Europe | Spain | Barcelona – Barcelona! Ole!
For some reason I had this image of Barcelona as a place filled with sombreros, flamenco dancers and Spanish guitar music with maracas. There was nothing of the sort, and the only sombreros were purchased from tacky souvenir shops and generally worn by English tourists.
Getting here (or, Journey through the Pyrenees)
I travelled from Paris to Toulouse on the overnight train, which was a novelty to me as I hadn’t done it before. After a fairly fitful sleep in close quarters with four other strangers, the train pulled into Toulouse Matabiau in the morning. I decided not to hang around Toulouse and head straight for Barcelona instead. I had about half an hour before catching the train to La Tour de Carol on the French-Spanish border. This particular journey had the bonus of going through the Pyrenees, the mountainous natural border dividing the two countries, and an exciting scenic journey in itself.
For about three hours I was peering out the windows as the train climbed and winded its way into the mountains. I saw tiny houses perched high in the hills and wondered who lived there. Close to the border the mountains are peaked with snow, although spring was now beginning to thaw. La Tour de Carol is a frontier station in the middle of nowhere, but the snow covered mountains make an awesome backdrop. From La Tour de Carol I changed trains bound for Barcelona, arriving late in the afternoon.
On the train I met Sera (as in Qué Sera – her words, not mine), an Australian leading a small group of girls on a tour. She said I could follow them to the hostel, which was handy considering I didn’t know where to go. It was her first time leading and we got off at the wrong station but soon managed to find the right place with me trailing sheepishly behind a line of girls.
At the hostel, my world shrunk that little bit more when I run into a guy who took my picture beneath the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
Lost in the Barri Gotic
Barcelona was considerably sunnier and warmer than the climate I had experienced in Benelux and France. On Sunday morning I strolled along La Rambla, the main street in Barcelona. It was a lot quieter than the Saturday night before, when it was filled with thousands of people out on their usual Saturday night revelry drinking sangria and eating tapas.
An area just off La Rambla is the Barri Gotic (Gothic Quarter). The streets here, which date back to the 19th century, are a maze of narrow and disorienting pathways between tall buildings. I wandered around here for a while, getting lost and confused but feeling adventurous. Some of the dark streets even looked foreboding, which meant of course that I just had to go down them to have a look. I expected unsavoury characters hidden in doorways, but instead came across a number of tiny shops, cafes and butchers with legs of ham hanging from their windows. It made me wonder who goes to these places considering they might have trouble finding the same place again.
No, not gaudy, but Antoni Gaudi – Spain’s most renowned architect, designer of buildings of unconventional scale. One way to describe his buildings is that they contain more curves and waves than straight edges.
Several of his buildings dot the city, such as the Casa Battlo and La Pedrera. On Sunday morning, I strolled all the way to Gaudi’s most celebrated building, the Sagrada Familia cathedral. Gaudi spent the last 43 years of his life as the architect of this building between 1883 and 1926, when he died. As he didnt leave any definite plans behind the cathedral is still under construction to this day, dogged by controversy and indecision.
The cathedral has four massive steeples on each end resembling upside down ice cream cones. Construction cranes tower amongst the steeples, and such is their permanence that they even appear in official photos of the cathedral in brochures and postcards. I spent some time in the park looking up at this unconventional structure, as it was so different from the usual medieval cathedrals I had previously come across in my travels. Later that day I wandered around inside and climbed the narrow spiral stairs to the top of one of the steeples, poking around in nooks and crannies along the way.
This particular Sunday was also Palm Sunday, and there was a crowd of locals gathered outside the cathedral. They were holding what looked to me like giant yellow feathers but were in fact the palms themselves. As I looked on, a cry went out and everyone started cheering and stamping their palms on the ground. Certainly not how Ive seen Palm Sunday celebrated before.
Views of the city
For some reason I came across quite a number of vantage points in Barcelona from where I had a magnificent view of the city. One of these was at Park Guell, another Gaudi creation. The park is spread over a hill with different elevations. Gaudi’s influence is reflected in the brightly coloured tiling and rough rock-like pillars holding up sheltered areas. The building at the front of the park reminded me of a gingerbread house, complete with white frosted icing on top.
Another view of the city is at the Musea Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, which is high on a hill in the vicinity of the Olympic stadium. The wide stairs at the bottom of the building provide an excellent area to just sit and look at the city spread out below, as well as the hills that surround Barcelona.
Seaside at Rambla de Mar
Barcelona is also a sea side city, and the port is within walking distance of the centre of town. The Rambla de Mar is a portside area with piers and entertainment areas like shops and restaurants. On Sunday afternoons, the place is filled with people strolling along looking out to sea. The beach is also conveniently just around the corner, although it is littered with the odd piece of rubbish and dog excrement.
Vibrant and lively
I really liked Barcelona – it came across as a vibrant and lively city with a laid back Spanish cool about it. It doesn’t have the grittiness of Paris nor the fast pace of London. It has its complement of cultural attractions and unusual architecture, and lots of green space and parks for the people. The locals are very receptive to travellers, willing to communicate with a series of gestures if they dont possess a broad command of English. The seaside area completes the package, and from what I can see the city of Barcelona is heading in the right direction.