|Posted on December 25, 2012 at 9:45 AM|
By Algy Moncrieff
Arriving in a strange place at a strange time always tends to have something of a tidal wave effect - change and disorientation crashing over you. I love it. Stepping off the train into the heat of Barcelona station equipped as usual with my large rucksack having just made a somewhat disastrous crossing of the Pyrenees. The feeling was magnified to the point of being a little overwhelming. It was getting late, about 6pm, I was two days early (so the hostel booking hadn't commenced yet) and I didn't have a clue how to get there anyway. All I was equipped with navigationally was an unhelpful metro map on the wall, a map of the Pyrenees, and a crumpled piece of paper detailing the local streets to the hostel, which unfortunately didn't cover anything anywhere near the train station.
I wandered around a bit. Tourist information was shut. Outside the station was a massive building site which seemed to have swallowed all street names, so I couldn't work out which was where. I looked at my pathetic crumpled map again. Wait a second... In bottom corner was a metro station: Joanic. My saviour! Fantastic.
Back into the station I found the escalator down to Barcelona's brilliant metro system, bought my ticket for about Euro1.50, made it to Joanic, slogged up the hill, and arrived at the hostel exhausted and annoyed but quite relieved. Only problem was; the woman at the desk wasn't too enthusiastic about giving me a room. However after a few moments of looking through papers and clicking around her computer screen with a concerned look on her face she suddenly relented and led me to a pretty rough dorm with 12 bunk beds. Four of the spaces were empty, the rest I discovered later were occupied by eight girls of various nationalities. I can't think why the nice lady hesitated when confronted with an unshaven, sweaty hiker freshly arrived from the mountains!
And so it was that I arrived in Barcelona.
Everyone who has been to Barcelona will tell you, "Barcelona is great". its has some of the best architectures in the world including art galleries, museums, parks, and ice cream... I have to say that I absolutely agree, but the first couple of days I was there I was somewhat sceptical. I think it was something of a shock to my system to have been thrown in less than a day from the vast open spaces of the Pyrenees into the cramped, busy, concrete, high-rise city that is Barcelona. Aargh! People!
Nevertheless, I soon got used to it. I wandered down La Rambla, a massive walkway packed with human statues and people selling animals and postcards and hats and t-shirts (I heart Barcelona) that runs down through the central shopping area of the city. Off to the side are a million tacky souvenir shops, each a carbon copy of the next, but there are also windy alleys where the sunlight falls on fountains and statues and much more attractive shops and restaurants. There is also a huge market filled with incredible fruits and meats and spices and alcohol. La Rambla takes you to it all.
The next day I took the metro system once more to meet my friend who was arriving from England (strangely he declined my offer of crossing the mountains with me). Having spoken to pretty much nobody for the past week (apart from the lovely people in the hostel) I had a lot to talk about, and so did he. But he's always like that.
Clearly now a veteran of the city I introduced him to Barcelona, introduced him to the metro system (did I mention that it's great?) and to the hostel, Alberg la Ciutat (which is less great but still perfectly reasonable). And so the transformation from hiker to tourist was complete.
Over the course of the week we wandered the city, I tried to persuade him out of his conservative eating habits to try some of the fabulous Spanish food, and we saw pretty much every tourist attraction that was on offer in the city.
The MACBA or Museu d'Art Contemporani deBarcelona (they speak Catalan as their first language and Spanish as their second in Barcelona) was a particularly interesting visit. A stark white modern building set (like most things in Barcelona) down a few winding sidestreets, the Contemporary Art Museum is one heck of a strange place. Forget the Tate Modern; this was art that mainly seemed to come from the darker, more deranged side of the art world. Slightly disturbing as some of the exhibits were, I still found it to be a fascinating experience - and some of the art was even quite pleasant to look at.
Another worthwhile visit was to the Montjuic Castle, an old abandoned fort with its massive guns still facing out to sea that is now free to walk round. Accessed by cable car (or legs) it offers amazing views of the city and some lovely gardens and parkland to wander around as well.
The Park Guell, very near the hostel, is another fabulous place to visit, although by day it is crawling with tourists, so early evening is the best time to visit by far. A beautiful garden designed by famous Barcelona artist and architect Gaudi, the Park offers incredible views over the city, cleverly designed architecture and mosaics and some lovely paths to explore. A good place to watch the sunset, although be careful they don't lock you in...
When it rained one of the days we decided to head for the aquarium, since it was all under cover. Although they have an excellent range of fish, to see them you have to pay through the nose and the whole walk round takes probably no more than half an hour. A bit disappointed, we decided to go to the zoo as well since the weather was clearing up. This was, although again not cheap, a much more sound investment, with plenty to do and see for the rest of the day. Some of the enclosures, particularly for the elephants, were a bit small which seems a shame, but otherwise the zoo is an excellent day out.
Other than all this there are a plethora of museums to visit, the Picasso art gallery, the (still unfinished) and extremely impressive cathedral Sagrada Familia (designed by Gaudi who sadly did not live to see its completion), more gardens, endless restaurants and cafes, even the beach if you fancy it. La Rambla provides plenty of distractions, the market is very much worth a visit, and some excellent ice cream places are also very much worth sampling the wares of! If you are a football fan then Camp Nou stadium is vast and very impressive, but we decided not to take the tour because football bores me to distraction and it's not cheap either.
The people (especially the eclectic mix staying in the hostel) were lovely, the food was lovely, the weather was for the most part brilliant. Undeniably, Barcelona has something pretty magical. It truly is a great city, and well worth a visit if you ever find yourself in Europe.