Sometimes I will ask myself, as I start an update (i.e. right now) what might mix things up? What might make it fresh? Different? Exciting? The answer, at least for me, at least this time, is Barcelona.
I spent five days there. Long enough to get bored. But I didn’t. I had some regular experiences to be sure: I got a haircut, I changed money, I asked for directions, I went to a bike shop to fix my bike, I checked into a hostel. However, in Barcelona, every experience felt a little bit more energized. As I got a haircut I watched tourists make connections with locals, and when I asked for directions people might speak to me in Catalan instead of Spanish. And I was often genuinely lost, not just a little bit lost. Well…maybe not genuinely lost, but quite lost. On two occasions I asked police officers for directions, and they pulled out Barcelona city maps, which are about the size of a postcard, with three or four hundred pages inside, each page a blow up map of a small neighborhood. The streets are that complicated. When I asked an officer and his partner how to find Calle Terrol, his response was, “Oh *&%$, we were just looking for that…” It turned out that we were three blocks away.
So, in a sense, it also has the feeling that everyone is in the craziness together. I arrived in town feeling relaxed with the approach that I would take however long it would take to post an update to the website and to take care of whatever errands needed taking care of: fix the bike, return emails, etc. I still had nights free to go out with new friends from the Barcelona Mar Hostel. We went out to a couple of the more touristy bars near the hostel, and we also met a few Canadians who were studying in Barcelona for a few months through their university. Our small group from the hostel, which coincidentally also included two Canadians from Montreal, wound up hanging out with the other Canadians on a couple of occasions. During my first day, I felt a bit like I was missing everything because my only experiences were either working with my tiny computer in the hostel or hanging out with other travelers. But then it dawned on me that perhaps this is a huge part of what Barcelona is: a city of travelers and people from different parts of the world. It also dawned on me, very quickly, that as long as you are surrounded by great people, that it really does not matter where they are from: enjoy it while it lasts.
I met a fascinating bunch at the hostel. A journalist who grew up in various parts of the world, a theater director from Mexico, a guitarist from Brazil, two explorers from Montreal taking time off before the next phase of school. This small group became, for a short time, friends. Just as quickly, the group evaporated, each of us moving in different directions. Customarily, email addresses were exchanged, none of us really knowing what kind of communication to expect. For me, it is great to know that there are more people out there who share the story. That is what I like most about the exchange of contact info between travelers: they are links between people who understood, if only for a little while, each other’s stories. And occasionally, people will stay in touch regularly for 30 years.
Before we all went our separate ways, I enjoyed some great experiences with friends at the hostel. Wandering around the streets of Barcelona at night, winding and narrow, with beautiful lights. Meeting other travelers and hearing their stories at different bars in town, and celebrating Australia Day at one such place. We also made our way into a couple of slower, more-local places (if any place in Barcelona can be considered local) on side streets with fewer people. One of them, a bar called 68, had empty gasoline cans and cannibalized circuit boards in use as part of a super-cheap but super-cool lighting system, whose overall theme was the color red. Barcelona has the feeling that wherever you look there is another bar, club, pub, restaurant, discotheque, etc., that cannot be passed up.
Another night, we skipped going to the bars in favor of climbing Cerro Juic (Juic Hill) to get a view of the city. On our way up the series of ramps and staircases leading to the broad summit, we passed a pair of people smoking crack, then a couple of people making out. Up top, we saw dozens of groups out jogging, all of them wearing high tech clothing and running shoes. It was a great mix, although none of us commented on it at the time because it just feels so normal in Barcelona. On Las Ramblas, a series of busy streets that make up the heart of Barcelona, dealers will sell you beer for a Euro at most times of day, and offer you cocaine when you get close enough to hear them whisper. Prostitutes will sell you their bodies at all times of day. This is something that, upon arrival, feels like, “wow!” but within a day, it is just another part of the city. None of it dangerous, none of it threatening, just another part of life. So I spent my nights with friends from the hostel, wandering around, finding places to have a drink, and just taking in what I could. I tried to experience what I could of Barcelona night life during my time there, and it was cool. Really cool. That was just my experience at night, however. Daytime in Barcelona is equally vibrant, for different reasons.
After I clicked “Publish Post” to upload “Valencia and the Dream,” I was ready, at last, to see the city at large. My first target was La Sagrada Familia. It is interesting in the sense that this Cathedral is, without a doubt, the most famous building in Barcelona. I had a tourist map to get me there, glanced at it quickly, saw “Cathedral,” hopped on my bike, and then arrived at the original Cathedral, thinking initially, when I saw a crane towering above it, that it must be Sagrada Familia. But no, this was the old Cathedral, and not Sagrada Familia. If I had to guess, I would say that there were about 150 tourists there to see the Cathedral, compared with roughly ten times that to see Sagrada Familia. The old Cathedral is a phenomenal building as well: massive, tall, huge, etc. I took a quick look around the outside, and then decided not to go inside when I learned that the price of admission was 5 Euros. I wondered how many people had come here by mistake, said to their friends or to themselves, “Oops, not Sagrada Familia. Let’s roll.” I was one such person, so I took off.
After a quick ride over to Gaudi’s work in progress, I saw what is, surely, the most insane building I have seen in my life. I did not count them, but there were roughly six cranes at various elevations, none of them in operation, lurking above, within, and around Sagrada Familia. It was either a lack of funding or an excess of wind that kept the cranes still that day, I am not sure which. Or perhaps it was just a day off for the construction workers. They have a different system of scheduling their work days and hours in Europe, which I have mostly, but not entirely, figured out. I paid the admission fee to get in, paid another fee to get the audio guide – they asked for some kind of document as collateral for the guide, but would not accept my bike helmet. So, I put on the headphones, under my helmet, slung my handlebar bag over my shoulder (it converts into a shoulder bag!) and began my work as a tourist. And I looked like a tourist! I found myself surprised by how tiring it can be to walk around sightseeing. But I got ‘r done.
I learned that Gaudi did not make detailed sketches, but rather that his system of design is based almost entirely on scale models, in plaster, of his buildings. So, in the bowels of Sagrada Familia, and visible to the public, is a huge plaster workshop where you can watch technicians creating models, or essentially plans of each upcoming phase of construction. Occasionally they will actually use the workshop to produce pieces to be used in the construction process in this workshop. Remarkable.
Also, I learned that Gaudi would make frequent trips to the Hospital Santa Cruz to make casts of the faces of recently-deceased patients so that he could use them in sculptures for the outside of the Cathedral. Gaudi, who died in 1926, spent the last 12 years of his life working exclusively on Sagrada Familia, getting his plans written down and into the minds of younger architects so that the project would get finished, eventually.
Eventually is definitely the operative word here. Construction is slowed by a couple of factors. 1) The plaster process is a bit cumbersome, apparently. 2) Funding comes entirely from private donations. Depending on who you ask, the system of donations is either a great thing or a travesty. Some people want the government of Spain to simply pour money onto the project until it is done.
The building itself is absolutely wonderful. Columns shoot high overhead before forking, forking again, and then blasting apart altogether into a sort of a star burst pattern. The impression, for me, of all of these patterns was that it looked like war zone overhead. After reading about Gaudi’s influences, it was easy for me to see that the patterns overhead could look, perhaps, like the canopy of a forest. However, when I first walked in, my only thought was, “whoa.” The outside of the Cathedral is adorned with sculptures of all kinds: fruits, vegetables, knights, Jesus being crucified. It is all so incredibly dramatic that I could not keep from smiling. And staring. This place makes an impression, and I wish that it were done. But at the same time, it was great to see it in progress, and it made me happy to see that stuff like this still happens. Or at least, it still happens in Barcelona.
I saw a couple of other sights while I was in town: Gaudi’s La Pedrera, one of the piers in town, and, of course, Cerro Juic. But, before I knew it, five days had passed, and I had already extended my stay at the hostel twice. It was time to move on.
For now though, I am happy to have found Barcelona, which has become one of my favorite cities. Right now I am in Arles, getting out to see Roman ruins, Catholic Churches, and also a bridge that Van Gogh painted in the 1800s (late 1800s), which is just a short distance from my campsite. Tomorrow I get back on the road on my way to Marseilles.