Saturday, April 7, 2012

Semana Santa I: Barcelona

The past week, Spain has been celebrating the Holy Week. Spanish Catholics apparently take Easter more seriously than anyone I've ever seen. Or at least their rituals and celebrations would imply that. I'll get to that later. The important part is that I've had the entire week off to travel. I chose to visit two cities that I've been wanting to visit for some time - Barcelona and San Sebastian. I'm breaking the week up into segments because there are lots of pictures to show and writing to do.

I found a Couchsurfing host named Victor who was willing to let me sleep on his couch for a few days in Barcelona, so Saturday I hopped on the 7:30 bus and headed that way. Along the way, I kept dozing off for lack of sleep. Eventually, I woke up and realized I couldn't read any of the signs. They were all in Catalan. We stopped at a little bus station and I went inside the bar to get something to eat. The bartender asked where I was from and I told him. He then proceeded to announce via microphone that we had an important American in the bar. He showed me his tongue-in-cheek "how to smoke in Spanish restaurants" device of which he seemed super proud. It was quite clever. In fact, here is a video someone took of the guy:

I finally arrived in Barcelona around 2:30 at what seemed like a random bus stop. I had planned to arrive at a station and then make my way to Victor's from there. Of course, I should know by this point that it never happens the way you plan it. I wandered through the strangely-named streets for a while until I finally found a metro stop. Thankfully, I finally found Victor, who welcomed me like an old friend and fed me pasta and vegetables. He turned out to be a really friendly guy and he taught me a lot about the city. And he is a computer programmer, so we had plenty to talk about in that regard as well.

My first view of the city was from atop the old Plaza de Toros (bullfighting arena) that has since been transformed into a shopping mall. I was sad that it had met such a fate but the alternative was to let it continue falling into disrepair. At least the facade is preserved and they will continue to keep it looking nice (so long as the mall business is booming). It was a nice view of this part of the city, though I would later find progressively higher and better views as my stay went on.

Plaza de Toros / Shopping Center

Next, we went down and walked around the area beyond the two towers in the above picture. The Plaza de Espanya is a really beautiful and symmetrical area. At the top of the stairs is the National Museum of Art, which is a really nice building.

We had plans to go to a mini music festival downtown, so we took a quick look at Gaudí's Parc Güell. It was a trip. I knew he was a weird guy, but he had to have been on something good to have designed some of the things he did. A lot of it could have come straight out of Alice in Wonderland.

I didn't have my camera with me, so I didn't take as many pictures as usual, but I suggest looking the park up. It's interesting. Victor also showed me one of the houses near the park that has been occupied by an anarchist group that is taking over abandoned houses to live in and provide free classes to the public. They also like to decorate their roof:

The music festival was out of the way in an area of town that looked quite out of place in Barcelona. The streets were narrower and the buildings had a homier feel. The mini music festival featured six different groups, which were generally indie groups but each had their own styles. The headliner was from the US and most of the others were from the UK. One was a local band that had some songs in Catalan and others in English. I bought some music from a band from Oxford who were exceptionally wired. They also had funny stage banter. At least I think it was funny. It may have just been their accent.

On Sunday, I headed alone to the Plaza de Espanya to check out the National Art Museum. As it was the first Sunday of the month, it was free. I checked out a couple of the floors, each divided into a style or period of art. There was also a really nice room here:

I got a bit frustrated with the museum because everything was in Catalan. I was still able to understand quite a bit because of the similarities between it and Spanish and French, but it took a lot more work. I understand the desire to preserve an important part of their culture and history but Barcelona is a city that thrives on multiculturalism and tourism. I'm sure they had some kind of audio guide in other languages, but I didn't think of that until just now.

I left the museum after a couple of hours and headed back to Victor's. I stopped along the way to take a few pictures and to walk through a little park:

View from the museum terrace.

In the park.

Victor invited me to have Sunday dinner with his parents. They were delightful people. There is something surreal about Couchsurfing and the people it connects you with. I had a delicious meal and stimulating conversation with someone's family as though I were their son, though we had met only ten minutes before. Victor's father was eager to show me his artwork, on display all throughout the apartment. There were lots of paintings and even some woodworking. He had made replicas of artifacts from Egypt and China that looked impressive. The difference between Victor's apartment and his parents' was huge. While his was very minimalist and modern, theirs was like a fancy art museum. We had coffee with some kind of special cream instead of sugar, typical from Argentina, which was entirely too sweet for me, and then Victor's dad gave us a ride to Montjuric. 

The Montjuric area is home to several beautiful theater and museum buildings and parks. It also has a castle with a nice view of the sea. After parting ways with Victor's father, we hiked the short distance remaining to the castle and had a look around. There were some cannons and an archery range, along with an overcrowded refreshment stand. 

After visiting the castle, we strolled through some nice parks on the way down Montjuric and headed back to the apartment for a rest. In the evening, Victor showed me Las Ramblas, the typical commercial street of Barcelona. I wasn't all that interested in it and it was super crowded. We also visited some other areas off the beaten path, where Victor showed me George Orwell's Square. It isn't quiet what I expected but at least he has some kind of monument, I guess. 

On Monday, Victor had to work, so I ventured out to see some more of the sites on my own. I attempted to take a train to a zip line so that I could go up the mountain and see the Tibidabo Cathedral. Of course, I chose the wrong train and ended up at a dead end stop that didn't quite take me as far as I needed to go. I found what I thought was another route on my map and decided to walk there because it didn't look very far. It turned out that where I thought the zip line started was probably underground or nonexistent and I ended up in a fancy residential area up a really steep hill. If I didn't get a little lost, it wouldn't be fun anyway. After hiking a few more miles and seeing a lot of pretty buildings and a submarine in the middle of the road, I found another zip line.

I rode the zip line to the top of Tibidabo and discovered that there is a little theme park of sorts up there as well, right next to the cathedral. It was a strange juxtaposition. I grabbed a bite to eat and listened to Asian twenty-somethings speaking in English about farting. It was a nice view, albeit foggy.

After having a snack, I headed up to the cathedral and had a look around. There were several levels to visit, all the way to the top, where I got one of the highest accessible views of Barcelona. On a clearer day, it may have been better for a picture, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. 

My second Monday destination was the beach. I walked a bit around the Olympic area and took some pictures and then headed down for ice cream and people-watching. I found it really frustrating that waiters didn't want to speak in Spanish with me in Barcelona. Even if I ordered in Spanish, they immediately responded in English. I imagine my accent isn't the greatest, but I can't have possibly screwed up "I want a coffee" that badly. Regardless, I got some ice cream and watched some intense games of volleyball. Some were intense because of the competition and others because of the number of gross men in speedos.

The beachwalk seemed like a really nice area to ride bikes. I walked along the path for a while, checking out some of the parks and restaurants along the way. It was pleasant just to rest on the beach after walking forever.

My last solo destination was the Sagrada Família, another project with which Gaudí was involved. It has yet to be completed and it seems like it will still be a while before it is finished. Despite the construction cranes and everything, it's still quite a site to look at. I didn't manage to go inside because it was 20 euros to enter and the line was backed up with thousands of people. 

After visiting the uncompleted cathedral, I took the metro back to where I had been in the morning, near Victor's work. We had some patatas bravas at a little bar. They were supposedly the best in Barcelona. As I was eating them, I agreed, though my stomach would later resent me for it. We then took a walk downtown again, through the Gothic quarter and some other places. Victor showed me a cool little shop with a hidden bar inside that was decorated like a fairy forest. The lighting was really low and there were trees and waterfalls everywhere. I guess it was supposed to be a sort of exclusive hipster hangout or something because it wasn't advertised or anything from the outside. We ended up stopping in a little cafe for dessert and coffee near a part of the old wall where they played acoustic covers of old pop songs, like Beat It. 

I left early on Tuesday morning and thus concluded my adventures in Barcelona. Overall, I like the atmosphere better than most of the places I have been in Spain, and I think I prefer it over Madrid. I made the seven hour journey back to Teruel and stopped by the bar with the crazy bartender, who made me a sandwich and entertained me with all sorts of wigs and hats. My stay in Teruel was short-lived, though, and I hopped on a bus at midnight for San Sebastian.

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