Monday, January 26, 2009

Blogging Barcelona, Part One

I failed to connect with My Lovely Wife both from Germany and upon arrival in Barcelona. And just as I was beginning to suspect some major miss in her connections, I found her waiting for me as I came off the plane. It turned out that her phone, having been purchased and activated for the express purpose of being able to communicate on this trip, was not working. Henry, my personal agent at ATT had assured me that this was not going to be the case so I was very confused and not too happy.

We found the taxi stand and grabbed a cab for the ride into town. It’s always interesting to arrive in a new city in the later hours of the day when you’re tired. Things look strange and it all takes on a sense of the unreal. We drove into the city along a long well-appointed boulevard lined with palm trees and sycamores, turning on La Rambla and pulling up in front of our hotel. A short man with the build of a boxer grabbed our bags and showed us to the front desk.

I’ve been accustomed to staying at some pretty swank places these last three years and it was clear from the start that this place was not going to continue that streak. Not bad, but not all that special. The room turned out to be small and simple and while not four star caliber, it was certainly going to be okay.

It was now midnight and we were both hungry so we decided to head out to find something to eat. La Rambla is the entertainment district of Barcelona and I’d been told that it really doesn’t get going until after 10 PM and that was certainly the case. The pedestrian mall was mobbed with people wandering up and down and in and out of the restaurants that lined both sides of the street. Single men milled around selling individual beers from six packs that they carried.

We picked a tapas place, ordered some food and a bottle of wine and settled in to catch up on our respective days. In her case it was a matter of being stuck in the back of the plane and hanging around four hours in shabby terminal at Heathrow. In mine it was that awful Air China flight and the fact that the Chinese cannot understand that facial tissues are not an appropriate choice for drying your hands in an aircraft restroom.

We ate and drank to the oddest soundtrack made up entirely of 1980’s songs and as we were ending up we got into a conversation with our waiter who turned out to be from the Philippines. I mentioned Intel and he lit up, starting to talk about computers, operating systems, the Intel plants in his native country all in a patois of Mexican Spanish, English and a bit of Chinese thrown in for good measure. He told me that many of his fellow countrymen live here in Spain working in the tourism business. The real irony of this encounter was that the last time I sat in a tapas restaurant I was in Shanghai talking to a girl from the Philippines in Mexican Spanish about working in the tourism industry. Despite having had so many of these odd little encounters around the world over these past three years, they will always give me a chuckle. We finished up, headed back to the hotel and turned off the lights about 3 AM realizing for the first time that the European sensibility of what constitutes regular evening hours is far different than ours.

Saturday morning started early for me to the sound of church bells ringing in the 8 o’clock hour. Bells are something I have completely forgotten about and I think the last time I heard them was growing up in the city. Once in a while if the wind is just right you can hear them at our place in Corrales. I laid there in bed listening to the one chime at fifteen after, two at thirty and so on, until I thought it was time to get out of bed. Morning comes late here – some oddity of the location of Barcelona in its time zone means that it’s still pretty dark at 7:30 and the sun doesn’t make it over the tops of the buildings until close to 9:00 a nice little gift to us having turned in so late. While getting ready to go, I got on the phone with ATT and found out that there is a 90 day "security period" before new phones are provisioned for international service. So much for sending My Lovely Wife off with her new phone. The very helpful agent sent a message to the big satellite in the sky and 30 seconds later, the phone was connected to the Movistar network.

span >About 11 we went out and found our way to a small restaurant for a late breakfast where we were served by a depressed Catalan in authentic local garb. I chose a ham and cheese bocadillo, the regional version of a sub sandwich served on a crusty baguette. An American woman came in and asked after the price of a bottle of water, he pointed to the menu with his sandwich tongs. She stood there stunned for 20 seconds before huffing out.

While wandering down towards the harbor, an equestrian parade appeared from up the street. Several dozen carts and wagons, horses and drivers in authentic clothing passed by as we stood and watched. Pura Raza Espania and Freisian horses drawing beer carts and wagons full of farm produce, all festooned in harnesses and tack covered with silver decorations and clanging bells. They were brought up in the rear by solo riders also dressed in authentic regional riding apparel. It was a great moment and wholly unexpected. We stood and watched as they all passed, down to the end of the plaza and back up the other side.

Continuing on we found ourselves in front of La Boqueria, the enclosed market of this district. Arranged by foodstuffs – produce, meats, cheeses, fish, chocolate – it was a feast for the eyes and the nose and a small part bittersweet for me when I looked about contrasting this place to what I have to choose from in China. It made me never want to go back.

We wandered down La Rambla to the seafront admiring the yachts and the tall statue commemorating Christopher Columbus who returned here from his journey to the west. The wind was now in a genuine howl and the noise it made blowing through the masts of the tightly moored ships with like nothing I have ever heard. A high pitched scream accentuated by the calls of hundreds of Little Gulls flying about in their winter plumage.

A visit to the aquarium was expensive and only slightly interesting and I’m beginning to think that if you have seen on fish collection, you’ve seen them all. We stopped at a coffee bar in a mall for a couple of cups and a really good fresh orange juice. Leaving there we stopped and bought a scarf from a street vendor to whom I gave a 1 kuai coin that I happened to have in my pocket. I told him it was for good luck and he appreciated it taking it with a big smile.

We took a side street past the baroque Mail and Telegraph building and started to wander through the twist little streets of the Barri Gotic – the ancient center of Barcelona.

Having not spent any time in Europe proper, this quarter of the city was a genuine delight for me - the narrow lanes framed with tall apartment buildings built on old, old foundations. Once in a while we’d come across a historical marker explaining some detail of the area. The street we were on opened up briefly into a small plaza where one of these signs described sections of the original Roman walls, protection for the city of Barcino built between the 1st and 4th centuries, A.D. Here they formed the foundation for a 13th century church. This was a find for me, my first visit to a Roman ruin. Moving up towards the cathedral located at the center of the district we stopped to buy some souvenirs from a nice but pushy young man working in a small shop. Back to Chinese style bargaining I have become so used to.

The Cathedral of Barcelona is truly a masterpiece and although wrapped in scaffolding and crowned with construction cranes, the beauty of it still came through. We paid the modest entrance fee and spent a long time wandering around drinking in the splendor. Places like this make you appreciate just how powerful and out of touch the church was with its flock - incredible wealth on display for constituents that were dirt poor. But in today’s context it’s more of a beautiful relic, a refuge from the modern world and a monument to older, less enlightened times.

A small flock of geese lives in a center courtyard off the main church, this part being the oldest of the complex. Palm and orange trees gave the place a distinctively Moorish flavor. We stopped to read the dates on the headstones that formed the walkway, the oldest being 1526.

From there we just roamed the streets stopping here and there to take pictures of courtyards and gargoyles. We took a break at Starbucks (where else?) and went back in search of the Temple of Augustus, another small remnant of the Roman times. A girl in the tourist information office gave us directions but told us it was closed. We cross-crossed the area finally finding the street where it was supposed to be and sure enough down a flight of steps we came upon it – three magnificent columns housed in a small room in modern building on an obscure side street. We stayed and enjoyed it until a noisy tour group came in and put an end to the peace.

After a rest at the hotel it was back out to find dinner, deciding on a place by the name of Taxidermista where we both had an excellent oven baked sea bass wrapped around a pile of delicious potatoes. The food in Barcelona would be reason enough to visit.

Now it was getting late so we decided to call it a day and returned to the hotel, making our way through the streets crowded with revelers. Mimes and living statues entertained the crowd and the same men selling cans of beer went back to their commerce. Barcelona is a place for night owls.



<(click to enlarge photos)























....

No comments: