My favorite Europe guidebook writer, Rick Steves, states in his Spain guidebook that trying to see Barcelona in a day is insane. Rick is right of course, but I tried anyway. I have been to Barcelona twice before. My first visit was when I was 19 in 1975. I camped at a little town on the beach about two hours south of Barcelona with friends for two weeks and then took the bus back to Barcelona where I intended to sightsee before going out to the airport to catch an early evening plane to London. I lasted about ten minutes in the Plaça de Catalunya all alone wearing my orange backpack with the hand sewn Canadian flag on the back. A ragged procession of a handful of young people carrying a banner probably demanding Catalonian independence marched by. Three minutes later a phalanx of Franco’s troops armed with machine guns entered the plaza. Everyone scattered, leaving me alone and standing in the line of fire. I deeked left into the subway and hightailed it out to the airport where I sat on hard plastic chairs with nothing to eat for another eight hours before my flight was to leave.Forty years later, Barcelona’s airport is filled with sleek shops and dozens of restaurants.
On my second visit in 2010 to a much improved Barcelona, Gregg and I spent three great days seeing all the major sites–the Gaudi house, the Picasso and Miro museums, the Parc Gruell, and the outside of the Sagrada Familia. We did not go inside the Sagrada Familia so I decided that on my one night in Barcelona before jetting north to Amsterdam, I’d take a quick peek inside. I’d been told by someone that the outside was the big attraction and that the inside was nothing special.
Not true. No. Not true at all!
I arrive at the Sagrada Familia in the sweltering August heat about half an hour before my appointed time after a good 40 minute walk from the Cram hotel (more on that later). The place is mobbed. People are being told that the next entrance time is 6 pm (three hours later) so I am very glad I’d taken the trouble to buy my ticket online before leaving Canada. I am early for my appointed time so I buy a bottle of water and loiter next to the benches strategically placed in the shade and look hopeful until finally a couple leave and I can rest my burning feet. I amuse myself by jotting down some notes:
Sticky hot, sweat pooling, most voices are Spanish. Hear the occasional Brit; a family of Italians at the bench across the way is having a spirited argument. Everyone’s face is red and slick. Flies land on scratched skin and settle in until flicked off. Wearing black jeans with a polyester top in 35-degree heat and what feels like 80% humidity–misguided fashion choice. The first taste of cold agua con gaz is raw and life giving–a torrent of bubbles blazing down a desperate throat.
After a short rest in the shade, I join the hordes trudging around the perimeter of the cathedral to the entrance for ticket holders, pick up my audio-guide (included in the ticket price and actually quite informative) and enter the church. I feel hot, irritated, and not a little skeptical. Perhaps I’d made a mistake spending my only afternoon in Barcelona visiting a building that was, after all, not even finished yet.
The inside of the Sagrada Familia, although heaving with tourists all snapping photos, is breathtaking. I can’t think of a better word. I’ve been inside my fair share of cathedrals over the years and have a soft spot for stained glass, but I’ve never seen stained glass used with such joyous abandon. Abstract patterns in blues and golds and greens and reds diffuse the Barcelona sun into fractured splashes of color across faces, walls, t-shirts, floors. High above, the soaring roof is punched with star-shaped openings that let the sun stream in like bolts of pure light. I sink into a pew and just stare. The bustle of people surging all around the area cordoned off for sitting and contemplating fade into hushed murmurs. Regardless of one’s religious convictions (and mine certainly don’t run to Catholic), the magnificence of the architecture is a fitting celebration of spirit. I want to stay put for the rest of the day.
Here are a series of pictures that cannot even come close to capturing the beauty of the stained glass and the wonderful curvy lines and fluted columns.
I finally lurch out of the cathedral into the heat. I hop on the subway, intending to go into the old town for more walking but end up getting off at the closest stop to my hotel. The lure of a cold shower and a few hours of chilling out in luxurious surroundings trumps more trudging in a sea of sweaty strangers in the sweltering heat. My hotel is called the Cram hotel which I learn is the name of the owner’s son spelled backward (Marc). The guys at the front desk were very surprised that my name is Cram; apparently, I am the first person named Cram to have checked into the hotel. The next morning, they give me a free breakfast which is very nice of them (and it was a great breakfast – served on the rooftop terrace).
After a rest, I stroll up and down a few leafy treed streets near the hotel looking for a restaurant and end up at one that serves Argentinian food. The waiter is very friendly and insists I start the meal with a special mango Mojito. Well why not! I later discover that my mojito cost nine euros (about $13 Canadian give or take), but what the hell – it really is awesome. I treat myself to a steak dinner with roasted vegetables. The meal is excellent although over too soon. What happened to the days of slow service in Europe? My friendly waiter serves the various components of my meal–bread, pepper dip, roasted vegetables, steak, and agua con gaz with North American velocity. I could have lingered longer. A flute player and a guitarist play duets of vaguely South American sounding music in the background. The restaurant flickers with candles against a decor of deep reds and warm browns. It really is a lovely restaurant–just one of hundreds all over the city. In my short walk around the ‘hood, I must have passed at least ten that had the same level of decor, ambiance, and food. It’s amazing so many restaurants can be sustained, but Barcelona is hopping.
Back in my room, I don my Cram dressing gown and watch an American movie that seems to be an updated version of Top Gun. Well, it’s either that or news channels about the world stock markets. The next morning, I eat breakfast on the rooftop terrace overlooking Barcelona and then head out for a few hours of walking in the old town. I enjoy wandering the little streets in the Barri Gothic but unfortunately, my feet do not. When finally I limp back to the hotel, I have large blisters on both heels that will take many days to heal.
I splurge on a taxi to the airport – best 20 euros I’ve spent so far on the trip–and catch my flight to Amsterdam via Frankfurt. Arrangements made months ago on rainy evenings on Bowen Island work out perfectly and I’m soon walking through the door to our room at the Sheraton Hotel at Schiphol airport where Gregg is already waiting.
And now the new adventure begins.