The overnight bus from Jaén to Barcelona took just over fourteen hours, and wasn’t the most pleasant of journeys. By no means was it uncomfortable (to the contrary, the seats were wonderfully squishy and of course I had plenty of leg room), it’s just that the length of the trip came as a rude surprise to me. I keep forgetting that Spain is very big for a European country. And since leaving Australia, I’ve clearly gotten weak in terms of long distance travel.
Fourteen hours. Which could have been less, I thought bitterly, if the journey wasn’t punctuated by so many unnecessary ‘rest stops’. These actually made ‘rest’ impossible, as it was compulsory to get off (and stay off) the bus during each stop, for anything from 20 minutes to 2 hours. Great for the circulation, terrible if you just want to sleep in one place.
Fourteen long, expensive hours, as my friend pointed out on my arrival. Why on earth didn’t I just fly? It would have been half the price!
Why didn’t I think of that? I guess I’m just not used to living within reach of an airport. Or thinking things through at all. But no matter, at least I could still book a cheap and breezy flight home.
Well, no. I just had to be a double nuff-nuff. As I was travelling inside Spain, I’d decided there was no reason to take my passport with me, and that my residency permit thingy would do. My expired residency permit, that is. The new one is waiting for me in the Segovia foreigner’s office. So without any valid form of I.D., booking tickets and negotiating airport security was a non-option. It was back on the bus to get home. If you include the leg from Jaén to Martos, my village, that’s over thirty hours travel there and back… all for three nights in a city I’d already been to.
As it turns out, the sleepless hours and precious euros were absolutely worth it.
To begin with, there was a surprise upside to the long and dreary bus time. No, I didn’t meet the man of my dreams (he was probably on the aeroplane, sitting next to where I should have been), but… Serendipitously (how I love that word), it turns out that the book I’d downloaded for the journey, La Sombra del Viento, is set in Barcelona. How perfect! I had no idea, I’d just wanted to read it because it’s the first in a very popular Spanish trilogy, which all have evocative titles, and are based around a mysterious cemetery for forgotten books. But for the novel to be set in the city where I was headed, and, as it turns out, to be full of history, suspense, romance, action, and gothic style magic realism, well that absolutely made my journey. En route to Barcelona, I was already there, and about 60 years ago at that.
Luxury reading time and gourmet picnic dinner aside (I’m over crusty bocadillos from roadside cafeterias, now I travel with an arsenal of fancy sandwiches, fresh fruit, and 85% cocoa ‘emergency’ chocolate), it was a relief to finally arrive, in person, at my destination. If somewhat groggy and sleep deprived.
I’d been to Barcelona about five years ago with a friend from high school, and we both took an instant liking to it. We spent three or four magical days there, walking up and down La Rambla, taking a bus tour, queuing for ages to get inside the Sagrada Cathedral, going to giant nightclubs, getting lost, eating gelati, drinking sangria, and falling completely in love with the city. We knew it wasn’t the last time we’d be there, but the first in what we imagined would be numerous visits throughout our hopefully long and successful lives.
And finally, there I was again.
The best thing about having been somewhere before is that the sense of urgency is gone. Hopefully, you’ll have seen the big ticket attractions already, which leaves room to pick and choose. To revisit what you loved the first time, and to catch what you missed. Everything is easier – the metro is familiar, you know where to avoid the swarms of tourists and the rip off restaurants, your get your bearings faster, so this time you can dig a little deeper into the city. If it will let you.
Barcelona is massive, in terms of urban sprawl, and dense, in terms of everything. It can’t be rushed, and it can’t be ‘done’, even though there are several clear cut attractions to see and ‘do’.
Love it or hate it, Gaudí’s architecture tops the list, and it’s a bit silly to visit Barcelona without checking out at least a couple of his standout masterpieces. Even though I know nothing about architecture, I’m not shy to say that I’m a big fan of Gaudí. I think he’s brilliant. I love his organic, flowing mosaics, and intelligently designed buildings. The apartment complexes, Casa Batló and La Pedrera, make a particular impression on me, for their unconventional elegance, ergonomic sensibility, and natural lighting and ventilation systems. To me it’s all so clever. I was in awe the first time, and was just as impressed this time around (despite the hilarious audio guide).
As for the Cathedral, the famously unfinished Sagrada Familia, it’s just, so, epic… Hundreds of spires of different heights and colours, random turrets and baubles, a menagerie of stone animals swarming around the base and facade, as well as a complex tangle of scaffolding and cranes, the whole project is just exhausting. Author Ben Lerner describes it as ‘the ugliest building [he has] ever seen’. I can understand why, because it is basically a brown, chaotic, over ambitious jumble. Totally ostentatious. But at least not in the manner of those gilt, cupid ridden, romantic churches. For that reason I think it’s great. Hopefully God thinks it’s refreshingly different too. And regardless of personal taste, you can’t help but admire the spiralling staircases and stained glass windows from inside, as well as the sheer enormity of the task of completing it. Surely there’s more than several lifetime’s work in the design of this one building, but Gaudi somehow made time for it, on top of all his other commissions. I’m not sure what exactly constitutes genius, but I’d give him the benefit of the doubt…
So what else is there to see in Barcelona? So much! So much and so many of everything! Art galleries (big and small), museums (robots, erotica, wax, insert random area of interest here), sporting related things (the old Olympic village and the home field of Barça football team), parks and hidden gardens, bizarre and impressive buskers, big stone monuments and buildings from rich Imperial Spain, random teams of street dancers doing capoiera/break dancing/circus flips freestyle routines, groovy new bars with innovative interiors, rustic bodegas with dusty ‘honest’ interiors, an ancient amusement park with a funny name on a hill, and all kinds of fancy gastronomic purveyors of fine foody goodness. (after Roquefort gelati and thyme and pine-nut chocolate, suddenly my gourmet sandwiches don’t seem so gourmet).
So the best thing to do is really just wander. I did, for three (or was it four?) full days, barely scratching the surface of what there was to see, and barely even making it out of the gothic quarter. Now I’m even more convinced I’d like to come back, again, for even longer… despite the complication of Catalan, the bloody tourists (yes yes I know I’m one of them) and the fact that Barcelona is actually quite a grubby city. Not dirty, just grubby.
After all that wandering, the highlights were:
- David Bowie being played in a lot of shops and cafes.
- Edgy fashion and good looking people. Yes, I’m that shallow.
- The Plaça Reial, which is, so far, my favourite plaza in Spain. I know it’s not the biggest or the most significant, but it has palm trees and a fountain and a wonderful atmosphere.
- The FADExpo, an exhibition of winning and shortlisted entries from the Barcelona Design Festival. This included posters, packaging, architecture, green materials, furniture and fashion. An interesting category was the ‘City to City’ award, which recognises clever urban planning across the globe. I found it so exciting and inspiring to see beautiful, clever things, made by people who think and care about not just their end product, but the future of, like, the world.
- Fruit juice at the market of St Josep de La Boqueria. One euro per juice, and a veritable rainforest of flavours to choose from. My favourite was blackberry and coconut, but pitaya scored extra points for being fluorescent pink.
- Good coffee. The coffee in the south of Spain isn’t that bad, it’s just no frills, and if you’re really into coffee, it can be a little disappointing. But en route to Barcelona, I received a message from my friend, who is the biggest coffee enthusiast/connoisseur I’ve ever met, to say she’d just discovered the most amazing place – The Majestic Cafe. For fans of St.Ali in Melbourne, this is where you should go in Barcelona. These guys are serious about coffee. They sell nothing else. They had beans from all over the world, did every possible variation (fast, slow, siphon, moonlight whispering) of coffee, without resorting to sickly syrups, and it was all made with love and an encyclopaedic knowledge of bean origins and ‘nuances’. We even drank coffee out of wine glasses. The cafe smelt wonderful, and, the apartment above was for rent. Hmmm. Imagine what our slightly over excited coffee fuelled brains have been scheming.
- A little gallery called El Bigote del Señor Smith, which sells psychedelic illustrations, fashion, and jewellery from local artists and designers. Upstairs they run all kinds of workshops such as DJing, ceramics, skateboard customisation, and jewellery making. Unfortunately they don’t have a franchise in Segovia.
In the end I extended my stay in Barcelona to catch up with another friend and squeeze in a bit more aimless wandering. But still it wasn’t enough. On Sunday afternoon I passed a tonne of closed shops and cafes that I hadn’t seen before, but looked really interesting. Such as the Plumista… the quill maker, I’m guessing. I wonder if that’s the same shop as the one featured in La Sombra del Viento? Could be. I’ll have to check it out, next time. Because as I boarded the bus once again, I knew it wasn’t ‘adios’ to this remarkable city where I feel so at home, but an upbeat ‘hasta luego’. Barcelona, I will be back.
And with a great novel, bag of fresh market goodies, and mind racing with possibilities, the fourteen hours flew by.