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Barcelona, Spain

As the herds of elderly and young alike were driven away on their various tour buses, only a handful of us remained standing by the ferry. I had asked a guard and found out what bus to take, but some of the other travellers either hadn´t been travelling for as long or simply thought they could work it out for themselves, and stood there helplessly. They formed a group, led by nobody in particular, and walked to-and-fro to investigate their surroundings like the confused survivers of a natural disaster. I was tempted to intervene, but there were enough of them to manage on their own, and instead I reflected on the difference that over seven weeks of being constantly on the move had made to my ability to adapt to a new environment and get to where I needed to.

I saw a little of Barcelona that evening, but was mostly too tired from my time in the sun, and went to the hostel, found some food, and met the other travellers there. It was an interesting crowd, including two Estonians, now Londoners, who I would spend the evenings and mornings with over the next couple of days. One of the Estonians, it turned out, worked in a McDonald´s in London I had been to a number of times, and to which, after hearing some of his stories of kitchen hygeine, I shall not be returning to again.

Knowing that effectively I only had two full days in the city, I got up early the next morning with a busy schedule planned out. I started on La Rambla, the bustling street in the centre of town that attracts 250,000 people every day (though only a fifth of these are native Barcelonans). At once, I loved Barcelona. Dozens of street performers, musicians, human sculptures line the street, while flower stalls break up the usual souvenir and newspaper stands. The centre of the street is built for pedestrians only, and in spirit it feels like a medieval city centre rather than one of the biggest tourist destinations in 21st century Spain. Every time I turned around, I hald expected to see dancing bears. (To challenge my first impressions, a few days later I read that a great ´clean-up´ of the street is being proposed to deal with the - apparently - ubiquitous prostitution, violence and drugs. These seemed to escape my notice.) The market, too, was incredible: a cavernous and energetic Catalonian take on food shopping. I just bought a smoothie and looked at the more interesting examples of Spanish cuisine.

Next, a walk down to the beach. It is some distance from the top end of La Rambla to the nice part of the coast, but the sights are worth walking past: Christopher Columbus stands high above the harbour area; nearby, a strange abstract structure that is mostly just empty space also hangs overhead; and finally, what must be the more financial district of the city, a sort of Spanish Canary Wharf. The beach, when I arrived, was too crowded to enjoy. I sat for a while, then got up and admired some sand castles along the path. My mistake was to stop and photograph one; a stout and until then motionless woman immediately got up and started indicating to a cardboard box containing a few coins. Again, I must reiterate: absolutely nothing is free. I give some change and moved on. My final sightseeing before a quick siesta at the hostel was the Gothic quarter. When she found out that I knew London, the woman behind the desk at the hostel had compared each district in Barcelona with an English counterpart. This was supposedly like Notting Hill. Really? I couldn´t see the similarities, but the area was certainly fascinating, with a bohemian feel and an atmosphere of being alive as well as historical.

Finally, and later in the afternoon, I went to the Museum of Contemporary Art. There is too much here, and the collection is too eclectic, to do after a long day of sightseeing and in a couple of hours, but I sampled the areas that looked interesting. In one exhibition I noticed that, unmistakably. a picture in a series of geometric designs was upside down. The more I contemplated it, the more obvious it became, but I was afraid of pointing this out, not wanting to be the fussy foreign tourist who takes issue with the way the locals display their artworks. I kept silent, but lingered by it painfully long, hoping that somebody would ask me what the problem was to give me an excuse to vent. The opportunity never came.

During talks in the hostel, I had discovered that Mt. Tibidabo was the best place to see the city from, and being a fan of that great sitcom Friends I naturally had to make the pilgrimage. I had to get two tubes, a bus, and a cable car to get to the top, but once there you can see across the whole bay area and it was worth it to see how the city fits together. However, the top has been ruined by efforts to draw more tourists and an amusement park takes up most of the space. From here, I went to another of the city´s main attractions: Guell Park. There being no metro station bordering the park, I spent around an hour just wandering; gradually the heat started to dehydrate me so I made serious attempts to locate it. It was an interesting and certainly worthwhile stop, but the masses of tourists made it difficult to enjoy. Parks, for me, should be for relaxing, not keeping your hands in your pockets and dodging between crowds. Finally, I made for probably the city´s most famous architectural work: Gaudi´s Sagrada Familia. A strange combination of the Gothic and the Modern, somehow otherworldly like something out of Lord of the Rings, this unfinished cathedral towers over the surrounding buildings. I didn´t go in as the line was long, the weather hot, and the entrance expensive. I think I will wait until it is completed in 2020 and get my money´s worth.

My remaining time I spent lazy, soaking in my last hours in the city. More than anything else, Barcelona had surpassed my expectations. I had come here merely as a stopping point on my journey home, but somehow it turned into an adventure of itself and will remain one of my favourite European cities for a long time.

permalink written by  BenWH on May 19, 2009 from Barcelona, Spain
from the travel blog: Gap Year Odyssey
tagged Spain

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