in which only great lovers of stephen sondheim will get that reference
20.01.2011 - 20.01.2011 45 °F
Sometimes I forget what an ambitious undertaking it is for someone so scatterbrained as I to try to make daily posts in a blog. (Check my rate of posting here for a concrete example of this!) So it’s not surprising that now that I’m home in DC and the luster of wanting to share experiences as they happen has worn off, I’ve let two days pass without posting and I’m even further behind in chronicling my trip than I was before. However, there are lots of terrific experiences fit to print, so the posts must continue until I reach my misbegotten flight back to the US!
Thursday – actually, exactly a week ago from the present – was more of a “travel day” than anything else, so this post "should be" on the short side anyway. (Not likely.) After a long night out soaking in my last hours in Toulouse, made even longer by the fact that I stayed up until around 4am packing, I woke up around 7am in order to make my train to Barcelona. Taking leave of my awesome and gracious host Marie, I lug my made-heavier-with-the-newfound-presence-of-French-booze bags to the subway station a few blocks away, and manage to figure out how to get on the right subway car to the train station. In the Toulouse subway there’s a frequently placed ad featuring my musical hero Gustav Mahler, and a guy who looks rather eerily like him on the adjacent poster. I’m fairly sure this would never ever ever happen in America. ☹
The station the train leaves from is confusing, as there’s no ticket window and it seems the only way to purchase a ticket from the French-only machines is to have a French credit card. Standing at the machine, my train is leaving in eight minutes and I’m experiencing one of the few mild panic moments of my trip (reminiscent of getting lost on a bus in Prague, perhaps?). I decide to get on the train and see where the chips fall. The train conductor is standing by the door and I manage to ask if I can buy a ticket on the train; he says “yes, but it’s 10 Euro more.” I gesticulate to him that the machine wouldn’t take my credit card, and he kindly motions, “Oh, OK, no problem.” However, twenty minutes later when he comes to charge me for the ticket he shows me the handheld machine which says 24 Euro + 10 “on train” fee; I try to say “but you said…” but then give up. With better French I would’ve tried harder to explain the lunacy of charging me a penalty for something unpreventable, but... c'est la vie.
The ride to Barcelona is quite pretty, winding through the mighty Catalonian Pyrenees past gray-brown fields, barren winter trees and an occasional thinly populated mountain hamlet. I arrive at La Tour de Carol station around 11:50am and settle in for the two hour delay before I pick up my transfer to Barcelona. Like all good unfamiliar train stations, it feels really remote here, and the few people ambling around the tiny station speaking French or Spanish make me feel even further from comfort. To keep with the French theme, I watch Truffaut’s The 400 Blows on my laptop. (Along with Godard’s Breathless prior to my Paris trip last summer, I’m slowly conquering the French new wave, which is now... old?)
The train to Barcelona is supposed to depart at 1:43pm, and by 1:35 I’m getting nervous that I’m not sure where it might arrive and leave from, and the ticket office, oddly enough on a Thursday afternoon, is of course, closed. At 1:40 I get up and cross in front of the station by the tracks, seeing a sign that says “A España” with an arrow pointing left; obviously this is the direction the train will head in, but the only train there is positioned further down on the tracks and somehow doesn’t look like my train. Having learned however that solo travelers should always investigate every option in unfamiliar lands, I walk down and climb aboard the train; there’s a girl who I recognize from the station sitting there and I ask “is this the train to Barcelona?” She says yes, and thirty seconds later the doors close and we’re off. Phew! Train-station-disaster-which-would-have-entailed-waiting-another-three-hours narrowly averted!
Until this day, Spain had remained one of the major countries of Europe which I had to enter, and passing by small towns in the North it resembles very much the picture I had created in my mind. Densely configured, rickety dwelling places in vibrant oranges and yellows, laundry hanging on clotheslines outside what seems like every window.
When I arrive in Barcelona I’m immediately aware of being in a place with a reputation for pickpockets and thievery, so I keep my camera packed tightly away. Last summer I had used the Airbnb (still don’t know where the name comes from) website to find rooms to stay in Europe with great success, and as I don’t know a soul in Barcelona, it’s the only time on my trip when I’m going to have to roll the dice and stay with a stranger. Binita’s place, however, which I booked the previous day, is quite well reviewed and a close walk from the major train station of Sants Estacio. Upon arriving, I call her and she gives me directions, and after the 10-15 minute walk through a quiet, residential neighborhood I find the apartment, and am let in by Roser, Binita’s new housemate who just moved in. (Oddly enough, in my three day stay I never actually met Binita, as we kept different hours, but I had a lovely stay and her friend was very helpful!)
Though I’m tired, I figure it’s better to see a bit of the city, so I pull my ID, credit card, and some Euros out of my wallet, put them in an inner buttoned pocket in my coat, and venture out, deciding that it’s better to leave my swanky camera behind. However, thankfully I brought my old Sony point-and-click, which fits into an inner pocket, along for the trip as a backup. (It’s funny how when I purchased this camera for a wedding in the summer of 2007, I referred to it as my “nice” camera!) Thus, the few shots I took in Barcelona that night look different from my usual shots.
I take Roser’s advice about the best plan of action, and hop on the subway to La Diagonal station, north of the major tourist area known as La Rambla. I walk for around ten blocks along Passeig de Gràcia, a vibrant shopping avenue which feels like Madison Avenue in Manhattan; Wikipedia tells me its the most expensive place to buy property in all of Spain! The window displays are immaculate and creative and I stop into a clothing store, thankfully resisting the temptation to purchase any fine Spanish shirts.
Along the way, I come upon a large apartment building which looks like it’s been imported from a Disney cartoon, and I’ve arrived at Casa Batlló, my first view of the work of legendary Barcelona architect, Antonio Gaudi. It’s pretty impressive from close up, though I opt out of paying the 18 Euro (!!) entry fee and snap a few photos from the sidewalk instead.
I pass by a large open square which empties out into the northernmost section of the long street La Rambla, and even though it’s early in the evening, the area is already teeming with tourists and vendors.
I walk for a few minutes, and with the densely packed glut of tourists surrounding me now very glad that I don’t have my nice camera, and stop into an old-looking cathedral, wedged into a traffic pattern close to the Catalunya subway stop. A man shakes his cup at me, disgruntled, as I open the door for myself upon leaving the church.
The Teatre de Liceu, home of the Barcelona Opera, is featuring Donizetti’s Anne Boleyn, and dozens of students pack the outside waiting to enter.
Using Binita’s wifi signal, I had loaded up a few webpages on interesting bars in Barcelona, and I decide to seek out Rita Blue, which is close by just off of La Rambla. I’m quite hungry and want to indulge in a familiar snack, so I order the website-recommended, house special Margarita Blue (tasty!) and an appetizer of nachos with what ends up being processed cheese?! (Not a great introduction to Spanish cuisine, I’m afraid!) I leave after twenty minutes, as the place is large and mostly empty, and I want to experience something more lively in my limited time.
Headed toward another bar on the list, I enter a bustling side street with loads of young people milling about, and realize I’ve happened upon a photography opening at an art gallery. I walk through and take in the photos, most of which are Polaroids, and help myself to a glass of wine in the back. Muchas gracias!
Further down the street I find Casa Almirall, which this website tells me is one of the oldest bars in the city, and try out some Spanish with the bartender. Though my French is practically non-existent, I did take about 6 years of Spanish up through high school, so I’m feeling on steadier ground, though it's still un poco de dificil después de mucho años! I ask for a local beer and he pours me a glass of Estrella Damn, a light and refreshing Spanish pilsner, and I sit at the ancient bar and use the wifi connection to plan my next move. Before I leave, the bartender, who sees I’m a tourist looking for cool places, hands me a postcard picturing people at the very same bar where I’m sitting, ca. 1860. Muy impresionante.
Wanting to hit up at least one more place, I decide on Bar Marsella, legendary Barcelona absinthe bar and former haunt of artists like Hemingway, Picasso, Miro, and Gaudi. The side streets off of La Rambla feel a lot sketchier than the main drag, with prostitutes and shady-looking men lolling about, as well as children/possible pickpocket candidates running down the dimly lit, unfamiliar streets. I get to the bar but sadly it’s closed (really? at 11:30 on a Thursday night?), though the front door is still open. I walk in and am floored by the ambiance; history seems to seep from the amber-colored, oak walls, set up like library shelves, on which dusty 19th century bottles take up space. I ask if it’s alright to take some photos and snap away, glad that I brought a backup camera!
I hustle back to La Rambla and walk toward the subway, stopping to take in an incredible flamenco dancer accompanied by a box drummer. This style of dance screams excitement and people quickly form a crowd to watch. The performers are stunningly in sync, and I shoot some video. Pretty amazing, right?
I stay for few minutes after and chat with the performers, Bernardo (dancer), and Cristobal (drummer) who are professionals who also rely on street performing to eek out a living. Bernardo gives me the website address for his flamenco company.
I catch the train back to Sants Estacio and walk back to my temporary home. First night in Barcelona, relaxed and enjoyable, and I have everything I came here with, so that seems a victory already!