27.05.2013 - 14.06.2013
Walking in Barcelona is like being in an architectural exhibition show. Most of the buildings, parks and public spaces have been designed by famous architects. Immense, diverse, artsy and touristy Barcelona welcomes its visitors with a Columbus statue wearing the local soccer team shirt: Barca's! You need more than a couple of days to get to see what this massive city has to offer.
Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia or Catalunya, another region of Spain that strives to become its own nation. They have their own language, flag and identity. The buildings are old, tall and have balconies that many locals have used to express their nationalism. As you stroll in the beautiful narrow streets of the gothic town you can appreciate the street art, the many immigrants and familiarize yourself with the Catalunyan flag.
The red and yellow stripes when accompanied by a blue triangle and a white start in the middle state that the residents want Catalunya to become a republic, independent of Spain. Catalan is what you hear the most in this city, they only speak Castillian (aka Spanish) with outsiders or tourists. "You need to speak Catalan if you want to get a good job" said a peruvian family that hosted us during our stay.
A delicious chicken soup was served the night we arrived... just what we needed! We had landed quite late; and my dear Peruvian friend, Vanessa, brought us from the airport into Plaza Espanya, two steps away from the apartment. It had been a long time since Vanessa and I had seen each other. We used to work for the same company in Peru, and now we are finally able to reunite. She is my spiritual sister as we belong to the same church and have a lot in common.
Vanessa has been living in Barcelona for over 5 years and is one of the lucky few who has a good, stable job. "Being able to work in Spain is like winning the lottery," she said. The crisis has hit so hard that most people we talked to have been looking for jobs for quite a while.
Nelson and Luz, the Peruvian couple we stayed with have been looking for jobs desperately for almost a year. "Most jobs available are only temporary", they said; and "of course you have to pay your dues with over time... any kind of benefits is out of the question."
Why not go back to Peru? we asked. They seemed to have had it very nice down there. "The girls -their two daughters- like it here, and I would like them to have better chances in life," said Luz. As they keep fetching temporary jobs they sublet a couple of rooms in their tiny apartment in order to pay the rent. "3 of every 4 people are able to work in Spain", says Nelson. "It is hard for every one."
Despite the crisis, they didn't lack a thing. God, has provided for them. They treated us to home made meals and everything else they could. Sometimes it felt as though they were fathering us... :/ yet, we are very grateful to them for their hospitality and for their help with Ylla. Celia and Kiara, their daughters, really bonded with Ylla Mae. They loved to play with her, and Ylla went crazy over them. They spoiled her quite a bit.
Tania, a friend and colleague from Peru happened to be in Barcelona at the time. Despite the difficulties to find each other and her time constraints, we were able to go to see Gaudi's Sagrada Familia. We didn't enter because she had very little time before her flight back. Tania had been under a lot of stress because of work.
"You have to be thankful for what you have, not what you are missing" I told Tania. "Look around! we are in Barcelona, under Gaudi's master piece. It could have be way worse, couldn't it?" We had some good laughs remembering the journeys we had taken together in the past. After all, what were the odds that we would meet in Barcelona!
We never saw La Sagrada Familia from the inside. We saw multiple times touring the city but never had the time to get in. That is something I regret because it is definitely a Master Piece. It is still under construction so paying the 20 Euros would have been a way to contribute to its conclusion. Once it is finished it will be the tallest building in the whole city.
Antoni Gaudi was definitely a Genius. He mixed the gothic style with naturalism producing a unique and impressive outcome. There are several of his art pieces scattered around Barcelona, but nothing as impressive as La Sagrada Familia. He was so excited and committed to its construction that he would work crazy hours and even slept in the premises until a tram took his life away as he crossed the street a few blocks from his beloved church.
He was also entrusted with designing a whole park, Park Guell. The park is named after his dear friend, the one who not only financed his bizarre projects but was also his best friend. The park offer amazing views of the city and has some really interesting designs. A couple of houses at the entrance give the impression you are entering an amusement park. Unfortunately we couldn't enjoy it at large because Ylla had a cold and the park was packed with tourist, making it hard to chill and take in the views.
Ciutadella Park was our favorite spot in the vast and beautiful city. The Arch of Triumph of Barcelona is located right next to this park. The Arch area is famous for skaters and bikers doing pirouettes. There are also some older people sitting on the benches either people watching, playing board games, cards or cross words. It was in this environment that Ylla took her first steps. "What a good spot to walk for the first time," our friends said. We will never forget the place... for sure!
We came several times to this park because it not only offered a more local experience but also had free wifi which allowed us to make a few call phones to Peru and the US as we watch some hippies walking on the tight rope. There was also a lake with ducks and a playground that Ylla greatly enjoyed.
Ylla loves fish, we noticed that in Nicola's house, back in England. She kept starting at the colorful fish for a long time (for a baby). We had heard that the Barcelona Aquarium was pretty good so we decided to pay it a visit. Indeed, it was nice, and Ylla got quite excited (at first).
They have a glass tube that crosses in between a giant pool where you can see sharks, rays, and all kinds of fish all around. For some reason I get the impression that Ylla still prefers stuffed animals over the real deal. She spent quite a while digging into the stuffed animals sold at the aquarium store.
One of the best things we did in Spain was visiting the Barcelona branch of our church. They get together at the apartment Javier (a peruvian guy) shares with two other brothers. The church members are from all over the world, a very diverse and dynamic group, I must say. We had lunch together and got to talk about spiritual matters.... hmmm food for the soul, finally! Vanessa and I had some good conversations with some of the sisters and got to pray for each other.
15 days are not enough to see all Barcelona has to offer. Thanks to a church member we got to see something pretty unique of this incredible country. The Castells or human towers are definitely something not to be missed. In one of those hidden plazas of the gothic neigborhood, some Sundays a group of nuts get together to make up some human towers, just for fun. I am not going to lie. It is quiet a show and impressive, but what in the world!? it is actually a bit dangerous specially because there are children involved.
Ylla was quite interested in seeing what was all the fuss about. The towers are composed of a bunch of heavy guys at the base, leaning towards the center of the tower providing support. The fist levels contain the strong men that will hold the weight of the people on top. The higher the level the smaller and lighter the people get, ending with children wearing helmets (thank God) at the top.
Different groups of unpaid participants wearing colorful shirts basically spend a couple of hours taking turns to make the tallest or most ingenious towers at the eyes of the surprised tourists and locals who love the tradition. Not all the castells come to a happy ending, we saw a couple of attempts that had to be stopped. The bases were shaky so the tower had to be rebuilt... nevertheless it is a free show that must not be missed!
A flamenco show is another thing not to be missed in Spain. Thanks to Vanessa's generosity (she got us us free tickets) we got to enjoy a traditional tapa's dinner in a beautiful setting followed by an amazing show of flamenco dancers. This was the perfect opportunity for Ylla to wear her 6 Euro flamenco dancer dress and we got to dress up a little as we watched the show.
Located in a dark and small tavern, we sat really close to the stage. The display caught Ylla's attention immediately and for some good 30 mins, which is pretty good for a baby her age. She loved it so much she was constantly clapping and acting as if she wanted to dance too. The dancers were incredibly good, oh! how I wish I had taken flamenco lessons before. It is such a strong and passionate dance.
The Basque country is another region of Spain that thrives to become independent. Heck! On this trip we only saw parts of Spain that do not want to be Spain. Oh well, anyways both Catalunya and Pais Vasco are parts of Spain as we speak, like it or not. We took a train to San Sebastian. We were to meet Steve, another English friend whom we met during our sabbatical trip climbing in Nepal. He has become an ex-pat in this lovely city.
The train ride ended up being an adventure in itself. Not only because we had to entertained a toddler with a cold, but because the train broke down arriving to our destination two hours late. The delay caused some other problems, such as having another passenger mistakenly taking Vanessa's luggage. He/she had got off the train in Pamplona, two hours before San Sebastian.
Due to that confusion we were not ready to leave the train upon arriving to our destination. So as Jay and I made sure we were not leaving anything behind, Vanessa got off the train. We were swaddling Ylla and the train started to move, the doors closed as we approached them and we were stuck until the next stop. Thank God it was "only 20 mins away" as one passenger said, but those were the longest 20 mins of our lives! I think it actually took longer than that.
Luckily Vanessa was able to identify Steve, who was waiting at the train station for us, and they came to pick us up from the French border, yes, that is how far the train had taken us. Ane, Steve's girlfriend drove us and took us to her nice apartment. She was really awesome to let us stay and leave us the entire place for ourselves.
It rained the whole next day. It was still not enough reason to keep us from sight seeing. Steve had prepared a tour of the city but unfortunately, the baby and the weather only allowed for a fraction of what he had planed. On our second day the rain stopped for a while so we were able to see more of the beautiful San Sebastian. It is an old looking small town that has a river crossing it and a bay with turquoise waters and little islands across.
We enjoyed strolling around the river and going through the narrow pedestrian streets. It didn't feel touristy at all.
As we waited in an alley for some delicious pinxos (traditional appetizers served on slices of bread) on the street we saw some people singing spontaneously, some guy delivering bread in a tricycle and people taking babies or dogs for a walk. Oh what a difference! To think that we found ourselves in a procession of tourists in Barcelona's ramble. San Sebastian was the perfect break from all that craziness.
The food in this part of Spain is exquisite! We were impressed with their seafood dishes. Steve knew all the good places to eat. He also took us to cafe's for tea as we waited for the rain to wane. We played cards, as we used to do when we met him and also took Ylla to amusement parks.
Jay and Steve had plenty of time to catch up as Vanessa and I did the same. It was an awesome weekend. We were happy to see Steve in this new phase of his life.
Montserrat is an important mountain for Catalans (people from Catalunya). It is also the home of a monastery and some of the nicest views of the area. Again Vanessa's generosity got us to Montserrat for free. It was mid afternoon and we took the time to go to a cross that was a bit off the beaten path. It wasn't easy to push Ylla's stroller all the way there but it was well worth it.
We were rewarded with amazing views of the Monastery and the surroundings as well as some alone time to appreciate them even more. The mountain is also a magnet for climbers. The rock formations are not only beautiful but perfect to practice that discipline. As we were in an organized tour we didn't have much time available so we couldn't visit the nearby museum neither the black madonna that is worshipped in the monastery. I don't think we missed much though.
The next day I ended up making a full peruvian dinner for Xavi's visit. We had met him briefly in the triple border of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, near the Iguazu falls during the Sabbatical. He loves peruvian food and had told me he wanted to learn how to make Papa a la Huancaina... so Papa a la huancaina, Seco de Pollo, and Crema volteada was in the menu.
It was particularly yummy to my surprise. It is not easy cooking overseas in a kitchen that is not yours. We ended up talking the whole time about his experience with ayahuasca, long term traveling (he was travelling for years at a time) and the situation in Spain. He has also been affected by the shortage in jobs. We had a lovely evening and it was thanks to his recommendations that we went to Girona.
Girona is lovely. An hour away from Barcelona by train offered everything we wanted. The whole town was like Barcelona's gothic district but better. Stoned narrow streets, old interesting architecture, little touristy and original shops, every little street is worth a visit. The cobble stoned streets keep the history of a jewish population that still lives in this town.
We walked all over the place. Map in hand and sunblock on, we were ready to take the walk the tourist information lady had recommended. There was this ancient aqueduct that surrounded the city which offered amazing views of the area. Jay had to carry Ylla in several parts of the way, but it was well worth it.
We were practically walking it on our own. Every once in a while you would see a couple of tourists here and there but that was it. As laid back as it can be. We found this great spot that was by an ancient wall that had columns with jasmines, swallows flying around and gravel, perfect for Ylla to play. so we chilled there for a bit before going to get some food.
A restaurant on the other side of the river. Full of locals, executives that have a table waiting for them and the right wine served. Helli, we were waiting for you, said the waiter. That was the familiarity of a small town. We enjoyed a nice meal and went out again to explore more of the city. we spent the whole day there. Wish we would have stayed in Girona for a few days, but we are happy that we at least got to see it.
We greatly enjoyed our time in Spain. Yet we feel as though we haven't seen enough of it, or maybe haven't see anything at all. Next time we will have to go explore way more of the country, the part that is proud to belong to this beautiful and diverse nation.