A Travellerspoint blog

Spain

day 13: graciath a barthelona... y adioth! (maybe.)

in which your author meets new friends, takes in the town, and samples the green fairy in hemingway's bar!

semi-overcast 45 °F

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Walking along the ascending circular path are enormous, lime-green cactus plants which have been re-birthed as canvasses for carved initials and graffiti.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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?!)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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?!

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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!

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[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!]

Posted by coolmcjazz 11:21 Archived in Spain Comments (2)

day 12: where you going? BARCELONA. oh.

in which only great lovers of stephen sondheim will get that reference

sunny 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. ☹

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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?)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

Posted by coolmcjazz 06:44 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

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