Thursday, 26 December 2013

Feliz Navidad & Bon Natal from Barcelona!

Barcelona is a beautiful city and a pretty perfect place to spend the holidays.  I arrived early on the Eve of Christmas Eve and met up with a friend of Octavio's who generously put me up in some luxury accommodations for the duration of my stay here.  Lucas is Argentinian but has lived here the last five years, working in something related to information technology.  He's kind of soft-spoken but the more I talked to him, I realized he's an amazingly classy man!  We bonded over alternate rock, traveling and cooking.  He plays guitar and has been to some ridiculous music festivals, which were fun to hear about.  I felt right at home. After he oriented me to his city by looking at the map, we bundled up and I climbed on the back of his motorcycle to get an overview of the major parts of the city.  We saw the famous Plaza Espanya fountain, climbed the Olympic park mountain for the best views of the city, drove by the port and the Mediterranean Sea and down the Avenue Gracia "Barcelona's equivalent of 5th avenue".  As he finished some last minute Christmas shopping, he pointed out the Catalan flags as well as yellow and red striped flags with a star in a blue triangle, (supposedly illegal but everywhere) flags promoting independence from Spain.
Some historic Barcelona buildings- you can see the illegal independence flag toward the bottom
Lucas made me a phenomenal quiche for lunch, I sampled some of the truffles he stayed up making until 4 AM that morning then we head to the gothic quarter of Las Ramblas.  He explained that the city had outgrown the original walls fortifying the area so to create space for agriculture, they created this space within a second set of walls.  The Las Ramblas street incorporates multiple areas, stretching from the busy commercial Plaza Catalunya, the market of St. Joseph (with fish so fresh that many of the lobsters were still climbing over each other), the ornate opera house and ending with the famous Christopher Columbus statue near the sea.  We veered off the main paths to squeeze between massive stone fortifications in paths too small for cars.  We saw the fountain where evanescence made a music video and peered upward to see a walking bridge between buildings, with a statue which would be the last thing people saw before getting executed.  Many of this old buildings currently house art galleries, shops and restaurants so they definitely have a gothic, mysterious feel even today.  We stopped at Ovella Negra, a castle-like tavern filled with expats taking advantage of cheap cervezas and complimentary popcorn then continued on for some tapas near his place.
Park Guell overlooking the city
On Christmas Eve, I began seeing the city from a different perspective, commencing an exploration of the Gaudi influence with a visit to Parc Guell.  I met two girls studying abroad and their mother on the metro and we huffed and puffed up the hill together as we walked to the park.  This was the mom's first trip to Europe (first trip to basically anywhere significant, I think) and she thought my spontaneous Spanish holiday was the best thing she ever heard.  She reflected on how easy it is to make excuses, postponing trips for lack of time and money, then time flies and you haven't been anywhere.  Parc Guell was massive!  I didn't realize that the Gaudi monument section was only a small fraction of the green space, where people were running, walking, playing instruments and selling things.  Gaudi's colorful mosaic stairs and fountains accentuated a city that was pretty colorful to begin with, so that was a great place to relax.  Afterwards, I headed down the hill to Gracia, the bohemian, arts district where I met Juan, Peruvian #3, a Spanish teacher for cervezas on his terrace, then climbed on his roof for an even better view and salsa lessons in his living room.  He said there were 7 steps to salsa and I passed them all!  "derecha, izquierda, delante, atrás, encima, abajo" even though he moves on a different beat than New York style mambo-on-2 master Benno taught me in Raleigh.  After passing bonus level 8, he showed me some of his neighborhood with a hole-in-the-wall bar and we got groceries at the market to make pasta after dancing up a storm.
Fountain featured in Vicki Cristina Barcelona

From there, I met up with Sebastian for a walking tour of the city.  Sebastian was an amazing tour guide... He has incredible curiosity and attention to detail, and as hopped between churches, parks and picturesque streets, he'd point out things I would never notice.  He showed me plaques in front of historic stores that showed businesses in operation since the 1800s, lamp posts designed by Gaudi in a random courtyard of fancy restaurants, a beautiful fountain featured in Vicki and Christina Barcelona movie, a secret garden nestled in a hotel and a life-sized mammoth.  So many best kept secrets away from the crowds up people finishing up holiday shopping!  After that, I met up with a Finnish girl and the two Indian engineers who I was supposed to stay in a hostel with.  We roamed the streets of the city center, looking for food.  Places were closing in front of our eyes so we ended up in an Irish pub, munching on a random assortment of things.  Fortunately, Ruptav didn't resort to the Indian curry but it was still pretty weird to be eating fajitas and burgers in an Irish pub in Spain, where the waiter greeted people speaking in Spanish through a thick Irish brawl.  It was slightly reminiscent of my "traditional New Years dinner with Professor Pao's family", eating pizza while drinking jasmine tea in an Italian restaurant in Taiwan.  But it's the company you keep that matters and Kajsa and the boys made it a delightfully evening.
Ornate exterior of Sagrada Familia
Christmas was another Gaudi day.  I was supposed to meet the boys at Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's famous basicilia.  But that place is a tourist trap and they couldn't get their tickets online so they were lost in the sea of people.  The cathedral itself is absolutely gorgeous, with curvy supports, sparkling stained glass and exterior scenes that describe the nativity and passion of Christ.  It was fun to peak downstairs, where they were actually holding Christmas mass and people were lined up to kiss a baby Jesus, decked out in Christmas finery.  Also in the basement-ish, there were exhibits showcasing the cypress trees, gems and other flowers that inspired Gaudi so that was cool. But Lucas recommended Casa Battlo as his number 1 gaudi recommendation and I'd have to agree- less crowded, student discount, audio tour included and also a really interesting space.  I walked from the cathedral to the house, passing through Avenue Gracia which is where all the Catalan bourgeoise built their flashy, fancy new homes so it was a beautiful walk.  Part of the way through, I noticed people entering a cathedral for Christmas mass so I decided to join.  The mass was in Spanish but I knew what was going on and it was probably the most beautiful church I've sat through a mass in.  They even had a hidden courtyard in the back with a nativity and live chickens set up.
Me outside of Casa Battlo, my favorite Gaudi attraction
After mass and Casa Battlo again, I met up with the Indian guys so they could see Las Ramblas.  Fortunately, they enjoyed the haphazard tour I took them on, following the blue dot on my google maps down the Main Street, to the port, almost through some dark sketchy parks, ending by the Mont Juic castle and fountains.  I think the castle serves as an art museum but it's a gorgeous building peering down at the city.  The grounds were covered in fountains, gardens and even had outdoor escalators to shuttle people up and down the big hills.  We watched the magic fountain show, Christmas edition, so rainbow colored spurts of water and mist danced to Christmas carols.  Not a bad way to spend Christmas. After that, I met my turkish friends' classmate in the train station, since he decided to come here from Rome.  While utilizing the free wifi, I watched a girl taking selfies with McDonalds macaroons.  What a weird world we live in.  Joseph and I had dinner and I tried to get him situated.  Europe is definitely a nice place to spend Christmas- some things did shut down but it's nice to see so many families outside walking off their holiday feasts and enjoying the Christmas lights.  In general, the European culture is so much more outdoorsy and social that makes it incredibly warm and welcoming.
Today has been a pretty lazy day because I'm coming down with a cold and it's windy outside.  But Barcelona has been incredible, and contrary to my Facebook photos, I shared memories with amazing people every step of the way.  I'm always shy to ask them to be in pictures with me but I should demand it in the future.  I'm thoroughly satisfied with my Barcelona sightseeing and semi-shortly, I'll be starting the journey to the airport and then I'll be off for a final four days in Lisbon, Portugal.  The link to my full Barcelona album is here.
Raghav and I near Port Vell