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Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Through the wind and the rain.. ..Barcelona and back

It has been said by at least one drunken Marxist Revolutionary that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single footstep. In our case, a journey to the heart of Anarchist Spain(in the 1920's) began with a train journey to Newcastle and ended with one of the scariest landings either of us have ever experienced, as we returned to gale-force England.

En-route we witnessed some magnificent architecture, experienced an attempted mugging, (re)met Nel's cousin Chris and his partner Celine, watched Liverpool cruise serenely to the last eight of the European Championship and bizarrely met up with an old friend, who was (is) now selling crisps across Europe (chips to you Naughty Americanos) as well as eating our way through tons of tapas in the Gracia area of the city, and as millions before us have done, wondered at the magnificent architecture of the city. Oh, and we decided , once and for all, that we're definitely NOT city stompers.

Street scene in Barcelona: Magnificent architecture and McDonalds. Click on the pictures for a bigger view.

We arrived in the city to be met at Barcelona Norde, the central bus station by Chris, Nel's cousin, and hopped into a cab to Chris and Celine's apartment. I first met Chris about fifteen years ago on a hiking holiday in the Scottish Highlands, one of many excellent trips planned by the great Meg, that re-introduced me to the pleasures of extended family. These Scottish holidays will never be forgotten, as anyone was welcome - parents, cousins, my band ( at the time) and my family all experienced a week or two of hiking, mountain bike riding, star gazing, communal cooking, card games, swimming in some of the remotest lochs in Scotland and the occasional foray to the pub or the local stores. The only qualification was to not be an asshole, and breakfast would see my spliff-smoking drummer making fried egg sandwiches for all (he'd never 'cooked' before!) or getting beaten that night at canasta by Nel's eighty year old card-cheat nan. We met Chris then and although we have'nt 'stayed in touch' directly (ie sent eachother Christmas cards), we hoped that his, and our memories of each other were accurate. Thankfully, this proved to be so: Chris, and his partner Celine, have travelled, formed their own opinions and acted on them. They're both good company.

Nel and I spent two days in the city, wandering, as we determined to do, with no fixed agenda. We went hither and thither, from the area of Gracia to Gaudi's famous Familia, down through the old town to the horrible modern marina and back to the apartment in the Gracia. Barcelona has stunning architecture, but perhaps most striking is way the city's living accomodation is democratised. Barcelona completely lacks private houses; it is a city of apartments, some slightly bigger than others but none the less we did not see (and later found there is no) private houses anywhere. The result of this is that these Catalonians live almost entirely in public. The local square is the football pitch, dog park, marketplace, romantic rendevous for all Barcelonic experiences. It is great to watch, life passing by, unchanged for centuries, and on our second day, I spent the hours from five to seven pretending I was Catalonian, sipping beer and coffee, reading an newspaper at a cafe in the square by Chris' apartment. If I had to live there it would drive me crazy.

We had been warned about pickpockets in Barcelona, and on our second day met the phenomenon up close and personal. Nel and I were strolling through the Metro, Barcelona's underground, and were surprisingly, not completely lost. A long passageway funnels rows of commuters between the two lines in the station of Passeig de Gracia and we had joined the commuters, eager for our own siesta after a hard day of wandering around. Mid-conversation, Nel emitted a mighty cry of "THIEF!", simultaneously slapping the hand of a young girl as she did so, a girl who's hand was in Nel's bag. Nel's wallet, stuffed with crisp Euro's came flying out of the bag and landed on the ground. I stooped and heroically picked up the wallet, while Nel glared at the offender. There was a stand-off for a millisecond, then the girl disappeared back into the crowd, looking terrified. We stood still for a second, had a quick look round, but somehow the perp. (as we call them in the Law and Order business) had disappeared. Fantastic reactions from the Boffin, combined with a look that coud literally kill, gave Nel instant hero status, but she failed miserably later that evening relating the story to our friends, as she told it exactly as it happened.

The friends we were dining with were Karl and Pugsy, entrepreneurial masterminds behind "Crips", an invention of Pugsy's dad. Pugsy's dad actually invented several well known foodstuffs, including Angel Delight, a manufactured dessert that contains so few nutrients it originally had to be sold in stores as a chemical along with substances such as potassium permanganate and silver nitrate. The new invention is healthier, containing wheat and natural flavourings. It is a type of crisp. Karl and Pugsy were in Barcelona at a food trade show at the same time we were, and we met up for Dinner on two nights. All the boys told Nel off for her complete lack of exaggeration when re-telling the story. I believe she has no Celtic genes whatsoever.

The best bits of the visit were socializing, in a city that I think is more built for adults than children, as the streets are narrow and hard, with no sidewalks, and motorbikes, cars and trucks roar down them, giving every impression that there are no rules of the road here. The green spaces are few and far between and crowded. The architecture is stunning though, and there are about a million restaurants per person.


Seeing Celine and Chris was great, and having a very small taste of somewhere so different from Hull was in a way refreshing, but on our last day we agreed that we had seen enough brilliant architecture and were looking forward to going home to Hull's post-industrial wasteland. Not in any sense disappointed with Barcelona - I'm sure we'll be back, but next time we'd probably take a pension up the coast and stay for longer, with just occasional forays into the city.

A really good holiday should tell you something about yourself, and this one did for us. Barcelona's population density is reminiscent of the bigger cities in the UK, despite the different architecture. We talked about a few cities we know including Toronto, London, Liverpool, Birmingham and I realized that we concluded that we just do'nt like big cities that much. Fine for a visit, as they say, but over the last few years we've evolved into small town people. I found myself pleasantly surprised.

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