Holiday: Barcelona (June 27 - July 2)
31 July 2006
Ronaldinho's toothy grin greeted us on the road out of Barcelona airport. Who better to advertise for fresh-making chewing gum?
We were headed for Las Ramblas, the series of connected promenades that form the spine of Barcelona. That's where our hotel – Hotel De L'Arc – was situated, handily sandwiched between a subway station and a $2 peep show. Our first walk down Las ramblas was a trepditatious one, informed by the many stories of muggings and random beatings on the streets of Barcelona, but really it was pretty inocuous, alebit packed. It's lined with countless hawkers and street performers, mainly of the stand-still-and-look-like-an-interesting-statue variety, and amidst it all strolls the entire tourist population of Barca.
Lynn – a friend joining us for the rest of the tour – knew Marti, the manager at Hotel de L'Arc, so we had a warm welcome waiting for us there. It was a nice change of pace after the hostels and cheap dives that we'd stayed in so far throughout Europe. As we'd landed in the afternoon, first duty was to find a place for dinner, and preferably one that was showing the Spain v France match. Of course, first day in Spain it also had to be tapas. We wandered around for a little bit and found a nice local place on Passeig de Colom which had superb sangria and a quaint little back room with a 50cm TV. Top food, mediocre match. As seemed to be the trend with our World Cup spectating, the country we were watching it in lost, so that night there was a bit of a tense vibe on the streets, as well as roaming crowds of Frenchmen cheering loudly.
The next day we decided to head out to the Nou Camp, home of Barcelona FC; more for Rick's benefit than my own interest. Unlike Rome, we actually managed to find the stadium and went on the official tour. It was great to see how neatly manicured the grass is at a real soccer stadium – oh how I would love to play on a surface like finely woven carpet – but I'm more interested in what the stadium's used for than the actual stadium itself, so the entire process was rather boring. Great to see someone selling knockoff shirts right outside the stadium gate, though. He made an extra 30 euros off Rick's desire for a Messi shirt.
The Nou Camp's a bit far away from the city centre, so by the time we made it back it was lunchtime, which I was sad to say we took at Burger King. On the bright side, they serve beer in fast food restaurants there, so I got a nice cheesy picture of Rick with a burger and a cup of San Miguel. After that recharge, we were ready to go to Picasso's museum, which is housed in a nicely preserved Spanish villa in the middle of the city. It featured a complete history of his styles and influences, but it seems like most of his more famous (and interesting) works have been procured by the bigger museums around the world, so you don't actually get to see much "real" Picasso. Definitely only one for the Picasso fanboys.
On advice from the concierge at our stay, we went for a more modern and up-market tapas experience, and it was definitely higher quality than the more rustic experience of the previous night. Great gezpacho! It was situated just on the edge of Barri Gotic, the Gothic district, so after supping we went for a wander through there on our way home. It's a fantastic area, probably my favourite in Barcelona. Full of little shops and intriguingly decorated restaurants, it reminded me a little of Venice's close, twisting laneways.
Day three was Gaudi day. Starting off at La Sagrada Familia, we then visited two of his more usable buildings on Passeig de Gracia. La Sagarada Familia is just incredible. I'd read so much about this basilica which was incomplete when Gaudi died, and on which construction has been going for over 100 years, so to see it in the flesh was a dream come true. The complexity of the structure is jaw-dropping and it's so large that its different sections can feature different styles comfortably next to one another. As with Gaudi's other work, the construction is organic and fluid, based upon elements of nature, from tree trunks to micro-biology; it's so vastly different to anything you see today. Built mostly with sandstone, construction has taken so long that you can already see distinct weathering on the old parts and compared to those under construction. I highly recommend ascending one of the open towers to see the building from above, it's inspiring. (And definitely take the stairs – not the elevator – down)
Down on Passeig de Gracia are a couple of Gaudi's other famous buildings: Casa Batllo and Casa Mila (or La Pedrera). However, they both require about 15 Euros to get into, and we weren't keen to fork it out just to see the roof. They still looked pretty cool from outside.
When we got back to the hotel we found out that someone had been lurking around the luggage lock-up area in the foyer (we were swapping rooms, so our bags were in transit for the day). Luckily, he'd been caught in the act and hadn't made off with anything. We later noticed that one of the straps on Rick's backpack was rather frayed i.e. it had been in the process of being cut off the chain, so it was fortunate that he'd been disturbed when he had. This marked Barcelona as probably the dodgiest city we visited, crime-wise, because the previous day Rick had been the victim of an attempted pickpocket on the subway; he'd just managed to clutch onto his camera at the right moment to prevent the would-be thieves.
Lynn arrived that night from France, so we met up with her for dinner in Barri Gotic at midnight for a meal at a curious little pub that had some of the greatest tasting tapas that we ate on the trip. Two old guys who spoke no English ran it, so Lynn had to use her newfound French linguistic skills to negotiate our order. It seemed to come out alright.
The next day we let Lynn get down to some serious shopping while Rick and I headed out of the city on a 1 hour train to Figueres, the site of the Salvador Dali Museum. The city itself is extremely Dali oriented, so you can see surrealist sculptures throughout the streets on the way to the actual museum, which was built on the remains of the Figueres theatre. As you'd expect, it's a ... surreal experience. Upon entering you emerge into a tall circular courtyard lined with Oscar-looking statues in alcoves in the wall. At the centre is a 1920's automobile out of The Untouchables, and inside the car it's raining. Shrug. This was so much better than the Picasso museum. Although some of his more famous works are absent (no clocks or elephants), what's there more than makes up for it. I find that the intricacy and fine detail in Dali's work adds to the surreal aspect of it, making it more absurd through its realism. These skills as a fine artist were on display in his earlier works, where he used his skills for more pedestrian subject matter.
The main highlight of the Dali museum is the mural on the ceiling of one of the interior rooms, depicting Dali and his wife/muse Gala from underneath, as if they were standing on a glass floor. However, I was also impressed by his colleciton of paintings depicting figures camouflaged as rock features, which I'd never seen before. I was also surprised by the use of technology in his work. Dali fully embraced anything that would allow him to create new experiences – holograms, infra-red inks, new materials. Truly an innovator.
After so long on European food, Rick and I finally caved in to our cravings for Chinese food and for lunch we went to one of the most garishly decorated restaurants I've seen in a while. Curiously, instsead of the usual photocopies of restaurant reviews on the walls, we were treated to articles about the (I presume) owner's son who had set up Internet businesses in Spain. Maybe they didn't have any reviews because the food tasted like crap. It's damn hard to get good Chinese in Europe.
We managed to get an early train back to Barcelona and met up with Lynn and Marti for the local's tour of the area around Las Ramblas. As well as the major tourist sites – La Catedral, a big gothic cathedral that has ducks roaming around inside – we also got to see some of the more hidden and historic sights: a church pockmarked with countless bullet holes from an uprising, statues of St. George, the local food market (stocked with an impressive array of hams – hams!) and also some great eateries. Much to my chagrin, I only had churros once in Barcelona, but it was the ultimate churros experience – fresh, hot donuts with the richest chocolate sauce you've ever tasted. I could have had 10. For dinner we went to a Basque bar that Marti pointed out. It was notable not only because of its great tapas, but also because everything came on a toothpick and to finalise the bill they just count how many toothpicks you have on your plate. I think I see a flaw in that system, but we were pretty honest.
On our last day in Barcelona we were scheduled to fly out at 4PM, so we decided to take a whirlwind tour of Parc Guell – Gaudi's home and playground, where he experimented with his own architectural and sculptural ideas. It was well worth the looooonnnng walk from the subway station because you get immersed in his world of organic shapes and vibrant colours. Tourist checkpoint #5 was ticked off when we got a photo with his famous mosaic dragon sculpture. Barcelona complete.
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