I have always wanted to go to Barcelona. I’m honestly not sure why. Perhaps it was all that Hemmingway I read, or maybe Don Quixote, or maybe a movie I saw, or maybe because of Picasso. All of the above, most likely.
Barcelona is a beautiful city. There are art pieces and statues everywhere; there is another park or plaza or church around every corner. It is clean and well laid out. It is modern and classic at the same time. It is what a modern city should be.
From the beginning, from the plane in Amsterdam, I made sure that I would not be repeating my mistakes. I memorized the map and made sure I had my Catalan phrases ready. I plotted our route, with timetables, to our hotel. And this time, we had no trouble whatsoever. We landed, we made the train (which was hot and crowded and where my wallet tried really hard to jump out of my pocket. Twice.) on time and the subway on time and found the hotel quite easily.
We got ourselves checked in and the room scoped out before heading right out to the Sagrada Familia, an easy walk from our hotel.
Before leaving Japan, I had read a lot about crime in Barcelona. I had read that pickpockets were numerous and even daylight muggings were not uncommon. But we followed the rules (hand on camera at all times, no wallet, bag carried in front, watch each others backs, etc.) and we had no problems. That first walk though, from the hotel to the cathedral had my spider-sense tingling.
I tried to explain to Mayumi that the neighborhood we were walking through was ticking every one of my caution points: graffiti on walls, boarded up shops, broken sidewalks, young men hanging about at two-thirty on a Tuesday. She said that if I was going to be that nervous we shouldn’t have come and that if there were bad guys around, they could have her bag. She was absolutely right. I made myself relax and we enjoyed seeing the area around the cathedral.
Truth to tell, I’m not sure which Mayumi enjoyed more: seeing the cathedral on our first day, or finding a Starbucks right next door, selling souvenir Barcelona mugs. The staff in the ‘bucks was a very nice guy and helped me with my Catalan pronunciation as well as giving Mayumi her first chance to buy a souvenir.
We made it back to the hotel with my camera and her bag in tow; nothing untoward had happened and nothing would for the remainder of the trip and, although I had a new reason to feel like a jackass, the rooftop bar and view from our hotel meant I didn’t really care.
The next few days saw us walking all over the city, seeing the Picasso museum (truly fantastic), Las Ramblas, and countless other historic buildings and monuments. We also saw, what we both agree was one of the highlights of the trip, Parc Guell.
We started by walking through the suburb of Gracia, which was preparing for its annual festival, and had decorated all the neighborhood squares and alleyways with bright plastic robots and mosters made by the children of the neighborhood. We walked up and down the streets, purposely getting lost a few times until we finally turned a corner and found a gingerbread castle in front of us. We had found the park.
The park was designed by Gaudi (the same guy who designed the Sagrada Familia) and is a genuine wonderland, full of weird, organic-looking shapes and sculptures and open spaces and gingerbread houses and god only knows what else. We could easily have spent several more hours wandering through the park but rain drove us out and into a small restaurant where my wife, my lovely, lovely wife, discovered the joy that is a full pitcher of sangria to herself.
We had found sangria, a first for both of us, the day before in a nice tapas restaurant in the old quarter, where the waiter had recommended it when I asked for something cold and refreshing to beat the heat. He brought us two glasses of sangria and we became converts. Incidentally, the name of the restaurant was Vino y Tapas. That is the kind of name I like to see, straightforward and honest.
Anyway. Back at the restaurant near Parc Guell, Mayumi ordered sangria. The waitress was very nice but put my Spanish through a real workout. Instead of getting a glass, I got a small pitcher. Oops.
By now, I had Barcelona’s subway system completely sorted and we decided to take a walk to a station a bit further away so my wife could sober up a bit before hitting the next sightseeing spot.
All told, over the course of five days, we hit as many of the major districts as we could, seeing several museums and parks and shops, while taking our evenings and going to the shopping mall across the street from the hotel for a cheap dinner. And for me to go shoe shopping. As I mentioned before, I’m a pretty big guy, and I live in Japan, or, as I like to call it Liliputia. Stores in Japan do not carry my shoe size. I figured that being in Europe would be a good time for me to do a little shoe shopping and the mall seemed as good a place as any.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find anything I wanted to spend the Euros on, but it did let us observe the natives away from the tourist spots. One thing I found interesting was that the staff bordered on rude. I had thought that kind of service was only in the tourist areas and, well, I both expected and accepted that. My next thought was that it was just teenagers being teenagers, but we encountered the same behavior from all ages. And I don’t mean that the staff were impolite, rather, they just seemed to resent being asked to do their jobs. As if customers were an imposition they had to endure.
The nicest thing about the mall was the grocery store. We were able to stuff our room’s minifridge full of juice and snacks and dinner ingredients, rather than pay the shockingly high restaurant prices at anywhere other than fast food joints. We tried orxata, a kind of drink made from ground tiger nuts but we couldn’t stomach it. We decided to stick to water and sangria after that.
By Friday we had noticed that the nature of guests in the hotel had changed. From when we arrived on Tuesday, throughout the week, the other guests in the hotel were young couples sightseeing or businesspeople from elsewhere in Spain or Europe. From Friday morning on though, the majority of tourists were young English kids, either in college or on their first job holiday out to party in the nightclubs. Friday and Saturday nights were quite different from the previous days of our stay, especially at the rooftop bar of our hotel. I’m not saying it was good or bad, just something I thought interesting and something I was able to sympathize with the hotel deskman about as he checked us out of the hotel at four a.m. Sunday, while simultaneously fending off a number of drunken guests looking for somewhere to get one more drink before crashing.