The least stressful way for us to get from Toulon to Barcelona was to take a train to Montpellier and spend the night so that we could catch the early train to Barcelona. Since our train to Montpellier left around lunchtime, I thought I would go to the store, pick up some goodies, and we could eat on the train. Unfortunately, after Adam had specifically asked not to be put in a compartment, we found ourselves seated across from two older ladies in…a compartment. It is rather uncomfortable to sit directly across from someone you don’t know for three hours. Inevitably your eyes will wander over to that person and she will catch you looking at her and you will have to pretend that your eyes were simply on the way to another nearby destination. Eating is uncomfortable since the compartment is deathly silent and every crunch from a cracker echoes loudly throughout the cramped space. Accidental games of footsie are common.
So we sat sullen and starving watching the scenery go by, reading a book, staring surreptitiously at the emerald green head of a gummy bear that had clung to the collar of one of the ladies after she unselfconsciously gulped down the entire bag.
Montpellier may be a lovely city, but not what we saw of it. We ended up holing ourselves up in our hotel room watching You Tube videos on our free wireless connection.
On the train to Barcelona we heard our first announcement in Spanish which nearly brought tears to my eyes. Finally we were in a country where we could at least marginally understand what the hell was going on. We had spent the last two months in countries where we could rate our understanding on a scale of “Wha huh?” to “Check please.” It was a relief to know that we could communicate on at least a basic level.
Our apartment in Barcelona was right around the corner from Plaza Espana and Montjuic Hill. You could spend and entire week just exploring the area around Montjuic, but we settled for a brief overview that included the Olympic stadium, the castle, and the cemetery which is actually less like a cemetery and more like an entire city of dead people holed up in walls.
What you really want to see when you come to Barcelona is all things Gaudi. If this man didn’t have such an unwieldy beard and he hadn’t gotten run over by a tram 85 years ago, I may have married him. But I am content gazing at and sighing over his architectural masterpieces, many of which call Barcelona home. I spoke previously of my devotion to art nouveau and Gaudi was one of those artists who fanned the flames of my devotion. But Gaudi is actually quite special in that respect. While the art nouveau in Central Europe is stunning and full of life, there is something about it that still feels decorous as if there was still a tiny thread of the Victorian clinging to it. Gaudi on the other hand is frenzied passion and whirls of color and a knock-down-drag-out assault on your senses and emotions. Standing in front of the imposing La Sagrada Familia cathedral I can’t help but be moved to tears. Not by the story—by how he tells the story.
Due to various circumstances including his death and the destruction of his plans, the continued construction of the cathedral has been carried out by several other architects. But none of it has the emotional quality of the nativity facade which was Gaudi’s.
If you are planning a trip to Barcelona, it is imperative that you visit Park Guell, another Gaudi landmark. Crossing the threshold into Park Guell is like stepping into a Dr. Seuss book. Everything is so fantastic and dreamlike that you expect to see El Gato en el Sombrero or some other character from the Seussiverse darting between the pillars of the grand entrance. I wish I could describe the park in detail, but anything of Gaudi’s defies description. I’m sorry, you’ll just have to go to Spain and see it yourself.
If you do end up in Barcelona and you are looking for English language books, I can’t tell you where to go, but I can tell you where not to go. We were on the hunt for a used English language bookstore so that we could trade in a few of our old books and pick up some new ones. At first Barcelona looked promising, but slowly but surely the truth was revealed. After searching in vain, there was one left that sounded perfect. The description of the store touted its large collection of used English language books: “Hibernian Books is the biggest secondhand English Bookshop in Barcelona…With more than 40,000 books in our collection we have a wide range of fiction and non fiction titles in stock.”
We excitedly bought metro tickets and hauled ourselves out to the bookstore brimming with anticipation. I can spend all day in a good used bookstore. We tried to tell ourselves not to get our hopes up too high. We should have listened to ourselves. Hibernian Books is probably the crappiest used bookstore I’ve ever been in. At least the worst in recent memory. I could not find one book by a contemporary author that I would want to read. Most of the books were either “classics” or trash lit. Even the classics selection consisted of paperbacks that were at least 20 or 30 years old, falling apart and yellowed. It was as if their entire stock was obtained by raiding old ladies bookshelves after they died. I don’t think I saw any books that were less than 20 years old except for the small selection of new books. We were both crushed. If this was the best selection in the city, we were done for. We walked back to the metro irritated that we had wasted 4 euro and a couple of hours of our time on this place.
On the plus side, we purposely rented an apartment with a kitchen so that we could cook Thanksgiving dinner. At first I was full of grandiose plans. I’m not used to Thanksgiving being any other way. In my family holiday food is taken with a degree of seriousness akin to participating in an Olympic event. Recipes are tested in advance. Ingredients are gathered from all over the city with no expense spared. New appliances are bought. Preparation begins three days advance. All I had was a small frying pan from Ikea, a cruddy grill pan, a pot, a few utensils and 22 euro to spend for the entire day. So roasted chicken and baked potatoes it was. But as this was our first taste of baked potatoes since we had left home (I know, it’s madness, isn’t it?) it was still a delectable dinner.
After walking a good portion of the city over the course of a week (without ever taking a map with us—Adam had downloaded it into his brain), it was time to travel to Madrid, our final destination in Europe. We were staying on the outskirts of the city in an area that was barren except for the high rise hotels and newly built cookie-cutter condos and apartments. DE-pressing. The apartment itself was nice (other than the fact that every time I was cooking something with the TV on the fuse would blow), but the walk to the metro and the metro ride to the city center took around 45 minutes. But we didn’t spend much time there anyway. We poked around the Prado and walked through Retiro Park, but by the time we reached Madrid we were pretty exhausted. We were burnt out on sightseeing and we were ready to move on to South America. We experienced bittersweet feelings the day our Eurail passes expired and we realized that we were really leaving Europe, but the excitement of going to another continent quelled our sadness.
After 7 fun-filled hours in the Madrid airport, we boarded the plane that would take us to Buenos Aires where we would finally get to settle down for a while. Adios Europa…until we meet again.