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June 25, 2002

TravelBlog: Europe - part 5

This is the fifth of nine letters I wrote to friends and family during a two-month solo trip backpacking through Europe in 2002, a year after I graduated from Haverford College. The photos for this and other entries are on my flickr stream.


¡Hola from Barcelona!

It was only a few days ago that I last wrote to you from a smoky little net cafe in Carcassone, France. Now I write to you from a sleek easyInternet Cafe in Barcelona, just off the Las Ramblas avenue that runs through the old town of Barcelona, right down do the waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

I arrived in Barcelona with no prior reservation at a hostel or hotel, armed only a place I was going to try for (a youth hostel near Las Ramblas). The trip itself was fairly uneventful. On the last train from the Spanish border to Barcelona itself, I met three other young Americans from Santa Cruz, CA. They told a horror story of taking an overnight train from Paris to Barcelona, and in the middle of the night, one half of the train cars separated and went off in a completely different direction (with them) from Spain. One girl's luggage happened to be in the cars going to Spain, and the detour they inadvertently took to somewhere in France made them miss their connecting flight home, I think. Scary stuff. It´s stories like that that makes me glad I packed so light, and read up on things like that before I left the States!

Since I arrived in Barcelona three days ahead of my schedule, I decided that I would try something new: I would visit a town that I hadn't planned to see, and thus don't have any information for (i.e. places to stay or things to see). I thought about seeing Nice in France, but eventually decided on Genoa in Italy, being very near the Cinque Terra, which was to be the next stop on my schedule. I'm looking forward to seeing if I can find a place to stay and things to see in Genoa - a little test of how much I've learned about traveling in Europe, if you will. After getting an overnight train ticket, navigating the Metro and wandering around Las Ramblas trying to find the hostel, I eventually arrived to find it full! Fortunately, the guy there referred me to another hostel around the corner that wasn't full. After settling in, I set out to see a few sights in the last bit of the day.

Las Ramblas avenue runs from the waterfront, west, uphill. Right where it meets the water is a column capped by a statue of Columbus. From there, I took the Metro over to the Barcelona area near the Olympic Villa that housed some 15,000 athletes and their support people for the 1992 Olympics, and also has Barcelona's beaches. Finally, I took a quick trip to see the Sagrada Familia at night. The SF was started over 100 years ago (in 1882 actually) and was designed by Antoni Gaudi. It's still only about 20% done, I think. The building itself is huge, and very very ornate, but not in either the gothic or classical sense. Gaudi's style is very organic, and very unique. The two (of four) facades that are finished are called the Nativity Facade (which took some 40 years to complete) and the Passion Facade. Only the Passion Facade was illuminated that night, but it was simply beautiful. The Facade itself, from a distance, looks a lot like a sand castle built by dribbling wet sand into spires. Up close, it's an incredibly detailed whirl of characters and organic shapes. Rising above the facade are four hollow towers that also have a kind of sandcastle appearance to them.

In my first full day in Barcelona, I stopped by the cathedral of Sta. Maria del Mar, which wasn't very impressive from the outside. My guidebook claimed it opened early, but all the doors were closed when I stopped by. Ah well. I hurried on to the Picasso Museum, which is supposedly one of the best in the world. I arrived only minutes after it'd opened, and was greeted by a line at the entrance and witnessed several tour groups enter too! Even as crowded as it was, it was very enjoyable. This museum had many paintings from Picasso's early period, academic works and the works where he had just started to experiment with novel techniques. There were also a good number of his later works. I was a bit disappointed by the commentary (although it was in English, which was nice) as it was mostly biographical. I was glad I'd seen the Picasso/Matisse exhibit in London, because it gave me a knowledgebase from which to view these Picasso paintings that I wouldn't have had otherwise. The last part of my day was spent wandering the Parc de la Ciutadella, near the Olympic Villa, and wandering through the Museu d'Árt Modern, which didn't have any well-known works in it, but had some stunning Art Neuveu and Art Deco (sp?) pieces. I really like hanging out in parks and watching people go by, as well :) My last stop was the Barcelona Arc de Triumph, which isn't nearly as big as the Parisian one, but this one is done in brick and is distinctly Spanish with is ornamentation, lack of distinctly classical elements (like a frieze sculpture or whatever). It was neat to see it, after having seen the one in Paris. The last part of my day was spent wandering the Las Ramblas avenue, which is littered with street performers (there were several of the 'human statues' around, even one made up like a devil (he'd painted his entire body red)), street artists and beggars, and the Port Vell area, which is a really commercial area build out over the water with shops, restaurants, an eight screen cineplex and an IMAX theatre. It turned out that the next day (Monday) was a national holiday in Spain, and from what I hear that night Spain managed to stay in the World Cup, so there was a lot of celebrating. The most audible way of doing this was by lighting these little exploding firecrackers everywhere. There probably wasn't a five-minute span that went by that entire night when I didn't hear one (or many) of these going off!

My second and last full day in Barcelona was devoted to Gaudi's various pieces. I started with the Sagrada Familia again, and was speechless afterward. I really like Gaudi's stuff, and being able to walk through the inside of the construction site, see plaster models of architectural pieces, take an elevator and stairs to the top of one of the towers over the Nativity Facade (90m up (300ft)) was just wonderful. Accordingly, I took lots of pictures. It's really hard to describe just how innovative Gaudi was, especially considering that he died in 1926 when he was about 70 years old. His designs still look novel, even today. My next stop was a building that I'd studied in my architecture class while at Haverford - La Paderra, which translates as 'The Stone Quarry.' The outside of the building looks like rock smoothed by water that was stretched and wrapped around the front of this corner building. Speckling it are huge, round, pock-mark-like craters where windows are. Many of the windows have balconies that are fenced in by wildly twisted and shaped metal. The overall effect is very impressive. Some people call La Paderra Gaudi's most refined work, and I think I'd agree, since it has the most coherent feeling of the overall design. The Sagrada Familia, in comparison, is a dazzling whirl of different styles, shapes, scales and structures. In the attic of the building, there was a multimedia museum about Gaudi's work, which was well worth the entry fee. My final stop for the day was the Park Guell, a public park designed completely by Gaudi. It has the famous mosaic-covered Salamandar, a few Gaudi-designed houses (more of the sand-castle look, crossed with a gingerbread with icing appearance) and some other stuff that's just hard to describe in words! It was Gaudi-overload that day, but I very much enjoyed it. Gaudi is, I think, my favorite architect.

During my stay, I met an Australian named Daniel that I spent a good bit of time chatting to in our room in the hostel. He'd been traveling around Spain for a couple of weeks, and previously had been in Peru for the wedding of a friend of his. All in all, he's been backpacking for about 5 months. He's studying to be a civil engineer too, so we had a good time talking about Gaudi, among other things.

The last time I was in Barcelona, was about 12 years ago, when they were still building things in preparation for hosting the 1992 Summer Olympics. I recall Barcelona as being a very brown place, but the Barcelona I´ve enjoyed so far has been very, very green, and very, very hot.

In my last day in Barcelona, my goals are to find a post office (still haven't seen one, even after walking all of this city), mail out the half dozen postcards I´ve acquired (I went a little crazy since there are so many neat things here), see the aquarium (the largest in Europe) and otherwise relax.

Adios, Aaron

p.s. Thank you to everyone who wrote back after my last message :) You folks that I've still never heard from... please send me a 'hello' email!

p.p.s. Another thing I've realized is that I really will have to come back to Europe again... there's just so much to see here. One could spend years traveling continuously and still places yet to go and things yet to see.

posted June 25, 2002 03:07 AM in Travel | permalink