Anyone who knows Stephanie knows that she has a deep and enduring love of cats. As we were perusing Airbnb listings for Barcelona, all other considerations were set aside when we came across a listing that had three furry children. And so we stepped off the bus a little tired, a little sweaty, a little hungry, but knowing that at the end of our walk we would have a warm welcome.
Our host, Leonardo, met up with us at a small cafe near his apartment. We made introductions as all three of us caught our breathes, while we shoved a late breakfast into our mouths. Leo was very open and quick to talk about his new life in Barcelona, his many jobs, and of course his three kitties. The entire time my eyes were drawn to the rose tattoo on the top of his head. I made a mental note to find out how bad that must have hurt. Fortunately for us, one of Leo’s many jobs was at a youth hostel, where he is essentially responsible for ensuring visitors have a great stay in the city. He was able to give us recommendations on food, beaches, and nightlife that Trip Advisor wouldn’t be privy to for months. After a quick walk to his apartment, and a play session with his cats, we were off to a movie in the park.
Our travel days are typically long and tiring, involving a long walk with our packs to the bus station, hours of being cramped into small seats on a hot bus, followed by a second long walk to our final destination. So when Leo assured us that the open-air movie was a short walk away, we went for it. Thirty minutes later, after climbing switchbacks, steep inclines, and ascending what felt like Barcelona’s Grand Canyon, we made it. Panting and dripping sweat, we made our way around the old fortress that now served as an arts center, and found a spot to lay out our dinner of cheap meat, cheese, and wine to enjoy an American film. After a long day there is no sweeter sound than the sound of your native language after weeks of piecing together bits of vocabulary you once sort of knew.
Putting our faith in Leo again, we decided to join up with one of the many free tour groups around the city. We met up with Runner Bean (a company with an amorphic string bean as it’s mascot), and decided to take the old city tour through the Gothic quarter. I admit I had a few reservations about the quality of a free tour of Barcelona, by a company founded by an Irish woman, given by a person who had only lived here a short time. But, as is often the case, I was wrong. The tour was actually very good. Over the course of three hours we were taken through the small old city streets, to the Plaza del Pi, whose cathedral holds one of the three largest rose windows in the world, to sites that were destroyed by Nazi bombing runs. Rather than become sites of mourning, the Catalonian’s rebuilt and reclaimed these places as sites for parks and schools.
We climbed to the highest peak of the original city, an astounding 16.9 meters above sea level. And stood in the plaza where Christopher Columbus presented Queen Isabella with the first Native Americans to set foot on Spanish soil.
Aside from the city and landmarks, our guide was quick to share the local customs and traditions of the Catalonian region. Through prior conversations with Jesus, Leo, and others through our stay in Spain, we learned that the people of Catalonia have a very strong desire for independence from the rest of Spain. Our guide highlighted this sentiment many times, as he discussed past and future referendums for independence, the recent election of pro-independence officials, and the abundance of Catelonian flags flown throughout the city with an added star to symbolize independence.
And what is a trip to Barcelona without appreciating the work of Antoni Gaudi. Or so we’d been told. Unlike Stephanie, I had no idea what a Gaudi was prior to arriving in Barcelona. And unfortunately, I can’t say I know him much better now. Unlike Madrid, Barcelona does not implement “free hours” for their cultural attractions. At an astounding €22.50 for something that wasn’t going to fill my belly or my curiosity, I was perfectly content to wait outside while Steph partook in some cultural awareness. So in the spirit of saving money, we decided to start with the free options. And if our burning need to look at wonky furniture and ceramic lizards wasn’t filled, then we’d consider the admission fees.
We started with Park Guell, which had both a free and a paid section. We decided to go to the paid section during their free hours after 9 pm, and spend the day exploring the free areas. From the balconies to the benches, you could see Gaudi’s influence. We got lost under the large arches and jagged rock structures, winding up and down the hillside as we walked.
Then, we got to experience it again with the lights off. We liked the creepy feeling of the park in the darkness, and found ourselves searching the intricate mosaics and admiring the Gingerbread types buildings. We were also happy to save a few bucks and still get to appreciate the famous artist.
From then on, our experience with Gaudi’s buildings were as observers from the outside. The exteriors of La Pedrera, Casa Batllo and La Sangrada Familia church were incredible.
Adorned with vivid colors and nature inspired features, the buildings were able to appear minimalistic, yet ornate. Beautiful, and yet oddly eerie. While it may be a pricey attraction for many, we were content to admire from afar, getting a small glimpse into the colorful mind of Gaudi.
In between checking out the sites and tourist catcalls of the city, we filled our days and nights as we saw fit. We discovered on the first night that the famed ‘Las Ramblas’ is little more than a nicely landscaped avenue packed with overpriced food, beer, and souvenirs. As we walked up and down we were bombarded with street merchants attempting to sell us anything from squeaker whistles and neon helicopters, to cocaine and a chance to “shake our bodies”. As with any type of sales, presentation is key. After a few sloppy attempts, a particularly well mannered night club promoter, Prince, managed to swoop in and prick Stephanie’s curiosity. As he walked us towards his club, and what I was sure was soon to be the site of our deaths, he continued to work his charm. Unfortunately for him, no amount of salesmanship will have me buying tickets to the “hottest party in town”, with 4 customers. Later Prince.
Having been to the beach a time or two on this trip, we always find ourselves envious of the people who come provisioned with blankets, coolers, and a good spread of snacks. Determined to arrive prepared, we purchased a freezer bag, ice, some fruit juice, and the finest 8€ vodka money can buy (who needs a towel and snacks anyways). Leo gave us some good intel on the many beaches along the coast, so we were able to find a spot somewhere beyond the tightly packed beaches but short of where clothing becomes an oddity. For far too long into the afternoon, we lounged on the sand, swam in the sea, and drank our vodka and pineapple juice to the tune of “mojitooooossss” being solicited across the beach by the ever present street peddlers. If it’s not cheap hats and sunglasses, it may as well be cheap beach towels and watered down drinks. It’s a funny thing, how the alcohol seemed to have no effect on us as we laid in the sand and enjoyed the heat. It wasn’t until our long walk across the uneven sand that we thought maybe we could have saved some of the vodka for another day.
Our last day in town is typically lounge day. Wake up late, gorge ourselves on leftovers, laundry, pack, and maybe catch a show on Netflix. But around midday we got a text from Ben, a fellow traveler we met in Pamplona, asking us if we were free to grab some dinner. Like us, he is also traveling for a year, but with a bit more experience under his belt. After meeting up for a light show at 7:30 pm that didn’t actually start until 9:30 pm, we set off for some cheap beer and pizza. Comparing notes and sharing plans, we realized just how close our travel plans matched up. Thailand in the fall, Australia around December. It was great to see Ben again, away from the chaos of San Fermin, where a permanent state of inebriation was required to tolerate the filth and grime. See you in Asia, Ben!
And so after 17 short days we say goodbye to Spain. Though short-lived, we made the most of the time we had. We enjoyed our chocolate and churros in Madrid, skirting death with the bulls in Pamplona, and getting burned to a crisp on the beaches of Barcelona. As we move on to France I suspect that we will greatly miss Spain, it’s culture, and the people who were willing to put up with our minimal and broken Spanish.