Friday, November 11, 2011

Bella Barcelona

We knew France was definitively behind us when our train pulled into the Barcelona Sants station a half hour late. Our 6:54am TGV (train à grande vitesse) left Toulouse exactly on time and the train we then transferred to in Narbonne departed not a second late as well. But apparently all bets for an on-time arrival were off once we crossed into Spain. As we slowed to a screeching stop at the border, an announcement was made about changing trains. Despite the fact that we had been assured we would not have to transfer again, I woefully harked back to my back-backing trip in the seventies. In the dead of night my companions and I were awakened at the Spanish border town of Irun, had to gather our packs, get off the French train and sleepwalk forward about 200 yards to then board the Spanish train because the French train’s wheels wouldn’t run on Spain’s wider track gauge. Apparently, this is still true for many of the trains in Spain (along with Portugal, they are the only country in Europe with the wider gauge) and the unlucky passengers crossing the borders into and out of France on these lines still have to do the border train shuffle. But luckily this was not the case for the variable gauge train we booked that runs from the Mediterranean coastal towns in France to Barcelona. Thank goodness I had misheard the announcement and no, we did not have to change trains and lug all our bags forward. Rather, they had to push the wheels of each car out to accommodate the wider tracks of the Iberian Peninsula’s system. What a way to run a railroad!

Now that we’re in a new country, the familiar doorbell chime greeting of “bonjour, messieurs-dames” every time we walked into a shop or hotel has been replaced with the simple, straightforward “hola.” And we’re reminded at every turn by the abundant bright red and yellow striped flags and the street signs and billboards (the words of which I can only decipher a few), that we’re actually not yet in Spain; we’re in Catalonia. I mentioned before that what at first glance appears to be a mixture of Spanish, French and Italian is actually quite different. Here and there I’ll spot a familiar word, like bella for beautiful (belle in French and the Italian mirrors the Catalan), carrer for street (calle in Spanish) or gambeta for shrimp (gamberetto in Italian). Ordering food off a Catalan menu can be a real adventure!

Barcelona has genuinely surprised us. Sometimes it’s better to arrive in a place with no preconceived notions, not knowing what to expect and allowing it to unfold for you on its own. And that’s just what we did with this beautiful city. We read only enough of our guide book to help us decide where to book our hotel and then stopped. We’d concentrated all our time and energy on the logistics of moving from one country to the next (repacking all our bags and leaving behind what we could live without, returning the rental car and catching the train) that we suddenly realized we had no idea what awaited us in Barcelona. All unpacked and settled into our bright, modern hotel in the center of town as our base for the next five days, we turned to each other and asked, “now what?”

On our very first morning we experienced one of those unexpected, laugh-out-loud moments that surprise you when you travel. In the bright hotel breakfast room, painted pale green and decorated with plentiful plastic oranges and daisies, we were the only two Americans filling our plates from the buffet. Imagine our surprise when the English-language rock music playing in the background launched into the original version of Cee-Lo Green’s “Forget You.” We almost dropped our coffee cups in our laps. Are they really playing the uncensored song? “I'm like, 
f*** you! 
And f*** her too!” No one else in the room even flinched. Ah, the beauty and innocence of enjoying another country’s music while you have no idea what the lyrics mean...

The fact that we arrived in the rain and that the showers continued for two days didn’t dampen our spirits or our introduction to Barcelona in the least. The chilly two days of downpours were followed by three days of brilliant sun and blue skies with temperatures near 70 and we spent hours wandering the city and exploring the sights. There’s an upbeat vibe to Barcelona – it’s a happy place with lots of happy people and the energy is contagious. Comparing our experience in France, bodies are broader, hair a bit darker and people move with an unmistakable lightness of step. The bread doesn’t even come close to the French variety, but the fact that all form and color of tapas are available all day is a pleasant plus. While no other system can surpass the Paris metro in my book, Barcelona’s subway was clean and easy and efficient and could mount a serious challenge. The colossal, central public market just off the main pedestrian way, La Rambla, the Mercat de la Boqueria, makes the open-air markets we visited in France look like roadside farm stands. Filled with hundreds of stalls selling every type of fresh seafood, meat, cheese and produce imaginable and fringed with countless hanging hams, the lofty ceilinged indoor market -- a vegetarian's nightmare -- buzzed with activity and a cacophony of chatter. Tourists, elbow-to-elbow with locals jostling to buy their daily groceries, snapped photos of exotic creatures from the sea on beds of ice, all color and variety of fruits and vegetables piled high and the brown and red awnings of Spain’s beloved jamón.

Barcelona is much like Los Angeles geographically in that it is nestled between the hills and the sea. But we weren’t prepared for the number of distinct neighborhoods, parks and monuments both up high in the hills and down by the sea. There are even Barcelonan surfer-dudes with their boards perched on the shoulders heading off to catch the waves along the man-made beach by the harbor. Yes, there were actually some pretty good waves crashing on the shore from the Mediterranean. We had no idea. To help us discover more surprises, get our bearings and orient us to the far-flung highlights of the city, we decided to join the other tourists and take one of the ubiquitous hop-on/hop-off, open-topped busses that snake through town, stopping at the major sights.

The number one stop for any visitor to Barcelona is Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia church, the architect’s unfinished masterpiece still being built and that won’t be completed for another 25 years. There are simply no words to adequately describe our astonishment at the first glimpse of this sandcastle sculpture in the middle of a residential neighborhood. It is unlike any structure we had ever seen. We were equally fascinated and charmed by Gaudí’s colorfully tiled Guell Park carved out of the hill, its paths delineated with his irregular, organic fences and jagged overhangs. The fanciful buildings that undulate in the chic Eixample district made us stop and marvel at the magic of their mosaics and vibrant serendipity. I’m embarrassed to admit that I had no idea just how much Gaudi and the Catalan modernistas influenced this lovely city. I found myself wishing I were an artist or fashion designer drawing inspiration from the lively work of Gaudi and his contemporaries. Beyond these visionaries’ whimsical work, so many other buildings in Barcelona are simply beautiful structures graced with delicate shutters in yellows and greens and that seem always to be open, unlike all those that were closed in France. And every window has a balcony of wrought iron or stone, beckoning its residents outside. We visited the Picasso Museum, which houses much of Barcelona’s other renowned native son’s intriguing early work, hidden in the dark narrow streets of the ancient Barri Gotic quarter. Again, I suspect that were I an artist, my creative juices would be overflowing and I might never want to leave this lovely city.

Barcelona was artsy and classy and fun and delicious, all at the same time. Arriving with no idea of what to expect, it surprised us at every turn and made for an excellent entry into Spain. 

Pictures of our adventures:

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