch of Belgian med students who were taking a post exam holiday together. We joined in on their drinking game until about 2am when the bar closed. Turned out that this was a thing they did every night and whenever the bar closed, there was always a hostel contingent that would go out to a club – a different one for each night. The club was great, down an inconspicuous staircase which popped out of the floor, down in to a beach side club called Opium. What was so amazing about clubs in Barcelona was just how civilized it all seemed to be. Even though it was almost 3am in the morning, everyone seemed so level headed and just wanted to dance and have a good time. I ended up going back with the Belgians at 5:30am as I heard stories of how wonderful Bruges was and how I should have had it on my itinerary. The club was just starting to get busy.

The next day and Sophie and I met up again over breakfast before heading out to Park Guell, Gaudi’s gift to public space. Gaudi was inspired by nature and only tried to enhance it so when he put his hand to a park, the result was so unique. Elevated rock balconies blended seamlessly into the surrounding greenery with rough pillars topped by aloe vera which looked like they had been naturally formed by centuries of erosion. We took to the high road and found a lookout which gave us a view of the whole city, quite flat and low but punctuated by the massive Sangrada de Familia which we had seen the day before. The mosaic art took even more time for us to explore as the patterns and colours absorbed us, despite the occasional spell of rain.

We came back to the city centre to the roars of crowds. It was the Catalonian Independence Day and the locals were out in full force. Sophie and I saw the traditional human tower and saw the little toddlers climb to the top, a good 8m up to be the 5th person at the top of the tower. It seemed like a pretty crazy tradition but I guess that what makes it so fun. The colours were all yellow and red with Catalan flags flying from every balcony. We said farewell as Sophie headed off to Madrid.

I rushed off soon after to a tapas and paella class where we I chanced across some more Busabout people. We learned about making a traditional tapa by rubbing a cut half of a tomato against the bread like a grater, the traditional Manchego cheese. A good sangria mixing tutorial and a couple more plates of nibbles and we were ready for the main event: A paella cooking demo by their fantastically charismatic chef at the Travel Bar.

The next day, I was on yet another wine tour that would also be taking us up to the picturesque monastery of Montserrat. We passed the city cemetery on the way to the mountain, a curious cultural quirk where cremated remains are slotted into holes in the mountain side and faced with plaques. The more affluent, the more people would pay for their loved ones to be higher up on the hill, ‘closer to God’. When we got to the Monastery, we were faced with a huge line, shaking our heads in dismay as we only had 40 minutes in the place before having to move on. We soon learned that the line was only to pray at the Black Madonna, a sacred site at the back of the church. We could simply walk in the front door to see the inside of this magnificent building. In the far distance, we too could see this relic as pilgrims passed by in front of it.

Before our time was up, we timed our arrival for the funicular to the top of the hill which was blessed with incredible views and many small chapels. I power-walked along the path to the first of many lookouts, most of which I’d have to miss out on. I raced up a steep, root infused rock staircase, up to the summit of the hill, granting a fantastic 360 degree panorama of the area, this rock being the highest point for as far as the eye could see. I paused to take in the strong breeze before scaling the path back down to the funicular station.

The Torres Winery was next and it was pretty obviously geared up for tourists. After a cinematic introduction, we were corralled in to a little tractor train with audio guide for a dozen languages. It passed by row after row of vines before taking us down in to one of the state of the art climate controlled cellars, sitting mostly underground. We could see endless rows of French oak barrels, stacked in these huge rooms. Passing by the big processing silos and huge cages of bottle aging wines, we could appreciate that this was truly a high production winery. We could taste wines and see a somewhat extensive history of the Torres name as they even had a little museum.

Coming towards lunch, we stopped in a little town called Sitges, a thriving community of gay men on the coast. The beaches were busy and it was a curious sight when you realized that the town seemed to be about 95% composed of men. We could walk up to the church and see the town hall but the town was pretty quiet over the weekend. We ended up relaxing for a while with beers and hot dogs, seeming to reinforce the stereotype belonging to our majority American group. I grabbed desert at this wonderful pay-by-the-gram bakery called ‘Granier pans artesans’, leaving with this beautiful apple and hazelnut pastry.

I’d seen adverts around town and online for a duo of Spanish guitarists and having arrived back in Barcelona just in time, I strode over to the little church where they would be performing, guided through the many pedestrianized streets guided only by my phone. I made it to the church just as the concert was starting so stood outside this little stone vaulted side chapel that faced a lovely cloistered courtyard. With a capacity of not more than 50, I slid into a seat between songs before the music really heated up. The players were husband and wife and played beautifully together, strumming closed-eyed with a somewhat sensuous nature. You could really see that they had grown up with that music and knew it in their souls. The small space erupted following the last song with a spectacular encore to follow. The couple whipped out their party trick with four hands on one guitar. The pair changed roles of fingerboardist, ground bass player, plucker and percussionist too many times to count as they romanced the instrument and each other leading to an even grander applause. We all stayed around to enjoy a glass of white where I enjoyed the company of an older Canadian couple who had not more than a couple of days in that brilliant city.

I met Claudia and her friend over breakfast the following morning and it seemed we all had one thing on our minds being… Lunch. And Sangrada de Familia. We started in La bouqueria which was a fantastically colourful market selling everything from seafood and Jambon to saffron and fruit juices. The two South African girls had been to this great little organic/raw type place around the corner from the hostel for the last two days and seemed keen on making it the third day running.

We avoided the long walk under the sun and took the metro to find the line already stretching around the building. Long but fast since 40 minutes later, we were in and admiring one of the most fantastical pieces of architecture I have ever had the pleasure to enter. It was like the rule book had been completely ripped up. As if Gaudi had walked into a rain forest one day and emerged with an architectural model of a church made of mud and sticks the next. The interior was so tall and full of colour, all engineered with minimal columns to hold up that colossal sculpted roof. Like in the park, the balconies were like eroded cliff faces and the whole atmosphere was like a reconstruction of a forest.

From the outside, closer to the carved facades, you could see people but from a distance, the structure continued to look like a melting sand castle. The place is still under construction with an estimate construction date being somewhere at the end of the century. There were a couple of models of the completed project which showed how it would look at the end. Apparently, the place is already so popular as a tourist destination that it’s making profit already. Some even expect the construction to be delayed because the church is paid well by the city until the date that it is finished.

The museum below the church was equally fantastic with full 3D detailed models printed and viewable. Apparently Gaudi left so many models and drawings behind that they can complete the thing without substantial re-invention.

In the evening we headed out to the ‘Magic Fountain’ which puts on a show at 8pm each night. We took a funicular out to somewhere up a hill and ended up having a really long walk through well-manicured but dark gardens, using phones to light the way on occasion. In the distance we started to hear Disney tunes and headed for the music. The show had already started and the crowd was huge! We ended up finding a place on the stairs and began to unpack our picnic. We unpacked the Torres wine, cheese, bread and chocolate and were sat transfixed. The music was timed and the light and water show was fantastic!

That night, we picked up some more hostel people before heading out to Razzmatazz, a Barcelona 5 floor super club. The line was long and we were ready for it but when we got to the door we found out that the cover fee was 30 Euros since there was some big act on that night. We didn’t really want to bother and moved on to another club, somewhat closer to the hostel. A little put out; we found a little place suggested to us called Jamboree. It was great fun in our little group of eight in this tiny club with a capacity which was probably not more than 100. We danced till the morning with some leaving later and later. I stayed with some a couple of new found friends till 6am since I didn’t really see the point of sleeping before hopping on an early morning bus out of Barcelona. I said bye and walked back to my own hostel, up Las Ramblas.

Had I known what I know now, I probably would have taken a more dodgy way home as believe it or not, the most popular pedestrian thoroughfare in the day is safe at night but still isn’t a great place to walk at 6am. Drinks were at least 10 EUR a pop at the club so I hadn’t had a drop for a good 4 hours at that point. I was in a pretty vigilant and sober way. It wasn’t the first time I’d walked back by myself in similar cities but it wasn’t going to be my night. I walked 10 minutes up Las Ramblas from the club, passed a police patrol and not more than 200m onwards, I passed a news stall. From behind that, two African women came up to me and grabbed me from in front and behind. It was pretty obvious that they were trying to sell sex so I just thought it’d be a simple no and to walk on but it wasn’t so simple. They distracted my hands at the time but I didn’t realize the significance of that till I checked by pockets not more than 20 seconds after they went away. My phone was missing. I looked around but of course they were gone. I jogged back down the road to the patrol I’d passed just moments before but the language barrier hit. They directed me to a station down one of the perpendicular roads. I knew at that moment that they weren’t even trying to sell sex and that that was the ruse in the first place. I still had my wallet which I was grateful for but a new phone getting taken was really not what I was looking for at that point in the trip. The station was open but they could only say that I should wait for their translator to get in at 9am to take the theft report. I didn’t have the time. I admitted defeat and headed back to the hostel, hoping to at least salvage some phone information while I still could. I saw countless other women along Las Ramblas on the way home who approached me so I ended up breaking into a jog instead to avoid any possible contact. Easy prey I realized and thank goodness I wasn’t drunk as I’m sure most of their victims were.

Back at the hostel, I logged into a handy little online phone locator and looked at the activity logs, finding out that these crafty women had already changed the sim card four times, I assume to find out whether it was locked and had finally turned it off. I sent the remote wipe and kill command but they knew what they were doing and not more than 30 minutes after the theft, they had wiped it off the face of the network.

I packed up and jogged on towards the bus rendezvous, somewhat put out but in the grand scheme of things, pleased that I still had my health and also my wallet. The bus arrived mid-day in Valencia, checking into the ‘Green hostel’ which was a pretty middle of the road place. Not wanting to sit in the police station first thing in the day, I went for a walk with some Americans around the town, taking in some of its really old roots. For quite a small town, they had a couple of very grand buildings including the Cathedral and a rather old Valencian Gothic Silk Exchange building. The de-commissioned bull ring was playing host to Oktoberfest celebrations and as far as food went, they were known for some sort of special tigernut milk known as horchata which was a pretty good drink, chilled under the afternoon sun. For its size the monuments were of a pretty good standard with the silk exchange hall of columns being pretty fantastic but I think I was getting a little used to the big city marvels and it didn’t amaze me as much as it might have at the start of my trip. The city had the hallmarks of a once great mercantile city.

I dropped into the police station later that afternoon and it would have been much easier with a phone to entertain me but the 3 hours it took to get through to an office passed pretty slowly. Eventually being woken from unintentional slumber, I was directed to a phone where an operator took down most of the detail in English, sending the translation through to the local officer who did all the rubber stamping. A well-cooked traditional and authentic paella put an end to a long, long day.

I woke up to the sun and realized that I had no alarm clock since my phone was gone. I never thought about the consequence though. I was late to a bike tour I had booked the day before. I raced to the reception and got the tour company on the phone. I let them know I was fit and able and moments later I was out the door running over to the bike store. I followed the map they had given and arriving, well puffed and hot, they found me a bike. Contrary to their protestations, I got them to put a likely tour path on a city map and then I was on the bike to go and catch up. I was almost an hour late for a 3 hour tour but I was going to catch them. I cut ahead to where I thought I’d defiantly be able to head them off. I then followed the map to the letter through little alleys and along busy roads till I was sure they couldn’t be behind them. Seated at the top of a staircase at the edge of the old city, I hoped I had guessed the guide’s path correctly and had found a foolproof choke point. I rinsed an earlier graze from a fall, having gone over the handlebars when I rode down some stairs while riding hands free, reading the map. Fifteen minutes went by and I was beginning to doubt myself. I back tracked a little bit, only along the most visible road options and in one of the small squares, I found them. The tour guide was surprised and a little suspicious of this random coming up to him claiming to be on his tour but armed with his name and a convincing story, I joined them. War torn but relieved, I joined the tour for the valuable last part of the tour.

This segment would take us to the new town. Santiago Calatrava, responsible for the Turning torso skyscraper in Malmo and the new World trade centre transportation hub in New York, was accused of bleeding the city dry after massive budget over-runs on this project of tremendous scale. The ‘City of the Arts and Sciences’ is an incredible architectural complex complete with opera house, sports stadium, physical sciences museum and planetarium. I was happy to get the background from the guide and felt my rapid and foodless morning was worth the struggle.

I ran into my New Zealand friends from Cinque Terre once more and joined them that night at a tapas festival down by the port. I had no idea it was on but thankfully I did run into them. What a great evening full of food, drink and cultural exchange. Money switched for tokens which you could exchange for tapas, drinks or deserts at one of 30+ stalls around the tent. Chefs were tasting and rating the morsels on a stage and the rumble of merriness echoed off the ceiling. After double deserts, we were so full at the end that we rolled into the taxi. I joined them for a super homemade breakfast the next morning before we caught the mid-day bus to the next destination.

I had learned about Catalonia, about Valencia (the fact that they were originally completely different Spanish cultures) and was ready to move west to the next area, to the centre of the country and the capital, Madrid. I had marvelled Gaudi architecture, partied till the morning with the locals, tasted the wines of the area and seen the land from a height. I was beginning to understand the flavour of Spain and where their relaxed and casual nature came from. Despite a little mobile theft setback in Barcelona, I was resolved to get by without and to make the most of the rest of this surprisingly intriguing country.


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