Sunday, November 20, 2016

Down the coast

Barcelona is one of the greatest cities in Europe!
No, in the world!
It’s like Paris with beaches!
Barcelona parties 24/7!

Just some soundbites about Barcelona that I picked up over  the past year or so.
Ofcourse I knew about Barcelona. I had heard all the stories about the great bars, the beautiful beaches and the excellent weather.  I see them play football every weekend and most Wednesdays during the Champions League season. I drink their beers on a regular basis. I had to see it for myself.

And so I went to Spain again.

4 years ago, I had never been to Spain, despite it being one of the most obvious tourist destinations in the whole of Europe. People asked me why it was that I had been to out-of-the-way places like Sarajevo or Riga or Minsk, but never to, say, Madrid. I don’t know why that was either. I just never got around to going to Spain.
The reason I eventually decided to head over was one of my colleagues at the time, a girl from Malaga named Esty who,  at every opportunity, would ram the point home that Malaga was the greatest place on earth; a perpetually sunny paradise with white beaches, friendly locals and amazing food.  When I still wasn’t convinced, she pushed me over the edge by divulging the price of beer there. I booked a flight and went over the next month.
I got off the airport bus in central Malaga, walked into the burning sunshine and decided there and then that I liked Spain. I liked it a lot.
Since then, I have been back to Iberian peninsula several times and this would in fact be my fifth trip there.

After deciding on Barcelona, I stared at a map for a while to decide on an itinerary. My first plan was Barcelona-Mallorca-Valencia-Malaga but that plan quickly ran into trouble. As I only had 2 weeks, including Mallorca would take up an impractical amount of time. I had set my sights on going to Mallorca on the ferry from Barcelona, staying there for a few days and then taking the ferry back to Valencia, and making my way down from there. The problem here was that it is quite a long way from Valencia to Malaga. It would have taken a 12 hour bus trip to get there directly, something I had little interest in, and the other option was to take a train from Valencia to Madrid and then one to Malaga. I didn’t like this idea. First of all, I wanted to go down the coast, which would not happen with Madrid included, and second, I wanted to give Madrid a proper allocation of time, rather than just as a connecting point, and because of the time it takes the ferry to get to and from Mallorca, it just wasn’t really feasible to include this. In the end, I decided to ditch Mallorca for now, and to bus it down the East coast in stages.
The itinerary I ultimately settled on was Barcelona-Valencia-Murcia-Almeria-Malaga.
Barcelona was my main point of interest and ofcourse I was looking forward to returning to Malaga. Valencia looked like an interesting place as well from my initial research and, to be honest, I had put in Murcia and Almeria for the sole reason of breaking up the route between Valencia and Malaga a bit, but interesting things often happen when you least expect them on your travels so I set off with an open mind.


I would love to start off this story with an ellaborate description of all the great things Barcelona had to offer. The amazing architecture, the beatiful works of art, the street theatre, the beaches and all those other things that had made me decide to go to Barcelona in the first place.  Unfortunately, to be honest, I didn’t see an awful lot of Barcelona. This, I would like to make clear, is not because I set up shop in the first Irish pub I came across and spent the entire weekend there, I don’t do that, but it was more an issue of timing.
I had booked a flight that left Dublin at 6 in the morning. That is ofcourse early enough as it is, but it also meant that I had to get up at 3AM to get showered, sorted and leave for the airport. I had worked late on the Thursday, got home at around 9PM, had a beer and a bite to eat and then saw to my consternation that it was 11.30. I went to bed, but couldn’t really sleep. I lay in bed trying to get at least some sleep, but apart from dozing off a couple of times for maybe 20 or 30 minutes, it was no good. I was awake when the first of my 6 alarms went off (I wanted to prevent a false start like last year) took a shower, checked my back pack one last time and set off for the bus to the airport. After waiting for some 10 minutes in the early morning air, the bus arrived and 10 minutes later I was in the terminal. Having no luggage to check in, I went straight through security and found myself with an hour to kill before my flight would leave. I sat down at a bar, ordered a pint and read the first page of my book. I had chosen The Wrong Way Home by Peter Moore. It is one of my favorite books and describes the author’s ultimate trip. Peter Moore is an Australian and lived in London for a couple of years, before he decided to travel back home to Sydney. The only catch was that he would do it without stepping on a plane. It is an epic trek that takes him through Germany, the Czech republic and the then still at war Balkans, before travelling down through Eastern Europe, Turkey and Iran. After a short sojourn through Pakistan and Afghanistan, he goes up through Nepal, Tibet and China and then down through South East Asia and Indonesia. It is an epic trip and anybody with any interest in travel should read it at least once. This was my fourth time of reading it.
Before I ever undertake a trip like that, I would need to learn how to plan better.

As I said, my flight took off around 6, which means that I got to Barcelona at roughly 10AM local time. I walked around the arrivals hall a bit to get my bearings on where to go and how to get to the city from the airport. I also had to find an ATM, which proved to be surprisingly tricky. El Prat is a big airport, but in the entire arrivals hall, after making 2 circuits, I could find just one. 
With fresh money in my pocket, I made my way to the exit for the airport bus and as soon as I set foot outside the terminal, I was hit by a stench so foul that it made me want to retreat back to the arrivals hall. I looked around for a sewage treatment plant, or perhaps a leaking nuclear reactor, but all I could see were the standard airport buildings like hangars, car rental facilities and luggage depots. An airport employee waiting for a taxi saw my face and came over to explain that the smell was from a local brewery. 
Yeah, right.
I told her that I have been to dozens of breweries in my life and that none of them even remotely smelled like this, but she insisted that this was the malt smell from a local brewery. I informed her that if their beer smelled like this, I would not drink it, but before I could convince her to tell me the name of the brewery, her ride arrived and she left. I took the bus to the city and got off at Placa Espanya. From there, according to the directions I had received from the hostel, I could take the subway and then  walk the last 5 minutes. I sat down on the steps of the Catalunya museum of modern art and had a look around.

The square was quite impressive. The museum I was sitting in front of was a beautiful building but the placa also had a bull ring, an enormous fountain at the centre and 2 tall  Venetian Towers.  I liked it immediately, despite the overcast weather. It must be even better in full sunshine.  I unfolded the map I had picked up at the airport and tried to figure out where to go. It was soon evident that the hostel was only 2 metro stops away, a distance I could easily walk. After walking down a long road for about 20 minutes, and in the process passing a theatre called Scaramouche which, annoyingly, resulted in me humming Bohemian Rhaposdy at intervals for the next couple of hours, I found the gas station mentioned in the directions, turned right and then left and I stood in front of my hostel.
I walked in and found it was quite busy in the common area. A group of Australians were watching a rugby league game, a couple of people were having breakfast at the dinner table and 2 people were asleep on the couch. An Australian girl at reception informed me that check in was not until 2 (it was now just after 11) but I could hang out in the common area or on the patio if I wanted. I bought a beer off her for a Euro and decided to watch some of the rugby. It was a good game and when I finished my beer it was just about half time. I wanted to get another beer but the receptionist was busy doing receptionist stuff. This included re-locating an American lady in her fifties who had booked into a proper hotel but, on arrival, was told that it was full so they had sent her here.
I just don’t get that. If you are an upmarket hotel and you are overbooked, you would understand that a sensibly dressed lady of late middle age would not be interested in staying in a party hostel populated with stoners who pass out in mid morning and Australians watching rugby league and doing drinking games before lunch time.  The least you can do is contact one of your fellow classy hotels and let her stay there.
While the American woman was being taken care of, I found the location of the nearest liquor store (just around the corner) and got myself a couple of San Miguel tall boys. When the match was over and the crowd dispersed, apart from the 2 stoners who remained unconscious, I made my way to the patio out the back. It was a great patio. Not overly luxurious but there were a couple of comfortable benches made of pallets and covered with soft cushions, there was a canopy to protect you from the sun, which had since broken through the clouds, and it was just a really nice place to sit. This, as it turned out, would be part of the undoing of my plans for Barcelona. 
I sat down on one of the benches and found an American couple from California who were spending the summer in Europe, an additional 2 stoners from Australia and an English girl. I opened a San Miguel and the conversation, as it always does in hostels, turned to the usual where-are-you-from-and-where-are-you-going exchange of facts before going on to other topics. The English girl left soon after I arrived, and was replaced by an Irish guy called Michael. He had moved to Barcelona 8 months before, so he told us, and now worked in the hostel next door. In his free time, of which he seemed to have quite a lot I found in the next few days, he liked to sit on this patio and get stoned. He rolled a big joint and shared it between him and the Aussies, after which he passed out. The Californians had since spotted my  tattoo of the flag of California and we talked for a while about California and the rest of the USA.
I made another run to the liquor store, where I found that they also sold those plastic bottles of Sangria that you see everywhere in Spain. A 1.5 litre bottle cost 2.50 or something like that, so in the spirit of drinking local, I bought a bottle and another couple of San Miguels and made my way back to the hostel. My Irish friend had woken up again and we got talking about Ireland, and why we had both left our home countries to go somewhere else. The patio really was one of those places where you could hang out for a little while and then realise that your entire afternoon had passed. This is essentially what happened to me. After one more beer I decided to have another attempt at checking in, this one succesful, and I was given a bed in the room next to the patio.

I made my way back outside, opened a new beer and announced bravely that this would be that last one and then I would go and explore the city. The Irish guy laughed at this and said that I had been in Ireland long enough to know that this plan was by now well and truely out the window.  Somewhere, I knew he was right. It was by now pushing 4PM which meant that I had been awake for 13 hours, I was half drunk, probably a  bit stoned from all the smoke my stoner mates were blowing into the air, and the patio was sunny, comfy and good fun. I decided to see what would happen.
One of the signs of a great hostel is that there are a lot of openminded people who like to talk and hang around even when there’s a great city just outside the front door. This was the case here. People came and went, Michael several times, and just sat down for a beer and a chat. The next thing I knew, I looked at my phone and found that it was close to 9PM. It was then that I gave up on seeing more of Barcelona that day. Seconds later, a member of staff came onto the patio to inform us that dinner would be served in about 20 minutes.  When I asked her what was for dinner, she told me it was pasta, that it was free and, as it was Friday, it included as much sangria as we could drink. 
2 plates of pasta and a whole lot of sangria later, I did the dumbest thing I could have done.  I went to get something from my backpack but rather than getting it out and going back outside, I made the mistake of sitting down on my bed. I don’t even remember my head hitting the pillow.
While sleeping might seem like a good idea after a long day of drinking, I should have pushed it further. I should have gotten a can of Red Bull, stayed up until 1 or 2 AM and then gone to bed. That way, I would have been up early the next day with a whole day ahead of me to see the city. As it was now, I fell asleep with my clothes on, woke up at 2AM, and was unable to sleep any more.  As I was in a shared room, I couldn’t turn on the light and read my book so I went back to the lounge where I found a handful of people still partying, while others were just coming back from a night out or preparing for early flights. With nothing better to do, I joined them and finally went to bed at around 5.30AM.

I woke up around midday, and before I had showered and taken breakfast, it was pushing  2PM. Determined to see at least some of the city, I evaded the trap of the patio and went into the city. One of the first thing you notice when you walk around Barcelona is the unbelievable amount of graffiti everywhere. Nearly every vertical surface, and a lot of horizontal ones, was entirely covered in it. Graffiti is one of my favorite things, and I enthousiastically practiced it myself when I was in high school. I eventually gave up when me and a friend were apprehended by the strong arm of the law and, after stoically denying any involvement in graffiti apart from the things we painted on the afternoon we were arrested, were sentenced to 20 hours of community service.  The community service, ironically, meant cleaning graffiti, including one of my cousin’s proudest works, a large piece on the main wall of a school he had been expelled from a couple of months earlier. I gave up after that, not wanting to risk a criminal record, but many of my friends happily continued decorating the city. Here in Barcelona, however, they had taken it to the next level. I don’t think I have ever seen so much graffiti in one place, apart from  certain parts of New York City and
maybe Amsterdam in the late 80s. It was everywhere.
I spent a happy hour just looking at the artwork and taking dozens of pictures. I was elated.
Another one of my favorite things is beer, and over the last decade or so, Barcelona had developed as a bit of a craft beer destination as well. Apart from the research I had done at home, I had found a craft beer map of Barcelona at the hostel which showed most of the places I had identified, plus a few I did not know. As I now had 4 maps (one from the airport, one in my guidebook, one from the hostel, plus the beer map) I decided to cut back, mark the beer places on the hostel map and only take that.

My map marksmanship was not impeccable though and I soon realised that I had put bars on corners where  I found flower shops and in the middle of shopping arcades full of t-shirts and souvenir stands. I sat down for a beer at a bar that wasn’t on my map to take stock. I didn’t really care that I couldn’t find all those places because I already knew that I would have to make a return visit to Barcelona. One of the things on my must-do list, seeing a game at the Nou Camp, FC Barcelona’s legendary stadium, was not going to happen for the simple reason that they were playing away that weekend. The alternative, taking a stadium tour, didn’t appeal to me, both because it would be much less interesting than an actual game, and because it had a 26 Euro price ticket. While I know that Nou Camp is one of the greatest stadiums in the world, I still found the price somewhat steep.  I’m not a cheap skate by any measure, but I don’t understand why it has to cost 26 Euros to walk around their stadium for an hour, while in Malaga’s Rosaleda Stadium they only charged me 10. Even the Melbourne Cricket Ground, quite arguably the greatest stadium in the Southern hemisphere, did a tour for less than half that and they would actually let you go on the pitch.
Stadium tours aside, I had already clocked that Barcelona is one of those cities, like New York or Sydney, that you can visit a dozen times only to realise that you still haven’t seen half of it.
While looking for something else altogether, I accidentally stumbled onto the pub from the Napar Brewery. Napar makes some excellent beers and their labels, in keeping with the city they are from, have great artwork on it. Content that I had finally found something I was actually looking for, though possibly not at that exact moment, I sat down at the bar and ordered a Grapefruit IPA.  Like most of their beers, it was great so I ordered another one of the beers on tap and then another one. I decided it was time to go, and as I walked out the door and back into the sunshine, it hit me.
I recognized it immediately. No, I wasn’t drunk. I had had this feeling only once before, really, on my second day in Australia. Back then, while I was walking down St. Kilda Beach, I was overcome by a feeling as if my eyelids were trying to close and open at the same time.  I stumbled around like someone with a balance disorder and felt as if the blood in my veins had been replaced with liquid concrete. The same thing was happening now. I had a jet lag.

I  still don’t get how I managed to work myself into a state of jet lag from a flight that lasted less than 3 hours and only moved me òne time zone to the East, but I had done it.
Back then in Australia, I had literally fallen asleep while I was walking along the beach. I must have looked like a zombie, standing there semi-conscious, and I have no idea how long I stood there before I realised that I needed to sit down. Here in Barcelona, I decided I needed something sugarry and got a pastry that looked as if it had an unhealthy amount of sugar in it. I ate it on a park bench and felt better after a couple of minutes. I conceded there and then that this would be one of those weekends that turn into a vague, semi-lucid  sequence of sober, drunk and sleepy episodes which are sort of hard to reconstruct later without looking back at your notepad. Those weekends are definitely fun, they’re just not good for sightseeing.

Having accepted that my sight seeing would be for another time, I took my eye off the clock and enjoyed my final day and half in Barcelona without any pressure of having to do stuff. I drank beer in the morning, had breakfast at 3 PM and ate dinner at midnight. I took naps on the patio and had long conversations with random people there. I went for walks when I felt like it and basically ran out the clock on my time in Barcelona. I was aware though that I had to get up on Monday morning.
I had a train to Valencia to catch.

No comments:

Post a Comment