My sister, following several particularly horrid experiences at London Stansted, once said that everything improves once you leave that airport. I would have to concur. As blissful as my time in London was, my time in the airport was nothing but enervating. I was made to check my jams and jellies by the security guards, but it was unclear how I was meant to do so until I had a small hissy fit and demanded that someone pay attention to me. And to top off the running around and general confusion, I, the person who values a hearty (or at least nutritious) morning meal like no other, only had enough british cash left to buy myself some vanilla wafer sandwich cookies for breakfast.
But true to form, once I landed in Barcelona everything was, in a word, easy. My suitcase was disgorged from the plane almost immediately, there was no line for a cab, and the drive to Laia's family's apartment, where I would be resting my head for the next few days, was quick, direct and reasonable.
After alighting from the cab and passing through the grand entryway of the apartment building, I was directed to the historically accurate, Willy Wonka-esque elevator by the doorwoman (such a progressive country Spain is! Perhaps they even have female cab drivers?) and, with considerable effort wedged myself and my bags into the miniature vessel. Several floors up, I was greeted by an ebullient Laia opening a very major door with an even more major knocker.
And then I walked into one of the more beautiful apartments I have ever set foot in. I felt like a guest of the Doge of Venice what with the mosaic floors, soaring ceilings and baroque features. Laia's parents have done the most beautiful job with the place...the ornateness of the apartment is tempered nicely by the modern decor, and I had a minor swooning session over the custom Italian chandelier that they had chosen for the living room.
The east wing:
The west wing:
And the view from one of the balconies:
It feels quite romantic to be above the treetops, no?
Luckily, I arrived mid-afternoon, smack dab in the middle of the Catalonian lunch hour. Laia and her sister Marta were famished, and as my vanilla wafer breakfast was well in the past I was beyond ravenous. Laia was thrilled by the prospect of her first meal of the trip at her favorite neighborhood spot.
Ah, my first foray into the legendary Barcelona food scene! Cerveseria Catalana did not disappoint. At three in the afternoon on a Wednesday the wait was thirty minutes so I knew I was in for a treat.
Once seated we took care of the vital points immediately: cold beers to counteract the warm day. Then, in a flurry of Catalan the sisters ordered and soon thereafter the plates began to come. The jamon alone nearly threw me into an ecstatic fit, the calamari was a total revelation (the dish doesn't have to be mediocre! Who knew?) and I would walk over scorching hot sand barefoot for the simple perfection that is their pan con tomate. I must get in the habit of making it at home. The meal was exactly what one dares to hope for when the word "tapas" is uttered.
After we had sufficiently cleaned the plates and paid our pleasingly de minimis bill, it was off to the old city for a wander through narrow corridors,
past ornate decorations,
and, as I would learn shortly, over the remains of civilizations past.
Partially to escape the heat, and partially to explore the literal underbelly of Barcelona, we visited the archeological museum, which contained a shockingly well preserved Roman city ruin, which existed several layers under an old church. I spent the next hour marveling at how advanced people were "back then". The wine cellar, the public baths, the laundry room, the sewer system...amazing! And then Laia reminded me that humans have actually had the use of opposable thumbs for quite some time and that I perhaps should not be so surprised that our predecessors were able to maintain a basic level of health and hygiene. Point taken.
After a quick horchata (a paradoxical drink...made from a rich base of ground nuts it is surprisingly refreshing) on the Ramblas with a friend, we were off home to make ourselves presentable for the night ahead...the cousins dinner.
We set off for a short trip on the extraordinarily clean and reasonable regional rail system
and presently found ourselves just outside of the city at the home of the lovely Ariana and her husband to be Antonio. Family members abounded, the long lost American cousins and their friend were welcomed with great fanfare, and from that point on I was swept up in a Catalan whirlwind. It is hard to remember another event at which I enjoyed myself so thoroughly and yet understood so little. Valiant efforts were made by all to speak some english and to translate the spirited exchanges so I was able to follow the general arc of the evening, but mostly I just sat back and enjoyed listening and seeing a family reunited.
We awoke the next day with a plan: Gaudi!
Laia and Marta, the consummate tour guides, gamely took me to see the architectural genius's masterpieces, despite the fact that they must have seen them dozens of times before. Stop number one was the fascinating Sagrada Familia, the mater's as yet unfinished cathedral. The city has apparently been working on completing it for the past 100 years, and perhaps will spend the next 100 years working on it as well. No matter, it will have been worth the wait. And as Laia's parents were married in the structure, I can only assume that it is functional enough in the interim.
The old face has a look of darkness and despair. In fact, it almost seems as if the facade itself is weeping, or perhaps melting? It was quite hot that day. The intricacy of the scenes depicted is astonishing...I can only assume that this is the side that Gaudi had the chance to design completely before he died.
And then the newer side, in a cleaner, happier, yet more austere style. Perhaps he didn't have sufficient time to fully design it, or perhaps his sensibilities had changed over the course of the design process? The figurines almost have an art deco look to them, which I suppose would make sense, as Gaudi died just as the movement took hold.
Sagrada Familia is truly one of the most unique structures I have ever come across...I was certainly in no danger of succumbing to that cathedral malaise that can set in on trips to Europe (oh another one, beautiful, but my lord, it looks like all the others!).
And then, my favorite part of the Barcelonian day...lunch! We took the clean and reasonable subway down towards the ocean and settled on La Gavina for our midday repast. Laia had been hankering for a good fideua (sort of a paella made with vermicelli noodles rather than rice) and I just wanted to sit somewhere with a cool drink. Once again, the beautiful sisters ordered well.
We had some of the plumpest, sweetest mussels on earth as a starter, and monkfish and the legendary fideua as our mains. I now see why monkfish used to be considered the poor man's lobster...a good specimen really does reveal an uncanny resemblance! And after the delicious food, wine and cava, a siesta was in order.
Luckily, the family apartment was only blocks from another famous Gaudi work, La Pedrera. After rousing myself from a deep slumber at 7:00 (the fideua had slayed me), Laia and I ambled over to see what the great man had come up with.
Undulating balconies resembling the waves of the ocean,
ironwork resembling the roots of a plant (or perhaps cells of a leaf? Am I stretching here?)
and hallways supported by what looked to be ribs,
the whole building seemed to be one big homage to nature. As a side note, can someone please turn this dangling object into a chandelier? Positioning a mirror underneath, Gaudi apparently used these creations as a design technique, to see how, in this case, multiple round topped towers might work (the reflection did look quite a lot like a building I must say). But I think perhaps he missed an opportunity to create some of the great light fixtures of his time.
On to the roof! Why are ventilation ducts in New York so ugly when it is clear they can be so appealing?
I realize that it is rather trite of me to say that I love Gaudi, as every vaguely well traveled American seems to, but I'll say it, I love Gaudi. The man strikes me as a happy genius rather than a mad one and his work is unlike anything I've seen before. It is simply inspired, and I feel helps to define the buoyant, soulful spirit of the city.
Soon we were off for a late dinner with a friend of Marta's in the old city. He bore an uncanny resemblance to one of my oldest and dearest friends Alfio, so I liked him immediately. It didn't hurt that he spoke wonderful english all through dinner for my benefit, and that he picked the perfect restaurant for the evening. If you are ever in Barcelona and in need of some light, not strictly speaking Spanish fare, I highly recommend Salero in the old city. Laia and I munched on some excellent mediterranean dips (that was about all I could handle after the massive lunch we had indulged in), and I believe our compatriots had something Asian?
Regardless, everything was delicious. We made a couple of stops afterward, but I'll admit my recollection is fuzzy...very good mojitos were involved, I know that much.
I woke up on my last day in Barcelona vaguely depressed. I didn't want to leave my luxurious apartment and beautiful city! But all good things must come to an end.
The three of us made the trek up a mountain to see the Olympic facilities. Marta chose to lie out by the stunningly blue pool that had been used for the diving competitions, and Laia and I, the palest of the three, chose shade and air conditioning in the Fundacio Joan Miro, a stop I highly recommend. And just for good measure we swung by the Olympic stadium...
I bought a pound of the candy as a gift, but idiotically neglected to get any for myself. Next time I'll know better.
By this time Laia's parents had arrived in Barcelona, so we all were off on the train again to another, this time smaller, family dinner with her cousin Jordi and his mother. These relations were, unsurprisingly, also excellent hosts and I could not have enjoyed my evening more. Jordi practiced his english which embarrassingly is quite good, and his mother spoke to me in Spanish in hopes that it would be more effective than Catalan. How little she knew...I'm American, I speak foreign languages badly and infrequently, something that I am determined to remedy each time I return from a trip but never do.
Reluctantly, I got up the next day for my absurdly early flight and snuck out of the beautiful apartment as quietly as I could, regretting my departure every step of the way. I was hoping to spot one of the tired old drag queens that I had heard so much about coming out of the discotheque across the street early in the morning, but alas it was not to be. I had to settle for Barcelona at sunrise instead.
I think I got the better end of the bargain in the end...