Just Emkaying: The one where we went to Barcelona - Spanish Escape Part 1

Sep 18, 2016

The one where we went to Barcelona - Spanish Escape Part 1

If anyone asked me at the start of the year if I would travel to Europe in 2016, I would have probably scoffed at the idea. Not that I don't like to travel, I love it. However, with time, the weight of responsibilities and commitments takes it's toll on everyone. And that means that traveling together as a old gang of friends would be very difficult.

No, this is not us. It's my impression of us. 
Often, the best memories I have are the ones with my friends when we go out. Like the time when we almost ran away from the hotel we were staying in without paying them in Langkawi. Or the airport Fiasco in Manila and the Bar fight in Boracay! But irrespective of what happens, it's always something that we all look back at with fondness. I wouldn't be wrong to say that our favorite has to be getting stuck atop a pass in Ladakh.

Nonetheless, It's been awhile since I've come back from Spain, and I've been shoddy with the updates. I've only got over the whole adventure just a few weeks ago. A part of me does not want to write about it - only to cherish the memories at my own pace. And I don't even know where to start - should it be about all the places I've been to or all the amazing people I met. Or perhaps stuff that was off the beat or  those small moments in an unknown world that makes you realise the joy of the little things.

I went alone but I don't think I came back the same.

The trip began around 11th July from Mumbai to Barcelona, via Munich. No amount of reading and research can actually prepare you for the real thing. Especially when you are travelling solo, your best friends are your senses. Living in the moment, experiencing everything, seeing and taking in everything.

(Also a fail safe plan that let's you drop everything and take the first flight back home)

The first thing that I noticed in Munich, and actually even across the flight was that its true that Germans are generally tall and well built - like they are oft portrayed.They also come across as rigid and process oriented - going by the general manner in which all the immigration and airport officials conversed, as well as the stewards on the flight. Also true is that the women* have striking features and light eyes.

(*Based on my extensive understanding of one airhostess who looked like Candice Swanepoel + Miranda Kerr)

Munich airport could be renamed Lufthansa airport and it wouldn't be far from the truth. A never ending array of gates, and a 15 minute metro ride between terminals. My connecting flights were an hour apart, and in spite of calling Lufthansa and confirming that I could make it between terminals, It still took me more than 1 hour to get from touch down to the next gate. So I missed my flight and my vacay had not even started.

The irony is that I would have never made it in time,  because the gate closes half an hour before departure and my luggage was not even on the flight. So much so, that when I came running into the gate, the Lufthansa official addressed me by name and told me that I had been put onto the next flight! This, and the only other probable exception to German precision was when airport officials rushed me through VIP procedures when they saw the time on my boarding pass - so a guy in shorts and shabby t-shirt in a line of swanky, sharp looking suits and skirts. A small step for me, a big leap for my fashion-statement (in a store near you soon).

However, the airport is well equipped with lots of resting spots, great stuff on display, charging points and free WiFi. And I was quite thankful to walk around after sitting like a mummified hippo for hours.

But enough about Munich. On to Barcelona!

After a butter like landing on the tarmac (which made me want to applause in great appreciation - best landing ever!), I took a deep breath and stepped into my vacation, albeit delayed a few hours.

The Barcelona airport is basically an Olympic long distance track, disguised as a Luxury mall with airplanes happening to come and go on the side. After what seemed like an eternity of walking, I landed up in an open space which had tons of people walking in all directions, and every sign board having at least 5 transportations modes. I found the tourist center which is every traveller's heaven. Armed with maps, boldly drawn out routes and a 3 day metro pass I tried to figure out my way to the metro and the right route. If there's ever one solid piece of advice I'd give anyone travelling to Europe is to really get to know the public transport - they are very convenient, cheap and available everywhere. Download an offline map - Google is good, but Triposo is even better. And understand a bit of the local words - avenue, diagonal = roads, intersection. And feel free to ask someone for help - they won't tell you to go to a dead end and take a left (like in Bangalore)

In Barcelona I stayed in a Hostel - great way to stay especially if you leave in the morning and are back at night. Essentially the difference between a hostel and hotel is that you have space to sleep, and share a bathroom. The rest is largely the same - clean, courteous, friendly and far more hospitable! The added advantage is you get cheap food and drinks, and the close quarters means that you are going to make friends, sooner rather than later.

The Open space at the Generator hostel!! Though it's always reccomedned to check hostels first on Hostelworld.com  

Unlike most of the popular cities in Spain, Barcelona has great things to do in every direction. So you have to take a trip around the city to be able to see all the great places - The Sagrada Familia is a must if you are not doing anything else. The concept of "Free walking tours" is also quite often the best way to learn about places, get some great tips and deals, and to make new friends. Tour groups organise free walking tours around different parts of the city, and this is repeated twice or thrice a day. At the end of the tour, you give a tip - depending on your means, and that's all there is. On day 1 I went to the Gothic quarters, where I learnt a lot about the inquisition, how a drug distribution point was turned into a kids play area, and of course that I am going to have to walk a lot.

Like seriously, a lot.

But my favorite part was learning about Catalonia as the region was called, it's fierce movement for independence, and its strained ties with the capital and the government. It's a different dialect of spanish (which is an official language and seen along with traditional spanish and english everywhere) has its own flag and had 1 million people turn up for a peaceful demonstration for independence this year!(One of their supporters - Pep Guardiola)

Such is their pride, that when you use simple words in Catalan, they can change the way a shopkeeper speaks to you. Often you will see the Catalonian flag (also the Barcelona Away team uniform) displayed proudly outside homes and establishments.

I used the rest of the day to head to the tourist center of the city (Plaza Real) to see the shopping spots, and have some Paella - a interesting concoction of rice and seafood. There are many variations and different styles, and the one that I got didn't really catch my fancy - perhaps that's just me being very protective of my coastal sea food preferences!

I also had to visit a famous place for Churros with Chocolate, unfortunately, the place was closed for a month as the owners had gone on vacation (of course I made up for that in Seville!)

The shopping spots are also quite interesting. Expensive knick knacks mixed with cheap memorabilia, all lined along with the most famous thing in Spain - Food!! There are so many options for food and drink that one could go there every day for a month and still find something new.

So much cool stuff, I really wanted that chess board!
Speaking of Plaza's - they are basically city centers with a huge open spaces (think courtyard) surrounded by restaurants on all sides, and with a variety of performances. I would definitely make a visit to every city Plaza, they have a lot of culture and history hidden in them. For e.g, in most courtyards you will find three floors, uniform in design and colours, basically living quarters for officers and their families in the old days. However, one of the peculiar things is that the windows get smaller as you move up the floors.


Well let me, - "the great explorer of windows and asker of such random questions at walking tours that disturbs the story that the guide was narrating, much to the annoyance of the other people"- tell you.

In the olden days Tax was levied on anything and everything - and there also was a window tax. The bigger the window, the more moolah you give. In the courtyards, the top most floor was often for servants and other people lower than officers in stature. So as you move from first floor to third floor, the windows get smaller, because the poor people did not have the means to pay for it. Often, outside the complex courtyard, people didn't even have windows. You can notice them even in the government buildings that are quite old.

I have also now a new respect for French windows, though am not sure they levied window tax.

This day was also getting some basics in place - Food, water and city living. "Ham and Quesa"are Ham and cheese sandwiches that are available everywhere, and are tasty. These can cost between 1.5 Euro to 5 euro, depending on the place you buy it. But it is quite filling. The other trick is to get a good heavy breakfast, and the best bet is to get cheap breakfasts at hostel or a free breakfast at the hotel you choose to stay in. What I did was to get the 4.5 Euro breakfast at my hostel - Eggs, cold cut meat, sausages, lots of bread and croissants (Yum!), corn flakes, fruit juices, coffee, baked pastry and fruits, yoghurt and coffee. And I usually packed fruits, bread and pastry into my bag for lunch / or later.

It's also worth it to not mess with drinking water - you have to pay for water everywhere, unlike in India. However there are free drinking water fountains (chlorinated water), so carrying a bottle and refilling it can be good, but I decided to buy a big 1.5 litre bottle of water every day for about a euro. I also kept drinking - beer and coke zero all day, because why the hell not?! Almost ALL of the cafes and restaurants have seating outside, under canopies that spray misty water to cool down the place. And there's nothing more refreshing than a glass of beer (or wine if you prefer) to chill. I also tried to have one good meal at a well known place everyday - this can go between 8 to 30 euros, depending on where and what you eat. For e.g the Paella cost me 11 Euros. I budgeted about 50 Euros, and I tried to plan the restaurants a day ahead so I could eat good stuff at the best places!

Day 2 was meant for a hop and hop off bus that takes you around 30 stops across Barcelona. You get on board from the starting point, and from there on, you can get on and off of any of these buses, as many times as you want for free. They have a neat air conditioned coach, and a sunny upper deck equipped with headphones that have guides in 16 languages. The audio talks you through the route when a venue of interest comes up. And trust me, in other cities you can make do with just the metro, but in Barcelona it's absolutely worth it to get this service. The city has attractions in every direction, and the  busses take two routes. One to the east, and one to the west, and you can finish one of them and then get on the other.

My trick was simple. I started on the first bus as early as possible, and by lunch I was done with both the routes (about 4 hours), and had earmarked all the places I wanted to visit - think of it as a recce, because I did not get off anywhere. I realised that I would have to make some compromises, and my favorite part of any visit - the beaches, had to be dropped. That meant quite a lot, because there are more than 5 beaches on the coast, each more beautiful than the previous one. Instead on the day I decided to take the buses to go back up the hills and visit the Olympic stadium, the National Museum and get a beautiful view of the harbor!

Practicing Diving at the Olympic Pools! What a beautiful view to swim!

The National Museum is fantastic, and I highly recommend it over most of the other things, including the Gaudi Museum. what is also amazing is the three level fountain that goes from the mountain into the city, complete with escalators that are hidden away from normal view. What you must also do, is to head to the roof dome of the Museum to get a magnificient view of all of Barcelona. Or course there is a set time that the place closes down, but darkness hits Barcelona only around 9, so you have lots of time. The below is the view from the top of the dome. But honestly no photo can do justice to what the eyes can see.

You can also experience this in 360 by using the google street view app and following this link (only on mobile) : https://goo.gl/c7V7xi

Here's a picture of the Fountains before they were switched off for the day:

Fountain at Level 2

Fountain at Level 3 - Also known as the Magic Fountain - Colourful light shows are conducted on limited occasions

I'm not a very knowledgable person when it comes to art and culture. I can't distinguish a painting from one master to another, and I have no clue what modernism counter renaissance culture means. But I must say that it intrigues me as to how someone could think and create something that expresses a feeling, or captures a moment that a mere mortal could not.

A scene from a war between the Spanish forces and the Moors
Each photo represents a kind of person. E.g. The second on top row is "The Optimist", the third in the second row is "The Spy"

The museum is a must visit, and do try to reach there early in the afternoon, so you have enough time to tour the place as well as get time to relax by the beautiful fountains, and catch the sun setting atop the dome.

See it in full screen, full brightness!

As I came to the end of Day 2, I realised that I would have to miss a lot more of the beautiful Spain that I had expected. 3 days is just not enough to experience Barcelona - a week would be best! I couldn't catch any live performances nor visit the Black Madonna at Mt. Montserrat. I also missed going to Tibidabo, I've been told its a beautiful trek up the hill and the view from the Ferris wheel at the top of the hill is magnificent. What I really wished to do was cycling around the city. However, you need to prepare for this because you need id, addresses and a pre paid card to use the cycles.Of course this card can be used across Spain, and not just Barcelona so it's worth it!

The sun set in Spain is around 9pm, which means you can spend a lot of time around the city viewing its natural beauty and yet have enough time to chill in between. And most of the places remain open very late.

I found the city very relaxed, having a varied mix of people. In my experience, there is no "stereotypical Spaniard" - in the manner of looks or dressing. People from north Europe, South East Asia, South America all come together in this city and are essentially what makes this city so unique. Think of it as Mumbai, but with the world congregating there and making it their own.

And the way they have integrated modern living with culture is fantastic. At no point in the city would you feel overwhelmed by a " crowded claustrophobic City" nor feel overburdened by a lack of facilities at a world cultural site. Everything comes together perfectly!

There are many quaint thing everywhere - Old world drinking fountains, the emblem / crest of the city showing up on pavements and buildings, pigeons and doves walk around without a care in the world, and dogs - everywhere. The city is dog friendly to the point of a fault, they are welcome in restaurants, airports, shopping malls and even transport. And people are so into fitness! At any point of the day you can find someone or the other running around, either in the multiple parks or on the wide pavements. Traffic rules are followed like they were commandments, and if you stand at a zebra crossing then the cars will stop - even if it is a green light for them. The city is massively pushing for adoptions of cycles and has recently introduced Electric trams in the city. How awesome!

Did I mention free WiFi almost everywhere?!

Phew. Something I've kept for the next post - my roommates at hostel, the vanishing metro station and more on day 3 of Barcelona!


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1 comment:

  1. Nice read. Merge both parts in seperate links and change the header.

    May I suggest embedding hyperlinks of social media just below headers. So that Readers can share in other forums and blog reaches to greater pool of audiences