Sunday, December 23, 2012

WestCoastTrip: Barcelona

There are not many cities where I want to come back.

My greatest extravagance is experience, and the only thing on which I spend money with no hope of ever getting it back is travel. My kind of travel is unusual and, by necessity, almost always solitary. To travel fast, and to travel on rare cheap deals, requires the ability to decide immediately and to decide only for myself. I don’t expect I will always have the freedom (and the disposable income) to travel like this; I also don’t take cheap, ubiquitous, fast long-range travel for granted. We may never run out of usable fuel (and possibly not even fossil fuel within my lifetime), but airlines can go bankrupt, I can lose my income, and to be perfectly honest, I just don’t have enough vacation time to travel as much as I would like. So until I’ve seen every place I want to see in my life, I do my best to avoid backtracking.

Barcelona is an exception.
Columbus pointing at Travelcat.

The early-morning shuttle service takes me from my hotel straight to Budapest airport, where the WiFi is good enough to stock up on entertainment. The Malev jet takes a relatively short hop across the Mediterranean to deposit me in the Catalan capital’s airport, and I grab the bus into town. The ride along the Spanish hills is beautiful, but once we reach the city, the traffic gets very bad very quickly. An annoying amount of time later (but still early in the day), I’m at Placa Catalunya, the main hub of touristy Barcelona, with my netbook out, trying to figure out what the address, phone number and actual location of my AirBNB host is. Even at the tail end of September, Barcelona is crawling with tourists, and hotels were prohibitively expensive – but AirBNB came through, and I got a cheap, very simple room in an excellent location. A five-minute walk away, I find the right door just off a jeweler’s shop. It’s a lot of stairs to the apartment, but I politely refuse the host’s help: the imperative to always haul my bags up to the room myself is a great motivation to avoid over-packing. Neither am I disappointed with the fact that my window opens onto an air shaft: this city does not sleep when I would sleep, and I didn’t come to Barcelona to look at it out of a window.

I start at La Rambla, the main tourist street, after passing a New Rock Boots showroom (not as cool in real life as they are on the company website; my best choice for skull-stomping boots remains the home brand Aipi). It is the one bit of Barcelona that I remember well from my last visit – a few brief stopovers during a package holiday spent mostly at Calella, one of a string of beach towns all along the Catalan coast. It was four years prior, almost to the day. A few months after my surgery, once I’d already lost a whole lot of weight, I got kicked out of the office on a three-week holiday that the company was tired of keeping on the books; so I went online and booked the trip that filled the time as much as possible. Through a bit of poor foresight, I ended up on a bus ride from Tallinn to Barcelona – four days each way. It was indeed a once-in-a-lifetime experience, in an “I won’t be doing that again in this lifetime” way. But Catalonia was worth the return.

On the other side of La Rambla, I pass the Christopher Columbus statue and walk across the series of ultramodern bridges to the shopping mall on a pier on the middle of the bay. It wasn’t here the last time I came, and while I admire the architecture, I don’t hang around – I am much more interested in the nearby Barcelonita quarter, and the beginning of the city’s beach. I make a note of the Frank Gehry Fish in the distance, then backtrack to the subway. It’s high noon, and I’m determined to tick off a great world church.
I’d only seen the Sagrada Familia from the outside, and very briefly, on my last visit. It’s progressed a lot in the meantime, and I take my time. I don’t have the background or the vocabulary to accurately describe the impression of that structure, particularly stunning because of its location in the middle of an otherwise unremarkable housing ward. More than any other religious structure, it is testament not to the power of a deity but to the power of mankind, of imagination, perseverance, and beauty. Despite the overt Christian symbology, God is the last thing you wonder at in that building.

I spend another couple of hours walking along the streets of Barcelona, picking a destination at random and not being too disappointed when the grounds of the old mental hospital turn out to be sealed off. I return to the apartment, and soon set out for dinner. I start out along the Rambla Raval – a smaller, more authentic neighborhood version of the ubiquitous Spanish pedestrian promenade, complete with a tenement building taken over by hippies and covered in counterculture slogans. I keep walking, consulting my guidebook, until I get to a particularly recommended (but not particularly expensive) restaurant and tick off another Barcelona checkpoint by having some truly outstanding paella.

I’ve got a long day ahead of me tomorrow.

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