I don’t know about my readers, but my husband and I have about had it with airports and scrunched-up economy seats on airplanes.
Trips to and from the States, in particular, have become downright grueling, even with Turkish Airlines’ (THY) convenient non-stop flights to the West Coast. So last winter, we started toying with the idea of going to California by a different route this year: by plane and train as far as we could. By March we had the trip in place, and this last Oct. 31 we took off for İstanbul to start our “Big Adventure.”
It was hard to leave İstanbul and Turkey just then -- I have never seen a lovelier fall than the one we left. We taxied it to Kartal and then took the beautiful new metro to Kadiköy, emerging into the crisp and clear sunshine falling in slanting, early-afternoon rays that lit the bobbing ferries and whitecaps while throwing long shadows that made the Asian side look like a scene from an Orhan Pamuk novel. Later we went to Beyoğlu to get in a last chat with Linda Robinson at the book exchange and then returned to Sultanahmet for what would be our last night in İstanbul for over six weeks.
Very early the next morning we went to the airport to catch a flight to Barcelona -- even with all that planning it was almost impossible to figure out a way by train to reach Spain from Turkey. Nowadays you can’t just take a train to somewhere and buy a ticket for the connections -- there are too many intervening countries, and the EU/non-EU business complicates things. Online, many countries don’t have English web pages, and it just got too complicated for yours truly so we bit the bullet and flew. That was to be our last flight for a long time, though, so it wasn’t bad, although we had to switch planes in Germany.
I had been to Barcelona as a young child many years ago and remembered very little; Lute had never been to Spain at all. The main news from there in the months before our trip sounded pretty grim, what with eurozone woes, high unemployment and unbalanced budgets, so we didn’t know what to expect. What we did not expect was the stunning, glittering city we encountered as soon as we left the airport on the Aero Bus, the reasonably priced airport shuttle that took us to the central part of the city.
Oddly, as I saw block after block of clean buildings and beautifully maintained roads, old memories of Barcelona from the ‘60s began to pop up, and they weren’t shiny and clean at all, but the gray-and-black of most European cities during that era, stained with the dust of coal furnaces and seemingly endless wars. (I also remembered that during World War II Spain wasn’t bombed as horribly or as thoroughly as some other European countries, so one didn’t see tell-tale huge new blocks of post-war construction next to a lot of vacant lots.)
Returning to a different Spain
Today’s Barcelona presents a seamless vista of block after well-planned block of adjoining buildings from different eras all equally well preserved and/or restored. Imagine Pera or İstiklal Caddesi all cleaned and painted in pastel colors, with wide streets and many open intersections, and that was roughly our impression of downtown Barcelona’s cityscape.
Something else significant that I noted early on in Barcelona was the use of a different “Spanish” than I have been used to all my life, which turned out not to be Spanish at all. The main language of Barcelona, chief city of the autonomous Catalonia region, is Catalan; while similar, it is as different from Spanish as Portuguese is, if not more so. I had heard of Spain’s autonomous regions, but I hadn’t realized that Catalonia, at least, was so actively pursuing independence from the rest of Spain until I was corrected about 20 times whilst complimenting things “Spanish,” such as the food, architecture and art. No, no, no, I was told; “Catalunyan!” people were polite about it but firm; we saw several people wearing nationalistic T-shirts promoting independence from Spain, and the Catalonian flag was so predominant I thought it must be a football-club flag. Always glad to be enlightened, we corrected our verbiage and continued to enjoy Catalonia’s biggest city, which is fortunately called Barcelona in both languages.
We walked quite a ways from Plaça de Catalunya, where we had been dropped off, to our hostel’s neighborhood near the Sagrada Familia (I am not going to tackle that in Catalan!). Before we started, we took time to get into serious walking mode because we had luggage for six weeks and were much more loaded up than we normally are. We had put on our good walking shoes that morning; now we rearranged our weight distribution and passport security and checked the city map one more time before heading off in our best İstanbul stride to conquer the new city.
After a while we noticed something strange – except for crossing streets, we walked with our heads up and didn’t even notice the pull of our three wheeled bags. The reason was that the sidewalks and streets of Barcelona were even and wrinkle-free! How could a big city be this smooth? It didn’t seem natural, somehow, but it surely made our hike easier. We also noticed with awe the large open spaces that appeared everywhere, giving views of the city from the streets themselves. Instead of big ugly green-and-white signs marking street names like in California, or mostly nonexistent ones like in İstanbul, the streets were identified clearly but discreetly by handsome signs on the walls of corner buildings, making our location easy to determine. What kind of a city was this?
Comfortable tourists and chic locals
The other thing was the look of the people. We quickly figured out that the people who lived there were all good-looking and well dressed and not only the women, like in Athens and Paris; the men, too, were fashionably attired and graceful. The “normal” looking people in jeans and T-shirts were all tourists, and there were a lot of them. The locals just walked amongst the tourists in little person-sized bubbles of nonchalance and fashion, enjoying their city as they shopped, ate or just moved from place to place. Sidewalk cafes abounded, and coffee was consumed as well as elegant little cocktails. The whole place looked like a tourist-guidebook picture of Mediterranean chic. When we got close to our hostel we realized we could have taken the underground quite easily, but what the heck – we’d had plenty to look at on the way. We had also had time to read a few menus to get an idea of food prices; our recent experiences in Paris and London had made us wary menu-readers; the EU always costs us dearly.
For our first night, we had reserved a table for a flamenco dinner show, and while it was reasonable it wasn’t free, so even though we were more tired than we had thought we would be, we cleaned up from our trip quickly to make it in time to look around a little before the show. It was in the Poble Espanyol, a model village constructed for the 1929 Barcelona International Exhibition. The admission to the Poble Espanyol was included in the price of the show, which was called the “Tablao de Carmen” and which turned out to be one of the coolest things I have ever seen. It cost about 30 euros each, and included tapas, sangria and coffee. When the waiter found out we didn’t eat pork, he went out of his way to bring us tasty substitutes.
We had never seen a real flamenco show before this but are both now convinced that we have seen the finest Spain (and Catalonia) has to offer – it just couldn’t be any better anywhere else. I won’t even bother to describe it except to say it seemed so real that we could have been at a Roma campfire instead of a nice, cozy little restaurant in Barcelona. The passion of the dancers, the singers and the musicians was so fresh and powerful we didn’t know how they could do two shows a night. We were exhausted just watching them.
The next day we wandered around and tried to hit some of the high spots and made a few – the Sagrada Familia, still under construction from 1882 and truly fantastic, like a fantasy in stone; the cathedral in the city center; the Picasso Museum and the Barrio Gotico; and in between those sights and all around the city we enjoyed famous examples of Modernist architecture, most notably several buildings by Antoni Gaudi, the architect most associated with Catalonian Modernism (and who also designed the Sagrada Familia).
We also ate as many times as we could possibly fit in, and were especially pleased by the tapas, the bread, the local vegetable dishes and the desserts, although everything was good. We decided that Barcelona was definitely worth a longer visit and that it could be done quite reasonably if care was taken regarding prices. It sure didn’t look like anyone was not happy to be there, especially the residents. After two nights, we packed up again and headed out for “phase 2” of our “big adventure: the western Mediterranean Sea and beyond.”