from Sandy Needham

Monday, May 14, 2007

Barcelona Dispatch

May 14, 2007
Our sojourn to Barcelona had rather inauspicious beginnings. We decided to go to the train station a couple of days in advance in Nice to buy our tickets, since our train would leave at 6:00 Friday morning. The ticket clerks were on strike and the ticket machines only accepted the European Union credit card or cash. After being directed twice to the same non-existent cash machine, we noticed the ticket machines did accept coins. The tickets to Barcelona cost 139 Euros and a 2-Euro coin is the largest denomination, so the next step would have been to schlep bags of coins from a bank to the station. It felt just like Natal! Newton realized he could buy tickets online, and was able to redeem them the next day via the clerks, who were back at their counters.

Soon after boarding the train, I emerged from the corridor to the car 'foyer' through the swinging door, leaving my right ring finger in the door behind me. It turned deep purple from the knuckle up and throbbed violently during the 12-hour trip. (Funny part is, it then lost all feeling even after the normal color returned and only now, back in Natal, does it hurt!) So we've settled in our seat, rambling along the Cote D'Azur, passing gorgeous fields, cypress trees (in Arles!), lovely buff-colored towns - the euphoria interrupted only by the relative violence of the deafening clamor of oncoming trains passing full speed a foot away. Well, I had closed my eyes to brace myself through one of these onslaughts when an even louder pop just about jumped me out of my skin and convinced me that I would open my eyes and find myself shot. Our glass window had shattered into a million pieces - still in place, thank God, in a lovely mosaic. We followed the lead of every passenger near us and cleared out of there.We changed trains in Avignon and again in a sleepy Spanish border town called Portbou, where we had a sunny sidewalk lunch of fresh sardines.

When we arrived in Barcelona at 6:00pm, we went to the 'Bohemia' hostel we had reserved months before online, only to discover they had lost our reservation. This was a holiday weekend in Catalonia (Sant Jordi's Day), so Steve, the nice Irish guy who manages the hostel, said he only had a tiny room with bunk beds and a shared bath and shower. He thought we might want to check some of the hotels in the neighborhood, but was pretty sure the city was booked up for the weekend. We wandered around for a couple of hours, confirming that there was not a room anywhere, now desperately grateful for our bunk beds with bath two corridors away. (Newton: "I'm too old for this."). Steve offered us an entire apartment he also manages (with triple balcony!) for the same price, after two nights in the bunks. Our Barcelona stay turned a corner then and everything coincidentally became magical from that point.

And much credit for the magic of Barcelona goes to Gaudí, the incomparable modernist architect, who designed from his bottomless imagination buildings right out of Through the Looking Glass! The sheer execution of his ideas is mind boggling, as is the fact the structures got built at all. We, and I include Newton, could not get enough of him! We roamed the organic fantasy of La Pedrera (Casa Mila 1907), the apartment/office complex that renders its corner one of the most famous in the world. Just imagine a building with no right angles - the walls curve into the ceilings! We got stiff necks studying the gargantuan Sacred Family cathedral, an unfinished work that is slated for completion (under the direction of another architect) by 2023. We ate up the details of Casa Batlló - a roof reminiscent of Gaudí's fixation with knights and dragons! This was a renovation, so does have some right angles, but look at what I called the "pea pod" lighting in a ceiling:

Gaudí speaks to me in so many ways!

Sunday we walked and walked: along the famous La Rambla, an unusually wide boulevard devoted exclusively to pedestrians, through the Bogueria food market, down to the old gothic quarter, and on and on. We sampled and bought goat cheeses and duck and olive paté at a weekend market outside the old Barcelona Cathedral for an upcoming picnic. Outdoor musicians along our route included a Cuban group playing their romantic fare, which prompted this old, distinguished couple to demonstrate their quite smooth ballroom
dancing for the crowd; a classical Spanish guitar player; a Brazilian playing

Bossa Nova on guitar, accompanied at one moment by a carillon of church bells; and a New Orleans jazz band with another inspired dancing couple. (Newton and I decided that if retirement finances don't pan out, we could move to Kazakhstan and do the samba in a plaza for coins in a hat.)

A sunny day on the top open deck of a sightseeing bus was a great boon to taking in this large, beautiful, crowded city, as well as a chance for my right hip socket to regroup. Next day we explored La Ribera neighborhood with the Picasso Museum, carting wine and our delicacies to the nearby 'Central Park' of Barcelona for our picnic. There a group of latter day hippies was gathered under a tree, one guy playing a clarinet and another guy playing a hauntingly beautiful instrument reminiscent of both a steel drum and the Balinese gamelan. (I later inquired: it is more or less a steel bowl, called a "hang" - pronounced 'haung' and available in Bern, Switzerland...I want one.) Picasso's work doesn't particularly speak to me, though his museum is fascinating and fun. La Ribera neighborhood is probably my favorite in the city. I love my collection of floor tile photos from the marvelous floors around town...yep, they speak to me!

We were flummoxed by the Catalan language, in which many menus are written. Luckily, there is a wonderful system by which individual tapas are numbered and an English legend supplied. The outdoor tapas bar across the street from Casa Batlló has a cloud-light chocolate cake confection with chocolate sauce for which reason alone I would return to Barcelona! We found the traditional Catalan food always interesting and delicious, with sauces and marinates that are in a class by themselves. We were big fans of Rioja wine. We made it home with four bottles, Brazilian Customs being much more curious about the 220-volt power drill Newton had purchased (our US 110-volt doesn't work in Natal). Newton used his Spanish everywhere, though without the lisping Castillian accent. We never tired of giggling over this accent, mature as we are, by which we came to affectionately call the city, "Bartha."

A brief return to Amsterdam to catch our charter flight home followed.


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