Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Continuation of Barcelona, Spain

 I'm done apologizing for the late blogposts but if you want something to blame, blame the Irish weather which gave me tonsillitis. Between that and the plague earlier this semester, this country is wearing me out! That's why it was nice to get away to Barcelona although it's hard to believe I've been home for over two weeks!
This is follow up post to the one previous so if you haven't read about our first two days in Barcelona, go here. Then come back and read this one. Please.

So day three was Saturday, and once again, we dedicated a lot of the day to Antoni Gaudi, that famous architect I talked about last time. Perhaps the most famous work of Gaudi's is the Sagrada Familia, a magnificent church (not to be confused with a cathedral, I learned). The first thing we were told about the Sagrada Familia (of which I knew nothing about) was that it was a pain in the ass to get tickets the day of. The line is probably about half a mile long, no joke. So thanks to our hostel, we were talked into buying our tickets online early that morning and were able to escape the line that I had absolutely no intention of standing in.
The second thing we learned about the church is that it is giant. Looking straight up at the tallest towers made me dizzy, and they are still building more towers, taller towers. The building takes up about about a block in downtown Barcelona, unable to help drawing attention to itself by both it's giant stature and intricate design (not to mention the throngs and throngs of eager tourists surrounding it). My parents had suggested we pay up for the audio tour and boy was it worth it. It was about an hour and a half long and listening to the background of the church and it's design was rather soothing as you wandered inside the church.
Stained glass has always fascinated me and because the Sagrada Familia boasts almost floor to ceiling stained glass windows, I stood there for a while in plain awe. I'm not particularly religious. Raised Catholic, I attend a Jesuit school, but religion is still so abstract to me and the only thing I'm sure of is that there's a God out there somewhere and maybe a heaven. But let me tell you, as soon as I walked into that church, an incredible feeling of peace and content filled me. Maybe it came from God, maybe it was standing in such a majestic building, I don't know, but I do know it's not something I'm ever going to forget.

We spent a couple hours in the church before meeting up with our friend Eden, a fellow American who is studying in the Netherlands (and staying at our hostel). The three of us set out to find two of Gaudi's famous houses. Well that was the goal at least. Despite having two maps and asking directions about ten times, we ended up wandering around the Barcelona streets for a good two hours, learning later that we were walking in circles, about a block or two over from the houses (oops). However, the weather was warm, I was wearing good shoes, and I was with two friends. We stopped into a cafe to ask for directions and ended up staying for lunch. Of course once I saw the chocolate croissant things in the bakery window I had to have dessert first. Oh adulthood how I love thee.
After finally finding the houses (one of which was covered up: joke's on us), we moved on. Because we were running out of time and money we decided to do the tour of one of the houses at another time. That's coming, I promise. Just bear with me.
We made our way to the Arc de Triomf. It's literally just a giant memorial arc that was built in 1888 as the main gate for the Barcelona World Fair. It was nice. Very big. While we were there taking pictures, we bumped into Chris, another one of our new friends staying at our hostel (I bumped into more people I know in Barcelona than I do at home where I've lived for ten years). Chris just happened to be on his way to the Picasso museum which was our next stop as well.
Wow. Much impressive.
The Picasso museum (which boasts thousands of Picasso originals) is hidden away in the backstreets of Barcelona's Gothic District. There are pretty much no signs or anything but Chris had his nose to the map and he lead us there with little trouble. It was a little expensive to get in and the four of us were debating if it was really worth it at all when an employee came up and told us if we could prove we were students, we could get in for free. More free things? Sign me up!
So into the museum we went. 
I can appreciate different kinds of art. Obviously, I like writing. Music is awesome. Drawings and paintings and sculpture are all pretty great too. And there's no doubt Picasso was one hell of an artist.
It's just, as I went through the museum, I couldn't help but feel like I was missing something. A couple of the paintings really took my breath away, I admit it, but for the majority of them I felt nothing. I hope this doesn't make unappreciative of art and perhaps it's just a lack of any kind of art background but as the minutes dragged on, the more I wanted to leave. Just how much abstract art can someone look at without needing a drink? Answer me that.

It was getting dark (and cold again) by the time we left the museum and us girls split off from Chris and headed to the gigantic park that boasted an impressive fountain. I wish we had been able to go back when it was warmer and lighter out because this place was seriously cool. And filled with hippies. It was like throwback thursdays on steroids (and if you don't know what a #tbt is then bless your heart). Groups of people were just sitting on blankets and playing guitar and smoking and singing while their dogs roamed around. Slack lines are also a phenomenon in Barcelona, I guess, because they had dozens set up around the park. If you don't know what a slack line is then you must not have an older brother who is a personal trainer that brought one home a couple years ago. It's basically a six inch wide and however many feet long strap of nylon that gets strung up against two trees. Then you try to walk on it. So, like a tightrope, but easier. Or easier in theory; they are still difficult and take a ton of practice to master. It was funny to watch the little kids on the ones about a foot off the ground and even funnier to watch all the hippie guys with dreadlocks fall off the ones seven feet from the ground.
After wading through the dogs and picnickers, we located the fountain which wasn't hard because it was about as big as that arc. Okay maybe not but it's one of the bigger fountains I've seen and the water was so clean! We spent a little while goofing off there before heading back for the night.

Continuing on with the adventure, let's move on to day number four. Don't worry, it wasn't as busy as the last few because we finally had some time to relax! Yes, you know what's coming, don't you? The famous Barcelona beach! But first let's hear how Sarah and I stumbled upon an authentic Spanish festival/parade.
The two of us were actually on our way to go take a ride in the cable car over the harbor (which we didn't end up doing) when we passed his interesting looking market. It was a line of stalls that sold everything from herbal, homemade cough drops to raw chocolate to empanadas to carved wooden utensils. We were perusing when we heard this noise from behind us and realized that there were just a few hundred too many people lining the streets for this to be normal. We went to go stand with the crowd and witnessed one of the coolest experiences ever. I can't really explain the costumes and the energy that surrounded the parade with any sort of accuracy so let me just leave you with some pictures.

Sunday was by far the warmest day so surprise surprise when we found ourselves laying out on the beach. There were guys going up and down the beach selling things like beer (and one ambitious fellow: crack) and Sarah snatched up a printed sheet/blanket thing so we could lay on the sand. Oh and lay we did. We laid on that sand all the up to the point where a Spanish lady came by asking if we wanted a massage. I shot straight up and said yes yes yes I do want a massage. Right here. Now. 
So Sarah and I ended up getting massages on a beach in Barcelona and it was beautiful. A cathartic experience really. Want to see a picture?

Two happy and stress free girls!
Not much else happened on Sunday except that we went out with the hostel and friends to an Irish pub for drinks. I know, I know, an Irish pub in Barcelona? You're supposed to be getting the Spanish experience, Marie! But we just couldn't help ourselves and it felt like home. Except that the drinks in Ireland are better, because man the Irish know how to handle their alcohol like no other!

*Deep breath* Okay here we go onto the last full day of our trip: Monday. To be honest we were pretty exhausted by this point, having been up late every night and out and about all day long so we kept it pretty simple. During the day, Sarah and I went back to one of the Gaudi houses, Casa Batlló, to take the tour. What was nice about this tour was that the audio tour was included in the ticket price. Plus we got to skip another long line by getting our tickets ahead of time from the hostel!
The house was impressive. There's not a single straight line in the makeup of the house (remember how Gaudi liked curvy things?) except in the attic. I was most intrigued by the courtyard and decided then and there that I would like a courtyard one day. One with mosaic art all around made for me by a famous architect. A girl's gotta have standards.
My other standards include a winding staircase that leads up to a rooftop adorned by more beautiful music art. Boys, take note. 

Front of the house

Open staircase. The walls are meant to represent water

That night was our last night in the great city so we treated ourselves to a nice dinner. We started off with strawberry daiquiris followed by some pink hummus (who knew?) on toasted bread and finished with the best goddamn burger I've ever had. Just the right touches to end an amazing trip.
I understand now why Barcelona is such a popular vacation spot but no, Dad, I still don't want you and Mom moving there for retirement!

I'll be back for you, Barcelona <3

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Barcelona: The First Days

Two white girls walk into a bus station at two in the morning with sunglasses on…
It sounds like the beginning of a joke you don't want to hear the end of, but six days ago it was my reality. About two weeks, my roommate asked if I wanted to travel to Barcelona, Spain with her as plans with another friend fell through. I hemmed and hawed about the decision. The flight was a lot of money. I would have to miss a lot of class. I had a big paper due the day we came back. On the other hand…Spain meant sun.
For those of you in the US being held captive by winter storms and for the those of you in Ireland being driven insane by the relentless rain, you understand why sun is a big deal. It's well…warm. It's like being wrapped in a blanket without all the annoying fleece fuzzies sticking to your clothes. So I agreed to skip classes, write the paper the day before, and who really cared about the money in the long run? It's why I worked my butt off last summer at 5:30 in the morning making all of Hunterdon County's breakfast sandwiches (you're welcome).
So fast forward to that two in the morning bus trip. We stayed up all day and night packing and shopping and being excited. That excitement lasted all the way into the first fifteen minutes of the bus ride before I fell asleep. Awake at around four-thirty to get into the airport, through security to our six-thirty flight. The flight that I also slept through. All I remember is the annoying flight attendants going up and down the aisles asking if anyone wanted something to drink. The first few times it was nice but you'd think they'd get the hint when people start pointedly looking in the other direction when they stopped by.
Unlike last time, my luggage was on conveyor belt and we went on our merry way to a cab. Before we could get to a cab though we had to go outside and that meant palm trees. Everywhere. I stared up in awe; we don't have a lot of palm trees in Buffalo and Ireland. Or Jersey. Now that I think about, all those places could use a few more palm trees.
Our hostel was about a fifteen minute drive from the airport and I wasn't sure what to expect because I've heard such different things about hostels. Some are terrible, some are okay. My brother assured me I would hate them because I'm a little spoiled I wasn't used to staying in one. I would like to point out that it was not the case at all! This hostel was clean and the staff was friendly and helpful. We were in the biggest room (nine bed co-ed) in order to save money but it ended up being a great decision because we made friends from all over the world. Almost all of us those first couple days were American but many were studying abroad like Sarah and me and it was neat to get to see different perspectives.
For those of you who have never stayed in a hostel, it's a pretty simple setup. Tiny rooms with a locker for each person. That's it. We had an attached bathroom with two showers and two sinks because our room was large but the other bathrooms were in the hallways of the floors above us. In the basement, there was a small but cozy hangout spot with a couch and dining table, along with a TV and a couple computers with crappy wifi. But at least we had wifi.
Because we couldn't check in until two (it was only about ten-thirty), we dropped off our luggage and explored a little. And by explored, I mean we got lost. Hopelessly lost. Even armed with maps that my parents sent me from their trip to Barcelona, we wandered down to the harbor and couldn't find our way back. So we just walked around for ages, admiring the buildings, the people, and yes, the palm trees. Being in a big city again was a bit of a shock because we're used to Galway which is more like a large village than a city even though it's the third most populated place in Ireland. Barcelona was more along the lines of New York City but with wider sidewalks and much older buildings. Everyone had their laundry out to dry on the balconies so walking down the streets kind of felt like walking through a Disney movie. I would have started singing but my jaw was down to my knees as I took in everything, from the little kids playing soccer in the street to the butcher shops with hunks of meat hanging from the ceiling. It was as if no matter how many times I turned my head, I couldn't see everything that was going on.
After stopping to pick up some snacks, we finally found our way back to the hostel and checked into our room. Next on my list was a shower and a nap, which felt so good! That night we hung out around the hostel, eating pasta that they made for us (who can say no to a three euro dinner?) and playing drinking games with some other residents in the hostel. Then we slept.

Day Two:
I have to admit we slept in a bit on Friday, our first full day in Barcelona. Once we got outside (in the sun!!), we met up with Sarah's friend, Taylor, who is studying in Barcelona for the semester. After grabbing lunch (coleslaw and sausage: a weird combination), we headed to Parc de Guell (Park Guell). I'm sure many of you don't know who Antoni Gaudi was but Barcelona is pretty much dedicated to him. He was a famous architect who designed the Sagrada Familia, a huge Cathedral was started in the 1800s and still being constructed. He also designed several houses in Barcelona and had influence in Parc de Guell (where he also lived for a number of years). He is famous for his innovative use of natural light and curves in his architecture. Much of his work is influenced by nature and more specifically, water, so a lot of it has a wavy feel to it. Some of it literally: the walls in one of the houses curl like waves.
Anyway, we spent the whole day in the Park, walking through the never ending paths with little idea of where we were going. Like I said, the Park is home to Gaudi's house where he lived with relatives toward the end of his life. We paid the admission price to go inside the first two floors and inside, they have pieces of furniture he designed on display. I watched a mini-movie on the different pieces that explained how he would design furniture for a specific person by building it around the said person. So if you like to sit with your arm slung over the back of the chair, he would cut a little nook for your arm so you would be more comfortable. It's an interesting concept.
The Park was high up in Barcelona and boasted incredible views of the city. There's a part where you can climb on this little castle/chapel rock thingy so that when you get to the top you have a 360 degree view of the city. Aside from the sun and the palm trees, we were also excited to see cacti. Loads of it. It's so eye-opening to travel to a place outside your comfort zone. The most similar place I've been to Spain is Cancun, Mexico and trust me, it was not that similar. In Cancun, they speak the kind of Spanish I learned in high school. Not so much in Barcelona. Although many of the Spanish speak broken English, many of them also do not, so I had to do a lot of lip-biting and remembering back to when I was fifteen and not paying attention in spanish class. And also a lot of gesturing and saying never mind.
We were standing in line to see one of Gaudi most famous works (a mosaic lizard and also some curvy mosaic benches), when an employee came up and told us that in another hour, this part of the park would be free. Yay for free! We went and got something to eat before coming back and snapping some more photos of this lizard. It probably would have been more impressive if I hadn't been so darn cold. Apparently once the sun leaves, the it gets cold. So the most exciting thing for me were the vendors selling scarves. I didn't even try to haggle like you should in Barcelona because my teeth were chattering for me to do anything more than point and nod at the thickest scarf I could find.
The hostel we were staying at does scheduled outings at night and so we ventured off with them when it got dark to go see the Magic Fountain. Let me just say that the pictures of the fountain are almost more impressive than the show itself. It's just a giant fountain that lit up and spurted water to music. It belongs more in Disneyland than it does in Barcelona. It was cool for about two minutes but I couldn't help thinking how much better it would have been if I had had a couple drinks beforehand.
After being underwhelmed at this magical fountain, we all headed out for tapas. Tapas is something that should be a thing in the United States but it's not. It's basically like eating a bunch of appetizers for dinner. You go out to a Tapas Bar, pick out five or six of these little treats. Things like a slice of pork with honey mustard. A biscuit with jelly. A coconut fried shrimp. You can pick as many as you want and they are delicious and easy! You eat until you are full and then you're done; so simple!

Since this post is getting long, I'm going to wait and do another for the rest of my time in Barcelona. Stay tuned for the next installment in the travels of this writer!