A June 2001 trip
to Barcelona by smmmarti guide
Quote: One memory lingered from my first visit to Barcelona. Birds. And Bees.
I had made the trip from the Costa Brava where I worked as a tour guide during summer vacation from college. A young, handsome German was part of my group. He had invited me to spend the day in Barcelona with him. I remembered seeing birds in public places, a café, the Ramblas. It was all vague, overpowered by the memory of his getting down on one knee and asking me to marry him!
We’d known one another only a week and were different as night and day. What do you say to someone who’s put his heart on his sleeve like that when you only wanted to do some site-seeing? "Let’s go back."
I waited many years to return to Barcelona, this time to experience the wonders of her history and power of her arts.
Then when you walk down the Ramblas and soak in the "culture of people" who crowd this pedestrian passageway day and night, you can understand the carnival atmosphere that is so renown here. Hawkers and gawkers, merchants and con artists, street mimes and singers, lovers and loosers -- they gather here daily to reveal themselves to the world. All you have to do is watch to have a good time.
A four hour ferry ride, or short flight could take you to the stunning Balearic Islands of Mallorca, Menorca or Ibiza, honestly not to be missed destinations for visitors to the region.
There is also a very well organized subway system that easily takes you to just about any neighborhood or area of the city of 3 million people.
Hotel | "Hotel Artes Barcelona"
After our early-morning arrival, we waited for check-in behind a rather tedious line of cruise passengers arriving on overnight flights from America. My room was not ready, but I was escorted to the veranda on the second level.
What? Another sight for sore eyes, the Frank Gehry designed "bronze fish" three stories tall overlooking the Mediterranean ocean. Fresh herbs bloomed in the little patches of terrace separating the pool, dining rooms and cafes. The entire rooftop landscape was accomplished with a similar flair to the earlier admired flowers.
When shown to our room, we found the stylish decor minimalistic but most utterly comforting in the cool colors and neutral tones of "hush, do not disturb."
We stayed at the Hotel Arts for ten days and really enjoyed every minute of it. The concierges were extremely helpful as I had many travel plans to secure and reorganize during my time there. They often placed the calls themselves, as even though Barcelona is Spanish, the language is Catalan and even though everyone speaks Spanish and some English, they respond better to Catalan.
Later at the wine/cigar bar we discovered a favorite concoction or two. In this setting we continued to be entertained throughout our stay by the international clientele and the attentive staff who always brought nuts and snacks with every drink.
Tea time in the lobby cafe is a royal treat with harpists strumming and murmuring multi-lingual conversations in the background.
It was only a $4 taxi ride to the Ramblas, Pasea de Gracia, the Old City or the Wharfside. With a wonderful view from the 30th floor overlooking the Olympic Village and the sea to one side and the entire city of Barcelona stretching to the mountains on the other, we felt we had found a truly comfortable spot to roost.
The Hotel Artes is a Ritz-Carlton association and seems to capture the eccentric, fanciful and beautiful flavor of the city of Barcelona.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on January 19, 2002
Hotel Arts Barcelona (Ritz Carlton)
Carrer de la Marina, 19-21
Attraction | "Sagrada Familia"
It helps to visit a few of Gaudi’s ground-breaking and renown designs prior to absorbing the magnitude of Sagrada Familia, his masterwork. Stroll down the Passea de Gracia and locate the five story townhouse of La Casa Battlo, loaded with metaphysical images and whimsy which could be mistaken for child’s play in lesser hands. Look for the balconies protecting residents from foreign streets in the form of conquistador masks while the exterior resembles a scaly sea creature. At the top of Pedrera be alert for the smokestacks that take human form, appearing as if they were cloaked sand raiders from Star Wars. Or notice the serpentine, colorful mosaics and castles forming the railings and walls at Parc Guell that provoke both fright and delight in visitors of any age.
Most of Gaudi’s images represent powerful links to universal icons that call to the deep corners of the soul and mind, touching us in an iconoclastic and indescribable way by forcing an emotional expression that finds few outlets in everyday life. True art accomplishes this brilliantly and differentiates itself from the merely "odd" or "weird." You don’t have to be an art critic to know it when you see it and millions of people do, from the residents of Barcelona who claim Gaudi as their local hero, to the travelers who venture down the coast of Spain merely to catch a glimpse of his impossibly original and executed works along with the Sagrada Familia.
Coming upon this weird, wonderful structure tucked into an unsuspecting everyday neighborhood (as Gaudi wanted it to be), overpowers like an emotional transfusion. It touches the macabre, sacred, fanciful, and childlike places in the psyche, as well it should. The three main facades represent the Nativity, Passion and Glory of the life of Christ. Study the immense variety of detail, as confluent styles conspire to create the whole, great sum of the parts. From one angle a sweet wedding cake, from another a Salvador Dali nightmare; at once a child’s sand sculpture and a studied genius’ unique vision. It’s as if every piece of stone, glass, cement and mortar is infused with the spirit of its astute creator yet reaches beyond through its twelve apostolic spires in reverence to the Creator of all. A church, in the most inspired sense of the word. Art without a doubt.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on March 21, 2002
La Sagrada Familia
Carrer de Mallorca, 401
Barcelona, Spain 08013
+34 93 2073031
So we somehow felt we deserved our greedy fate when we encountered the ship filled to summer capacity with the most colorful (that's a euphemism, of course) collection of people who have ever been forced to spend two weeks together. Even more than the "Survivor" cast, who are milquetoast, bores and duds compared to our shipboard companions who were already stars; investors, doctors, ministers, entertainers, counts, and heirs. These people, like anyone who would want to display themselves on an island with a group of strangers for the whole world to ridicule, were, with a few exceptions, absolutely out of their minds. Proving that Robert Altman doesn't really have to search far to get his material, nor does Jerry Springer. But that is a different story and I will be certain to provide a link to it when I have it ready.
But the little setup gives some insight into our arrival in Barcelona after plying in circles all night coming only from Rosa, a distance of about 50 kilometers. We were suffering from exhaustion due to the lack of sleep as a result of the startling turn of events and revelations unfurled on our last night onboard (and to think I had thought we were friends all that time and that the Duke really cared for Babette) along with the required unrealistically early wake-up call on the day they finally let us off the ship.
Since the hotel (see journal on Hotel Arts) would not be ready for hours there was only one thing to do. The cruise line had graciously provided this service for guests who were laying over since they had prematurely removed us from our beds. Feeling it was the least they could do for me in my state, I swallowed my self-righteous indignation and climbed aboard the oh-so-pedestrian tour bus, preparing to sleep in the back row.
However, when the bus ambled past the port, my memory perked up and my interest along with it. Yes, yes, I remembered seeing The Ramblas where the people stroll and the vendors hawk and the entertainers beg for tips and the tourists gawk. The old quarter was next just a wee bit beyond that and since I had no recollection of this wonderful section of town from previous visits I became quite excited at the prospects of traipsing through another cathedral led by a local guide with a heavy accent and armed with all the historical data one needs in order to deal with the shutterbug dorks who ask all those questions. Such as myself.
We were just getting to the really interesting story of the special sacristy where only very privileged people get to sit on very special occasions when a guard of the church approached waving his arms frantically at our guide and questioning her as if she stated some major heresy or something. Soon enough our entire group was required to leave the church leaving our undaunted tour director to explain that she had tried to get us in without paying the extra fee for the story about the sacristy or some such nonsense.
Well, no matter, outside there were people dressed in biblical outfits who were more than willing to pose for a small fee and the beautiful courtyards and peacocks and other distractions were good enough for me that morning. I would be back to visit on my own at some point during my ten-day stay here.
From there we went to the stunningly awesome cathedral in progress that is Sacrada Familia (see journal entry of same title). Antonio Gaudi designed it, of course, and we learned that he met his demise by being run over by one of the newly installed streetcars. He forgot to look both ways before crossing, and as he was most likely absorbed in his creative genius at the time, that was all he wrote. What a shame because now they have to figure out how to complete this masterpiece without him. It's a strange church in that there is no roof and no real religious ceremonies that take place here. It's just awe-inspiring in the way that mountains and waterfalls and Olympic Gold are inspiring.
And speaking of that, we went next to the Olympic center where the 1982 summer Olympics were hosted. It's a bit of a desolate scene since so much time has past since its glory days, but with enough imagination its fun to sit in the arena or the great swimming pavilion and imagine how it must have been for the participants here. All around the stadiums there are rows and rows of apartments that were used for the Olympics designed by different respected architects and then made available for housing for the people of Barcelona. Our hotel was in this area and fronted near the beach where they were now setting up to film the X-Games. All this excitement and a beach, too, just round the corner.
Olympic Village refers now to the row after row of restaurants, bars and cafes that line the waterfront for what seems like miles. On the weekends the place is really happening and crowds block the entrances to many of the disco bars after about midnight. Moving down the street passageway is like a cattle drive, but it's really fun because people watching and scoping out the action at each of the dance clubs is entertaining enough. Who needs to actually go in?
But during the week it is a different scene as a few lone dancers (obviously hired because they all look like models or exotic actresses planted to make things look interesting inside an otherwise empty bar) try to lure in the limited selection of takers. Then the whole scene seems a little sad.
Arriving now at the Hotel Arts around noon, I was never so ready for a nap, never so ready to have a big space to myself and choice of dining options. What a strange reaction, I thought, after having just finished two weeks of presumed luxurious treatment that was supposedly the epitome of class, the height of sophistication, the ultimate opportunity to travel and live as the other half does. But here I was off that ship of fools and I couldn't wait to let myself loose on Barcelona. It was then I realized that Barcelona would be a turning point for me somehow, when all these thoughts filtered themselves through my psyche and ended up making sense.
I'm not certain the same effect would have happened had I gone on to Paris, London, or back to Rome at that time. I think Barcelona herself had a lot to do with my awakening but as these things go, it is very difficult to explain or certainly impossible to prove why and how.
As it was, the City became my jumping off point for a few more adventures: the trip to Mallorca (see journal) and then another very different cruise on the Spanish Cruise Lines ship Bolera (see journals on Malta, Capri/Pompeii/Toaromina, Tunisia, Rome.)
My husband had gone to golf in Scotland, and following our grand cruise my son was heading home immediately from the Bolero dock. I kissed him farewell and took the taxi back "home" to the Hotel Arts for a few more days feeling as if I had become a different and better person in this short summer. Which is the real reason to travel and a great reason to visit Barcelona.
This is a great thing if you are looking to pass time and have someone to converse with. However, on one particularly hot afternoon following an intense shopping excursion, my water supply had become depleted and my energies along with it. I needed refreshment fast and not one of those six ounce little sipping glasses of soda, either. I wanted, needed, a giant over-iced version of a big gulp.
Just a block from El Corte Englaise, the renown Spanish department store that sells everything from pharmaceuticals to trips to Thailand, whose various departments and services I had come to know quite well by now, there is a Burger King. I felt a bit sheepish at first, stepping inside to its blast of American-style air conditioning, the first such reminder of this Texas mainstay I'd felt in about two months of being abroad.
It didn't take long for me to get over it. On the menu board, posted in Catalan, Spanish and English, I noticed they sold local beer. It was tempting, but a diet coke, or coke light as it's called in Europe, was really the ticket to quenching my now desperate thirst.
Enormous coke in hand, I found a booth in the back and noticed that the mostly Spanish patrons had brought their tapas bar culture into the Burger King. They appeared to have taken up temporary residence, lingering and chatting, reading or simply pondering, something you rarely see except from vagrants in fast food chains in America. Proving that Burger King and American fast food doesn't necessarily change the culture of the people who frequent it.
I felt less guilty now. Decided to stay awhile myself.
My reverie was broken suddenly by the appearance of a group bursting through the doors. From the first moments I recognized the distinctly American English, which sounded a bit strange to me suddenly, so cacophonous! I looked up to see the group that appeared to be college student (all their clothing was a different version of something the GAP sells) and their parents or chaperones (in slightly larger sizes and closer fitting versions of same). One was attempting to be cooler than the next, both the young and older, purporting to be savvy and sophisticated world-travelers. You could see it in the swagger, the bravado, the boisterous confidence. I shuddered a bit, went back to my book.
They took a large attention-grabbing table in the middle of the room (of course!). The Spaniards took little note. The Americans hurled around opinions of their various wanderings in voices too loud and then checked to see who might have listened in. No one had. They escalated their search for affection and attention from both one another and the others in the room. When that failed, a few of the males started working the room, approaching the other patrons, insisting on their interaction as if out to prove their hospitality. This was a Burger King, and I suppose they felt that being Americans entitled them to reign on the throne of the Burger.
One man had insisted three times on buying an absolutely disinterested but well mannered Spanish lady and her daughter a coke. "No," she had insisted an equal number of times, each time the demonstrative statement getting more emphatic, carefully drawing suddenly on her high school English. Yet the man persisted in his "cordiality" far beyond the point of polite.
Now I was amused, if not embarrassed for them. I could see the good intention. They had grown past the ugly American, the demanding, selfish, bores who had become stereotyped in another generation. This was the new generation of ugly Americans and I suddenly saw what the grave difference was between "us" (I'm one of them) and "them," (the rest of the world). Right before my eyes in this innocent yet glaring example, I noted an obvious case of self-centered, self-absorption, so immature as to be laughable. In their focused and determined intent to prove something, to be loveable, they had made themselves a nuisance. They had come to Europe to expand their perspectives (I presume, perhaps mistakenly) but still saw even the simplest social engagement only from the limited perspective of their own immediate needs. Like small children. As if they were special just for being there and everyone should acknowledge that. They hadn't bothered to pay the slightest bit of attention to the cues of local socially acceptable behavior.
Oh, my. I made a mental note. "The Universe Does Not Revolve Around You." Repeat.
"The World Does Not Revolve Around American Culture" as welcome as it was on that hot summer afternoon in Barcelona.