Back in the summer of 2009, shortly after graduating from university, I had the chance to join five school friends for an epic road trip – a Grand Tour, if you will – departing from England by ferry, down through Spain to Barcelona via the San Fermin festival, the (in)famous running of the bulls in Pamplona. From Catalonia, we would head east through France and the Cote d’Azur and down into Italy, basing ourselves in the picturesque Umbrian countryside for a few days before turning north, heading home via Lake Garda, the Austrian Alps, the Black Forest in Germany and finally northern France.
This is part three of my recollections and photos of the trip, covering 48 hours sightseeing in Barcelona.
The second installment, covering Bilbao, Pamplona and watching the bullrun, can be found here.
The late afternoon air was still warm, a light breeze wafting in from the Mediterranean to our south, only a short distance away, but tantalisingly just out of both sight and smell. We eagerly stepped out of the car, and onto the warm tarmac of Barcelona, pleased to be free from the confinements of gazing at the back of the drivers seat in front throughout the five hour journey south-easterly from our previous destination, Pamplona, during the day, quickly shooting past Zaragoza on our way south.
We were staying in the modest Hotel Ronda, a reasonable three star hotel located a short distance from the Museum of Contemporary Art (after visiting Bilbao shortly before, I’d seen my fill), and on the verge of the divide between the grid like expansion away from the city centre, and the traditional old town, the Gothic Quarter; the streets laid out in a ramshackle and jumbled pattern rather than straight line planned growth, much like the City of London placed next to the linear order of Manhattan.
Acting as the dividing line between old and older is La Rambla, over a kilometre length of tree lined boulevard. The long street was full of market sellers, the bustle of the tourist trade, and traders of all varieties, both legal and illegal. We sighted pickpockets among the haste of activities, attempting to keep our wits about us as we ambled down towards our first flash of deep blue Mediterranean beyond us.
By the following morning, the second day of our short two day visit, we were joined by our good friend, Matt, who had made the quick journey up from his home in Gibraltar, and would then be travelling with us for the remainder of our road trip.
For incredible vistas offering panoramas across the city, we travelled on the nearby gondola car, up to the top of the Montjuïc hill. Rising nearly 200 metres above the city, we explored the 17th century fortifications of Montjuic Castle, climbing across the large scale cannons used previously in 1842 to shell parts of the city below. The fortifications have also served as both a prison and an execution site, well into the 20th century and the time of the Civil War. It was humbling to walk among the history.
Adjacent to the fortifications lies the Olympic Stadium, or to use its official title, the Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys. Originally built for the 1929 International Exposition and a failed bid for the 1936 summer Olympics hosted by Nazi Germany, the updated stadium and surrounding areas were eventually used for the 1992 summer games. The 1992 games are ones that stand out in my memory as the first I can remember vividly; they started the day after my seventh birthday and we were there almost seventeen years to the day after the games. Iconic images of divers theatrically leaping from the external boards of the aquatic centre, open to the elements with the city dramatically sprawled out behind in the backdrop, have remained with me since a young age, and it was a delight to see the same views with my own eyes. Olympic anticipation was on our minds, our home city being only three years away from it’s turn in the spotlight in 2012.
After a brief glance into the cauldron of the stadium to admire the still impressive architecture of the eighty year old venue, we wandered towards the other attraction of the Montjuïc area – the impressive but grandiose Palau National; once the home for the exhibition itself, now housing the National Art Gallery Catalonia (again, we didn’t go in, happy to admire the external views). Also built for the 1929 event, the Palau sprawls overs 32,000 square metres, with extensive terraced grounds extending down to the Magic Fountain below. We visited during the daylight hours, unfortunately missing the no doubt impressive daily light and music performances hosted by the fountains throughout the summer months. Something to return for?
We hopped onto the Metro and headed for a tour of the famous Nou Camp, the biggest stadium in Europe, and the home of the football club FC Barcelona, a near 100,000 capacity cathedral to soccer, with tiers of red and blue seating surrounding the playing surface reaching high into the sky. Spelt out on the seats of the stand opposite to our viewpoint, the club motto ‘More than a club’ proudly stating the importance that football has hold over its supporters, with emotions, rivalry, passion and politics all interlinked through fanatical support of this now global institution. It was the off season when we visited, the green playing surface had been replaced by a sandy brown soil, presumably due to resurfacing, and it was left to our imaginations to visualise the sight and sounds a full, throbbing capacity filled stadium on a match-day.
Linking the themes of a football supporter congregation, our final sight for the day was Gaudi’s Sagrada Família, the ridicioulsy impressive but still somehow staggeringly incomplete catholic church, and an icon for the city. I couldn’t and still can’t get my head around some of the statistical information of the building; construction commencing in 1882, the building is expected to be completed in 2026, a full century after the death of Gaudi. Three giant, intricate facades will outline different aspects of Christianity, towered over by a total of eighteen twisting, gothic spires, the tallest of which – a representation of Jesus – will make the completed Família the tallest church building in the world, at 170m high.
I am not a religious person in the slightest; having attended a school linked to a church as a child, I have, as a adult, gone a different way, my mind full of science and fact rather than faith. Even from a midpoint of my hovering values, lying somewhere between agnostic and atheist, it was impossible not to be moved by the sheer size and scale of the church and the reasons behind it. I’m fascinated by the architecture of religious buildings, from the thousand year old small village churches of the English countryside, to modern cathedrals, the frantic attempts to build something so big and tall, as if to reaching into the heavens, attempting to somehow get closer to God.
The evening was spent wandering the bars of the gothic quarter, getting lost in the maze of small streets while attempting to find the best route back to the hotel. It was gone midnight. I was lost. I was drunk. I was walking a city I didn’t know, trying to get somewhere I wasn’t sure was right. Having been separated from the others over the course of the evening, I found myself with Matt, who was equally as clueless as I. We had refused to jump into a taxi, partly due to my lack of budget, partly due to seeing a large prostitute attempt to get into the taxi Myles had taken shortly beforehand – an attempt that was met with a very firm, but very British polite rejection. I kept walking, stubbornly refusing to admit any mistake in direction, partly enjoying the fascination of exploring a new part of town, wishing I was more sober to remember it. After some time of aimless wandering, suddenly, in front of us, Myles emerged from a taxi and entered a building to our left – the hotel. We were home, not quite understanding how.
We only had a short stay in Barcelona. After only two nights and one full day, we had a schedule to keep after all, my first impressions were the same as my last; a bustling cultural city and one I would like to explore again soon in more depth. What should I see when I eventually make it back? Please let me know!
It was time to leave, onwards to our next destination – the south of France and the Cote D’Azur.
Further reading about the Olympic Stadium can be found via this blog.