Like all trips I’ve been taking recently, this one started with a preliminary trip. This is the hazard of not having a car (or any vehicle, really). So this trip to Barcelona started out with a train ride to Vilnius and then a second train from the Vilnius train station to the airport. Not a big deal and the Vilnius airport is fairly small and easy to navigate so there weren’t any problems until it came time to actually board the plane.
See, being a small, Baltic region airport (despite the “International” in front of their name) there are no gangplanks to actually get you to the plane itself. Instead, you have to walk across the tarmac and climb the stairs in order to get on board. No problem, really, except before you can go up you have to go down and where we were supposed to go down was an escalator, which would keep moving no matter how backed up things were at the base. So I spent a good deal of time at the top, watching the moving stairs and waiting until the tightly packed crowd at the bottom started to move, much to the chagrin of those behind me in line. Everything worked out, finally, and we made it to the plane (which took off merely 30 minutes late – which is ‘on-time’ for the low cost companies like WizzAir, which I was flying).
Landing in Barcelona was easy enough, and despite one wrong turn, I found the bus to take me from the airport to the center of town easily enough. Once in town (Placa Catalyuna) the temperature difference between Spain and Lithuania readily made itself known. I had left a country where I was wearing many layers and the temperature hadn’t seen the positive side of zero in some weeks and now I was very much overdressed in my heavy coat and purple scarf (thanks Jen’s Mom!). Getting off the airport bus it again took a few minutes to find the right metro station and the correct bus to take me the 6 stops to the hostel, but in the end, no real problems or headaches and I got to the hostel in time to meet my dorm mates and settle in for the evening.
Monday morning I did what I usually do in a new place – made my way to the old town and had a good wander around. My problem this trip was that I was completely unprepared. Yes, I had downloaded a couple of Barcelona tour guides (I’d even managed to ‘thumb’ through them as best you can ‘thumb’ through anything on the iPad) but I wasn’t excited about the trip like I should have been. I knew it would be nice to get out of Kaunas for a little while, but I was nervous about work and money and life in general so I really hadn’t thought about any plan of attack, I didn’t know what the ‘big’ sites were I was supposed to see (aside from that one church which still wasn’t finished after 100+ years – and no, at this point I didn’t know its name. I do now) and a couple of really close friends had mentioned how Barcelona was one of their favorite cities in the world so I had pretty big expectations. And for the most part, they were certainly borne out.
Now, I’m pretty good with directions, but the first day anywhere is a tough one, geographically speaking. I started my day with a stroll down La Rambla, which is a mile long promenade right through the heart of the old town. It starts at Placa Catalyuna (which you’ll remember from a few paragraphs back as the place where the airport bus dropped me off) and makes a beeline directly for the waterfront. For my Kaunas friends who haven’t been, it’s like a REALLY busy version of Laisves Aleja and for my West Coast USA friends, it’s a not as busy version of the Third Street Promenade. Anyway, I cut out before the end and ducked into the Barri Gotic (The oldest part of the city) and proceeded to get lost amongst old streets barely wide enough to the signage of all the shops crowding in from either side. I went into one butcher shop and tasted the difference between different ages of pork, in which the pigs had been feed different diets. And to tell the truth, it really does make a difference! I know, hard to believe, but the pigs which ate only corn tasted much different than the ones which consisted of only wild food. I’m not sure I could tell the difference if I only had one to eat, but when you’re sampling one after the other it’s fairly distinct. I found the waterfront and the huge street art (including a Lichtenstein and a weird, gold lobster) and then went back into the maze of the old town streets.
I found the big cathedral dedicated to St Eulalie which was kinda disappointing on the inside so I figured I’d check out the view from the roof. Now here’s the thing about tourist sights in Barcelona – they are almost always under construction. This cathedral had scaffolding everywhere and on the roof, there was a narrow metal walkway, which had some interesting views, but I’m not sure it was worth the 2.50 Euro elevator fee, especially when most of the views were glimpsed between and around metal bars and protective mesh designed to hold the stonework in place. I did get some nice pictures of the gargoyles, but overall, this wasn’t a good first stop. My second stop was right across the street, the Frederic Mares
I wasn’t sure about this place, but it looked like there was an interesting temporary exhibition on and when it turned out I could get in for free (thank you ITIC card!) I figured I’d give it a go. The first two floors were a bit odd. Evidently Mares was a collector and so instead of just one or two of something, he had many. And on the first two floors, that “many” were religious iconography. I walked into rooms – big, museum style rooms, only to be overwhelmed by the number and variety of things like Christ’s crucifixion. There were literally hundreds of the crosses hanging on the walls (and each had a Christ hanging on it). In a way, it was like the Lithuanian Hill Of Crosses, only there, with the hundreds of thousands of crosses, it was evident it was a religious pilgrimage. Here, there was nothing sacred at all in the feeling inspired. It was a showcase for the variety of the art, which I can certainly get behind but at times it was a bit much. It wasn’t until I got to the upper floors, though, were I really started to understand the madness in the method. Upstairs you could really get a sense for the inherent collector. In the “Gentlemen’s Room” there was a collection of pipes. Thousands of pipes. All shapes and sizes, displayed with attention to the individual items but not to the collection as a whole. Instead of, say, a progression showing the evolution of the artistic development of the smoking implements or in the materials used or whatever, it was just every pipe he’d ever acquired mounted on a felt board with a hundred others and then framed in a beautiful shadowbox. And pipes were only one of the collections presented. In that room alone there were also walking sticks, playing cards, cigar bands/boxes and travel stickers. There were women’s fans and ivory combs, shadowbox theaters, miniature army men, keys and locks. Anything collectible beyond the normal (I don’t actually recall any coins or stamps) was represented in abundance. Ironically, it wasn’t until I was ready to leave that I finally saw the temporary exhibit, which was a collection of art works inspired by the recent renovations the museum had undergone. It was an interesting display, painting of items wrapped in protective plastics and the like, but it missed the mark of what, for me, the museum really was.
Leaving there, it was getting on to noon and I was getting hungry. The breakfast in the hostel consisted of a baguette, a muffin, a coffee and a glass of juice and while it was tasty (and complimentary) it wasn’t going to last all day.
I discovered a magic museum / café / theatre which was nice (and, I’m sorry to say, I never made it back for a show) but they weren’t serving food so I walked through the single room exhibit space (devoted, naturally, to Spanish magicians) and got a recommendation for a place up the street to eat and had my first lunch in Spain, which, oddly enough, was pasta. It was good, sure, but not what I was expecting. But by the time I got to lunch, I was starving and this seemed like a good deal so I went for it. Lunch also gave me time to once again look at the guidebook and devise a plan for the afternoon. I decided to do the big sites first, make sure they got seen. So I checked my map and figured I’d walk to see “La Sagrada Familia” (which is the big, still not finished church).
Maps are deceiving and it was a lot further than it looked. This is a refrain we’ll hear a lot on this trip.
I finally made it to the church and then had to decide what to do. It was pricy merely to enter, 14 Euro, and an extra 3 Euro each for the audio tour and the lift to the upper observation deck. I decided to go for the whole shooting gallery since this WAS the big thing (literally and figuratively) in Barcelona as well as Gaudi’s crowning achievement as an architect so I figured it was a good idea to see it in all it’s glory. The first thing I did was the lift to the observation deck. To say it was more impressive than the cathedral in the old town is an understatement. Sure, there was still scaffolding (and there has been for the last 100 years or so) but there were also unobstructed views of the city, which was wonderful. And while you had to take an elevator up, going down was solely by stairs. The stairs were circular, going down the main towers existing currently in the building, with bridges to take you to other towers while you descended. There were various observation holes on your way down so you could really get a close-up look at the various intricacies which I hoped would be explained later on the audio tour.
The audio tour was okay. It wasn’t great (but also wasn’t the worst I would experience, that would come a few days later) but did its job. I learned quite a bit about the architecture and the design and history of the building. Gaudi was an impressive guy, redefining a lot of what was known about architecture at the time (late 19th century) in order to create this masterpiece. Ironically, he wasn’t even the first architect approached. He was the second, but when he took over the project, he really made it his own. A lot of the design elements incorporate the nature of the outlying Spanish countryside, both obviously and in an aesthetic sense. Unfortunately, Gaudi himself died when only a small part had been completed, including the frieze showing the birth, early life and lineage of Christ. The sculptures showing Christ’s death, on the opposite side of the church (and where you currently go inside) weren’t completed until the mid 80s and the whole thing has an estimated completion date of 2030. We’ll see. That’s a rather ambitious goal, actually.
Leaving the Sagrada Familia I thought a nice walk back towards the water would be nice. My path took me through the Spanish version of the Arc de Triomph, which headed another nice walking promenade, leading to a beautiful park. At the other end of the park was the zoo and beyond the zoo was the central Barcelonian train station. I know this because as I walked, I got lost and ended up, literally, on the wrong side of the tracks and had to walk all the way around the zoo to find a way to cross over, then had to back track to re-find my directions to the water. Eventually, I did, though, and then found a nice little café to have a spot of dinner, this time a Spanish tradition of bread and toppings, which you assembled yourself, including squeezing a tomato into the bread itself. This is a light snack, since I was there before 7pm and dinners didn’t really get going until 9 or later. Us Eastern Europeans evidently eat dinner WAY to early! So I had a couple of glasses of wine, ate my bread and watched people walk by.