“I’m sorry madam; you’re going to have to check that bag in. There is a fifty euro charge.”
There is a reason everyone hates Ryanair. Call me madam one more time, go on I dare you…
Okay so it was not the most promising start to a holiday ever but despite being fifty euro out of pocket when I only had a hundred and fifty on me to start I was determined not to let it spoil a thing…other than perhaps my lunch which I could no longer afford.
Okay so before I plunge into ranting about my love of gothic architecture and tapas bars I think it’s important to remind everyone that I am not an impartial person. I would be lying to you if I said this. Barcelona is one of my favourite places on the planet and I can’t help but wax lyrical about every seedy back alley.
This time I was staying just off the Rambla in a hostel called the Ideal Hostel which was anything but ideal. It was insecure, unfriendly and there was no proper kitchen which meant we had to eat out which defeated the purpose of being in the hostel in the first place. In hindsight I did some research and came up with some alternative accommodation: Alternative Creative Youth Home is an arty and pleasant hostel WITH a kitchen and dorm beds from €18-36, metro stop Catalunya and Gothic Point which is so popular that you should be sure to book ahead and has dorm beds for €23 (breakfast included), metro stop Jaume are both either off the Rambla or next to the Barri Gothic (the Gothic Quarter) which puts you at the centre of all the action.
On the first evening we just wandered around the Barri Gothic which I would definitely recommend as a lovely way to spend an evening.
There are little odd shops and bakeries all over the place and if you get peckish for something savoury try Moaz Falafel and get a falafel wrap with everything on it for just 4.50.
The tall narrow streets tunnel the light in an almost magical way leaving everywhere in a perpetual state of twilight. Find your way to the Gothic Cathedral in the centre of the quarter. The square opposite the cathedral is full of people staring up at it and taking photos.
The renovation project that was in full swing when I was there spoiled the view of the classic Gothic stone exterior and it meant you couldn’t pay to climb the spire like I had last time which was a pity as it’s one of the best views in Barcelona. The interior is dramatic to say the least. Vivid blue windows set into brown stone arches, which are the colours I always associate with the city.
But I only spent a little time in here. My favourite escape is to the side where there is a small courtyard, partly open to the sky, beside the rest of the cathedral with a garden, more chapels and fountains.
One fountain has a knight slaying a dragon set into its vegetated peak. The water dripped from it in a way that just invited still, meditation. Coy swam in flashes of orange and white while birds sang in the trees.
And then of course there is the flock of geese that live here as well that reminded me of the sacred geese from the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill in ancient Rome.The space is amazing tranquil and quiet for the centre of a city.
Another thing you really need to understand about Barcelona before you go. Dinner time is after ten pm. If you walk into a restaurant at six or seven to eat there will be no one else there. It might not even be open yet. It is not strange to be eating dinner at midnight. For this reason many nightclubs don’t even open until one or two in the morning and often stay open until seven.
The following morning we all got up ridiculously early to get a train out of Barcelona to the seaside town of Tarragona. It’s about an hour and a half on the train and if you can tear yourself away from Barcelona for a day I’d recommend this as a day trip out.
Tarragona is a gorgeous Roman town with some really impressively preserved sites such as its amphitheatre which you can walk into and I dare you to stand in the centre and not want to start spouting gladiator quotes.
The hills are pretty steep but its worth to have a ramble. Orange trees grew along the roads but it’s best not to try to eat from them. Firstly because the police give you funny looks and secondly because the oranges taste like lead.
The Roman museum that you access through the remains of the circus was our first stop. Here you can buy a ticket that lets you into all the museums for €10.55 or €5.55 (students) but we managed to get them to let us in for free by claiming to be an educational class group (which we kind of were to be fair) and that our only Spanish speaking member was a TA from our university (which she really wasn’t) and this worked everywhere else too.
Entering through the tunnels under the circus where the charioteers would have waited had this immense sense of time. The museum which is built into the old stands and buildings around the circus is full of impressive sculpture.
Eventually it takes you out onto the walls.
And there’s a spiral staircase…
…then BAM you’re on the roof.
Not a particularly safe feeling roof though. Only half of the group ever made it high enough to walk around this rocky roof-tiled surface (seriously it shifted around on your feet when you walked) but the view was worth the unease.
There are all the same little tapas bars around the place as in Barcelona but the views from the sloping streets of this hill town are so spectacular that try getting some food in a supermarket or deli to go and eating out looking over the sea, or on the sunny steps outside the cathedral.
On day three we breakfasted, still recovering from the ridiculously reasonably priced drinks of Ryan’s Irish bar; we students, desperate for knowledge and hungry for enlightenment, dragged ourselves downstairs to sit around the kitchen. I ate my cornflakes with UHT milk.
If I was to pick the bit about travelling in hot countries I like the least it’s the milk and butter. Cheese is great, lovely even, but UHT milk is an abomination to cereals and teas everywhere.
But moving swiftly along…
The Sagrada de Familia appears looming from behind you as the ascend the escalator in a feat of startling poor planning that leads to backwards pile-ups at the top as people twist to admire it and trip as they’re flung off the end unexpectedly.
This minor mishap aside you stand gazing up, with the dozen of others gazing up and wondered what your eyes should settle on. Then you try to take a few photos but none of them seem to quite get what it’s like so you give up and stare some more.
€16 gets an adult inside (€11 if you’re a suddenly more than usually impoverished student) and if you can fit it into your budget you should.
Breath-taking fluted columns sweep upwards to an ornate, gold-encrusted ceiling. One of the guys whispers in reverence “it’s like the inside of David Bowie’s mind” and it is.
The rainbow hued stain-glass windows give the air a strange blue glow except on the side of the church where the stain-glass hasn’t been fitted yet and it just slants through the air in white lines. Emily Dickinson filters up from some forgotten corner of my brain.
There’s a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.
Heavenly hurt it gives us;
We can find no scar,
But internal difference
Where the meanings are.
None may teach it anything,
‘Tis the seal, despair,-
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the air.
When it comes, the landscape listens,
Shadows hold their breath;
When it goes, ‘t is like the distance
A pipe organ booms away, vibrating in the air, reminding my solemnly that Gaudi died while the Sagrada was in its first leg of being built. He was backing across the road to get a better look when he was hit by a tram. Apparently Gaudi’s personal hygeine wasn’t the best and the people on the street though he was a tramp so it took a good while for an ambulance to get there and in the meantime he died. A cautionary tale for hair-brushing if there ever was one.
But maybe Gaudi left his soul there, in this his masterpiece, it’s so full of organic shapes and flowing lines that it wouldn’t be hard to believe it was carved from a kind of living stone.
But it wasn’t until I was hanging around outside this masterpiece waiting for the rest of my group that I noticed the little park across the road. It was there that I appreciated for the first time that the Sagrada was not just some monumental piece of art floating disjointed from the rest of the city but rather part of the urban landscape as much as lake and birds singing and the children playing and stream bouncing over the stones and you could look up through the trees and see it as part of the greater whole, as part of the lives and context of the people around you as they lived and played.
Then we left again and we got the metro over to Park Guell (which is the sunniest of all the city sun traps).
The last time I’d been there had been in December and honestly I’d found it a much more pleasant experience. The crowds and the stifling dry heat distracted terribly from Gaudi’s gorgeous public space with its sugarplum fairy gatehouses and mad sandstone benches.
Even the famous lizard and the lovely little water features that go down the steps were distorted by the melee of tourists staring at it through the camera lenses without appreciating it as a thing of real tangible beauty they could touch. A place of rest and peace.
But that place still existed behind it all.
After my morning of appreciating the genius/insanity of Gaudi I met up with two friends who happened to be in Barcelona around the same time. We went exploring around the Bari Gothic (I really never tire of it) and got falafel (I also never tire of that).
After lunch we decided we were going to walk to Montjuic, the fortified hill that looms over the city. Sean was on crutches but there’s a cable car so we’d be alright.
As it turned out the cable car was shut down so we decided, given we’d crossed the city, that we would walk up anyway.
There were a lot of stairs but Sean was determined to show off that his crutches wouldn’t slow him down by practically racing me and Emma to the top.
Just too many stairs.
But the top was pretty and there was even a cafe with a patio that jutted out over the edge of the hill with a remarkable view across Barcelona.
After climbing all those steps it really felt like we’d accomplished something worthwhile for this sunset, like we’d earned it. The evening, dustiness that I adore settled in over Barcelona and we watched and it was something more than just the end to another day. It was a living piece of art that could only be share by us three.
Then we walked back to the Bari Gothic and found a little restaurant called Venus, just up from Ryan’s the Irish pub (with the unreasonably reasonably priced cocktails) and I had the first really brilliant meal of the trip.
And the next day I came home.
Barcelona remains one of my favourite places, I would go back there a hundred more times and never bore of its twilights, its surprises around the corners and its disregard for the expectations of others.