Spain: The Next 3 Days
Train Trip to Barcelona
[Note: this post is kinda long with a lotta pictures. It may come up short in the email but click the site to see the whole thing.]
(This post is a continuation of the last post. Read part 1 here.)
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The cab ride to the train station wasn’t long, about 7 minutes. We enter the station, print our tickets and line up right outside our platform. A quick run through a security check and dropping off the bags in the luggage compartment of our car, we find our seats and settle in.
As more and more people pile in there are more and more folks bringing and stashing their bigger bags on the racks above our heads. One tall Spanish man began complaining about something to the conductor and the conductor looked really annoyed. The conductor then proceeds to make an announcement to the general vicinity (and thanks to someone sitting nearby translating) about how the luggage compartment is, ideally, reserved for the big bags, and that too many small bags have been stashed there. In a rather annoying interruption a woman with a familiar accent blurts out “What’s he saying? I can’t understand. Can someone translate?” The couple sitting across from that woman and her husband proceed to tell her what I just told you. They begin to get friendly and reveal where they’re from. Turns out the man and woman are bee keepers from (drum-roll, please) Houston, Texas, hence the familiar accent.
My wife nudges me, “We should go introduce ourselves, tell them we’re from Houston, too!”
I shake my head with a sour pickle face. It sounds tempting but I’m hesitant for some reason (and seriously, you’re from Texas and can’t glean a lick of Spanish when the conductor was talking?).
The train shoves off and we’re at a cruising speed. The couples begin their friendly talk, and like the nosy people we are, my wife and I listen in. It also helps that they’re all talking very loudly. Smh, Texans, am I right? The Texas beekeepers ask the other couple where they’re from. In their Spanish accents they explain they’re visiting family and that they’re originally from Spain, but due to wanting more freedom they moved to the US, i.e. Arizona. They proceeded to talk about how Spanish law is so restrictive and how they’re happy they moved because now they own all the guns they want. And there you have it folks. Both couples reveled in the delightful conservative topics of mask mandates, rights and personal freedoms. At that point it became clear why I was hesitant to begin with. I told my wife, “I didn’t fly halfway around the world to engage in these same old stupid conversations.” We arrive in Madrid for a short layover, board another train and shove off to Barcelona, where the people in our new train car aren't nearly as interesting.
The countryside of Spain seemed very dry and hilly, which I found reminiscent of the Hill Country climate here in Texas. Along with the small towns and faint roads, the landscape was dotted with tiny old crumbling parapet ruins, long forgotten churches and other ancient stone buildings now adorned with modern day graffiti. And yes, graffiti is alive and well in Spain.
We arrived in Barcelona around 5:30 in the evening. The train station bustled with people moving in every direction. We found the exit and hailed a cab to take us to the Gothic Quarter. Naturally, the pace and the vibe was a bit more ramped up compared to Sevilla. As we cruised through the busy city it was comforting to see the familiar sights of a metropolis, all the different restaurants and stores. But what I enjoyed most was seeing all the people out and about, especially when we passed large squares and there were swaths of people just hanging out, not doing anything. That and the architecture.
We reached a point where we were in the vicinity of the Gothic Quarter. Our cab driver turned down a narrow, pedestrian-laden street and pulled over.
“This is as close as I can get you.” he said. We thanked the man, located our destination on our phone map and proceeded in that direction. We were staying very close to the Cathedral of Barcelona, and since the neighborhood was really old, cars did not traverse the narrow streets. We tugged our bags into the neighborhood, through the cathedral square which even at dusk was still brimming with life. The Gothic Quarter turned out to be a maze of retail stores and restaurants of all kinds occupying the old buildings. We followed the cobble-stoned street and turned a corner and climbed a slight hill and we arrived. Once again, we’re in a small condo on the second (third) floor. The ancient stairs we climbed were a stark contrast to the modern apartment we rented. Since we both had forgone lunch, instead sustaining on small snacks throughout the day, we were famished from a long day of traveling. We decided to see if we could pop in to this tapas place around the corner, it came recommended.
La Alcoba Azul is a tiny sliver of a tapas bar that was right up the street from us. The whole street looked busy so we were wondering if the packed place would have a spot for two. We checked and before we knew it we were sitting down at a small table nestled between two others. The lighting was dark, the decor classical, and the vibe was just right. On my right side was a couple of men knee deep into their tapas dinner. On my left, a young Indian family just sat down. Our waiter came and addressed us, and shortly after we had a few plates of various tapas dishes and some glasses of wine. The moment hit when the vibe, the buzz and all the flavors landed just right and it was exquisite, another one of those special travel moments. My wife looked to our neighbors, the two men, and asked what they were having. We noticed they were ordering plate after plate, sometimes ordering the same dish twice. They introduced themselves as Pedro and Desmond. Pedro, originally from Peru but now living in Washington DC, is on vacation with Desmond, originally from Ireland, and they just got through visiting his family. Pedro had a rather large stein of beer and after the wine I ordered that. They made a few recommendations, both for our next tapas dish and some sights to see, and a few were noted. We made some light conversation with the family to my left who turned out to be from Dallas, Texas. Everybody was having a great time eating and drinking. The food was particularly spectacular and the huge stein of beer was so refreshing after such a long day.
After dinner we strolled around the neighborhood, we stopped into another place for a quick glass of wine, stopped into a store for snacks and provisions, and even had two cones of ice cream. After that we settled in for the night.
The next day we got a late start, but it’s cool cuz you know, vacation. Hungry, we set out to check a place recommended by Pedro and Desmond, El Mercado de La Boqueria. Turns out it was just right across the street from our neighborhood. We walk into the crowded, covered plaza and both of our jaws drop with delight. The market is aisle after aisle of different stores specializing in all types of fresh baked goods, empanadas, endless ice beds of the freshest fish, racks of fresh colorful fruit, meats and cheeses galore, counters where beer and wine is served and people are just posted up hanging out. It’s all of the above and then some. My wife and I wander through the grid eyes aglow, soon realizing we have to pick something, we need food. My wife spots a salami, cheese and olive cup.
“Is it weird I’m having cheese and salami for breakfast? I don’t care.” she quips as she begins to nosh on an olive. I look across the way and spot a pristine fruit cup, which I soon make my breakfast. We wander around some more picking and choosing small bites.
After we’ve had our fill we begin our quest for the day; setting out to Park Güell. And the way there is a straight shot on the Barcelona Metro. Again, right here in our neighborhood we board at the Liceu station, destination: Vallcarca. For our subway fare we pick up a T-Familiar pass. For €10 we can swipe, enter and then pass the same card to use again, it’s meant for that, and it’s good for 8 trips. Riding the subway is pretty straight forward if you’ve ever done it before. One of the things about the TMB (Transports Metropolitans de Barcelona) is that the subway doors don’t always open automatically and require you to turn the latch when you’re at a stop. This confused us once and we hit the next station to double back.
Another lesson we learned is that Google Maps doesn’t really fill you in on elevation. We departed the Vallcarca station and made our way in the direction of the park only to find set after set of stairs. Yup, Park Güell is up on a high hill. We look at each other and both sigh. After a deep breath we get to it and start the trudge up the hill. It’s not so bad, and we take our time. The weather is a cool 65° (plus, we’re in the shadow of buildings), and the path is littered with benches should we need a break.
A little less than a half hour later we seemingly reach the top of the hill. The view of the city is quite incredible, and we take it in as we catch our breath. We walk round the bend to the entrance of the park, where there’s a man there conveniently selling bottled water for €1, which we take him up on one. A group of people are accosting the park employees guarding the entrance, they seem a bit unsettled. The park gate-keeper maintains that tickets for the park are sold out for the day and nobody else is getting in until tomorrow. Our faces drop at the news because online the park is stated as public, and public parks don’t generally need admission right? Pushing past the frustration of the fact that we made an epic quest up the hill to get here, we pull over to the side, hop online and buy tickets for the next available day, tomorrow. With nothing else to do there we coast back down the hill and hop aboard the train back to Liceu station. Perhaps the Picasso Museum will be fun.
The walk to the Picasso Museum felt long, and the streets were busy with all types of people moving to and fro through the city. We passed City Hall, nestled in a nice open plaza that provided some breathing room amid the narrow, encroaching streets. When we finally get to the Picasso Museum we’re greeted by the same declaration we caught at Park Güell; all tickets have been sold for the day and nobody else is getting in unless you have a ticket. Once again, we pull off to the side and order some tickets online. We’ll stop by after Park Güell tomorrow. Let this be a lesson to you; when you’re sight-seeing be sure to check if tickets are needed ahead of time.
After that we keep walking and come across the Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar. Thirsty to see something cool we buy our tickets at the door (€10 each which includes a trip to the roof and the crypt) and enter the dark church.
A snack followed by a quick nap back at the condo was needed after so much walking that afternoon. After it got dark out we got dressed and decided to try a renowned pizza spot in the Eixample neighborhood, Sartoria Panatieri.
After dining al fresco, we wandered about the neighborhood until we found a bar and decided to stop in. Babula Bar 1937 had a nice list of mixed cocktails, including tequila and mezcal concoctions, and didn’t disappoint. Finding liquor from the new world in an old world bar is an interesting curiosity. A few cocktails and a few glasses of cava and we headed home.
Perhaps it was all the wine and alcohol, or perhaps something was no good on that pizza, but in the early morning hours the next day, my wife and I were pretty sick. And it probably didn’t help that we just weren’t hydrating like we’re used to here at home. We were laid out all morning, sleeping and not wanting to move. But alas, we had those tickets to Park Güell, and visiting the park is one of the prime directives of this whole Spain trip. Determined to not miss this, we ploddingly get dressed, shoes laced up, jackets on straight. Our tickets are for 1pm, we leave the house at noon.
Not wanting to do the Great Stair Climb again, especially in this condition, we get off at the stop before Vallcarca, Lesseps, and walk the slight incline through the neighborhood.
The trek was still a bit excruciating, especially when time is of the essence. There were less stairs but everything is more on an incline. At one point we did reach some daunting stairs. As we sighed an old man called over to us and we reluctantly followed. It was a joyful surprise to see that he showed us a public escalator along side the stairs we were dreading. Thankfully, the park has a 30 minute grace period after the allotted time is up. We didn’t need it and showed up right at the stroke of 1.
Even though I rode as many benches as I could, the park was in utter splendor. Among the tall green trees that the brisk air blew through were the architectural constructs designed by one Antoni Gaudí. I found the mosaic wall and the whimsical buildings to be quite phenomenal not only in their decoration, but their durable construction. The park was crawling with all types of visitors, but none were obnoxious.
[Of course, none of these pictures do any of the sites justice, but I did take a lot of Instagram stories now in a highlight reel on my profile @toonzday - “Spain Holiday”]
As we exited and walked back to the train station, we acknowledged we were just wiped out. We mustered all we could to make it to the park and we did, and briefly relished in our success. Sadly, we chose to forgo the Picasso Museum. We made it home exhausted and collapsed in a heap. Unfortunately, because we were heading out the next day, this would mark our last evening in Barcelona, and we were in no mood to eat, drink or be merry. The next morning we packed up the condo and started what would be an epic poem of a trip home.
One of our big observations throughout the trip was that all the kids we saw (and they were everywhere) were absolutely not glued to a device or a screen. They all played with each other, rough-housed, ran around, explored, all while their parents stood aside and minded their business. We never witnessed, not once, any tantrums, meltdowns, or mishaps. Parents were not screaming at their kids or helicoptering them from danger; each existed in their own space and children understood their boundaries. Even the young teenager we observed on the subway getting scolded by her parents in French, when she stormed off she didn’t sit down and retreat into a phone. We found this fascinating and speculated why that is. I posit that the work culture in Spain, and possibly Europe as a whole, is more forgiving and less taxing mentally and physically. The 4-day work week is becoming the norm, and in a culture where tipping is not really a big thing, I’m guessing most people are paid decent living wages with a lot more time off than in the U.S. I imagine that translates into more quality family time. You can afford to be more present in raising your child, establishing deeper connections as well as boundaries, and not just hand them a phone because you’re too tired to engage.
Looks of the people were interesting. Among the locals you could see the generations of old world genetics embedded in their faces. Many of them had a somewhat familair look, but there was something missing. I guess that as Mexican-Americans living in Texas we’re used to seeing the facial traits contributed by the mixing of the native populations. That, and I feel the U.S. is much more a melting pot of cultures with so many people 1st, 2nd, and 3rd generation born here, intermingling their genes from all corners of the world. I remember from our trip to Rome a few of the locals commented on our look, asking us where we were from because we didn’t look like the typical Roman. It was easy to see the hard lines on some of the local’s faces show that their European roots run deep. That or they’re smokers (which there was plenty of).
Speaking of which, European airports have designated hot boxes.
Overall, we never felt unsafe, out of place, or unwelcome. Granted, my wife and I try to be conscious travelers and we always strive to pay attention and adhere to local customs. We spoke what Spanish we could and almost everywhere people would speak English if you asked, sometimes they would offer it up front. We found a lot of servers/clerks/sales-people spoke multiple languages beyond English and Spanish.
It was such an exhilarating trip, I just wish we had more time to hang out in Barcelona. Even if we didn’t get sick that still wouldn’t have been enough time to see more of the city. Needless to say, we’re ready to go back.
Oh, and when we landed back in town we found out, once again, that our bags didn’t. They arrived 3 days later.
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