Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Hola, Barcelona!

Fresh off our nightmare in France, we boarded the train for Barcelona, determined to shake off the bad karma and enter Spain with an upbeat attitude. We discovered that our train tickets put us in separate cars on opposite sides of the train...a little disappointing but not completely a bad thing. After all, we had been together 24/7 for nine days and a little distance would be good for both of us. Total togetherness for that length of time can fray the edges on even the closest relationships. I thought of it as a little bit of a grown-up "time-out"...and it would only be for four hours. I knitted, she read and we both slept and took pictures. Since we both had window seats we were able to get shots of both sides of the trip.

I saw this:

Mediterranean expanse

A sleepy seaside town

She saw this:

Some of the hundreds of windmills built to use the on-shore breezes to generate electricity

The majestic Pyrenees mountains, still snow covered despite the late May heat

We arrived at Estacio Barcelona Sants, one of the two major Barcelona train stations. It was located on the other side of the city from our hotel so we asked for directions to take the subway. I had a good map of the system so we figured we were all set. We did have to change lines at one point and that turned out to be a little more difficult than we anticipated. We were carrying quite a bit of luggage. I had a weekender, a carry-on bag and a small shoulder purse. Meredith had a larger Pullman suitcase, a carry-on bag and her laptop computer bag. Our suitcases were on wheels but a quirky feature of the Barcelona subway system is its preponderance of stairs. Besides the usual flights of steps up and down to the subway platforms, there are maddening sections of the connecting corridors where there are four steps up followed by a 50 feet stretch of corridor and then four steps down. 50 feet later, repeat the drill. For someone just walking problem. For the two of us and our world of wheels, it was a major problem. Add to that the fact that it was a narrow corridor jam-packed with busy Barcelona commuters and you can see that we weren't exactly keeping the traffic flow moving. The trip seemed to take forever because we had to constantly stop and maneuver our load up and down steps. Finally we reached our destination stop. One final trip up the steps to the street and we were almost to the hotel. The location was actually ideal, adjacent to the Placa de Sant Jaume in the heart of the oldest section of Barcelona, called the Barri Gotic. It was a pensione called Rey Don Jaime, located in an older building with a ancient elevator. We went to our room and found it to be small, but clean, bright and complete with a small bath and short, just what we needed. An added bonus was a small balcony overlooking an ancient pedestrian walkway called Calle la Libreteria. This was what we saw when we looked out our window:

This was looking to the left towards the Placa de Sant Jaume. The ground level had some interesting little shops with everything from glassware to tapestries.

Looking right toward Placa del Angels and more street level shops, including some very upscale leather and jewelry stores.

We were very hungry so we decided to go exploring for a good place for lunch. The desk clerk was very helpful and recommended a "local" place called Romesco in a section of the city called El Raval. He gave us a map and circled its location and told us it opened for lunch at 2PM, a standard lunch time for the working class who frequent the place. He also warned us that it is in a part of town that is a bit "rough" so admonished us to keep an eye on our bags. We assured him we would and set off. It was just a little past 1PM so we poked around some shops and took our time, arriving just after the restaurant opened. It was a tiny restaurant, long and narrow with tables set up to maximize the space and pack the customers in. It was already nearly full and Meredith and I were given the last two seats at a small table. This was definitely a "no frills" spot. Our waiter handed us a dog-eared menu. We had passed the small cooking area as we went to our table and the smell of fried food hung heavy in the air. What I remember most about that meal was having the most delicious bowl of gazpacho I have ever had, full of subtle herbs and a thick cold tomato base that was tangy and refreshing. The desk clerk had definitely been was a great lunch.

As we left the restaurant we passed four or five "working girls" doing some fairly aggressive recruiting of passing pedestrians. They were in a small park across the street and lingering outside an adjacent restaurant. As we hurried past them, I couldn't help noticing that they had the look of prostitutes anywhere in the world...smiling when necessary but otherwise looking tired and much older than they probably were. Their short skirts, low cut blouses and high heels seemed designed to draw attention away from the lack of energy in their faces. Some men lingered a few feet away, seemingly disinterested in the women's activities and I figured them to be their "bosses" or perhaps bodyguards of some sort. The whole scene was sordid and sad, despite the women's attempts to act flirtatious and playful.

Meredith and I decided to walk towards the harbor. I had heard that Barcelona's beaches were beautiful and we figured it would be cooler by the water. We walked down a large pedestrian boulevard called La Rambla and ended up at a large monument to Columbus.

Barcelona is supposedly where Columbus came to report his findings of a new world to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand and some historians are even claiming that he was, in fact, a Catalan and not Italian. (Catalunya is the region of Spain where Barcelona is located.)

Whatever his origins, Columbus ended up penniless and forgotten when he died in 1506 in Valladolid in Central Spain.

We continued along the waterfront, enjoying the sea breeze, passing the marina with as many sailboats as I have EVER seen in one place at a time...

...walked through an interesting little neighborhood called La Barceloneta, an area of narrow streets and apartment buildings built in the mid 1700's which has traditionally housed sailors and fishermen and has a distinct nautical cachet. We found the beach on the other side of that, walked along a boardwalk and eventually walked out onto a jetty to sit and ponder the views.

Monjuic, the site of the 1992 Olympic Stadium and an ancient castle. It is accessible by a cable car, a funicular (a type of inclined railway) or a VERY strenuous hike (at least on a hot, humid day).

The former Olympic village, now the Gran Casino de Barcelona and Hotel Arts. The Giant Fish is a creation of steel lattice designed by Frank Gehry, an American architect.

With room rates STARTING at 680 euros a night (about $950), I am guessing they did quite a bit of renovation after the athletes vacated the premises in 1992!

A view of Tibidabo in the background, the highest hill overlooking Barcelona. Atop the hill is the unlikely combination of a major Cathedral with a giant Christ watching over the city and a large amusement park. So basically, it's a "play and pray" site.

We were really enjoying the sun, the breeze, and the chance to sit and relax for a bit. We watched some older men fishing off the jetty and one of the them scrambling around the rocks collecting what looked like periwinkles.

Our next stop was the Parc de la Ciutadella. It was originally the site of a fortress built by King Felipe V in the early 1700's. The fortress became a much hated symbol of everything Catalans hated about Madrid and was later used as a political prison. It was demolished in 1869 and the area turned into a park. In 1888 it was the site of an International Exhibition, showcasing the cutting edge art and science of the day. Its most impressive feature is the Cascada, a monumental fountain/sculpture designed with the assistance of a young architect named Antoni Gaudi, a man who would go on to make quite a name for himself in Barcelona. More on him later...

The gardens were immaculately groomed and in full blossom.

A modern sculpture in the park

The park also houses some museums. The Museu de Zoologica is in a building that was built for the 1888 Universal Exhibition to showcase the pioneering idea of putting a brick castle facade on a steel frame. During the exhibition it was a restaurant.

Its elaborate battlements, tower and even a fictional coat of arms over the door all came from the playful imagination of an architect who dubbed the creation the Castell dels Tres Dragons.

As we left the park, we passed through the "Arc de Triomf" built in 1888 for the Universal Exhibition. At that point in history, Barcelona was feeling its oats and felt as if it was poised to become a major cultural and trade center on a par with New York, Paris and London. Unfortunately, the Spanish American war ten years later pulled the plug on those dreams with the loss of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Phillipines to the US.

From there we headed back to the Barri Gotic and the Cathedral which occupies its center. Just as in Italy, the Cathedral was the symbolic core of the city, the central meeting place for all major city events, symbolizing the secular power of the church as well as its spiritual power. The Cathedral is undergoing some sorely needed major renovations so access was very restricted. Even wrapped in its scaffolding cocoon we could see that it was a gorgeous example of a gothic cathedral.

Actually, this front facade was added to the church in 1870, although it was based on a 1408 design. The rest of the building was built between 1298 and 1460 and has a very different appearance:

While the front of the Cathedral is similar to the styles of Italy, France and England, the plain, undecorated octagonal flat-roofed style is more typical of the Catalan architecture.

The full force of the heat and humidity was beginning to get to us, as well as the fact that we had been up early to catch the train and had already walked almost 10 miles according to my trusty pedometer, so we decided to go back to the hotel which was very near the Cathedral and grab a nap before dinner.

A couple of hours later, refreshed and showered, we went in search of Tapas, the spanish bar snacks. We found a small place with a very friendly waiter (who actually turned out to be from Milan much to Meredith's delight) and ordered five different dishes and some Sangria. They were delicious! We explored a little more of the area called the Rambla and decided to turn in early to get a good jump on more sightseeing in the morning. We were discovering that Barcelona had a LOT of interesting areas and we weren't going to be able to do them all justice in just a two day visit.

Next post: The Rambla, The Boqueria Market, and Gaudi's defining work: The Sagreda Familia Cathedral.



Oh, Mary Ann - It is so gorgeous!! Your pictures are breathtaking - I can only imagine what it was like to be there in person! Sue

Lucas said...

Barcelona has to be one of the most amazing cities in the world. The sunshine is so good to the people here that they just pass happy vibes around to everyone. The sun and the sea are important here, it governs how people go about their daily lives and very rarely does anything challenge their importance.This is a city for enjoying all of the good things in life from dancing to eating to talking to swimming to just walking around. Every street, corner, house,5 star hotels in Barcelona, restaurants are art galleries, Barcelona has a beautiful aesthetic and you can feel it from the people even in the way they drive. One thing that has become clear as Barcelona attracts more and more tourists is that you have to make the effort to speak some Spanish because it really affects the way the locals react to you. Making an effort to speak even a little bit of Spanish can make an amazing difference - people will pay more attention to you and go that extra bit for you.