Oh Gawd, it’s one of those irritating blog travelogues (should that be a blogolog?) where somebody goes abroad and writes up the results of their trip as if they were the only person who has travelled to a foreign country before.
To avoid this, click away from the blog now. If, however, you’re interested in reading about fat, bald Englishmen being rude to the locals, accidental encounters with terrifying ladies of the night, and big piles of paella, read on…
I’d spent a large portion of the flight out alternatively gripping the armrests as if my life depended on it or babbling away like a man possessed. Anything to take my mind off the fact I was in a tin can high above the ground and, essentially, defying the laws of physics. I think. My state of mind was not helped by a couple of air crashes in the weeks preceeding the flight, nor by the man in the seat in front talking very loudly about previous air crashes.
It was ten years ago I last stepped on a plane – and the same period of time since I’d been abroad, bar a brief day trip to Ireland, but the lure of a week in Barcelona – plus some serious cajoling from friends – was enough to get me up in the air. And I wasn’t enjoying it so far.
We started our descent and as we approached Barcelona, curiosity overcame me and I leaned across to look out of the window at the stunning light show below, and was so taken with what I saw it took me a while to realise we’d landed.
From there on in our holiday did not get off to the most auspicious of starts. First of all Ben accidently put chewing gum into his pocket and had to spend several minutes cleaning out the contents. Then we meandered around for a bit trying to find the train station.
When we arrived the station was deserted bar a couple of men with cigarettes hanging off their lips. Between them not speaking English and us not really speaking Spanish, we managed to communicate that we needed to get to a station off La Rambla and somehow we got tickets. Sadly the penultimate train had already gone and we were forced to wait 45 minutes in sticky, hot weather. The light jumper that was perfect for England was swiftly becoming an oven around my torso.
Changing onto the Metro was no less problematic as we’d failed to realise it shut at midnight on weekdays, forcing us into a taxi, which dropped us at the bottom of La Rambla due to police shutting of part of the road. We started to drag our cases down some dubious looking backstreets, including a red light (which was actually a Pharmacists, but we weren’t to know) before eventually backtracking twice and finding our appartment.
To our relief, it had a lockable door, bedrooms, a small kitchen and even a balcony. Less of a relief was the heat, which had become even more sticky and stifling and after an hour and a half of failing to get to sleep, I relocated to the sofa and woke up a couple of hours later freezing cold. Things, as D:Ream once sang, could only get better.
Wednesday: Does anywhere serve food?
We woke around half ten after a fitful night’s sleep for me and Ross, and a good night’s sleep for Ben, who had a balcony and window in his room. As Evan wasn’t joining us until later in the day, we decided not to take on too much sightseeing and decided to explore the nearby area with the help of various guidebooks.
The nearby area happened to be La Rambla, one of the main tourist streets in Barcelona. There’s a huge pavement going down the middle where street stalls and overpriced restaurants attempt to get gullible visitors to part with their Euros, while further up the street grown men dress as demons and gouls and shout “argraaahhh” a lot and scare young women. There was also, randomly, a young girl dressed as a red indian, standing on a box and waiving to people.
No matter what you buy on La Rambla, it will be expensive, but Ross and I badly needed breakfast so popped into a baguette shop for an overpriced cheese baguette and orange juice for eight Euros. we took it to the fountain at the top of La Rambla and marvelled at the architecture, before heading back down the street to La Boqueria, the huge food market just off La Rambla.
To a food lover, this place was heaven. To a meat-eater, of which I am not, it would have ben heaven and nirvana rolled into one. To a non-Spanish speaking food lover, it had the potential to be very dangerous so we limited ourselves to the essential – cheese, fruit, chorizo for the meat eaters, and a few other bits and bobs. As one of the ultra stupid breed of non-meat eaters who do eat fish, I tried to convince the other two to buy some prawns or other seafood but was vetoed on the grounds it’d smell too much.
We headed back to the flat for what was to become a staple meal over the next seven days: pasta with olives and cheese and chorizo for the meaties. Given we were on a budget and cooked most nights, had I been blindfolded, by the end of the holiday I’d have still be able to do that meal. I’ve not been able to look at pasta since.
The afternoon involved a short stroll down to the beach for a spot of lounging. Barcelona’s beach is very urban and very packed. Much like a space on the tube at rush hour, elbows are probably permitted to secure a prime spot on the sand. Ross went in for a quick swim and pronounced it ‘cold’ while our collective inner repressed teenage boyness could only marvel at the fact that 1) the women on the beach in Spain appear to be much more attractive than the women on beaches at Southend; and 2) they have their breasts out.
Look, we’re men. We’re easily led. If you’d put a football match on in the other direction, we wouldn’t have known which way to look.
Stopping for a quick beer on the way back, we headed back to the appartment and collected Evan before heading out for dinner and making a discovery that would come to reassert itself many times during the week: guide books quickly go out of date.
I’d successfully navigated our way to a recommended cheap restaurant in the guide book, only to find it looking distinctly shut. What followed was a fruitless amble around the streets of Barcelona dismissing assorted eateries on the basis that they were too expensive or just looked rubbish.
Eventually we settled on a rather commercial looking place with a somewhat dizzying glass floor and ordered what any self-respecting tourist should do on holiday on Spain – a huge bowl of paella between the four of us.
We may well have been eating in the equivalent of ‘Fishy Joes’ on Torquay seafront but the paealla was just what was required and filled us up nicely. I say us. Ross ate about a third of it, as he is a human food processing machine.
Following dinner we ended up in a pleasant bar called Schillings that offered reasonably priced Mojitos and had bookcases full of empty wine bottle around the wall. And a unisex toilet. But most importantly cheap Mojitos and no other English people.
Then came one of the moments of the night. As we attempted to navigate our way back to the flat, we heard a kissing-like sound and all of a sudden the woman we assumed had been flyering on a street corner latched herself onto Ben.
“Sucky sucky?” she offered, making corresponding gestures with her hand and mouth.
“No thanks,” said Ben.
“Go on,” she said. We’d found the hooker equivalent of Mrs. Doyle.
“Really, no thanks.”
“Go on. It’s good for penis.”
Ben again declined this revolutionary medicine technique. The next night, on roughly the same street corner, a one-armed man tried to sell us cocaine. He didn’t claim it was good for penis, but nonetheless, we also declined his offer.
Having safely negotiated potential assaults on our genitals the night before, we set out for the first day of heavy sightseeing. Ross took the lead, and we headed off for a day of Gaudi-related architecture.
When it comes to art and architecture, I’m an absolute ignoramous. This largely comes through my complete lack of artistic ability at school, which I was frequently told not to bother drawing and just to make collages from magazines instead.
As a result, I know next to nothing about artists and architects, except the really famous ones and even then I’d struggle to tell you what they did.
I knew absolutely nothing about Gaudi. I still don’t know a great deal, but I do now know his architecture is pretty impressive.
We caught the Metro over to the Sagrada Famila – the huge church that dominates the skyline in the Eixample area of Barcelona. The church was to be Gaudi’s crowning glory and he devoted around 40 years of his life to it. It’s still not finished, largely thanks to anarchists who set fire to his plans. I bet they feel really clever now. Assuming they’re not dead, that is, which would probably serve them right.
The Sagrada Famila is hugely impressive. The four towers climb high into the sky and the non-Gaudi artwork on the front is striking. The back, designed by Gaudi, looks like somebody’s tried to melt it. But when you get closer, you realise the anarchists didn’t get to the church as well, but instead it’s a series of intricate designs that have been weathered rather than damaged.
From the Sagrada Famila, we moved onto several other Gaudi-designed buildings in Eixample, all of which had a distinct wave-like feel about them and a slightly hypnotic quality that put the other buildings around them to shame.
From Eixample we moved onto the Gaudi-designed Park Guell in the Gracia district of the city. We entered from a side entrance into the park, so at first it just seemed like a lot of climbing on a dusty track that had no toilets, but several nice views of the city. But moving into the park the familiar woozy beauty of the design became apparent, with pillars and walls turned into things of beauty.
Sadly, it appears Gaudi definitely didn’t design any toilets. We were forced to relieve ourselves in the bushes.
After a hot walk the Metro back to the flat was a relief. London Underground could learn a lot from Barcelona. The trains are fully air-conditioned and provide welcome respective from the 30+ temperatures, while there are computer screen that, I’m assuming, tell you where you go in Catalan, while little red LCD’s light up on the map, telling you where you are. It beats the Northern Line any day.
Once the obligatory pasta, olives and chorizo meal was disposed of, we headed out for a wander to find some traditional Spanish bars. Ending up in the trendy Born district, we made our greatest discovery yet. In Barcelona, order a spirit and mixer and the bar staff don’t measure your drink out – they pour as much alcohol as they feel like in, so you end up sipping triples for the price of a single back in the UK. England couldn’t handle this without destroying the fabric of society as we know it.
We were determined that we wouldn’t act as Brits abroad and would only drink in small, cosy local bars. We largely managed this until about 1am, when we could only find a slightly touristy bar, where we failed to dispel our national stereotype when Ben and Evan got into an ice fight and ended up accidently throwing an ice cube at a group of girls we’d previously utterly failed to chat up. We left soon after.
Friday: Nou Camp
Put a bunch of football-loving boys in a football-loving city and its inevitable that, at some point, they’ll end up in a football stadium. And so it came to pass than on Friday morning we found ourselves buying tickets for the Nou Camp tour.
Yes, it may be a football stadium. And yes, I’ve been in plenty of other stadiums. And no, there wasn’t a game on at the time. But Barcelona is a club with so much history that no self respecting football fan could visit the city and not take in the club’s impressive ground.
Sitting up in the stands, it was easy to visualise a night game, the stadium packed to the rafters, with the likes of Henry, Messi and Xavi stroking the ball around. We may have been surrounded by tourists but it still made the hairs of the back of my neck stand on end.
I’ve been to Wembley. I’ve been to Old Trafford. I’ve been the St. James Park (the real one), and I’ve been to the awesome Millennium Stadium, and the Nou Camp is up there with them. Perhaps it’s the feeling of history created around the ground, or the emotional connection the club has with the city, but there’s something ever-so-slightly special about the stadium.
More than perhaps any other club in the world, Barca the football club is inextricably linked with Barca the city. As a focal point for locals, it became a symbol of the Catalan struggle for independence, and a light of hope during the fascist dictatorship. While Franco imposed his rule on Spain (And favoured Real Madrid). Barcelona established a democratically run club, built to where it is today by the fans. To learn about the club’s history is to learn about the Catalan history, and it is humbling.
Then came the ugly side of the beautiful game – the obligatory megastore, where a shirt with Messi’s name would set you back a cool 85 euros, while a Barca-themed ball ranged from 7 to 20 euros. Should your dog also bark whenever the team scored, a Barca dog basket could be yours for around 45 euros.
While the football lover inside me was desperate to get a chance to see inside the Nou Camp – a stadium I’m unlikely to get the chance to visit again – a part of me also secretly despised myself for buying into the modern football phenomenon in thrall to the power of money in the game.
Walking round the Nou Camp it’s easy to see how clubs like Barca rake it in off the field. Success breeds success, and judging by the number of people taking the tour, the club were taking a lot of money on that alone. Add in the vastly-overpriced merchanise and food stalls around the ground, and you’ve suddenly got a money-making behemoth without a ball being kicked.
While I partly hate myself for briefly buying into this part of football culture I normally shun, I’m still glad I visited it. Even if I did take a wander around the megastore.
In the afternoon, Ben and Evan headed off to the beach while Ross and I decided to carry on being complete and utter tourists and we headed off to the top of Tibidabo.
It was clear when we stepped off the Metro that we were in one of the wealthier districts in the city. The guide book stated that several of the Barca squad lived in this area and it was easy to see why. There was none of the enjoyably cramped bustling streets of the Barri Gothic, where we were staying. Instead each house had a garden and there was a noticable amount of greenery around, in comparison to the rest of Barcelona, which operates under the idea of if there’s a bit of space, build an appartment block.
To reach the very top of Tibidabo, we first needed to take the tram then a charming funicular railway, the likes of which I’ve not been on since my last trip to Lynton and Lymouth when I was a nipper. We could have climbed the moutain, but it was hot, I was developing an impressive blister on my right foot and, frankly, you can’t argue with a funicular railway.
The top of Tibidabo is a strange place. It offers some of the most spectacular views anywhere in Barcelona and to survey the city from such a height was truly breathtaking. There’s also an impressive temple – Sagrat Cor – at the top, while Norman Foster’s Communications Tower is a short walk away.
And just below the temple is the Tibidabo funfair, which looks as if it may fall apart at any second. It’s a bit like a minature version of Euro Disney, complete with bored looking staff in overtly cheerful uniforms. The rides somehow look back tacky and menacing, but at the same time much more fun than anything Blackpool has to offer. All rides look approximately 50 years old and, as many of them involved flying around at great height, we elected to skip the fun of the fair and have an ice-cream instead.
As we made our way back to the flat, it became clear we’d stumbled into an invasion. Around us, bald headed men with large beer bellies and shirts with the name ‘Gerrard’ on the back of them had started to proliferate across La Rambla, congregating on the tourist-themed Irish bars to drink copious amount of alcohol.
I have never understood why, when English people head abroad, they immediately go for the Irish bars. Reading the England fanzine that came with the tickets for the match for Andorra was depressing. In it were detailed directions to all the Irish bars off La Rambla, along with the nearest McDonalds and KFC.
On second thoughts, our night was all the better for largely avoiding the England fans.
We started off in a bar we’d been to the night before, where the barmaid gently chided us for ordering in English and refused to hand over our drinks until we’d completed the order in Spanish. I was quite taken with the place.
We then embarked on a mini-crawl around Born before deciding to head down to a club on the seafront. Except, being somewhat drunk, we ended up on the beach instead. Admitting defeat on our efforts to find a trendy club far away from the England fans, we caught a taxi back towards La Rambla, where England fans lined the streets, mostly with vomit.
In an effort to escape the scenes, we took a left into the Raval area. This was a mistake. A short way down we found ourselves in an alley solely populated by prostitutes and large black men selling drugs. We ran. Fast. Ross got grabbed by a girl as we speedily made our way past and running out onto La Rambla the words “come back my future husband” were still ringing in our ears.
In serious danger of sobering up, we decided close to home was best and we made our way to a slightly dubious looking nightclub on our street called La Macarena. Thankfully, there was no cheesy europop, just deep house and techo and no England fans. Bliss. Stupidly I ordered a round of cocktails that came to 40 euros, making up for my ultra cheap 10 euro round in an earlier bar. The rest of the night was spent in a haze of electronic bleeps and beats, which kept us going until 4 in the morning – and put all thoughts of drunk England fans and terrifying hookers out of our minds.
Coming soon. Or at least when I get round to it: why I wanted to apologise to every local I met and how to get a samosa on the beach without lifting a finger.