in which your author meets new friends, takes in the town, and samples the green fairy in hemingway's bar!
Tell ya one thing I’ve learned about being a budding travel writer. I always loathe the last entry, the one where you have to pack up the hours you spent living that constant state of newness into some neat summary, all the while not knowing when your next travel adventure will arrive. I’ve been home for eleven days now, and just like the last entry for last summer’s trip, I’ve taken my sweet time composing it, perhaps in an attempt to savor the flavors and colors of experience. Truth be told, I think by the final few days of this trip I was ready to get home and resume normalcy; there are wonderful advantages to seeing the world, but living out of a overstuffed backpack on recycled clothing is not one of them.
Happy I got to sleep relatively early the previous night, I got up about as early as I had on any day of my solo week (10am?), and set out to conquer the town. The previous night I put out a call on Twitter for Barcelona “must-sees”; my oh-so cultured social media friends had plenty of suggestions, though the most consistent were Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, Park Güell, and Las Ramblas, where I had explored the previous evening. So not much mystery to the day’s itinerary – which was fine with me after close-to-2-weeks of exploring!
I make my way through the Sants Estacio train station, a ten minute walk from my lodgings, and descend into the subway; I find that as systems go, the Barcelona subway is clear, clean and easily managed. While in the station, I’m noticing something about this town which seems consistent and distinctive. Perhaps it’s because I’m extra-aware of my surroundings, but everyone seems to be making eye contact as they pass by, as if all residents are continually on guard?
I get off at Vallcarca on the green line, which from one of my many maps appears to be the closest stop to Park Güell. Surprisingly there doesn’t appear to be an obvious way to get from the subway station to the park, which is surprising considering it’s surely one of the major tourist destinations in Barcelona.
A nice woman eventually directs me en español (I understand about 75% of what she says) through some construction to the long escalator which will take me up to the park. Starving, I find a cute café and order a coffee and piece of apple cake, while Brad Mehldau plays in the background.
After climbing up multiple plateaus on probably the longest escalator journey I’ve taken in my life, I arrive at the top by the entrance to Park Güell. Apparently this park was designed in the early 20th century for use as a wealthy residential area, but was later converted into a municipal garden.
Walking along the ascending circular path are enormous, lime-green cactus plants which have been re-birthed as canvasses for carved initials and graffiti.
The view from the curved walkway of beautiful Barcelona, stretching outward toward the Mediterranean, is majestic, and absolutely one of the highlight scenic vistas of this, or any trip I’ve been on.
At the top of the pathway there’s a large precipice with a stone cross, and a number of tourists surround it with cameras. Though there’s an edge of chill, the air is almost spring-like, and everyone is in good spirits to be in such a place.
Approaching the top, I hear a man’s grainy voice singing over… the 12 bar blues form? Though it’s incongruous to hear music which sounds like it belongs in a Tennessee juke-joint at the peak of a Barcelona municipal garden, the guitarist is really good, and I hold off on ascending to the top and shoot some video.
When he finishes, I strike up a conversation and find out that Robert Pugliese is an ex-pat from Tennessee, living as a street musician in Barcelona. We have one of those conversations which seems only possible between deep music lovers; he speaks in detail about his blues guitar influences, including Robert Johnson and the lesser-known (to me, at least) Bukka White and Mississippi Fred McDonald, and passes on a wealth of information about the history of the metal dobro which he’s been playing, which I had mistaken for a guitar. (It's from Slovakian origins?!) I wish I could transport this guy to my class to lecture on early blues. I buy a copy of his CD and climb up to the top of the peak.
On the top, I do some camera swapping (“Can you take my picture?” “Yeah, can you take ours?”) with three friendly Americans who like me are taking in all the gorgeous scenery. I sense a connection to them, though as a solo traveler it’s a bit daunting to say “Hey, I don’t know a soul here. What are you guys doing the rest of the day?” We part ways and I take a minute to breathe in the air, again wondering if I will ever make it back to this spot.
I descend and walk past Robert The Bluesman down the curved trail, and at a small opening I turn and descend in the direction of where some music and dancing is taking place below.
I order an overpriced (though delicious!) Sangria and cheese sandwich on crusty bread, and walk toward the plaza where a brass band is playing Spanish music. Lo and behold, my photo friends from above are seated close by, and as this is a good twenty minutes later in an enormous park, the serendipity seems too much to resist. We sit and chat about the town and our backgrounds; Nick and Sydni are married American church-workers-who-don’t-want-to-be-called-missionaries living in England, while Jazmin is a Univision journalist visiting from Chicago. Jazmin shows off her impressively organization skills by pulling out a list of “things to try in Barcelona” and offers me a piece of local cheese (queso de Cabrales) which she has checked off the list; it’s really pungent, and taking a bite pushes my eyebrows toward the sky. I imagine this cheese would be better appreciated after building up to it, and maybe accompanied by a nice Albariño!
At some point I mention my ill-fated trip to the closed Bar Marsella the previous evening, and Jazmin points to it on her list! So, evening plans, done and done. We agree to meet there at 7:30, and it’s nice to enjoy the rest of my day knowing I have a plan in place for the evening. On the way out of the public square I pass by a woman dancing flamenco, and I stop to buy some bracelets and silk scarves from merchants sitting on the sand. (I have a few left, friends – who wants em?!)
At the base of the Park, tourists mill about with cameras, soaking in the distinctive Gaudi flavor; I pop into the colorful gift shop, which warns patrons to beware of pickpockets, and pick up a few trinkets.
As the afternoon is waning and my time is growing short, I decide to pay for my only solo cab ride of the trip to get to Sagrada Familia, which ends up being only around 7 Euro. I have a broken-Spanish conversation with the cabbie on the way, and he reminds me to be careful at night around Bar Marsella!
I leave the cab and walk around the imposing cathedral of Sagrada Familia, which stretches to the clouds, flanked by scaffolding – apparently this church has been in a state of continual construction for some time. I walk around and take lots of shots, then walk in and join the phalanx of tourists all craning their necks to take in the enormous vertical expanse.
Clearly, Antonio Gaudi wasn’t a fellow who believed in restraint; geometrical shapes define faces of ornate religious statues, a heavy metal door is carved with Biblical words, while greens, blues, and red-oranges glow through simple circle and oval stained windows in the high archways. The church is structured in a Latin cross, where “branching columns of different heights rise to give the feeling of a forest.” The detail of Gaudi’s vision is extraordinary and almost childlike; I’m pretty sure I’ve never been in a place like this in my life.
I should say that when I looked at pictures of Antonio Gaudi’s work online, the word which came to mind was in fact… “gaudy.” My tastes in architecture and art are primed by travels to grand and classical 16th century cathedrals with my father in Italy, and even when I visited Paris I found the gothic style of Notre-Dame very much to my liking. That said, seeing Gaudi’s work up close, and especially walking through the exhibit describing his process, containing hands-on demonstrations, places his work in a context which encourages deeper appreciation. Gaudi was fanatical about studying the processes of nature and mathematics, and it’s inspiring to see how he applied these concepts to his cathedral.
Though its cold, I take another walk around the cathedral, and call home for a few minutes – it’s amazing how well the cell phone signal to the US is from all this distance! My father, who visited here in the mid-1960s, asks me if the church façade still looks like it’s melting away. Sure does!
I walk back underneath the cathedral through the museum, where even more detail regarding Gaudi and his methods are found; the admission fee to get into the church was fairly high but I see why given the terrific presentation of all of this stuff. Sagrada Familia was well worth seeing and it absolutely does the city of Barcelona proud.
Outside the cathedral, I ask for directions to Casa Calvet, where a Facebook friend has told me to try the Guanaja chocolate cake, and I make my way past meticulously crafted store windows, swanky tapas joints and more architecture museums which I don’t have the energy to investigate. Sadly, the restaurant is closed, but I consult my map and walk toward the Arc de Triomf, stopping in a beautifully designed South Asian goods store where I purchase a scarf for myself and a hat for a friend.
After a quick view of the Arc, where kids are playing soccer, I descend into the subway, where there’s a creepy looking guy wearing dark sunglasses standing directly in front of the entry gates, watching people enter the station. (Yikes.) I make my way back to Binita’s place, grab a refreshing shower (always a fine substitute for an actual nap), and head back out to meet my new friends, and this time, having a better idea of what to expect, I bring my nice camera, having finagled a way to stuff it under my coat.
I arrive at Bar Marsella at 7:31 and am alarmed when I hear someone in the sea of prostitutes call out “Jason!” (I joke with the three, “How did they know my name?”) Bar Marsella doesn’t open until 10:30, so we make our way past the shady-looking people back out onto Las Ramblas and decide to explore part of the Gothic Quarter. It feels safer already to be in a group!
Ever the journalist, after just one day here, Jazmin already has an impressively clear idea of where we are and where we should go, and as we wind our way past twists and turns in an old part of town, the others and myself feel like we’re being given a tour by a true local! We stop briefly into a beer bar, which Nick is impressed by; apparently they don’t get many craft beers living in the English countryside! We decide that food is a priority, however, so we resolve to find some tapas and come back.
We arrive at Sagardi, where the three had been to the previous night, and it’s my only genuine tapas (pronounced “tapath” here!) experience in Spain. Dozens of delectables on bits of bread line the glass cases, and after we find a spot standing at a table, waiters stop by with other savory samples which are tough to resist. It’s a sort of never-ending smorgasbord, and even eating vegetarian I’m exposed to lots of new flavors. (Even the mushroom tapa was great, though my favorite was the fried goat cheese!) We also share a bottle of a sparkling white from the Basque region called Talai Berri. I see why this business model is so strong; you fill your plate when you first walk in hungry, then they bring out other stuff which looks too good to pass up, and they charge you by the number of toothpicks you leave on your plate. The others make a special request for a jam & cream cheese (but better!) dessert tapa which they had had the previous night, and the chef makes a new plate of them just for us! Also, at some point a child walks by with his dog in a bag?!
We move on and walk our way back to the beer bar La Cerveteca, and luckily find another standing table in the crowd, where we talk about beer and jobs and travel and it’s great fun getting to know these folks. This feels much like what I experienced meeting Americans on my trip last summer, and I love the ways strangers can easily come together over beers and conversation.
Walking back in the direction of Bar Marsella, which we are by now resolved to see, we stop into a French chocolate shop, where I peruse for chocolate for my roommate who is kindly watching my dog over my 2 week trip; I hold up a green box and blue box and ask “Quien es mas macho?” (Everyone votes for the blue.) I also buy a mantecado (solamente uno? Dios mío!), made with lemon juice and cinnamon and Jazmin and I agree it’s one of the finest pastries we’ve ever sampled.
We make it to Bar Marsella, which upon arrival is open but empty, find a table and the men order two absinthes. (Does anyone ever order anything else here?) The waiter brings back two of the neon green potions with a bottle of spring water which has a pinhole drilled into its top. (Something tells me this wasn’t what Hemingway used, but it works.) Balancing a sugar cube on a fork, we pour the water slowly over the sugar, which melts into the liquid. The taste is actually better than I had imagined, with strong herbal notes led by anise; in fact it’s smoother than the version which I had brewed at home last fall. (Imagine that.)
Sydni takes my camera and wanders around the place taking shots, so it’s nice that I have a few nice ones of me in this setting, which isn’t always the case. (Note to Nick: buy this girl a camera!) To say that the ambiance is astounding is an understatement; the place reeks of history and this is even more palpable actually sitting there and enjoying the storied liquor with friends.
As the place fills up to near capacity, I walk around and take more shots. Bar Marsella is a terrific way to close out my long trip, and we pack up and head back out to Las Ramblas, where my new friends (yay Facebook!) walk to their hotel and I take the train back to Sants Estacio. What cool people I’ve met on this trip. I love how traveling makes you cut through so many formalities; I think people present the best of themselves when they’re in unfamiliar lands, so you really get to know positive, relaxed sides of people, and it’s the best way I know to meet interesting people from all around the world.
The following morning, I miss my intended train to the airport, and get on one which will get me there with barely enough time to check my bags for my international flight. The train is packed, and I amble with my bags toward the one available seat. As I sit I look to my right, and who am I sitting next to? NICK AND SYDNI. No way! What are the chances of that? (And can we get another absinthe here?) We depart at the airport and wish each other well in our respective travels. I'm about to say goodbye to Europe again... or so I thought!
[Note: I tried to make the following day part of this, but I had exceeded the limit for words in one entry! Guess I'll have to make a separate post!]