Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Barcelona (Pt. XIX)

Note to readers: This is the nineteenth part of a recounting of my Grand European Tour, taken in the fall of 1999. You can read Part XVIII here.

En la cima de la Rambla
Rail transport from Arles to Barcelona required two different train changes at various points in the journey across southern France. The end of a long day of riding trains and waiting in stations found me in a pensione right off la Rambla in Barcelona. Whatever powers impel the Universe had placed me there on the weekend of El Día de los Muertes. The place was hoppin', as they say.

Legend has it that Hamilcar, the father of Hannibal, the bane of Roman imperial aspirations, and a passable general in his own right, founded Barcelona some 300 years before the commencement of Gregorian history. Barcelona is a beautiful city, on the Mediterranean coast. She was a bastion of Spanish Republicans in that country's tragic civil war, the last city in all of Spain to submit to Franco and the Fascists. Today, she is a city of immense culture, gentle climate, beautiful beaches, and great food!

La Rambla, the pedestrian mall, stretches down from la Plaza Catalunya all the way to the beach, with everything from high-end shops and posh restaurants at the inland terminus, to live sex shows and street drug peddlers at the seaward. A constant flow of people moved up and down.

Street performer along la Rambla
The first night, I dined on paella (pah-AY-ya), that delightful concoction of saffron rice, mussels-in-the-shell, Spanish sausage, and various vegetables. Delicious! Among the many charms of Barcelona, the food—Paella of course! And never have I encountered coffee as robust and rich, nor orange juice so naturally sweet and fresh.

The city was teeming with young people out to have a good time. I met a California girl, Maria, and a young woman, Kate (troubled, troubling) from Australia. Together we walked la Rambla. Kate and I ducked into the live sex show out of sheer curiosity, where an attractive couple had dispassionate, mechanical sex in a bed on a stage. Boring really.

Barri Gótic
Next day, wandered around the Gothic Quarter, Barri Gótic, just taking it all in. This area is the oldest part of the city. The site of the first constructions erected by Roman frontiersmen. Lots of musicians and a solemn Gothic church.

La iglesia del Barri Gótic
 During the day, I met yet another Australian woman named Kate (self-deprecating, funny). Together we went to the Picasso museum. I have to say, Picasso is often beyond me. Whatever it may say about underdeveloped art appreciation skills, I find that his work too often impresses as childish stick-figure drawings. I have great appreciation for his more accessible works, though: Massacre in Korea, for example, or his Cubist experimentation, or even his "Blue Period." Pablo Picasso, a Communist, a genius, and some say, a coward. I withhold judgment.

Kate (self-deprecating, funny) and I made our way from the museum to the beach and there parted ways. It was early afternoon and the city was shutting down for daily siesta. I made my way back to the pensione and, adapting quickly to the Spanish rhythm of life, napped.

Tara and I on la Rambla
That evening I went to dine at world-famous Les Quatre Gats restaurant: alone and feeling lonely. I noticed a beautiful young woman by herself at the table behind me:  sharply dressed, a streak of blue through her hair, Chinese ancestry. I introduced myself. She was Tara (fashionable, sophisticated) from Toronto. We shared a table, went for a walk along the shore and up la Rambla then agreed to meet the next day for sightseeing.

La Casa Milá by Gaudi
That day we saw the works of Gaudi, the genius architect, whose footprint has come to identify Barcelona itself: curves and angles, shapes molded by the natural world and reminiscent of houses and buildings from a Dr. Seuss book. Fascinating.

La Casa Milá
Gaudi remained unpretentious and humble to his death. Run over by a streetcar in 1926 at the age of 73, he was taken by mistake to a hospital for the indigent. Gaudi insisted that he remain among the poor, where he died three days later.

Sagrada familia church
Gaudi lived a Catholic, and died a Catholic, even as his famous masterwork, la Iglesia de la Sagrada familia, near the center of the city was still under construction.

Sagrada familia church, closeup
Together, Tara and I wandered through, climbed to the top, agape. Never had I seen anything like it. Never before, never since.

Sculpture in la Sagrada Familia church
 We looked out on the expanse of Barcelona below us: there the blue of the Mediterranean; there, the arid hills of the hinterland. The sun was kind;  the city relaxed amid its bustle.

Arches in la Casa Milá
 After la Sagrada familia, we went to Park Güell, also designed by Gaudi for the city he loved. A beautiful park with another breathtaking view. We bought ice cream from a vendor and ate a picnic lunch.

That night, I took Tara to the train station. She was off to Madrid. "I'm very glad to have met you," she said. She said it with kindness and gratitude and a touch of sadness: all of which I understood. One never really travels alone, whether riding the rails through Europe or journeying through life. Never. If there is no living, breathing companion to share the road, then there is loneliness. Loneliness becomes one's companion. Tara set off to her platform; I soon lost sight of her in the meandering crowd. Goodbye, Tara. Fare thee well.

For me, there was one more night in Barcelona, one more meal of paella and orange juice. It was the last day of October. El Día de los Muertes. I savored the gifts that Barcelona had given me.

In the morning, I arose late, sipped fresh, incomparably rich Spanish brewed coffee, then waved goodbye to this city with which I had fallen madly in love. In the afternoon, I caught the train north.

To be continued...

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