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There’s a Lot of Spain In Barcelona, Vol. 1

13 July 2008
by

Ok, enough horsing around with this “job search” thing. It’s become clear from our protracted expiscation and a distinct lack of options from you, dear readers, that, really, we’re just not meant to be employed. Rather than fill out yet ANOTHER resume submission page on a bassackwards corporate application site, I’ve decided instead to write the conclusions to our Iberian saga.

I know you’ve all been waiting at least a month (judging from the timestamp on the draft of this post), and I’m sure you’ve all just been dying to know how it wraps up. It’s ok to admit that your lives have been cold and empty without our somewhat irregular and unsolicited recaps of random strolls through foreign cities, and you’ve cried yourselves to sleep every night longing for our poetic genius to dance across your screens. It won’t affect your position in our eyes. And if you’re chiding us for our delay, don’t forget, even some of history’s greatest pieces of literature were written over protracted periods: Great Expectations was crafted in installments over several years appearing as segments in a weekly London serial, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was only finished decades after Twain started it, and there’s no way that Tolstoy finished War and Peace in anything under what? like 20 years? So consider yourselves lucky for reading potentially great literature. And I stress potentially.

Anyway, here goes the Barcelona recap (keep in mind this was started back in June, when we were actually returning from Barca):

As mentioned in a previous post (before all the poop talk and threats of arson), we just returned from an exceptional trip to Barcelona this past weekend. As far as all the places we’ve visited, this one comes damn near to topping the list (and does in some cases, depending on your criteria). It has the modern energy of Madrid, the laid back seaside culture of Valencia, the ancient texture of Toledo and Segovia, the artisanal creative buzz of Sevilla, and best of all, their soccer team is the arch nemesis of Real Madrid, which just makes me giggle with glee.

Our journey started off a tad ominously. As we were sitting on the train (the awesome hi-speed train, mind you) moments prior to our departure time, a sudden raucous ruckus developed behind us, near the door between our car and the one to our rear. It seemed to grow nearer, then fade away, only to return again and continue to amplify. Quickly realizing that it was the foreboding sound of children’s laughter, we began to panic, praying to Real Madrid that they would intervene and put the little bastards on another car. Our cries, however, were in vain. Within moments, our car was overrun by a wild herd of screeching tweener girls and a second onslaught of ADD-afflicted 10-year-old boys, both groups all jacked up on Mountain Dew and accompanied by one or two…”adults”, which, just like at summer camp, seemed to be just five minutes older than the oldest charge for whom they were responsible. It was like a swarm of locusts devouring our peaceful pre-departure silence. And for the next two hours it continued unabated, with girls sitting in seats right next to each other screaming at the top of their lungs to each other and the boys racing up and down the aisle with a soccer ball while the “adults” stared blankly at each other and occasionally made a barely-audible “shh” sound to the one kid on the train that was asleep thru the whole disaster. Nice work, doofus. It actually got so bad that I, for a second time, violated my “try not to be obnoxious in another country” policy and yelled at them to “shut the expletive up!” while glaring at the chaperon nearest me. That bought us exactly 2 minutes of peace. Hi-speed train my ass. Couldn’t get there fast enough at that point. Fortunately, however, there was an intermediate stop before Barcelona and all the little cretins got off there, giving us about an hour to put ourselves back together.

We snagged a cab to our family friend’s apartment, a great joint on a winding backstreet situated north of the middle of the Old City. Promptly passing out, we slept like the dead, waking at about noon the next day.

Said family friend just so happens to be a world-renowned Barcelona city tour guide and expert on all things Barcelonan (? Barcelonian? Barcelon?). She’s the gal they call when Chelsea Clinton and Mel Gibson come to town. She speaks seven languages (including Russian). She owns her own tour company and is asked for by name. In short: she’s good.

As it turns out, Saturday was her day off and she generously volunteered to take us around and both show us things that aren’t on the map and get us into the big touristy places by bypassing the lines using her Super Tour Leader Badge of Power. Not ones to turn down such an opportunity, we began our trek in the Old City, strolling down the sprawling street market of Las Ramblas, basically a tree-lined avenue and former creekbed with a large median studded with stalls and street vendors hawking their wares (mostly pets) and freakishly dedicated street performers scaring the crap out of little tourist kids. We’re talking people dressed up in such a way that they make Kiss and the guys from Gwar look like a bunch of amateurs. And unlike Kiss and Gwar, they all stand still for hours, adding to the suspense. From there, we turned into the ancient open-air market, one so large and robust, it makes the acclaimed one in Valencia look like a cheerleading club’s grocery-store bake sale. The aisles seemed miles long, with every possible variety of food for sale. The egg vendor didn’t just have chicken eggs; there were ostrich, goose, robin, quail, etc. Basically any egg from anything that lays eggs—maybe even platypus—I’m not sure. The fishmonger had an equal variety of bizarre seafood and the spice vendor’s stall was a floor-to-ceiling visual and olfactory kaleidescope. The place also included the reportedly best bar in the city, which was so packed we couldn’t even get close to it. We did, however, get to the butcher stall, where the 11-year-old daughter of our tour guide (and a lovely gal herself), requested—nay, demanded—an 18″ sausage to gnaw on. American kids demand ice cream or lollypops; Spanish kids want meatsicles. It says a lot, doesn’t it? After fighting through the crowds for a little while longer, we decided we’d had enough and snuck on out the back.

Our adventure had made us hungry, so our guide took us to an ancient butcher shop / bar (an odd combination, we know), situated in the street / 1/2 basement level of a Renaissance-era building. The ceiling was lined with row after row of hanging jamon (the cured pork leg) and you could barely see the guy behind the counter through all the sausage that was hanging in front of him. The butcher shop part of the store was maybe 1/3 of the total space, with the remainder dedicated to a small bar, featuring 3 tables, 2 barstools and a floor-to-6′-ceiling, corner-rounding wine cabinet with every conceivable varietal. We enjoyed some small tapas and a couple of drinks until 3pm, when the owner hollered at us to leave, as he was closing the store for the daily 3-hour dominoes tournament he and his aging friends took part in, customers be damned. He then brought us another round of drinks and some more to eat. We were somewhat confused. A little while later, he blinked the lights and said that the next time he was serious, so we packed up and ducked out under the half-closed roller door out front, passing the incoming geriatrics ready to school each other with little white tiles. It was a unique experience not to be found in any tour book. The only unfortunate aspect is that they owners, nearing retirement, couldn’t find anyone to take over the business, so once they quit, the whole thing dies. Kinda made us want to reconsider our career plans. Hell, I could totally run a meat-and-liquor shop that closes for three hours a day!

As the day was waning (as such will happen when you get up at noon), we figured we should use the Super Tour Leader Badge of Power to get us into something other than a backstreet bar (cool as it was). Thus, we made a beeline to the Sagrada Familia, the still-evolving dripping cathedral that is the lingering masterpiece of Antoni Gaudí, and cut past all the loser tourists standing in the ever-increasing rain. Inside, we were given an in-depth tour of the museum in the church basement which discusses the construction process, Gaudí’s life and death—he was hit by a streetcar and left to die in the street because everyone thought he was a bum due to his eccentric and shabby clothing, the result of his living in his studio for years on end, focused on his work—and the model shop where they cast scale models of the custom pieces which are then read by computer and cut from stone. The most awesome part of the whole museum for me was a wire-and-sandbag model of the church Gaudí had built to test the weight and stress of the building on its various joints, that kicks the crap out of any CAD rendering. Unlike your standard architectural model which is basically a small version of the finished building, this was a thin wire skeleton of the church, built upside-down, with small sandbags attached to the joints and scaled in such a way that Gaudí could extrapolate the strength and massive forces with which he was working. To date, all the calculations he made in this way have proven accurate and solid, an amazing feat, considering the times and materials.

Once inside the cathedral, it was a religious experience of an entirely different order. First, to even be inside an under-construction cathedral was just ridiculous, especially when you consider that the last time that happened with any regularity no Europeans even knew America existed. Second, despite the fact that there was no roof, only 2.5 walls and a hint of stained glass, the effect was stunning. You could imagine the finished product, with its array of towering columns in geo-organic forms supporting a ceiling punctuated with little portholes to allow in sunlight, illuminating the space in a subtle glow. And the entire interior adorned with brightly colored mosaic tiles. Basically, you have to go and see it yourself. I can’t do it justice.

Keeping hot on the Gaudí trail, we then hit up the Casa Milá, a turn-of-the-(19th)-century apartment block on the corner of the south end of Las Ramblas and some other side street. This is the one with the undulating façade and seaweed-inspired steel balconies. You’d know it if you saw it. Inside it was an Art Nouveau enthusiast’s wet dream. Everything undulated in colors and textures that mirrored the sea and nature, all swirling around a well-lit central courtyard adorned with tiles that gradiated in color from dark to light blue as you ascended the building. The impression was one of looking either up from the bottom of the sea or down into the deep from above depending on your vantage point. The rooftop terrace continued the undulating seascape experience, with fantastical sandcastle-like chimneys and archways. Up here I discovered the quintessential Gaudí photo op: the Sagrada Familia in the distance viewed through one of said archways with a twisting chimney flute to the side (Idiot tourists, however, refused to cooperate, constantly lingering in the archway or otherwise screwing up my shot. Bastards. This one could have been Pulitzer-prizeworthy. Do they give that for photos? If not, it would have won whatever they do give for it. Anyhow, I’ve got about 5,000 others to cull through and maybe there’s another one worthy in there…we’ll see.). Just below the roof, inside the attic level of Casa Milá, one felt like Jonah, striding among parabolic arches and recesses of dimly-illuminated reddish-pink brick resembling the the cavernous ribs in the belly of the whale. There were also a variety of well-conceived video presentations highlighting Gaudí, his work and the times he was creating, along with small scale models of the entire building. Overall, it was well done, very interesting and beautiful, especially when viewed in context of the other stale architecuture surrounding it.

Finishing up our Gaudí trip, we swam across the street and into a couple of gigantic beers with some olives and croquetes before getting on the metro back to the apartment. Our vigilant tour guide had to leave us at the door of the Casa Mila, as she was exhausted. This didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, until we boarded the metro and realized we had no idea what stop we needed to get off at. Picking one that seemed right, we exited the tunnel and, realizing that nothing looked familiar, went directly to a pay phone (for the first time in 15 years) and called for help. After our gracious host recovered from her explosive laughter at our huge whiff, she set us on the right path and we finally joined her for dinner with some neighbors about an hour and a half late. Oh well. At least the train was nice and clean.

So that concludes day one of the Barcelona Brouhaha. As we had a full two-day weekend there, and our tour mommy had to work on Sunday, we struck out on our own, yielding a string of tales that require another post. I’ve already exceeded the legal character limit on this one.

-bdmc

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