Thursday, May 12, 2011

Getting Our Bearings in Barcelona

At one end of La Rambla, Christopher Columbus gestures the explorer's vague but determined "thataway."  At the other stands the Plaça Catalunya. In between: an opera house, art museums, street vendors, living statues, and tourists, tourists, tourists finding their way through the Catalan capital city's most famous walk.

Our flight arrived shortly before noon, giving us plenty of time to head over to our hotel, get settled and cleaned up, then hit the city for our first immersion in Spanish culture (or, I should say, Catalan culture; Barcelona may be a part of Spain, but it is first and foremost a part of Cataluyna--with a separate Romance language that reads to the uninitiated like some cross between le français and Español, or Castillian).  Though we were staying out in the Forum neighborhood--a mishmash of modernisme architecture, contemporary corporate-consumer-antichic, convention center, and overdeveloped beachfront--Barcelona's public transportation is excellent and got us to the city center in short order via a 5 minute walk and 20 minute Metro ride.  And though Barcelona is deservedly described as an eminently walkable city, the 3-day Metro passes we picked up for around €12 were well-worthwhile investments.  (One other thing of note: Barcelona's Metro is similar to the London Underground more than to the Washington, D.C., Metro from our home in that transfer stations are apparently two separate stations connected by a few flights of stairs and a kilometer or so of tunnel.  I'm much more used to walking 100 meters and taking an escalator to switch lines--I'm glad we took a cab from the airport instead of trying to take rail and bus!)

In the Plaça Catalunya, but not the more humble Font de Canaletes
We began our promenade down La Rambla from the Plaça Catalunya, though somehow we missed the most of the plaza itself--apparently taking the Metro exit closest to the street instead of the square.  I suppose over 10 hours of flying and nearly 14 of total travel is a lame if honest excuse for that oversight.  That was too bad as we missed the Font de Canaletes, the fountain whose waters guarantee he who drinks them will return to Barcelona.  For what it's worth, I don't think it takes a mystical sip from an antique fountain to ensure that we'll one day visit the city again--Barcelona is certainly one of my favorite cities from even our brief stay.

The street itself is named for the Arabic word for "intermittent stream" or "riverbed" (n.b. I'm relying on my guide books and Wikipedia here--Arabic is unfortunately not a language I know enough even to curse in) after the drainage paths around the old city walls of the Barri Gòtic.

Even on a mid-week afternoon a bit ahead of the real tourist season, La Rambla is busy!  Fortunately, the street is limited to pedestrian traffic--I can't imagine if a la Bangkok the narrow thoroughfare had cars, motorcycles driven by the terminally insane, tuk-tuks, and the occasional lorry or two trying to plow their way through the crowd.  The press of people alone is more than enough for the agoraphobic ambulator.

Several of our guidebooks mentioned the "living statues" performing along La Rambla as a point of distinction--now, perhaps I'm just culturally ignorant here, but I've certainly come across these folks elsewhere in the past, from the French Quarter in New Orleans to Chicago's Grant Park to an appearance in the countryside village of the British buddy-movie-satire Hot Fuzz.  Said simian statuary does appreciate a coin tossed into the hat much as any public performance artists--but do watch your pockets (as you'll be far from the only blithe tourist stopping to gawk, snap a photo, and fish out some spare change).  We had no problems with pickpockets and felt pretty safe in Barcelona as a whole, but I'd be remiss not to pass along a gentle public service reminder about not ending up as "that tourist" who has to call up American Express for a new set of traveler's cheques (does anyone use those anymore?) and the embassy for a new passport...

To be honest, we didn't stop for many of the more traditional tourist sights along La Rambla; several were undergoing renovations (the most familiar architectural element in Europe does seem to be scaffolding, followed closely by construction cranes), and the crowds were just stupendous along much of the route.  Nonetheless, there's something for almost anyone to see, from several impressive churches (at home in any self-respecting city from old Europe) to a large outdoor market to the Gran Teatre Liceu to homes and businesses cast in Mediterranean colors with their balconies overlooking the street and its passengers (see the photo leading off this post).

Streetscape near the portside end of La Rambla
One thing I must point out: like so many once-darling streets and squares in cities across the world, La Rambla has lost a bit of its charm in recent years with the gradual incursion of high-end retail chains, coupled with the profusion of cheap, made-in-China souvenir stands--what I'm looking for in a city are quaint local shops and restaurants set alongside plazas slightly off the beaten path (of which there are plenty in Barcelona, mind you--more on that in a subsequent blog post).

The Plaça Rieal
Snacks in the hotel lounge at lunchtime weren't quite enough to keep us going as the afternoon wore on, but neither of us really wanted to grab a bite at the sort of trite, tourist-filled eateries directly along the course of La Rambla.  From our last trip to Europe and visits to Frankfurt and northern Italy, we had our hearts set on spending several afternoons out on the patios of a smaller cafe or the like.  We took in a few side streets, straying into nearby neighborhoods like El Raval and the Barri Gòtic but saving a more in-depth exploration of them for a later day of the trip.

Finally, dwindling blood sugar reserves drove us into the first likely restaurant we came to, a place named "Trobador" (which location, I honestly don't recall--they've got three or four in Barcelona, with at least two along the route we walked).  There we settled in for a quite tasty late lunch; I had a crispy whole-fish and Beth a pasta, along with a nice bottle of wine.  The waiter told us he'd worked in Georgetown at a hotel restaurant for a couple of years and was well-familiar with our hometown of Fairfax, VA, and directed us to a nice wine shop in Barcelona where we could pick up what we'd enjoyed with our meal or anything else which caught our fancy.

Refueled, late afternoon found us at the opposite end of La Rambla, at the Monument a Colom.  Christopher Columbus, the explorer famous to every American schoolchild, made Barcelona his port of call upon return from his discovery of the New World, reporting back to his financial sponsors Ferdinand and Isabella--and the city erected the monument for the the 1888 Expo to commemorate his historic achievement.  (As a side note, our trip also included the spot where Columbus made one of his bids to the Spanish crown, proverbially falling to his knees within the Alhambra's walls as he wore down the royal reluctance to coughing up cash for his expedition.)

Much like New York's Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument, the Space Needle in Seattle, Paris' Eiffel Tower, and any number of other tall, vaguely-phallic monuments, tourists can pay a few dollars (or Euros, as the case is here) to ascend to the top of the edifice for a panoramic view out over the city.  There's a tiny elevator--with room for the operator and perhaps two to four visitors depending on their girth (I'd err on the lower side for the typical American on holiday...)--which runs to the top, opening out onto an observation platform nearly 200 feet above the street level.  Barcelona on a good day nonetheless presents a fairly hazy view.

The Port Vell, or Old Port
There's plenty more to do at the base of La Rambla, between the Port Vell (Old Port) area, a large if boring mall (the Maremàgnum, complete with tourist-standby IMAX theater and aquarium), a sprawling and fantastic Maritime Museum, and the nearby neighborhood and beach of La Barceloneta.  Honestly, we'd planned to visit the Museu Maritim, upon the ringing endorsement of a coworker and my general enjoyment of such things (a highlight of the trip to London a few years back was the Cutty Sark)... but we simply ran out of time.  Well, even without a sip from the Font de Canaletes, I have little doubt we'll pay a return visit some day, particularly given the fact after the trip Beth identified Barcelona as one of her favorite cities to have experienced.

But for us, with the setting sun, we headed back to our hotel for a well-needed night's sleep with our first taste of Barcelona sated, our tummies full of delights, our wallets somewhat lighter, and a better idea of what we planned to tackle over the next few days. 

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