After hugging Donna and sending her on her way, we returned to the Madrid metro to travel on to the Atocha station. You would think that with all the train travel we had done in Spain, we would have been more savvy, but no, we ended up standing in line to buy tickets in the regional trains queue instead of going to the long-distance train ticketing office in order to take the train to Barcelona. Luckily, there are trains every hour and we were able to stand in a ‘next train’ line, buy our ticket with barely fifteen minutes to spare, and make our way to the platform in time for the train’s departure.
Lots of people would feel stressed by this, instead we seem to get a little ‘rush’ from facing difficulties, solving the problems and rejoicing at overcoming the challenges. Maybe it’s our own little ‘Amazing Race’’, without the million dollar prize money. We’ve never watched the show, because for us, the fact that huge amounts of money are involved; isn’t what travel should be about. The prize is what you overcome along the way, and what you learn from the obstacles you face in getting from one place to another, finding a place to sleep, a place to eat and meeting great people along the way.
We are really enjoying the luxury of the high-speed trains. They are comfortable, clean and the toilets are space age. When we think back to all the trains we have taken in India in the past, and especially the toilets we endured on those trains, we revel in the luxury here. We don’t need to fly first-class; this is like first-class for us, even though we are traveling second class on the Spanish trains.
In three hours, we found ourselves in Barcelona. We have to keep pinching ourselves that we are actually visiting these places that we had always kept way, way down on our list of places to see. We always thought that we would save Europe for a time when we were done seeing the more far away, more difficult places to travel in. We had found that traveling by land instead of flying from one place to another, keeps travel more affordable. For this reason, we decided to make our fourth year of travel one where we could use the train and bus, instead of flying. So far it has worked well, but we are a little unsure if this will go as smoothly once we move into Slovenia, Croatia, and pass through Serbia on to Turkey.
Side Note: As I sit here writing about Barcelona, warm and snug in our hotel in Florence, Italy, CNN and is reporting about World Cup qualifying matches. Reports are talking about Argentina’s team traveling across the Rio De La Plata to Montevideo to play against Uruguay. I have to say, Anil and I were a little thrilled to remember that we were in Buenos Aires just six months ago, that we took the ferry across the Rio to Uruguay to visit the little city of Colonia. Checking off places on our ‘to see’ list, and then hearing about them once we’ve been there, is a simple little thrill that is hard to describe to non-travellers. For those of you reading this, those who also love to travel, will know what I mean.
Editor’s Note: To all the soccer fans…”Don’t Cry for Argentina”!! Obviously I am not a Diego Maradonna fan.
We had arrived in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, a region with its own language, culture and history, and like Quebec in Canada, many Catalans think of their home as a separate country. There is enough to do here to be busy for weeks, and then there are the beaches and the surrounding towns in the nearby mountains. It’s great to travel at this time of year, because there are not as many tourists and we are not forced to book accommodation in advance. We like to see the places we will make our home, before we make a commitment.
We went directly to a small hotel just off the famous Ramblas pedestrian mall in Barcelona, hoping they would have a room for us. They were able to accommodate us for two nights, but not for a third. It’s always easier to stay in once place for the duration of a visit, but not so easy dragging your suitcase around the streets. We checked in for the two nights and knew we had plenty of time to find a nearby hotel for the remaining night. The weekend was coming, it might be difficult, but we know that if you are prepared to pay more money, you will not sleep on the street.
We settled into our room and then went to look for another place to stay. We knew that we were in an area full of small hotels so we just went for a walk and looked into the lobbies of the hotels we passed. Many of them in the neighbourhood were pretty ‘boutique’, but when we rounded a corner, I spotted a young woman with a suitcase ringing the bell on an intercom in a doorway. She looked to me like the kind of traveler we are, so I rang the bell beside the ‘Hotel Levante’ as well. We were buzzed in and took the stairs to the second floor and the reception desk.
This was just the kind of place we were looking for. The man at the desk spoke decent English, was very friendly and helpful and understood when we asked to see the room first. We liked what we saw and made a deposit to book the room. There was no problem with internet access at the Hotel Levante, something we were relieved to find. We have been surprised how hard it is to find a hotel with free WiFi in Spain.
We had only two days in Barcelona because we wanted to meet up with friends from Edmonton in the south of France. Barcelona is Spain’s most cosmopolitan city and people rave about the nightlife, the bars, restaurants and nightclubs are always packed. It’s not all play and no work though; there is a thriving port and the biomedical and high-tech businesses are state of the art. Speaking of art, Barcelona has been a leader since the late 19th century. Fashion, architecture and the fine arts speak volumes throughout the city.
We decided to focus on the architecture of Antoni Gaudi during the limited time we had. The 19th century saw the resurgence of economic wellbeing in Catalan after it backed the wrong side during the War of Spanish Succession in the early 1700s. Something had to be done with all the wealth that was generated, and the nouveau riche paid for lavish buildings, many in a new style dubbed ‘Modernisme’. Gaudi was the leader of the pack, and today seven of his buildings in Barcelona are considered to form a World Heritage-listed site. We visited the top five ‘Modernista’ gems. It was quite a busy time for us, not the relaxing time we had anticipated we would have when we were on our own again.
We started off with a visit to ‘La Sagrada Familla’ (The Holy Family), Gaudi’s masterwork. I have done a separate journal entry on this amazing cathedral. We decided to take the metro to the L’Eixample neighbourhood where it stands. We were sure we had seen all the different permutations and combinations that metro systems can throw at a traveler, but Barcelona had something different for us to contend with. We could see that we would have to take two different metro lines, but that was not unusual. When we got off the first line, we followed the signs to the second line, but were a little puzzled when the signs indicated we should exit the turnstiles and climb a set of stairs to the street outside.
I didn’t want to go through the turnstile because I was sure we would have to come into the metro again, and that would mean using up another of the prepaid trips on our multi-pass. When I asked the metro guard, he pointed out the door, and told us to follow the yellow line. When I indicated we might have to put the ticket in again, he told me that we would not have to pay again. Seemed strange. We climbed the stairs and followed the ‘yellow brick road, er, line’ for a few blocks before it took us down into another metro station. When we passed through the turnstile, the screen indicated that there was no charge. It seems that the machines are programmed not to charge for another ride if the passenger comes from the correct line, within a certain period of time. Slick!
After spending over four hours touring La Sagrada Familla, we decided to walk back towards out hotel in El Ravel. We took a route that would take us past another of Gaudi’s masterpieces, ‘La Pedrera’ (The Quarry). It was built between 1905 and 1910 as a combined apartment and office building. The nickname comes from the grey stone façade that wraps itself around the corner of a main thoroughfare. The elaborate wrought-iron balconies emphasize the rippling effect Gaudi sought to create. We would have liked to visit the roof of the building to see the giant ceramic tile chimney pots that resemble medieval knights, but the tour buses were rolling in and we didn’t want to get into another long queue.
Instead, we took another metro and headed further north to visit the Park Guell, where Gaudi turned his creative juices to landscape gardening. The admission to the Park was included in the admission to the cathedral so it seemed to make the most sense. Besides, we had already been inside a huge construction project for over four hours and the chance to be out in the fresh air was very appealing. The map showed that we could get off at either one of two metro stops, so we opted to travel to the furthest one. By walking through the park, we would end up leaving by the one closer to our part of the city.
The park was incredible, filled with outdoor creations by Gaudi, some of his artificial landscaping looks more real now that the trees that are growing there. To this point, we had enjoyed seeing his buildings, but as we toured the park, I kept feeling that it was too bad that Donna was no longer with us. She had always been very creative herself with ceramic tile, and she would have been over the moon seeing the designs he executed in the Park Guell.
We had packed a lot into one very long day, we had been on our feet for hours and hours, it was time to head back to La Ramblas, the most popular walking street in all of Spain. Fortunately, our hotel was just a couple of blocks off the Ramblas, so we could see the crowds out for the evening, but not have to go too far out of our way. I read that very few local citizens come out to stroll here any longer, the tourists seem to have taken over and it’s a prime place for pickpockets to operate. The pedestrian street is lined with open-air tables where many visitors sit with a glass of wine or beer to watch the passersby. It looked pretty inviting to us, but we weren’t able to find a table.
Instead, we picked up a bottle of wine, some cheese, olives and a fresh baguette and went back to our room for a picnic inside. Our room had a small balcony over looking the street so we could hear the hubbub below. We called it an early night as we had another day of Gaudi to explore before saying goodbye to Spain and taking the train to France to meet our friends.
We really appreciate the walking tours that are outlined in the Lonely Planet guidebooks. The one that is set out in the Barcelona section of our Spain book ran right past our hotel. We realized the next morning that we were located beside the Gran Teatro Del Liceu, Barcelona’s opera house. It was here that the Catalan stars José Carreras and Montserrat Caballé launched their international careers.
Our next stop was another Gaudi building, Palau Guell. This was the home of the patron who was responsible for funding much of the work created by Gaudi. Built in the late 1880s it is the only Modernista building inside the old city. We were disappointed to learn that the home is undergoing an almost complete restoration, so we were only able to see the entrance hall and the basement. We learned that political prisoners were tortured here during the Spanish Civil war in the 1930s.
The walking tour took us through the historic centre as much of what makes Barcelona fascinating is packed into a very compact area. We thoroughly enjoyed seeing the beautiful buildings in the area, but gave the Picasso Museum a miss, warned by our guidebook that many visitors are disappointed that the there are none of Picasso’s better known works, especially some of those from his cubist period. We had visited the Centro de Arte Reina Sophia which houses Picasso’s famous Guernica and many of his other works.
The tour ended with another Modernista masterpiece, the Palau de la Música Catalana. This building is itself a World Heritage site, though it was not created by Gaudi, his influence is plain for all to see. In order to see the interior, you need to attend a concert or join a guided tour. Alas, we arrived just after the building closed for the day, at 3:30 p.m. We consoled ourselves by retracing our steps back to the Mercat de Santa Caterina, a modern marketplace built to recreate a 19th century produce market on the site of an ancient monastery. We bought some delicious manchego cheese, a Spanish delicacy as a gift for Wynne Blades and Brian, our friends we plan to visit near Montpellier in the south of France.
We were down to just a few hours in Spain, after spending well over three weeks in this fascinating country. We had a wonderful time and thoroughly enjoyed visiting a Spanish-speaking country after traveling through Mexico, Chile and Argentina for six months of late 2008 and early 2009. I think we began to understand more of the language and I know for sure, we began to get up our courage to actually speak more Spanish to the people we met on the streets, the receptionists at the hotel and the shopkeepers. The menus were no longer completely foreign to us and we could actually order things we wanted to eat instead of being surprised at what arrived when we pointed at the menu.
We loved Spain, there’s much more to see here and we are delighted that we will be returning to Madrid next May. We plan to arrive back at least two weeks before our departure date so that we can see some more of the amazing cities around Madrid and also to visit the most popular art gallery there, the one we just didn’t have time for on our first visit. Anil is already talking about a return visit to The Prado, go figure!
Then again, we have completely missed seeing the Basque region of Spain and will have to return one day to visit San Sebastian, Bilbao, Pamplona and as well as San Sebastian de Compostela, the destination point of thousands of pilgrims who walk the Camino. Donna had brought along the book ‘What The Psychic Told The Pilgrim’ and the three of us had read it over the course of her time with us. We weren’t inspired to walk the 800 km route, staying at refugios along the way, but we are all inspired to visit the region that was so beautifully described in the book. Spain gets in your blood, the beauty of the cities, the taste of the wine and the flavour of the tapas are unforgettable. Adios Espana.