Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain

Travel Week 1, Part 1: Barcelona

I’ve caught up on classes sufficiently enough to take a deep breath and recall the whirlwind adventure that was my travel week. Luckily, I was taking notes all the time while traveling to help me write blogs for class, so even though everything went so quickly and was over so fast, I can still remember what happened.

Roller coaster near the beach, Barcelona, Spain

We started in Barcelona, on Saturday, at two in the morning. Our plane from Venice, which was scheduled to leave at 9:30 p.m. on Friday, was severely delayed and when we finally landed in Barcelona, the metro system we’d been counting on catching to the city center and our hostel was no longer running. Once we figured out the confusing bus system (which we found was just as confusing in every other city we visited and therefore made a point to use the underground metro whenever possible), we got off at a stop about a mile away from our hostel and spent the next hour looking for it. The hostel turned out to be on a street off one of the main tourist drags, La Rambla, and stank of urine from the night’s debaucheries once we arrived. It was seemingly a shady place, but luckily we found our hostel was not–it was clean and efficient.

We quite reluctantly woke up early the next morning to see the sights, first heading to Park Guell. You’ve likely already read about my time there. I found it interesting, but I later realized that our group missed most of the park–the pretty part, ironically. We saw nothing people think of when they picture Park Guell–no mosaics, no Gaudi. Nevertheless, the view of the city couldn’t have been better from the top, and the musicians were entertaining.

Next, we made our way down the huge traffic thoroughfare Diagonal toward Sagrada Familia and, on our way, stumbled upon a Gaudi apartment building, a giant owl-shaped billboard, and a corner apartment building with turrets and spires like that of a Disney castle. We also saw a beautifully painted chapel designed by one of Gaudi’s teachers–one who was, clearly, more of a conventional mind than Gaudi himself. For there is no weirder sight than Sagrada Familia, the absurdly modern yet Gothic Gaudi-designed church standing unfinished in the middle of the city. Each side is different: one looks like the entrance to some modern by-the-thousands Protestant temple; another looks like a spoof of Notre Dame with its gargoyles of 30 different species springing out all over the place; a third side has no theme as of yet and is covered in scaffolding; the fourth and probably most famous side looks like it would earn a Best in Show award in the most prestigious sand castle contest in the world.

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain
I unfortunately forgot my camera on this glorious day of sightseeing, but I luckily remembered to bring it the next morning when we took a bike tour of the city. We saw Sagrada Familia again on this tour, but everything else was new–the park in the center of the city, the zoo, the beach, the palace that once housed the court of Ferdinand and Isabella, and what would have been the most beautiful Gothic church to behold were the entire front not covered in scaffolding.

Monument for Christopher Columbus, Barcelona, Spain
Surprise, surprise–nights in Barcelona are far more lively than days. I have a theory that all the locals sleep away hangovers when the sun is up and wake up at dusk to party all night, and given the prevalent smell of urine all over the city, I’m sure that’s true to some degree. My group stayed away from the party scene, however, and instead opted to get up early and take in the sights. When we did stay out, we spent our nights enjoying a dish of paella and some sangria or getting some treats at the local ice cream place. One night, we tried to see a light and fountain show in front of a government building, but we must not have read our guidebooks very thoroughly, because nothing happened after we sat in front of the fountain for a good 20 minutes.

Old Town, Barcelona, Spain
Barcelona wasn’t my favorite stop during the travel week, but it was an interesting cultural experience. I was expecting the overall mood to be similar to that of Italy, given that the two countries share a carelessness for time and multitasking, preferring to languish in one activity at a time and stay out late. But I found Spain to be even more carefree than Italy, and it made me realize I could never fit in there. I’ve been too Americanized to believe relaxation is always better than stress.

Read Next: Travel Week 1, Part 2: Paris

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In Barcelona, shabby is chic

Barcelona, home of Antoni Gaudi. Flagship of modern architecture. City by the beach. All of this, technically, is true, but it omits the many pieces of grit and grime that define the distinct personality of this Catalan city, pieces that were immediately evident in one short walk to Park Güell from the nearest underground metro station.

Even in this part of the city, where millions of foreign travelers tread every year, Barcelona doesn’t try to clean up its shabby exterior to attract outsiders. Broken windows have been boarded up but show no sign of plans for further repair; they’re already covered with years of graffiti, styled curse words in Catalan and Spanish in brilliant reds and greens. The cobblestoned sidewalks are worn with age and dangerously uneven; some sections have been carelessly filled in with misshapen chunks of concrete. Though the roads were still wet from nighttime street cleaners, back alleys and street corners still stank of urine. Apparently, Barcelona doesn’t care. It likes itself the way it is, and it wouldn’t mind being an unknown European city nobody bothered to visit. So why do people keep coming?

Source

We started the climb to the top of the hill where Park Güell sits, overlooking the city. As if hearing our audible panting, escalators appeared in the middle of the hilly street to whisk us up. We glided past a scarf-laden woman who couldn’t be any younger than 85 making her way down the hill via the stairs. With each step she winced, paused one or two seconds, then grabbed onto the rail with both hands and continued her descent. Why weren’t there escalators for the ride down, I wondered?

When we finally reached the top, I could see nothing but metal stairs and what looked like several piles of packed dirt, which I quickly realized was the foundation for the park’s dirt pathways above me. At the top of the stairs, paths led in several different directions, all promising sweeping views of the city below. We chose a route sparsely landscaped with tear-shaped green cactus plants. Their threatening thorns were ripped off in places, and the green surfaces were mutilated with crude etchings and Sharpie markings of initials and declarations in Catalan, Spanish, French, Basque, and languages I didn’t even recognize.

Several musicians had taken up residence along the spiral dirt path to the top of the park. A twentysomething dark-haired man with a goatee and a serene expression furrowed his brow as he concentrated his energy on the marimba on his lap, tapping up, down, back and forth on sections of the bowl-shaped metal instrument to produce a gong-like contemplative melody. Nearer the top, a stringy, leather-skinned man with a scraggly gray beard and several teeth missing attempted a rendition of “Moon River”, but more spit and Spanish curse words came out of the trumpet bell than did musical notes.

As I tiptoed warily up narrow, rough-hewn stone steps to the circular top of Park Güell without the aide of a railing, I knew the view would stun me. Before I turned around to look, I stood facing the other way, staring at the mutilated cacti and the bearded trumpeter and thinking the view couldn’t give me a better glimpse of Barcelona than did my trip to the top.