Sunday, March 29, 2009

Adéu Barcelona, Hola Madrid!

Some photos of the final day in Barcelona and a preview of Shane's and my wandering through Madrid.

As the sun greyed the sky, we rolled into the subway, a little bleary-eyed as we dragged our luggage behind. Our first destination was the Barcelona train station where the visiting Floridians caught a direct train to the airport. We said our goodbyes in the terminal that was slowly turning up the volume as commuters and tourists shuttled through the open common area.

It was a heartfelt goodbye. I’ll admit I was a little apprehensive joining the group, knowing everyone else had a deep history, and I would clearly be the interloper, the ruiner of inside jokes. But they had all made me feel welcome. I had only known these visitors for about 48 hours, but we had shared so much aimless wandering, and discussion over wine and beer, that it’s hard to deny we had become friends, and I am deeply thankful they were just such cool people to explore with.

After goodbyes, Shane and I went to the information desk to ask about tickets to Madrid, specifically if we could get a discount with our German Rail 50% off cards (Bahn Card 50. It’s a wonderful deal, half-off every ticket you buy in Germany for a nominal cost upfront). We were told we would get 25% off. Cool. The helpful Barcelonan then handed me a sheet with the cost we would pay highlighted in yellow. This is a key transaction to remember.

Three team members down, Shane and I turned to the subway again and headed to the fringes of town in search of Park Güell, the final Gaudì masterpiece that was easily reached from town. We hopped out of the station as the sun was painting the clouds a radiant pinkish gold. We grabbed caffeine and sandwiches to fuel our morning and started climbing the hill towards the park. Totting our breakfast with the hopes of enjoying it at the park, we crawled up the slope until it seemed to deflect in the wrong direction. We had taken a wrong turn. I’ve become pretty deft at whipping out the map, and we began to ponder. Unfortunately we had ranged beyond the edge of the view offered by Lonely Planet. Cobbling together the address, a bus map, and the guidebook, we eventually figured out we had to backtrack, losing the elevation we had just bought with our tired legs.

Turning a corner, we saw a series of outdoor escalators climbing a particularly steep, San Fransisco-like slope. We gratefully rode upwards, still clutching our coffee, praying the sun would take its sweet time waking up this morning. At the top of the hill, a sign helpfully showed the entrance to the park…was under construction. We hoofed it around a towering stone wall, searching for a way in. As I power-walked ahead, Shane noticed a gate, with a small map. He called me back, and we inspected the gate inscribed with the words “Park Güell.” We had found it.

We hustled through, barely registering the winding pathways, and arched tunnels. We needed to find a scenic bench, stat. We were getting really hungry. Finally, we found the main entrance, decorated with a whimsical twisted spire over the gatehouse. Next to the iconic mosaic lizard (more specifically, under the lizard) we found a bench where we could watch the sun rise, and take in the city, just as Gaudi intended. Between the view from the Park, Casa Milà, and the cable car, I think I have a better idea of Barcelona from the air than from the ground.

Park Güell was constructed between 1900 and 1914 as a housing complex conceived by one of Gaudi’s patrons, Count Eusebi Güell. He envisioned a gated community with a common area, gardens, and pathways surrounding a school for the community’s children. Unfortunately, the fortunes of the city began to change after the turn-of-the-century, and people were reluctant to move to the new development. The gated community idea would take a few more decades before fully flourishing in West Chester, Ohio.

You may notice the ending date also coincides with the beginning of World War I. There’s something slightly tragic about walking through a building (or park) built near 1900, or reading a book from that time period. Optimism infused the work of Gaudi and Jules Verne. Technology was producing incredible wonders like airplanes and the telephone. The future was gleaming with opportunity. Then Franz Ferdinand was assassinated and Europe was dragged into a series of conflicts that wouldn’t end until the close of the next century. So much for that optimism…

The Park became the site of Gaudì’s permanent home, as well as Count Güell’s. Soon after funding fell through, the park was opened to everybody. Apparently not many people take advantage of it at 7 AM. Besides the ornate entry, the park features a colonnade that functions as a public space and rain catchment. Above the columns is a massive common area surrounded by a looping mosaic bench, and a clear view of Barcelona. If I didn’t love the city before gazing off that balcony, I was ready to buy the ring and set the wedding date as I looked out over the harbor.

From the park, Shane and I began a walking tour of the city’s architectural marvels. Normally when I visit a city, I seek out the museums for the rare artifacts or art that I would never see anywhere else. This is part of why shopping in a city has never really appealed to me. I’ll probably be able to find the same store somewhere else with similar wares, but, in Barcelona for example, the buildings are unique to this city.

We first walked to the Hospital de Sant Pau, a series of Neo-Gothic buildings constructed by Lluís Domènech i Montaner with emphasis on vibrant colors and plenty of light for the patients.

You may recall Montaner was responsible for the Palau de la Música Catalana where we saw the German string quartet the night before. Montaner preferred making public buildings, while Gaudi often worked on private residences. The hospital, on the site of a 14th century hospital, is a sprawling complex with subterranean tunnels connecting the wards. This system allows patients more natural light in their rooms.

The problem came when the hospital had to be brought up to code at the turn of this century. A massive “modern” building was installed North of Montaner’s structure. Instead of getting creative, the new building is a white, concrete eye-sore that would look at home in any mid-sized city in the United States. Fortunately they preserved the older hospital for the medical school’s use.

With a blue sky over our heads, we walked from the hospital to the Sagrada Familia, snapping slightly less-soggy shots of the soaring spires. Following a guidebook map of non-Gaudi Modernisme buildings, we walked by a half-dozen residences that tried to buck the stylistic trends of the Industrial Revolution.

Shane considered his possible future as an architect-chemist. I tried to get the map pointed in the right direction. Eventually it was lunch time, and we had no idea where to grab calories before catching the train out of town. Right on cue, the farmer’s market we ate at the night before appeared at our feet.

The restaurant was closed, but the stalls were open with fishermen banging pots to get some attention, and more subdued vegetable salespeople (vegetables are a necessity, let the people come to you, I say). Tucked into the corners of the indoor market were small tapas bars. They seemed cheap, but we had no idea since there was no menu. We did see on key word “Tortilla.” Shane had been told to try a tortilla before leaving the Iberian Peninsula. This seemed like the time. After waffling over how best to approach the counter, I finally just dove in:

Me: Hola!
Bartender: (Expectant stare earned from watching two confused Americans wandering hesitantly around his stand).
Me: Uh, un? (Pointing at a tortilla)…y cervesa, bitte…I mean please, or por fav…
Bartender: (Hands me a beer) Sit there (pointing at a small table)
Me: Dank…Gracias…Thanks.

And I slid into my seat. Confusing German and my sliver of Spanish would become a common occurrence. Apparently I keep all foreign vocabulary in the same folder in my brain, and randomly select which word will best fit the situation at hand. Rarely am I correct. But, I had ordered. Shane went through the same halting process, but eventually we each had our lunch before us. I should note that a Spanish tortilla resembles a quiche more than a pita. It involves a wedge of crust, egg, and cheese, just in case you were wondering what I was doing with a flat piece of fried dough for my dinner.

Food eaten, we walked by a final Gaudi apartment, took a picture of his crest over the door:

and went to the train station. There’s an hourly train that connects Madrid to Barcelona via a high speed train. This means it’s slightly expensive to get between the two, and it is probably more cost effective to take a flight (though it probably won’t save you time, since the train hurtles over the 504 kilometers at 200 km/hr). In general, I prefer the ease of the train. You load your luggage near the center of the city and depart near the center instead of calculating routes into town from the airports that are usually near the fringe. The downside of the train is dealing with the ticket agent:

Me: Hello, is English okay?
Him: Yes, how can I help you?
Me: I would like to buy two tickets to Madrid. (With that I slid three cards under the glass barrier: my DB card for my discount, my German debit card, and my student ID)
Him: What is this for?
Me: Uh, the Deutschebahn card is for the Rail Plus discount…
Him: You do not get a discount.
Me: Um, yes, I believe I do, it has a “Rail Plus” logo on the back.
Him: This is for German trains.
Me: I know but the Rail Plus logo means (at this moment he turned to the ticket seller at the next window, pointed at me and laughed) uh (angrily I reached into my bag and hauled out the price list I had been given that morning) Here, this came from that guy (pointing emphatically like Chris Columbus at the Information booth. His smile fell).
Him: Oh, well…(getting angry) this won’t work (he shoved the debit card at me).
Me: Okay, um it’s a debit card, not a credit card.
Him: It won’t work.
Me: (Riled) Fine, use this (Slide American Express card under).
Him: (After sliding it through his machine, crowing with triumph) This won’t work either!
Me: (Angry) Then try this! (Flinging Visa at him. The computer beeps and boops. It goes through and the tickets print).
Him: Gracias!
Me: Danke!

It turns out American Express forgot I was off the continent for the year and froze my transactions. It also turns out everyone in Spain isn’t as friendly as you might hope. Though, to be honest, one of the insights I’ve gleaned through extensive traveling is this: There are assholes everywhere, and sometimes, you just gotta deal with ‘em.

After a brief wait in the station, we descended to the train. Our bags were scanned and our tickets and passports checked by at least three different individuals. This was new. In Germany you show up at the platform and dive onto the train. It’s possible to make it from Hamburg to Bonn without having your ticket checked once (though this is not common). Not so in Spain where terrorism has been a constant threat since the Civil War was started in the mid ‘30s.

On the train, Shane napped while I looked out the window. We crossed deserts and mountains, climbing through badlands and forests until we were on the Central Spanish Plateau, surrounded by vineyards and the capital city of Madrid.

An image captured as we hurtled through the Spanish countryside.

My first impression of the city was a very positive one. It’s only one Euro to ride the metro to any point in the city. For six Euro, you can get ten rides. It’s cheap to move around, so we felt obliged to do so. We headed for the center of town where we had made reservations for a hostel near the Opera House. We entered the building and were quickly informed by a clerk that the hostel was no longer located at that address. Confused, I walked into the street and called. Oh, they had forgotten to tell me their new address, and what? We wanted to stay until Sunday? Oh, they don’t have rooms for Saturday night.

Thus began a pleasant few minutes as we worked our way through Lonely Planet’s hostel list, eventually finding Hostel Cats. Our new home was nestled near the oldest part of town and thence all the tapas bars. I didn’t fully understand what tapas meant, but it seemed like a good place to stay. We soon discovered that Cats was set up in a former Muslim palace, and damaging the mosaic courtyard or stained-glass windows was a federal offense. Shane and I put away our spray paint and Louisville Sluggers.

We threw our luggage in our dorm, praying the other four beds would remain vacant. We also checked out our shower and toilet. A shower curtain divided the bathroom from the sleeping area. The toilet sat beneath a gable, causing you to risk concussion every time you needed it, and the shower was wedged into the corner with curtains hemming it in. They weren’t quite reaching the floor, so a shower looked like a slightly messy process. Fortunately, there were more…established facilities on the next floor.

Back into the night. We only had two days in Madrid and we were going to make these count. It was time to figure out what “Tapas” meant. In a slightly rustic bar, we soon discovered it meant appetizers. Fries, sausages, cheese, calamari, if you can put it on a toothpick or eat it with a small fork, it’s a tapas. After a beer and first round of snacks we rolled on to a bustling diner with the words “Cafeteria, Cerveceria” over the door. That seemed promising both for our wallets and our stomachs. The demographic ranged form high schoolers to old timers in for a brew. The owner found us a table wedged against the freezer and he quickly brought us a bottle of wine and a plate of fries and Chorizo with bread. Everything was fantastic, including the people watching. The pair of dudes next to us left behind half their wine. The owner swung by again, asking if we wanted to finish it up. We thanked him by reaching into the freezer every now and then to fish out ingredients.

Our final stop for the evening was a slightly trendier establishment that advertised cheap Sangria. We were in and seated, sipping the fruited wine and eating open-faced sandwiches before the door had swung closed behind us. It was a great night of bonding and people watching as we discussed girls, traveling, and science. Eventually we had to call it a night since we had the Prado to explore in the morning and we would need to rally our strength to take on all the Old Masters.

Stumbling slightly into our dorm, we were disappointed to find one of the other bunks was occupied. We quietly dove under the covers, setting our alarms for an early wake-up. Sleep when you’re dead (or back on the plane to Germany).

Coming next time: Art! Mass! Pilot Cow!


The requisite photo album.

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