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The Seduction of Barcelona

Written on: Monday May 11th, 2009

In a way, this was where it all started for me: Spain.  Sure, I had been on a couple fishing trips to Canada and crossed the Mexican border during spring break, but the first proper international travel that I experienced in my life was to Spain, some thirteen years ago (yes, I was a late bloomer to the travel world).  And now I was back, in the only region that I didn't visit on my last trip to this beautiful country. 

The overnight flight from Cape Town to Barcelona stopped briefly in Istanbul, which served as a playful tease as I thought about my future destinations in Europe.  When it arrived into Catalonia I was rested and eager to see the city.  A bus brought me from the airport to Plaza de Cataluya, a short walk down Las Ramblas to my new home, Hostal Parisien.   I checked into the dorm, dropped my bags and set off to explore. 

The avenue on which I stayed, Las Ramblas, was something of a circus.  It was intermixed with a seriously wide variety of folks.  There were the local restaurants that filled the vast majority of retail space in the median between the two streets; there were market people, selling snacks or brilliantly colored fresh flowers.  Street performers set up shop every 20m, showcasing their talents that varied from singing, dancing, acrobatics, miming, dribbling a futball for minutes on end, to the most popular activity: statue art.  People would dress themselves in ridiculously creative (and often ridiculous looking) outfits and hold the pose for as long as possible.  It was not uncommon to see a guy completely painted in gold, standing on a giant gold platform, sporting enormous golden wings, arms outstretched as if poised for flight...and maintaining that position for fifteen minutes.  And of course the reason all these folks were here was the tourists.  Ramblas was the main tourist road in a city that hosts a significant number of visitors.  Cruise ship passengers in matching hats being led through the streets by a guide, football fans in town for the big game, families desparately trying to keep track of their children and students walking the strip in an effort to 'see and be seen' made up a large percentage of the population.  As night approached another sector of the population appeared: West African hookers, local beggars and Pakistanis selling cheap cans of beer in the street.  If nothing else, Las Ramblas was phenominal for people watching!

The next day was as warm and sunny as the last, so I grabbed the Lonely Planet, entered a few caches and set off to explore a bit deeper.  Being stationed in the Gothic Quarter, I was perfectly situated to see some of the city's most impressive architecture.  Sadly, the cathedral was significantly covered by scaffolding as it underwent some upgrades, but the visible portions were magnificent.  Every street boasted architectural delights and almost every intersection presented a central statue or monument.  The plazas throughout Spain were legendary and Barcelona was no exception.  Open squares offered cozy retreats for the older men to smoke and chat, the older women to walk their little dogs and the young couples to whisper sweet nothings into each others' ears.  The parks were equally impressive.  And since the GPS was taking me in the direction of a few, I thoroughly enjoying strolling the grounds, people watching and, yes, finding a couple caches. 

That evening as I sat alone at the tapas bar I reflected on the differences between my experiences in South Africa and Spain.  I had met some wonderful travelers in RSA, and consequently, travel there seemed to be easier.  Here, so far, I had met nobody of consequence, and I found it difficult to muster the energy to go out to dinner solo.  Nonetheless, I was in Barcelona...how could I not enjoy a night out sampling the never-ending variety of tapas and washing them down with the world's best sangria?!?

The following day's highlight was a lil' treat for myself:  I went to the Opera in one of the extraordinary local theatres.  It was actually billed as an Opera/Flemenco show, so the performance was a mix between a classic opera storyline and traditional Spanish dancing.  It seemed a bit strange in theory, but somehow it worked, if for no other reason than I'd had only seen one opera in the last year.  Dang, I missed this style of music!

On the way home from the theatre, I saw a group of guys in a local pub having way too much fun.  I stopped in, introduced myself and was soon toasting pints with this group of two Americans and four Brits.  They were young, drunk and fun, and as the night progressed, so did their antics.  There was one guy who was both more logical and more sober than the rest of his mates, so we chatted a bit during the hour long stroll from Ramblas to the waterfront, where the allure of an open bar at 3:00am proved reason enough to make the jounrey in the collective mind of the group.  We finally arrived, bar-hopped a bit and legitimately enjoyed the evening.  The one lesson I took away from the evening was that if I ever made it to Leeds on this trip, I better be ready for some long nights!

A serious run was the next day's top priority.  It took me along the harbor, where, ironically, I almost stayed during my time in the city.  Prior to arriving in Spain, I had chatted with a local host on CouchSurfing about staying on his sailboat during my time here.  Unfortunately, I hesitated too long and other travelers beat me to the yacht.  As I ran by the harbor I actually identified his boat, and saw the three girls staying with him. OK, maybe I cannot fault him for choosing three young girls over me. :)  The run continued past the beach, where I had walked just hours earlier with the Brits.  Eventually I made it home and chilled throughout the afternoon, preparing for tomorrow's journey north. 

But there was one last activity to be experienced in Barcelona before my departure, and it was also a result of CSing.  Another local host with whom I had been writing, Johanne, invited me to her home for dinner that evening.  She was already hosting another traveler, Alex, so unfortunately there was no room in the inn for second guest.  But I felt honored at her invitation and happily made my way across town to her small but oh-so-cool apartment.   The chatter centered around travel as Joh prepared the meal and the three of us sipped wine.  Alex, it turned out, had been traveling around the world for over two years.  A seasoned fruit picker in Oz, his other work was also quite interesting: he made and sold hand-crafted jewelry AND put on quite a show as a street performer/professional clown!  As the dinner wound down, Joh and I were treated to a mini performance as Alex played the part, juggling his diablos and creating balloon animals.  It was truly wonderful to meet both Joh and Alex, and that evening together was the cherry on top for my Barcelona experience.