On the morning of the next day, we pile back into the coach and set off for Montserrat. I know of it simply as the first name of a famous opera singer, but am told by the guide that it is a monastery high up in the mountains. The destination fails to disappoint: in a region of the world famous for its outstanding architecture, the Montserrat sanctuary is exceptional. The long, windy track up to the 1200m elevation is one of those roads I would like to drive in a small, rear-engined roadster, with a steward at each end making sure there is no oncoming traffic. But it is still pretty exciting from the top of a double-decker.
Montserrat itself is a proper small town, albeit centered on a church. It has a couple of hotels, a supermarket, and lay accommodation for the various personnel that keep the tourist trap running. The church itself houses something called the black Madonna – literally, an icon of the Madonna as a Maur. Apparently it is faintly scandalous, but Montserrat is far enough out of everybody’s way that the practice was allowed to continue until it became tradition. I go into the church, but there is a mass in progress so I do not disturb the faithful by shuffling around.
I go into the handful of buildings making up the rest of the compound, and take an easy trek up to a vantage point, then come down to the railcar station. Montserrat proper is accessible from civilization-level by both road and rack-rail, and there is a little rail/cable arrangement leading from it up to the summit of this particular Pyrenean peak. I buy a return ticket.
At the top there is a small museum and three separate hiking paths. I go about half way up the simplest of them, on the other side of the mountain from the Barcelona freeway, and return, feeling vaguely disappointed that I do not have enough time for the 50-minute walk back down the mountain to the main compound. I will definitely need to come back here.
With half an hour before departure, I look through the gift shop for an appropriately hip black T-shirt, but instead settle on a tin of black tea and a bottle of monk-sourced booze, plus a sampler of various kinds of honey. I don’t even mind the price-gouging: whoever lives here and keeps this amazing place in good condition despite the throngs of tourists deserves my money.
We return to the hotel, and I make another attempt at Calella’s supposed major bookshop. It’s not Sunday, and it’s not siesta, yet the stubborn reality of steel shutters contradicts the promise of the opening hours listed on the door. Fuck ‘em. I go to a newspaper stand, search for a British car magazine without success, and pick up a Grisham paperback. That night there is a fireworks show on the beach, the culmination of a week-long festival, most of which we have missed. The show is quite cool, actually. After 11pm, the town is appreciably younger, as the retiree set is replaced by school trips.
Wednesday is our big day-trip into Barcelona. The Sagrada Familia is very cool, but located in what looks like a mildly disreputable residential area, not to mention covered in construction works; the church is being built completed on donations alone, although apparently the Spanish government promised it would make up the shortfall necessary to finally have it done by 2026.
Barcelona is big and feels healthy; the city buses carry red-and-yellow striped flags, in the same sort of way that Tallinn’s trams are adorned by two little flags whenever a particularly important foreign dignitary is visiting. With all the local pride, Barcelona definitely feels like the capital of Catalunya rather than a metropolis in Spain. I wonder about the region’s self-identification. They already have their own Internet domain; I suspect that the only thing stopping them from seceding is the sheer uselessness of aggravating the rest of Iberia. Between EU policies that would be binding anyway, and the heavy autonomy that Catalunya seems to enjoy, it seems to have as much independence in practice as it cares to claim.
For a closer look at Gaudi’s legacy, we go up to the Guell park, something very akin in concept to the Villa Borghese in Rome – a vast green space on what was the edge of the city when the industrialist for whom it’s named envisaged it as a community for Barcelona’s affluent. Only about five of a planned fifty stately homes has so far been completed, so the park remains a pleasant public recreation spot, with bits of impressive Gaudi sprinkled about. I find that I have taken quite a liking to pleasant hikes through moderately angled bits of nature.
The coach takes us down to Barcelona’s sprawling port complex and the statue of Columbus, on what is thought to be the spot where he first set foot on Spanish soil. We are given some time to stroll down the city’s main tourist street, the retroactively inevitable La Rambla. I make it up to Plaza Catalunya and back down again via sidestreets, eventually emerging with a copy of CAR Magazine; between that and a couple of the less suspect paperbacks from the hotel’s used book exchange, I feel confident I have enough reading material to see me through to the end of the trip. We have a quick look at the Olympic stadium, a place of some significance for Estonia because this is where Erika Salumäe received her gold medal in cycling, a significant affirmation for what was in 1992 a country with little outside recognition and even less faith. They hoisted the Estonian tricolor upside down, too.
Returning to Calella, I spend a couple of hours online, working on my stockpile of podcasts for the return trip. As the evening rolls in, I briefly consider attempting the gastronomic rape of the hotel’s dinner service, but decide against it. Food prices here can vary greatly: I paid over 15 Euro at a tourist trap in downtown Barcelona for a tapas-sized portion of fried shrimp in batter and a coke. (Tapas, the new thing that latte-sipping Guardian readers in Islington have been obsessing over, is indistinguishable from what Tartu pubs call an õlletaldrik – an assortment of unassuming, but functional snacks. The shrimp were fine.) Back in the hotel town I walk down to the nearest steak house. This being Catalunya, bull country, I feel obliged to go for the beef, but my ongoing quest for protein without lard steers me toward the mushroom sauce that comes with a very decent (and impressively huge) piece of pork. With chips and salad, plus a beer, the entire meal costs me less than 13 Euro. If the restaurant can make a profit on that, I feel even more appalled at the pile of inedible dung that my hotel has the gall to charge 9.50 for, without providing so much as tap water to wash down the crud. Still, the town of Calella feels a lot more agreeable after a pint of the local lager.
A tale of two countries
5 weeks ago