Friday, December 21, 2012

A Barcelona Birthday

I didn't know much about Barcelona before we went and although I was excited to go, I wasn't that excited because, well, I didn't know what to be excited about.

Turns out, there was a lot of be excited about. And that's what made it an even more wonderful trip. I didn't have any expectations, so every awesome thing that happened just made the trip better and better.

For starters, it was warm in Barcelona. Well, not that warm, but definitely warmer than the frigid temperatures we've been experiencing in England. I hadn't thought of this when we planned when to go where, although apparently Austy had, but December was the perfect time to go to Barcelona because, let's be real, we all needed a little bit of sunshine and a break from the freezing cold. It was in the high 50s both days we were there, which felt like Spring to us because of the cold weather we'd become accustomed to. So we were walking around in our blazers while the Barcelona natives (who obviously view this weather as cold) were bundled up in winter jackets and hats, gloves and scarves. Perspective, huh?

When we got off the RENFE train we'd taken to the airport, and stepped into the night air, we instincitvely brought our arms close to our bodies and stuck our hands in our pockets. But then we realized that this wasn't really necessary. Barcelona's evening temperature was quite possibly warmer than Oxford's day temperature. Because it was a pleasant night the fact that we had to wander around the area surrounding the Passeig de Gracia metro and RENFE stop looking for our hostel didn't seem as bad as it would've been had it been 20 degrees colder.

Austy had actually written down how to get to the Hipstel from the station, but because there are so many different exits spanning two blocks, we had no idea where we'd come up, and consequently where to go. And it doesn't help that the streets are barely even labeled, save tiny signs high up on buildings, usually blocked by trees. So, we knew that Carrer Valencia was a cross street with Passeig de Gracia near Carrer Arago. But here's the problem, we couldn't really find Carrer Arago and once we did find it we didn't know which way on Passeig de Gracia to go. And to add to that, unlike other cities like London, Oxford and Paris, there aren't any pedestrian maps lurking about the streets of Barcelona. You might know the ones I'm talking about--they tell you what is in the immediate vicinity and in what direction you should go. Nope, none of those in Barcelona. So even if you have a map and you know where you need to go, there is no telling which way you need to go. So, we chose to go left on Passeig de Gracia and went a few blocks until we decided that we would have seen Carrer Valencia by now so we turned around. Turned out that it was just one block past Arago in the direction we didn't go. Oh well, at least it wasn't freezing cold.

We got checked into our hostel--the Hipstel, which is punny and everything but I feel like it makes a little more sense to us Americans that understand what a Hipster is--and headed up to our room. The first night it was a full room, filled with five Canadian girls--three studying in Florence, one American girl studying in Galway, Ireland and a German boy. Libby was supposed to come with us to Barcelona but unfortunately wasn't able to come because she was sick and we're pretty sure the German boy took her bed. I had to resist texting Libby "There's a half naked German boy sleeping in your bed." We spend the evening getting to know Audrey, the American girl and then went to sleep in preparation for a great--and warm--day.

So, yeah, our plans for Barcelona revolved around the want to spend some time outside. And we couldn't ask for two more beautiful days to spend walking around Barcelona. The first day we went on a Gaudi walking tour. Antoni Gaudi is a very famous Catalan architect whose style was very groundbreaking during his time--and still is, really. We started at Casa Batllo and a few other modernist houses that are around it.

Dragon Representation
Our tour guide Andrea told us about a common theme in Catalan architecture: the legend of St George and the Dragon. Also the patron saint of England, St George is the patron saint of Barcelona because it is a Catalan legend. Legend says that St. George slayed a dragon to save his love from getting eaten by said dragon and after the dragon had died, a rose sprouted out from the dragon's blood. This legend is frequently incorporated into architecture by including a bas relief of a man fighting a dragon. Gaudi, always an original, incorporated it in in a very modernist way. The top of the house has ridges as if a dragon's spine, and one of the balconies is shaped like a rose. All together, a cool way to incorporate it in, and really cool house. I can imagine just how revolutionary this house was when it was built in 1904. I mean, just look at it.

We also saw Casa Mila, which was interesting looking, but not as radical looking as Casa Batllo. First of all, their aren't any straight walls, which is revolutionary. What I found cool is that there are statues on the rooftop that George Lucas apparently used as inspiration for the Stormtroopers in Star Wars. Our final stop on the Gaudi tour was La Sagrada Familia, his most famous project. It is a catholic church in Barcelona, which actually isn't even complete yet. Unfortunately Gaudi died in the middle of the project, leaving the church uncompleted. Because Spain is secular state, the government won't give any money to the completion of the church, so they are relying on donations and admission to the church to pay for the building of the church. So they raise money for a few years, then build for a few years and subsequently run out of money, raise money for a few more years, build again... and the cycle continues. It is suggested that the church will be complete by 2025 or 2030, 180 years after it was started in 1882. Gaudi made it clear while building that every decision that was made regarding the church should consider its purpose: as a place to worship the Lord. He was insistent that nobody think otherwise of the project's purpose. Because of this, it is a bummer that because it isn't complete and they need to raise money, there are very rarely any church services held in the main nave of the church. They are instead held in the crypt (more on that later) which is beautiful in its own right, but Gaudi designed the stain glass of the actual church to enhance the worship experience, but there unfortuantely isn't any worshipping occurring there. I wasn't a huge fan of the church from the outside (I thought it looked like a dribble sand castle), but I'm told it's amazing on the inside.

Keeping with our Gaudi theme, after our tour was over we went to Parc Guell, a park designed by Antoni Gaudi. It was quite a hike up a hill to get there, but it was worth. The sun was shining, we got a beautiful view of Barcelona and in that moment I was just purely happy. And I have to say, for some reason I wasn't expecting there to be so many palm trees. I'm not sure why, but I was actually quite surprised by them. After the park, we got some lunch and the one thing I really remember about our life is when our waiter asked us where we were from and when we said America, he relied "okie doke." Because I say this all the time, I found it quite hilarious.

Because it was such a beautiful day, we also decided to go up Montjuic, one of the tallest mountains in Barcelona. There is the option to take a hanging cable car to the top, but we were not about to spend money on that, so we decided to walk. I read about a way to walk through a park to get there, so we walked through the park to the top enjoying the sites of Barcelona as we got higher and higher. I was afraid the walk was going to be terrible and everyone would hate me for forcing them to walk all the way to the top because why would they have a cable car if it was an easy walk? But it wasn't too bad and the things we saw on the walk made it well worth it. When we finally got to the top, we looked around the Castell de Montjuic which is much more of a fort than a castle, but still cool to see. And like I said, the views were breathtaking. We were even able to spot Sagrada Familia!
That evening for dinner, we walked around looking for a place to eat and just couldn't seem to decide. We came upon a restaurant called Pomodoro which looked reasonably priced and when we went up and were seated it was essentially deserted. It's a massive restaurant and there was only one other group eating there. We had waited until 8pm so we didn't think it was because people weren't eating yet, but it had to be, because about an hour later people did start showing up (dinner time is between 9pm and 11pm in Spain). It was actually a really delicious meal (we all had Risotto), but the beginning was a bit awkward due to the lack of people in the restaurant.

The next day was a special day (to me at least) because it was my 20th birthday!  I cannot imagine a better way to spend my birthday than in Barcelona with my best friends (though it would have been much better had Libby been there). We started the day with a tour of the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona. Unlike Eixamaple, where our hostel is, and its geometrically symmetrical streets, the Gothic Quarter is a mess of streets--some suitable for cars, some just for working) that would be impossible to navigate without a tour guide, so we were glad that we'd decided to explore the Gothic Quarter on a guided tour. We saw typical Barcelona neighborhoods the Barcelona Cathedral (whose cathedral close had palm trees inside it, which I thought was pretty much awesome, and the church Santa Maria del Mar among other things.

On the tour we also learned about some current tension between Catalonia (of which Barcelona is a part) and the rest of Spain. The Spanish government declared that in Catalonia the languages that should be learned by children, ranked in order of importance should be: Spanish, English, Catalan. As you can imagine, the Catalonian people are none too pleased about that. Catalan is one of the official languages of Catalonia, so the idea of cutting it out of schools is obviously upsetting to many. Because of this, and for other reasons,  there are people who want Catalonia to split from Spain. Your opinion on this  topic can be expressed through flags.The plain red and yellow striped flag is the Catalan flag (La Senyera) whereas the red and yellow striped flag with the blue trinagle and white star is the Catalan independence flag. Those flying this flag wish for Catalan to become an independent state. As we walked around Barcelona, we saw a lot of these flags. And it seems like once one person hung up a flag, everyone around them felt the need to chime in their opinion as well. It made much more sense once we understood what the meant.

After the tour, we managed to (amazingly) find our way to our next destination: Museo de Xocolata. After we'd paid our ticket was handed to us, and I couldn't help but smile. Our ticket was a chocolate bar. Gotta love chocolate museums. This chocolate museum was a cross between a culinary lesson on how chocolate is made, a history lesson on how chocolate came to Spain, and a art display of amazing sculptures of chocolate. I already knew how chocolate was made due to many trips to Chocolate World at Hersheypark, so I skipped to the history. This was interesting because we'd just been to Cadbury world where we'd learned about how chocolate came to England (via the Spanish) but we didn't get much in-depth information about how it go to Spain at the exhibition in England. Barcelona was actually the first place in Spain chocolate reached, since it is a coastal city with an important port, which made the Museo de Xocolata a fitting museum for Barcelona. There were a number of fun sculptures made of chocolate including Tintin, Up and important Barcelona landmarks like Parc Guell, Arc de Triomf and La Sagrada Familia.

After the Museo de Xocolata we made our way down to the beach. It was still a beautiful sunny day, so we got takeout and ate on a bench overlooking the beach and ocean. As I sat there eating my lunch, I couldn't help but laugh at the wonderful absurdity of the situation. I was eating Chinese food... in Spain...on a December...outside.  It was then that I knew that this was the weirdest most wonderful birthday ever.We walked in the sand a bit and just enjoyed the ocean breeze and atmosphere. Its amazing the vast amount of beautiful areas that make up Barcelona. Nearly everywhere we went I couldn't believe it could get prettier. And then it did.

One thing I learned on this trip is a pretty important lesson. If you ask someone a question in Spanish, they will answer you in Spanish. I know this sounds pretty much rudamentary and a bit "duh-doy" it didn't entirely click until it happened to me. I mean, picture this: I need to use the toilet and there's a public restroom at Barceloneta Beach. It says it's .50€ and that's okay because I really gotta go. What I don't know is if I need to pay at the desk, or if there will be a turnstile to insert my money into like they have at most train and bus stations.  So I walk in, and using my 10th grade Spanish skills, say to the man "Hola! Necesito usar el bano, por favor." I'm pretty proud of myself, even though this is the easier sentence ever. But then he replies to me. In Spanish. Uh, oh. Just because I can string together some words to speak Spanish does not mean I can understand it when its being spoken to me in rapid tongue. He luckily saw the confusion on my face and explained, in English, that I should pay him at the desk. I mean, I knew that they'd respond to me in Spanish, but my brain hadn't gotten far enough to realize that while I can speak basic Spanish, I can't really hold a conversation.

After walking around the beach and Port Olimpico we headed back to our hostel to rest up before our final stop of the day.

I knew that I wanted to go out for dessert that night, because it is my birthday after all. But because it was Sunday, and we wouldn't be able to have dessert until 9 or so, as I researched places, it didn't seem as though it would be possible. There just didn't seem to be much open. Many restaurants don't even open for dinner on Sundays (which is why we decided to have a large late lunch instead). But I did find a few ice cream places that would be open, and we planned to stop there after mass at La Sagrada Familia.

As I said before, mass at La Sagrada Familia is held in the crypt (consequently also where Antoni Gaudi is buried. We chose to go to the Spanish mass seeing as we know some Spanish (Austy more than Caitlin and I) and none of us know Catalan. When we got there, it was really crowded, which I wasn't expecting at all. We got a seat on a bench that had one other person sitting on it, and it seemed like there would be enough room. That is, until the man's wife joined him. Because of this, we were really cramped and Austy was pretty much falling off. Now, there weren't any programs, and I've already established that I don't know very much Spanish, so most of the mass was a blur of confusing phrases (Austy apparently was having more luck following along). I did pick up on the fact that they call the Lord Senor, which kind of made me giggle. Anyway, what really confused me about the service was that it seemed to be contemporary. I was expecting a service at such an important cathedral to be stiff and traditonal but lo and behold there was a drum kit, and a singer at a microphone and a bass guitar. At one point, a man came up to the pulpit, brought his acoustic guitar and we all sang a little song (I think a prayer, maybe Psalms) together. This was definitely a good decision! (We go to church in every country we visit--somewhere along the way, it became our thing.)This was certainly the best, strangest and most random church service I've ever been to. And it was wonderful.

After mass let out, we got ice cream and I got Coco y Xocolato con Pistachio which consisted of coconut ice cream with a chocolate swirl and pistachios mixed in. It basically tasted like a Samoa. And I love Girl Scout cookies. So it was pretty much awesome.

So yeah, pretty much the most amazing birthday ever. We didn't experience any rain (the first time this has happened on any of our trips) and I can to spend time in one of the most beautiful and interesting places I've ever been. Happy birthday indeed.

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