31.05.2009 21 °C
4 - 12 May
We extended our stay at Hostal Central by three days as soon as we surfaced from our jet lag. It was clear there was a lot to do in Barcelona and that 7 nights would not suffice. With the Gaudi legacy to inspect and numerous museums to visit, we filled our days with a combination of sight-seeing and trying to decipher which of the "menús del día" looked most to our liking for lunch. While the monuments were spectacular, for me, it was the smaller things about the city that captured me most such as the tiny, winding streets around our launderette and whiling away the afternoon flicking small pieces of pizza to a retriever-cross who sat drooling next to our table in the Plaça de la Universitat.
We quickly discovered that:
1. Barcelona at the start of May is not warm, (well not by South East Asian standards) and while locals and European tourists strolled along Ramblas in their summer clothes, I tottled along with my cardy wrapped tightly around me.
2. I don't speak Spanish fluently enough to be particularly useful and I certainly don't speak Catalan.
3. People are obsessed with ham. Ham (or jamón) is everywhere in massive quantities and thin slithers are shaved proudly from a leg trussed up with a nasty-looking metal prong device (hoof still attached) and served for breakfast, lunch or dinner as the patron wishes.
Ham section in your regular supermarket
4. Many beggars in Spain are oddly well-dressed - better dressed than us yet they tap at the window of the cafe you're in and ask for money. You don't see children begging here, only the elderly or disabled.
5. Bus drivers in Spain are as rude and surly as they are in New Zealand.
6. There are dogs everywhere. Tall, aristocratic ones, bog-standard mongrelly ones and a wild proliferation of small, fuzzy cutesy ones that wouldn't look out of place in boutique teddy bear shops.
7. Apropos number 6 - there is dog-shit everywhere. (Although as I write this retrospectively, the quantity of poo seems to increase the further south you travel. Also, as it the weather in the south becomes warmer, so does the pervading fug of urine.)
Sadly, not always taken on board.
But I digress....
Barcelona was the first place we'd been to in a long time where there was space on the footpaths to walk places enjoyably. Consequently, we walked. For hours. Getting lost in the Barri Gotic or El Raval neighbourhoods became a favourite activity.
Council bicycles - sign up and you can grab one, pedal about and return it to one of many stations like this around town.
Not being complete Neanderthals, however, we did also learn to use the metro. It's a fairly mind-blowing experience popping up out of the subway to a first time, full-frontal vista of the Sagrada Familia.
Barcelona was also the place where Phil came down with a severe case of polyphotophilia. Camera clicking furiously he turned to me and stammered, "It's a postcard ... everywhere I turn". He captured the following odd phenomenon that we originally thought was a Barcelona quirk, only to find similar scenes throughout Spain:
1. A small bunch of African-looking chaps walk in formation with large sacks.
2. Without warning, they stop abruptly and simultaneously swing and spread their sacks onto the ground.
3. They then hock off as many faux Pradas, watches, pirated DVDs or sunglasses as they can, ready at the twinkle in a bobby's eye to gather all goods back together and vanish from sight in a single, perfectly choreographed manoeuvre.
Dining experiences in Barcelona are not the hit and run affairs they can be back home. The entire working day appears geared for eating marathons and while neither Phil or myself enjoy the high fat, high meat content, present in a lot of Spanish dishes, you can't fault the luxury of chatting over a three course meal and a bottle of wine for several hours in the middle of the day - especially when you discover that when you order wine it usually comes out by the bottle and is included in the price of the meal or is cheaper than a fizzy drink anyway. But wine wasn't all we were drinking, we quickly discovered Spanish hot chocolate, a smooth and extremely viscous brew of varying colour and intensity into which one is supposed to dunk lengths of sugar-coated fried dough called churros. Sans churros, I will order this chocolate caliente over coffee or any other drink excepting maybe one other.... horchata. I fell in love with this cool, sweet milky drink which, far from being a milk drink is actually made from chufas, or tiger nuts. As with everything in Spain - all items have their own shop and so the acquaintances we made in Cambodia (who lived in Barcelona) said to be on the look out for an horchateria. It took me awhile to realise that in Catalan, this would translate as orxateria and that we had one of these just down the road from our hostal which I regularly visited.
In addition to wine, hot chocolate and horchata, I'm ashamed to admit to also drinking a few litres of sangria while in Barcelona. Having been told that the concept of sangria was cheap, undrinkable plonk dressed up to be palatable with bits of left-over fruit, sugar and cinnamon to further disguise the prevailing grossness of the liquor, I was reluctant to stoop into the territory which would allow our waiter to sneer at our rampant, tacky tourism. But, I thought, I'll never see him again and he'll probably think we're British and sneer at us regardless so what the hell.
On our second evening meal in the city, was the night Barcelona beat Chelsea in the Semi-final of the Europe Cup and we discovered that, no matter how modest or swanky the restaurant, a big-screen T.V. will always be found. "Enchufe! Enchufe! Enchufe!" - the sound of burly Spaniards chanting "Plug it in! Plug it in!" to a frantic chap ducking behind the telly and fiddling with some cords. The heavens rings with decibel-defying Spanish voices as the cord-fiddler successfully produces a picture. As we chomped and sipped, we marveled at the enormous bellows that flew up when it seemed that nothing was even happening on the screen.
As our days in Barcelona poured past, we visited Gaudi's Casa Batllo, La Pedrera, Sagrada Familia, Parc and Palau Guell. We visited the Museu du Xocolat, Museu d'Historia de la Ciutat and the beach suburb of Barceloneta where Phil was able to glimpse his first topless bathers. Later, Phil visited the maritime and wax museums and I took a day trip up to Montserrat, the mountain monastery, an hour's train ride from the city.
We took photos, ate meals, did our laundry and had an amazing time but, all the while, bubbling away just beneath the surface were the beginnings of a nagging discontent, an un-nameable peevishness that would manifest in quick tempers and lethargy.
La Pedrera - Gaudi's apartment building
Exterior of Gaudi's Casa Batllo
Courtyard of Light running through the centre of Casa Batllo. The blues of the tiles become more intense as they ascend into a greater amount of light thus giving an impression of uniform blue.
Window inside Gaudi's Sagrada Familia
Ceiling detail and columns
Phil atop Sagrada Familia
The way down.
View of Barcelona from the top of Sagrada Familia