Thursday, September 13, 2012

Barcelona, Part 1: Getting There is Half the Trick

I'd been looking forward to it for a year: I was going to deliver a short talk about the art of Daniel Johnston, and I'd get paid, at least transportation and hotel in Barcelona. When the funding fell through, the idea of doing this stayed with me, and to tell the truth, I was definitely feeling the need to get out of town -- which I haven't done since getting back from the States at the beginnig of April. So I bought an inexpensive round-trip ticket, found an (excellent, as it happens) inexpensive hotel, and alerted the troops that I was coming anyway.

Inauspicous start: I set the iPhone alarm for 6:09 and went to bed. Slept pretty well. Eyes opened the next morning, and thought, hmmm, what time is it? 7:12.  The train left at 7:31. (As I later discovered, the 6:09 was PM.) I'd already done some packing, but boy, you should have seen me pack now. I don't live far from the station, but far enough that my hopping onto the last car as the doors closed was the closest shave I've had in travelling in some time, sort of the opposite of the day I went to the Austin airport, checked my bags to Berlin, and then had the lady say to me, "Oh, but wait. This ticket is for tomorrow!" But I settled, sweating a little, into my seat, and ten minutes later, we were in Sète, our first stop. Then there was an announcement: there had been an accident personal down the line and we were stopped for an indefinite period. In case you don't know how that phrase translates, let me just say that if you decide to kill yourself because you think everyone hates you, don't jump in front of a train. More people than you've ever known in your life will hate you, and with good reason.

Since we got into Barcelona 90 minutes late, and I still had to find my way to the hotel, and my friend Jeff, whom I was meeting, had given up and gone elsewhere, and since I hadn't eaten anything yet because I'd had to leave home without any money and it was 3pm, the very first thing to do was to get something to eat. The hotel recommended a place down the street, Taberna del Cura, which gave off the distinct odor of tourist trap, but which I was too weak to resist. Yes, tapas were available mid-day, so I ordered a plate of padrón peppers, which look like jalapenos and have the interesting habit of sometimes being hot, sometimes not, but always having that deep green flavor good chiles have underneath their heat. Seared on a griddle, dipped in olive oil and rolled in a tiny bit of fleur de sel, they rock.

That got followed by a selection of pork products and some "famous rosemary bread" that was like an elongated crouton and had no taste whatever that I could discern. That's okay; it made a nice palate cleanser for the other stuff:

That ham on the bottom was amazing; I'm going to find some to bring back with me, which won't be difficult because seemingly every fourth store here is a pork store. There's also some chorizo peeking out therre, and some lomo, which is another pork product you can either get cured or cooked. Up above that is some sausage, and some slices of fairly tateless cheese. The little plate of olives didn't really make the shot -- I was concerned more with pig here -- nor did you see the tomato-and-garlic-smeared roll (again, not much taste) or the little bowl of potato chips, which I didn't go near. A nice beer rounded things off and before I knew it, it was 4 o'clock and I hadn't seen a thing.

Back at the hotel, I checked and was astonished to see that, except for a decent pen, I hadn't forgotten anything, so remedial shopping, for once, wasn't necessary. Jeff was busy, and we were getting together with friends of his for dinner at 10 (they do things late here), but he suggested I check out a couple Gaudí houses and his Güell Park, both near my hotel. Sounded good. Although I'd read Robert Hughes' masterful book on Barcelona and was thinking that maybe Gaudí and I weren't going to get along, since they either burned down or urban redeveloped a lot of the place, at least his stuff was intact, or as intact as the kleptomaniacal Japanese tourists allowed it to be. Turns out that the Casa Vicens is right behind my hotel, so that was what I hit first.

I was kinda disappointed.

Didn't look much better from further back, either.

I dunno. Disharmonious elements all competing for your attention, and then some kind of birthday cake there on the corner. Maybe the park would be better.

It was quite a hike. I thought I'd missed it (Barcelona's not particularly tourist-pedestrian-friendly when it comes to marking attractions like Montpellier is), but no, it was even further up the hill than I'd thought. I hiked and hiked and found one of the fancy mansions squatted by anti-fascist youth, who were opposed to everything imaginable, especially tourists, whom a large graffiti announced they would kill. Even so, I doubt it had anything to do with this:

Exactly what's going on here is hard to tell, but there's a hospital complex with some private homes on its property that's also protesting the potential cutting of roads through their territory. If anyone can explain point three here, that might be a way into the issue.

Anyway, I screwed up getting to the park efficiently, and wound up having to backtrack along the wall. No, I didn't get a good shot of the two famous entrance buildings. There were too many people there. But here's the wall.

Seriously, the place was overloaded with people.

One of the downsides of affordable digital photography is the rise of the Yes, Your Fat Wife Certainly Improves This Masterpiece school of picture-taking. I like to look at the object when I look at the photo. Most people don't, I guess.

Anyway, I got a couple of the iconic animals...

...knocked off a shot of the smoggy skyline in late afternoon from the hill...

...and beat a retreat down the hill and approximately towards a route which I believed would take me to my hotel. Which, I'm happy to report for the GPS I've carried in my head since childhood, it did, but not before sending me through a very interesting-looking neighborhood, Gracia, which used to be an independent village and showed signs of intelligent life.

I wandered past interesting-looking bars, bakeries, bookstores, boutiques of various sorts, and realized I was seeing something I'd missed: a beatnik neighborhood. Oh, my terminology is out of date, but I also had the revelation that one of the things that's making me unhappy in France is the utter lack of beatniks: when something like 75% of your college students want civil service jobs, you do not produce beatniks. More seriously, you don't produce artists and musicians and the kind of creative people that can give you a healthy socieity. I may have hated Germany and the largest part of the art it produced, but at least it was producing art.

Anyway, musing on this, I came to what looks like (but may not be) an old church with a nice square out in front of it, a couple of cafes, yet another lovely little urban space which this town seems to do well. I was thirsty and considered getting a drink, but, unsure of where I was, soldiered on, only to be popped, ten minutes later, onto the main street that runs by the street where my hotel is. Back in my room, I took my shoes off and laid back.

Jeff is here to promote an art show, and I'm writing that up for the Austin Post, so I'm not going to write about it here, except to say that I believed Jeff when he said it was a 25-minute walk to his hotel, which it would have been if I'd had a clue where I was going after I got to the Plaça Catalunya. The walk there, though, was spectacular, and I may do it again tonight, now that I know where I'm headed. Two major Gaudí buildings, both of which are on a considerably higher level than the one behind me, a dizzying array of stores, indicating some serious wealth in this city, and an urban space that's wide-open and intelligently designed (as opposed to evolved: both styles work, but in different ways). We met a bunch of people connected to the show and went to dinner. As to the Catalan restaurant where we dined, I wasn't impressed: a plate of grilled eggplant, red pepper, and onion was nice enough, but the grilled meat platter was dry and tasteless, even the slab of lomo. A shame.

Ah, well. But after the meal, we headed into Gracia and went to a pretty happening bar. I'm now intrigued, and after learning today that I could get an apartment half again as big as the one I'm living in for about the same money ("It's expensive here!" the woman said), Barcelona may be on the short list of places to live next. As may be Montpeller, of course. Or Des Moines.

Okay, probably not Des Moines. Tomorrow, I talk about meeting Jesus and God and I can't remember who else today and, yes, take more pictures.


  1. Lovely! And this place in Barcelona, will you have the maid FOR ONCE iron the linens in my guest room with linden? One does tire so of lavender. MWAH

  2. If you can make it work, Barcelona would be a much better place to live, I would think. I'm thinking this might be a good time for it, since I've heard there's downward pressure on the Spanish real estate market these days? Not that I'm in any kind of position to travel right now, but I'd much rather visit you in Barcelona than Montpellier...

  3. House Hunters International, a program on HGTV that lets us vicariously judge how others choose to live, recently broadcast a young, artistic couple's choices on a move to Barcelona. They definitely wanted to be in Gracia. He, a musician, wanted to be near other musicians and places they play.

  4. I thought that Barcelona would be a good place to live, too, till I tried to cycle out of it into the countryside. Lovely place to be for a pedestrian, though.


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