Sunday, March 29, 2009

Columbus, Lobsters, and Absinthe...I must be in Barcelona

Some photos illustrating my adventures in Barcelona. Also tacked onto the end.

After dropping off my newly acquired Belgian beer and chocolate, I re-packed my bag with damp clothing (apparently the dryer is broken) and caught the train for Cologne. My journey began at 12:20 AM. It wouldn’t be over until 10:00 AM. My evening was punctuated by getting on and off various modes of transportation. First the cab to the train, then train to the bus, then the bus to the plane, then the plane to the bus, then the bus to the city. I didn’t get a lot of R.E.M. sleep, but I did get to Barcelona on a sunny day (or at least on a sunny morning).

I survived my first Ryan Air experience and arrived at the Arc de Triomf near the center of town right on time. I admired the bat gargoyles on the arch which was constructed in 1888 for the Universal Exhibition held in the city that year. I didn’t know the history of the arch at the time and occupied myself pondering what event would be so immortalized with bats. Eventually Shane appeared with Rose and the three of us took a walk around the area, home of the zoological museum and city hall, while getting acquainted. You may recall Shane is a fellow Fulbrighter and Floridian who is studying chemistry. Rose is one of his best friends from middle school. They’ve stayed close through the years along with two other middle school friends who came to visit Shane: Kristen and James. The latter two had opted to hang out at the hotel until I arrived, exhausted (and a little sick) from tours of Munich and Berlin.

The area around the park and arch was decorated with palm trees, flower beds, and monumental statuary. The trees were waving their fronds in the wind, but the flowers hadn’t erupted from the soil quite yet, so we had to imagine what the fountains and statues would look like if they were surrounded by blooms. I can’t wait until spring fully arrives.

After wandering, we headed back to the hotel, picked up James, and set out into the street again. We headed towards the harbor, drawn on by an enormous statue of Christopher Columbus. The figure stands on a massive pillar, pointing emphatically towards the “Indies.” Of course we had to do some pointing of our own…

We walked by the waterfront admiring boats, and praying the clouds would roll away and the day would warm up a bit so we could hop in the Mediterranean. To bide our time, we checked the guidebook for a restaurant recommendation. Shane had picked up a guide to Barcelona (a very sound investment) that recommended a place near the docks called “Con Maños.” It took us a while to find it, as we wound through narrow alleys, laundry flapping over our heads. When we found the place, we were a little hesitant to enter. It seemed a little dingy, and probably not very popular with the tourists. But we had taken our time to find it so we dove in. A table opened up as soon as we entered, and we slid into position, taking in the construction workers on lunch break, and the ‘50s fans bolted to the ceiling. The menu was attached to the wall with hand-written additions and print-outs detailing combination platters.

After digesting our surroundings, we were suddenly offered a new place to sit. I should note that I speak about six words of Spanish. Not that it really mattered in Barcelona, a Catalonian city. Catalonia is a region of southeastern Spain and Southwestern France where the locals speak a linguistic hybrid of Spanish and France. Catalonians are fiercely proud of their regional identity, and are first Catalonian, then Spanish. This was a bummer for James, who is fluent in Spanish (he’s half Columbian). He was excited to be in Spain, but incredibly frustrated to be in the part that didn’t necessarily understand him. Despite this, he had more of clue what was going on than we did. Also, most people speak both Spanish and Catalonian (though their Spanish isn’t perfect, I’m told).

The waiter was able to move us after a brief debate with another customer who was trying to tackle our new table. After everyone settled in the second time, we got down to the business of ordering beer and all the weird seafood we could find on the menu. The table split grilled cuttlefish, calamari, some kind of fried fish, fries, artichokes…it was a feast, and really one of the best meals I’ve had in a long time.

After gorging ourselves, we naturally wanted to go for a swim. The day was cloudier and colder than it was when we began lunch, but if you’re near the Med, you need to hop in. After scouting a clean section of beach, we took turns holding up my little towel as we changed. Really, the desire for privacy was probably unnecessary. No one was on the beach except a lone dog enthusiastically digging in the sand.

With everyone changed we braced against the chilly wind and ran into the water. At some point I need to visit the Mediterranean during a warm month. March just isn’t doing it. Gasping and praying I wasn’t doing permanent damage to my chances at paternity I dove under the waves. My body kicked into action, flooding my extremities with warm to combat hypothermia. We stood in the surf and whooped, everything adjusting to the new, chilly conditions.

Eventually we triumphantly dried off, changed, waved at the curious bystanders who were a little befuddled by the Americans who didn’t understand the concept of “Beach weather”, and set off towards the hotel for a shower. Along the way we encountered what would soon become a familiar sight: a restaurant decked out with legs of salted pork. As the four of us tried to take in this new theory of interior design, the waiter came barreling out of the depths of the establishment, excitedly waving at us. I figured he was going to try to entice us to a table, but instead he headed for the lobster tank. Before the crustaceans knew the lid was open, one of their brethren was lifted out and triumphantly presented to Rose. She withdrew her hand, and the animal was plopped onto a crate where it waved its claws in defense. The waiter then took Rose’s hand and attached it to the lobster’s carapace. We took pictures said “Gracias” and started back down the alley, unsure how we managed to find the excitable lobster-man.

High above Barcelona harbor is a cable car system. We had eyed the contraption earlier, but now James was keen to ride high above the city. It struck us as a slightly cheesy way to spend an hour, but we didn’t know what else to do. We walked to a tower, only to be told we had to catch the bus to the next tower. We climbed the ancient structure, paying extra for a ride on the elevator up to the launch point. The city spread before us, blanketing itself over the hills and hemming the sea. A car rattled into its docking point and we were hustled aboard, the floor swinging slightly with each new passenger. As we drifted over the city, the sun set and the city lights began to wink on.
Unbeknownst to us, the cable car terminates at the top of a massive hill. It was near our hotel, but we had to walk down the steep road, sometimes turning to walk backwards to make the descent a little smoother. Kristen was still at the hotel, a little sick, and she needed something to eat. Unfortunately the restaurants of Barcelona usually don’t start serving food until 8 or 9, so we had to try several establishments before getting a sandwich. The restaurants only stay open until around 11 PM. In our two days in town, we never really figured out the best way to eat in the city.

After showers and regrouping, we (James, Shane, Kristen, Rose, and I) went back into the night in search of dinner and some historic sights. The others had arrived the previous day, and I had already seen La Rambla, a historic street cutting from the harbor to the heart of the city. It’s a place I need to see before I die. Unfortunately, the street, which is home to a bustling line of cafes and quaint shops during the day, becomes an avenue of aggressive prostitutes at night. Unprepared for this, we crossed the street searching for a restaurant. What had appeared to be a gaggle of chatting young women suddenly fragmented, the women attaching themselves to James, Shane, and myself. “You want to stay with me tonight?” asked the women attached to my arm. “No.” She gripped tighter. I shook my arm, finally breaking her vice. After that, we all walked a little tighter together.

The first restaurant we were aiming for closed its kitchen at 10 PM. The next place closed at 10:30. Finally, we found a place the guidebook recommended that served cheap diner-like food. It was open, but only until 11, leaving only about a half-hour to eat. Or waiter was not pleased with out last minute arrival. We tried to order quickly, but needed some help with the translation of the menu. When the food finally appeared, we only had about ten minutes to eat. As we finished up, the lights suddenly went out. We thought there was a power outage. Our waiter calmly walked to our table with the bill in his right hand and an electric lantern in his left. He left the lantern so we could divvy up the bill.

After paying, and walking into the street, we noticed the restaurant was the only place on the street that was dark. It’s a weird way to hustle customers out at closing time, but I guess it worked on us hungry Americans. The next destination was a bar. We found a place that looked suitably Art Nouveau –y. They had absinth posters on the wall, so it had some late 19th century credibility.

I’d never had the “Green Fairy”, but had heard plenty about it. We ordered a round out of curiosity and settled into a booth where we could hear the rest of the buzzing bar which buzzed with…American accents. This became a theme. Spain seemed to be overrun with Americans. Maybe it’s because trans-Atlantic flights are relatively cheap right now, and many Americans study or know someone who studies Spanish, so they flood the country on Spring Break. I perk up every time I hear an American accent I don’t recognize, so I was perking up a lot, despite the highly alcoholic beverage I was sipping.

Absinthe, according to Wikipedia, is 45% to 75% ABV. Thus, the anis-flavored, greenish spirit is diluted with water poured over a sugar cube. James showed us how the procedure, despite flinching every time he took a sip (licorice as a flavor has grown on me over the years. I guess James isn’t there yet). After a long walk back to the hotel (during which no one was assaulted by prostitutes) we set our alarms so we could explore the architectural riches of a city I was quickly warming to (though this may be a side effect of the absinthe) despite the chilling efforts of the Mediterranean.

Next time, I geek out on Gaudì then head to the heart of Spain: Madrid. Only a few weeks ‘til we’re all caught up.

Until then,


The photos (including some that go with tomorrow's post).

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