Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Barcelona, Spain

Posted on 10/15/03

Summer was staging its last gasp in Barcelona. Unlike the cool, windy Atlantic side of Spain, the Mediterranean side of the country was calm, sunny and still managing to creep up into the mid-70’s each afternoon. The sun was a little hazy, but that wasn’t stopping the diehard beach-goers from sprinting out the front door of the hostel each morning and soaking up what little meaningful UV rays that were still left in the season.

Seapoint hostel was, as you might have gathered, right on the sea. Inches from the beach. It was pricey (19.50 Euros with locker rental), but breakfast and unlimited internet use were included in the deal. If you were a sun worshiper, it was perfect. Unfortunately, it was also a brisk 20 minute walk from the undeniable focal point of action and weirdness on Barcelona’s Ramblas (the main, pedestrian walkway and social hangout center of the city). Also, even with the locker, Seapoint seemed to be the least secure hostel I stayed in all summer, which is a huge turn-off when you are a walking Best Buy advertisement. But I had a plan.

I had spent several weeks in and around Barcelona in 1993 and ’94. During that time, I stayed at a wonderful hostel, right off the Ramblas, called Casa de Huespedes Mari Luz. It was run by a sweet family that was as accommodating as hostel caretakers could be and they scrubbed the place down like an operating room every day. I couldn’t find the place on the internet before my arrival, but once I had recovered from damage done by the San Sebastian-Barcelona night bus, I set out to reacquaint myself with the city and ascertain whether the hostel that had filled me with such nice memories was still in business. Finding the Casa de Huespedes is not easy task. It’s smack in the middle of the Old City where the typical snarl of narrow streets and the half-hearted attempt at street signage makes finding anything smaller than the Astrodome a frustrating endeavor. The first time I navigated to Casa de Huespedes in ‘93, I had directions from my shredded copy of “Let’s Go” to follow. I later discovered that while the directions took you through an agonizingly long tour of the Old City, the infrequent streets signs and lack of notable landmarks made this extended route the best and only way to steer through the neighborhood as a first-time visitor. After all the time I spent in Barcelona in ’93 and ‘94, I was like hardened local. I had the streets of the Old City so totally committed to memory that I could get from one side to the other drunk and blindfolded. I knew every hostel, grocery store, café and restaurant that would sell me a cheap bottle of wine to go at 1:00AM. But that was nine years ago. When I went looking for Casa de Huespedes this time, to be safe, I retraced the tourist, novice path I took the very first time I found the place. The layout of the neighborhood came back to me so fast that I was able to execute a daring shortcut on my way to the hostel. Nothing had changed. I found the place and I was overjoyed to see that it was still open and being run by the exceptionally friendly eldest daughter, Eva.

NO ONE was safe during our drinking bender

After two nights at Seapoint, I moved into Casa de Huespedes and reveled in the sentimentality of my return. I was flooded with reminiscences of the early nineties almost immediately. The first was not so good. The only drawback to staying at Casa de Huespedes is that it is located at the top of four flights of hellacious steps. As I’ve mentioned previously, my baggage weighs almost as much as I do, hence stairs are not my friend. To make matters worse, I was drunk and working on two hours sleep. I was kept up until 7:00AM by several members of the Nova Scotia metal/punk band Bucket Truck who had just finished recording in Sweden with the same producer that did the Hives. These guys were rock stars in training and on a serious tension relieving vacation at the Seapoint. Actually, I can’t lay the blame of my condition solely on them. Somewhere around 11:30PM, I had the opportunity to just say ‘no.’ But I’m an idiot, so I let myself get swept up into the late-night hysteria. After seven hours of drinking and becoming best friends with the bartenders in four different bars we staggered back into Seapoint, ready for oblivion. The guitarist, a Kiwi (who had to catch an early morning plane to Turkey. I wonder if he made it.) and myself reeled into the internet area to check email, which of course is an absolute necessity at 5:30AM when you are too drunk to even work the mouse, much less type anything. None of us had any email (we had just checked a few hours before during a pee break at the hostel), but what we did find was pure evil in the form of two bottles of decent red wine, sitting out on the table, uncorked and abandoned. Sweet Jesus. I looked at the others, we grinned at each other and put our game faces on for another 90 minutes of crazed drinking. The hostel desk clerk was visibly uneasy and for good reason. We were already bent and two bottles of red wine between three people spelled certain disaster.

This street performer was imitating a famous Salvador Dali photo

I’m not sure what exactly happened, but somehow I managed to type out two surprisingly coherent emails while the red wine was disappearing and then I reportedly ended up in bed at 7:00AM. Flash forward two hours to waking up and switching hostels… I was pissed off and sweating after missing breakfast at Seapoint by four minutes and having the shithead cafeteria people stand there and refuse to even give me coffee. Then two harrowing metro rides later I was at the base of those vile stairs at Casa de Huespedes. I was at that point between being drunk and sobering up, forced awake after insufficient sleep, where every little inconvenience was a major personal affront to me. To start, those two cruel metros stops, with no escalators! Didn’t those dorks realize when they built those mofos that I was going to be staggering through there half drunk and exhausted 40 years later??? And now my fury was directed at the idiots who decided to erect a building with no elevator with the staircase shipped in straight from hell… I wasn’t remotely feeling up to the task, but there was no getting around it, so I got started on the stairs. After the first flight, I was exhausted. After the second, I was in need of medical attention. After the third, I could have sworn that I smelled fire and brimstone. I don’t remember the last flight. It was done on total animal rage and instinct.

The only bright spot of the morning was that my bed was made and waiting for me when I arrived. Despite my condition, I was awash with pleasant memories as I was led to a room that was across from one of my long term rooms in ’94. I remembered this room vividly as there were four adorable French girls that spent a week there during my stay. They did nothing but party all night and spend the days lounging around their room in dangerously little clothing with the door propped open. My bed in the room across the hall was right in front of the door affording me a clear view into their room. I took many pleasant “siestas” with one eye open that week.

I collapsed into my bed as two young Slovenian girls that arrived on my heels moved into the bunk across from mine. This couldn’t have been timed worse. I didn’t want company. I didn’t want noise. I didn’t even want the four scantly clad French girls. I just wanted dreams. To my utter surprise and relief, the Slovenian girls also dropped everything and crawled into their beds. I would later learn that they had just gotten off a 14 hour, over-night bus trip from Malaga. The three of us passed out without even saying hello and slept undisturbed for five hours.

When I awoke and was able to figure out where I was, I was a very happy man. Casa de Huespedes was still the quiet, squeaky clean place that I remembered. As I stirred, so did the Slovenians. We got to our feet, traded greetings and I set out in search of food and adventure.

Casa Batilo
Casa Batilo
La Pedrera
La Pedrera

Güell Park

Somehow I had the energy to plot a good long sightseeing trek. One of the highlights of touring Barcelona is the numerous Antoni Gaudi sights. Gaudi was an artist/architect working around the turn of the century and his designs are still drawing massive crowds today. Among his contributions in Barcelona are Güell Park, two wicked looking, coveted apartment buildings and the gigantic Temple de la Sagrada Familia (“Temple of the Sacred Family”) that has been under construction since 1893. This thing is so immense and intricate that they have only completed about 50% of it and no one involved in the project will even take a guess at the completion date (although I found a guide book that was claiming work would be completed in 2035). Back in the olden days, taking more than a century to build a cathedral was commonplace. In the 20th/21st centuries, 100 years to build anything is unheard of. This should give you some indication as to the magnitude and detail in Gaudi’s mind boggling designs. Part of the reason that construction is taking so long is that in many respects they are sticking to the traditional methods of masonry and stone work. Also there have been a few delays. There was a 25 year break in the work after Gaudi’s death while people debated whether to leave the cathedral unfinished in a tribute to the man or to push on and complete it as he presumably intended. Plus, there was an incident during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s that resulted in a small portion of the Temple, as well as much of the plans and models that Gaudi had prepared, being totally destroyed in a blaze set by anarchists.

Long shot of the front
closer shot of the front

I toured the Sagrada Familia when I was in Barcelona in 1994. They have come a long way in 10 years, but they obviously still have light-years to go. Gaudi was in his 70s when he died after being run down by a tram in 1926. Fortunately for everyone involved, he realized early on that there was no way that he was going to survive to see the Sagrada Familia completed, so he dropped everything and dedicated the last 12 years of his life to creating designs for future architects and builders to work from. Much of the work that was lost during the fire was painfully pieced back together after the conclusion of the civil war and construction continued. Many of his designs were so new and radical that they required an entirely different form of architecture to be developed to make construction feasible. Even by today’s standards, Gaudi’s designs are pretty wacked. Now imagine how they appeared to people at the turn of the 20th century. I’m surprised that he wasn’t accused of being a pagan and burned at the stake.

The Sagrada Familia was crawling with tourists when I arrived. Waiting in line was necessary to see just about everything. Even standing across the street to get a long-shot photo of the front façade required an interminable wait while all the people in front of me got their shots and got the hell out of the way, sometimes taking maddening amounts of time to get all their friends posed just right. The worst were the stairs going up and then back down the 18 story high towers. Walking up 18 stories is bad enough, but when you have to do it in slow motion, one agonizing step at a time as the line of people slowly makes their way up the tight spiral stairs, your leg muscles start to poop out on you really fast. Getting to the top was only mildly unbearable. Of course I was a moron and did the long tour that took me to the very top, whereas most of the smart people turned around and headed back down at the shortcut detour at around the 250th step. Going down was what destroyed me. About half way down, I caught up with and got stuck behind these two British chicks that were obviously scared shitless by descending the spiral stairs. In their defense the stairs were kind of shallow, frighteningly steep and there was no inside railing. This gave you the feeling that if you took a bad step, you would plummet to your death right down the center of the spiral staircase, taking out a couple dozen other tourists in the process. These details would have made just about anyone a little extra cautious, but these women were definitely overdoing it as they inched their way down, carefully planting both feet on every step, with a death-grip on the outside railing. This forced all of us stacked up behind them to work our quadriceps like endurance pack mules. The last hundred steps were the worst. There was no place to stop and rest without holding up all of the people behind me. My quads were at the failure point the whole time and during every step down I felt that there was the distinct possibility that my legs were going to collapse under me and make the women’s nightmare of falling down the stairs a harsh reality. I barely made it to the bottom without catastrophe and the ungodly workout wounded me so thoroughly that I was sore for two days afterward.

Interior view The dreaded spiral staircase Otherside

As previously mentioned, the Ramblas is place to be in Barcelona day or night. The Ramblas is a huge, paved boulevard running down the center of one of the busier streets in the city. This is the place where people come to meet, walk, hangout, watch street performers and partake in illegal gambling. One of the more popular, but very unlawful, pastimes on the Ramblas is the classic three cups and a red ball game. This game and the commingled evasion of the authorities has been brought to new levels of brilliance in Barcelona. My favorite enhancement is the guy who replaced the three cups with the hollowed out ends of carrots and the ball with a small berry. If the fuzz ever decided to raid the area and break up the fun, the hustler could simply scooped up the whole game in one hand, shoved it in his mouth and a few chews later all the evidence would be well on its way to being turned into poop! It’s amazing how creative thieves can be when it comes to avoiding the law. If they applied even half of this ingenuity to a legitimate job, they’d probably be set for life.

On Friday night, I accompanied several hostel-mates to the Magic Fountain at the National Palace. Each Friday, this fountain puts on a light and water display choreographed to music (pictured), much like the water fountains in front of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, but on a much smaller scale. After a short preview with a mix of music, the highlight was a routine set to the song “Barcelona,” by the late Freddie Mercury of Queen and the opera singer Montserrat Caballe. It was a shameless city-promotional ploy, but it sure as hell worked on us. It was beautiful and we all applauded like idiots afterward, even though the developer that was deserving of the applause was probably at home in bed.

Crime is definitely on the rise in Barcelona. I started hearing stories while I was still in the south of Spain about people being pickpocketed or things disappearing on the beach, but the stories got even scarier after I arrived. As usual, many of these occurrences could have been avoided if the victim had used a little more common sense, but several muggings happened in very crowded areas, one in broad daylight on the Ramblas. Spain has always been one of those places where I have felt a little extra safe, seeing as how the streets are taken over each night by strolling families and street cafes, making even dimly lit back alleys seem harmless, but I prudently decided to crank up the danger sense while I was in Barcelona to avoid becoming a statistic.

Along with the unpleasantness of crime, alarming destitution seems to have increased as well. The Ramblas and major tourist sights are overrun with beggars, unwashed, burned out junkies, mental and physical cripples and “others” either doing some kind of bizarre street performing while a cohort begs for change (Have you ever heard a hopelessly drunk, 50 year old chain smoker try to sing the blues, un-amplified and a capella? It ain’t pretty.) or just pathetically sprawled on the sidewalk, unconscious, with a sign that begs for money in three languages propped up against a paper cup. The only place that I’ve been that even comes close to equaling the level of miserable indigence that can be seen around Barcelona are a few ugly neighborhoods in Amsterdam. The good news is that these hard luck cases are, by and large, not overtly aggressive when it comes to begging. The most insistent people tend to be the elderly, toothless ladies (probably came over from Portugal) who will actually grab your arm and try to stop you in your tracks and the strung out, aging punkers who like to team up and go through the crowd three or four at a time begging for tips for the entertainment being provided by their friend playing an extended mix of “Old McDonald Had a Farm” on the recorder.

Near the end of a long day of walking, I finally gave in to the suppressed tourist urgings within me and decided to visit the Pablo Picasso Museum. I was passing the place anyway and after about the third sign indicating that I was getting closer and closer to the joint, it became clear that fate was commanding me to beat back my aversion to the art of painting and see what a genius in this field could do. I kept following the signs until I arrived at a square. There was no indication as to where to go next, so I just continued straight into the next street across the square. About a block later I ran into another sign for the museum pointing back toward the square. This time when I got the square, I walked the entire perimeter, looking for the museum. There was nothing. Just shops and cafes. While I was teetering in confusion, I noticed a tiny little plaque off on a side street that said “Pablo Picasso Museum” and then gave an address that should have been just a few doors down the street. I walked to the door and there was nothing but an apartment building and no more signs. I wandered around in circles for about 20 minutes before the obvious conclusion hit me. There was no fricking Picasso museum! It was all just a huge practical joke on us tourists! I bet the tourism bureau has a hidden camera set up in that square and they sit around the monitor all day, laughing like Beavis and Butthead at the tourists staggering around looking for a museum that doesn’t exist. In fact, I bet there wasn’t even a Picasso at all! This whole thing is probably one huge practical joke that somebody started in the early 1900s and the gag has just grown and broadened over the years, just like Christianity. Woops, better not go there.

Right about this time, I screwed on the courage to take a look at where I was on my long-term budget. After shattering my allowance in June in Norway and again in September with the week in Torremolinos and the two Ryan Air extortion incidents, I was almost afraid to look at where I was in my grand total expenditures for the trip. I was aghast to see that I was under budget! Waaayyyy under. I promptly rewarded myself by going out and treating myself to a decadent dinner worthy of American gluttony, featuring a starter, two main courses, plenty of wine and a dessert.

After lingering a day or two longer than necessary in Barcelona, I was forced to face the fact that although I didn’t particularly want to leave, I had to keep moving. I packed up and moved on to Figueres for more mind expanding art exposure at the Salvador Dali museum.

Go to Figueres

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©Leif Pettersen 2009