Friday 1st October
Exit stage left we did, sans showers, from our Montpellier auberge, to catch the 7.30am train to Barcelona. The route itself proved to be very easy on our puffy morning eyes. Passing through some charming Languedocian cities such as the walled, medieval Narbonne and in the shadow of the Pyrenees, our trusty tank engine (more a Percy than a Thomas in my opinion – mustard outer paint job and low to the ground), tacked right towards the coast. Unsure of when France would end and Spain would begin, after Percy made his way through one particular mountain underpass, a chorus of text messages sounded, welcoming us to Spain!
We were to stay with locals this time, sister and brother Carmen and Miguel, friends of our New Zealand associates and the best vegetarians and coffee aficionados around Morgan and Adam, who were also in Barca on holiday. It was really lovely of them to put us up for a couple of nights, and after being happy with a couple of cushions on the floor we were incredibly grateful to Miguel who kindly gave up his bed for us. Gracies.
Morgan and Adam had already been there around a week, so kindly took us under their (map flapping) wings. Our first outing was a walk round the old town, the Barri Gotic. I’m surprised you don’t see more people in neck braces actually, or those white dog collars - one gets rather a sore neck, there’s so much wonderful architecture on display. Doves roost on interesting potted plants and various colourful sheets (from time to time with a bit of added bird sheet) and other linens spill out of each of the seemingly uniquely designed apartment blocks. We passed the Palau de la Musica Catalana and the queues outside the Picasso Museum and found ourselves in a magnificent church, snooping on a rather grand marriage ceremony taking place at the front.
It’s always quite amusing when you happen to stumble on a public wedding ceremony isn’t it? Those involved take on something of a celebrity status, and you want to make sure you glimpse the big smooch at the end. Once mum and I stood outside a church in Rome for the best part of an hour, watching well-heeled Italians arrive for some lavish Catholic ceremony (many looked like proper Godfather types – see photo). Anyway, I digress, this was the Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar, built in the C 14th, an ace example of proper Catalan Gothic style architecture, worth a visit if you’re in Barcelona.
Eating tapas is something on everyone’s agenda when in Spain. A quick tapas in a nutshell for those who don’t know or have forgotten, ‘tapar’ is the Spanish verb ‘to cover’ hence tapas was slices of bread or cured meats used to cover drinks, keeping flies off in the hot weather in Andalucian taverns back in the day, or so the story goes.
Our first experience was in a busy Catalan-based establishment called Origens. It seemed like a cool place, bustling and with a huge menu and both carnivores and vegetarians are well catered for. After flicking through the magazine-sized menu, we discovered it was part of a chain, which diminished some of its initial charm. We all ended up going for the veggie sharing menu. Jonny was slightly hesitant about this, but I reminded him of our meal in Montpellier the previous night consisting solely of pate, cured meats and cheese and he soon came round. We went for nettle soup, cheese board with quince, stuffed aubergine, sainfaina omelette, spinach pie, chocolate cake and peaches with moscatel. Had a couple of nice beers too, Voll-Damm, AK Damm and Weiss Damm. God Damn! Everyone was impressed with the quality, however we left feeling we’d not really experienced proper tapas as the locals would have it, shooting the breeze over a couple of wines or beers at a local bar.
While I’m on the subject of wine and beer we made it out to a couple of cool bars. One was off the Rambla del Raval, the square with the statue of a big fat cat. Had some nice sangrias there, reminiscent of a Cobb & Co traffic light but tastier (those living in NZ in the late 80’s / early 90’s should understand this reference). Other excellent finds (thanks Morgi & Adam) were El Mariachi, a dingy backstreet or bar set up by ‘okupas’ or squatters. This particular joint is favoured by musicians such as Manu Chao, and with Estrella on a single tap and a selection of spirits and jars of olives, it has smokey, den-like ambience. Another gem was on a little backstreet down by the port. On an otherwise deserted street, we squeezed into what seemed to be a deli-come-dodgy burger joint, but was actually an affordable cava bar known as La Champaneria. The deal is, you buy a roll or bap with a bit of meat and cheese in it or any other number of sarnies ‘bocadillos’ on offer, and then you get some lovely bubbling cava out of no-label bottles and stand about consuming. It closes bang on 10pm, so you have to get in and get out. Not the best place for vegetarians or those with claustrophobic tendencies.
Back to the tapas, we remedied this on the second evening. Adam and Morgan led us down a series of narrow streets and we ended up in a smokey speakeasy on the edge of the Placa del Sol in the Gracia district. The square was packed with young Spaniards enjoying the last rays of Sunday evening. One thing that mildly irks me is the fact that smoking still seems to be acceptable in Spanish bars. Most seem to be equipped with air conditioning systems however sensitive non-smokers and asthmatics will still suffer – sorry if this seems prudish but I’m sure nobody likes waking up to the smell of skanky stale smoke in hair and clothes the next day. One thing smoke does do is add to the atmosphere. In this particular bar, it felt like we were in some seedy gin joint from the 1950’s. Fans whirred round on the ceiling as we cooled down with a couple of Estrella beers, a Spanish favourite under dim lights. We ordered some patatas bravas with aoli, olives, and Morgan and I were impressed with our Greek salads of tomato and feta.
In stark contrast to the evening, we’d spent the day in bright sunshine walking round Parc Guell. The Gaudi-designed park was originally intended as a little town on the side of the hill overlooking the city, as commissioned by rich industrialist Eusebio Guell apparently. However the project fell through and Gaudi only ended up completing a couple of houses and an interesting staircase with a lizard sculpture. On these steps the tourists congregated in droves, and quite bizarrely there seemed to be some kind of rock music video being filmed down below. Not the most hardcore when you’ve got septuagenarian tour groups sitting about in bumbags and fannypacks in the background.
The 360 degree views of the city and port are outstanding though, taking in the Segrada, the Catedral and the other high point in the city the Tibidabo. I’d like to make it back to Tibidabo if I ever get the chance, it sounds rather unique – an amusement park was opened there in 1908 apparently, quite atmospheric I’d imagine, haunted old carousel etc.
Another Gaudi masterpiece we took in was the Casa Mila or La Pedrera ‘The Stone Quarry’. This beast of a building was built in the first decade of the C 20th and apparently was ridiculed at the time. One of the floors has been preserved as a museum, with ornately designed furniture, light fittings and other innovations, such as a lovely in-built kitchen stove in the manner of an old aga or something. After a few steep staircases we were on the roof and marvelled at all the cool scenery before us. It is very high up so don’t lean out if you get any form of vertigo, Jonny announced that he’d got “the willies” after feeling a slight tingling sensation down below (and not for the first time). Looking down into the middle courtyard it was like looking at some kind of biological cell or a teardrop formation.
Speaking of water, en route home on Sunday evening Morgan took us on an unexpected detour to the Magic Fountain in Montjuic. Crowds of people gathered to see a dazzling water and light show bursting up to the skies to the sounds of a booming pop music mix. Simon Cowell’s wet dream some might say. I was thinking some Wagner might’ve been more appropriate, Ride of the Valkyries or some kind of Four Seasons business, but no, Britney, Madonna and Beyonce all kind of added to the kitsch spectacle, with a final climactic moment pissing forth to none other than the title of this chapter, Queen’s epic ode, Barcelona. Queue fountain applause.