Las Ramblas, Barcelona (& the rest)



A couple of years ago I tried to learn Spanish but quickly gave it up. It wasn’t that the language was difficult, just impossible to pronounce. But I wanted to learn as I was planning to make my first ever visit to Spain. Then I thought what the hell. After all, doesn’t everyone speak English? And if they don’t understand what I’m saying I’ll do what all people throughout the English-speaking world do in such circumstances: I’ll talk louder. 


I don’t know why it had taken me so long to visit Spain. In fact, the country had always had a kind of fascination for me, partly because of its recent history, its civil war, but also its topography, the plains, the mountains, and the intense summer heat. Its cities, too, particularly Madrid, but as the budget airlines from my town only went to Barcelona, this is where it would have to be. Besides, everyone told me that it was a wonderful city, so I was almost excited about going, and almost excited is about as excited as I ever get.


I flew out on 17th March 2008 to the unfortunately named El Prat Airport. (‘Prat’ is English slang for ‘idiot’). I’d checked the airport website for transport into Barcelona. By taxi, the website informed us, ‘the taxi station central is in the exit of the terminals’. Clearly it hadn't been one of the translator’s better days. There was also a train service, which I decided to use, assuming, of course, that the trains weren’t on strike or the line wasn’t closed for ‘essential engineering works’. Well, the trains weren’t on strike, and the line was fully operational. However, in order to get to the train station you had to cross a busy dual-carriageway, which you do through a tunnel over the road, and this tunnel was closed for ‘essential renovation work’. So the bus it would have to be.


I joined the queue at the unique bus ticket machine and got as far as two people from the front when we discovered that the machine had ran out of change. I dug out my Visa card, and when my turn came I bought my ticket. I then discovered as I boarded the bus that you could buy your ticket from the driver.


The journey into Barcelona was not the most memorable. The landscape was brown and dusty and everywhere there were building works going on. Maybe this all spoke of prosperity, though, as we now know, the economic bubble was about to burst, big time.


We arrived at Plaça de Catalunya in the centre of the city, where my hotel was located. I’d seen the square in a tourist guide and it was quite impressive. Need I say that half the square was closed off for maintenance work?




Cable car to Montjuic


I checked into my hotel, deposited my bag in my room, and went down to the reception. I asked the receptionist, a young woman of about twenty, who mispronounced her English in a sweet and charming manner, which was the best way to get to Montjuic, ‘the Hill of the Jews‘, which overlooks the city. She told me that I should take the metro to Parellel station, and then the funicular to the cable car station. And she warned me, in a grave and caring tone, to watch out for pickpockets. I gave her my word that I would do. She gave me a booklet with some tokens in it, and I thanked her for her assistance and turned to go.
“You will remember to watch for the pickpockets?” she called out after me.
“Yes, I will do”, I said meekly.


I got to Parallel and took the funicular to the telefèric station. Already we were quite high up with fine views of the city. I saw Gaudi’s masterpiece La Sagrada Familia for the first time. Also prominent was a modern building which resembled the London ‘gherkin’ building. Then I went to the cable car station where cabs were leaving production-line fashion.


I have never liked heights and was glad when we made firm ground at Montjuic. I walked up to the castle and then looked out across Barcelona. The sunshine was hazy, which restricted visibility, but the commercial port could clearly be seen, also the monument of Christopher Columbus, the last man to discover America.


I pottered around for a while, checked out some huge canons, then hopped on a cable car, then into the funicular, and was soon back at Parellel and heading for Plaça de Catalunya.


La Rambla


Leading from the square to the Columbus monument is a wonderful thoroughfare called La Rambla. It was far and away the highlight of my visit. It is, in fact, a number of ‘ramblas’, called collectively Las Ramblas. It runs from Plaça de Catalunya at the north end to the Columbus monument at the south end, a distance of just over 1 kilometre. Running down the centre is the Rambla Boulevard, a tree-lined, pedestrian zone, dotted with newsstands and café tables where you can stop for a drink or a meal. The atmosphere is lively and at the same time relaxing. There were buskers to serenade you, and, while I was there, human waxworks. If I lived in Barcelona I’d walk up and down it all day long.    


As it was St. Paddy’s Day I hunted out an Irish pub and had a plate of Irish stew with the specific gravity of soup, but it filled a gap. I went down as far as the statue of Columbus atop his high column. A friend of mine once told that he is pointing the wrong way, east instead of west. I pottered around some more (I‘m a good potter-arounder), then went back up the boulevard and found an indoor market selling fruit and vegetables, what they used to call costermongers, about 200 years ago. I took a photograph of one of the stalls, and here it is….


Barcelona costermonger


Back up the square the sun was beginning to set with the light suspended between day and night. It is the nicest time of the day. I took my camera out to try and capture the moment for posterity. As I was standing there a small, seedy looking man with a face like a wizened beetroot sidled up alongside me and began at once talking to me in English. He told me he was a student from Tunisia and that he also spoke Spanish, French and Italian. “I speak very good English, yes?” he said. It wasn’t bad, but neither was it fantastic, but unfortunately (for him) he irritated me from the word go, so I said I hoped that his affirmation of his polyglot excellence wasn’t a case of rhetorical hyperbole, if he would forgive the tautology as all hyperbole is, of course, rhetorical.
It had the desired effect as he obviously didn’t understand a word I said.
“What?” he said.
“I’m sorry?” I said.
“What did you say?” he asked.
“Say?” I said.
“What?” he said.
“I’m sorry?” I said.
“What did you say?” he repeated.
“Say?” I said.
“What?” he said.
“What?” I said.
“What?” he said.
“I’m sorry?” I said.
I would have preferred, of course, to have knocked him to the ground and got the boot in a couple of times, but as I didn't want to spend my first night in Spain in a Spain police cell, I contented myself with this infantile gibberish and then wandered off. 


I spent a sleepless night in my not-too-comfortable hotel, and the next morning went down to the reception where my new receptionist friend was on duty once more. I asked her the best way to get to the Sagrada Familia. She told me which metro to take, and again cautioned me about those nasty pickpockets.
“Are they still out there?” I wanted to ask her, but that would have been too cynical, and it wasn’t the place for that.


La Sagrada Familia is probably the longest running ecclesiastical work-in-progress in the world today. Construction began in 1882 and was only one quarter complete at the time of Gaudi’s death in 1926. By 2010 about half the work was completed, when the cathedral was also sanctified during a visit by the Pope. But it remains highly controversial, with claims that the work is not respecting Gaudi’s intentions, and that the stone is being machine-shaped and not carved by hand by artisans. 


Sagrada Familia


Funding for the cathedral is mainly from Japan, which may (or may not) have accounted for the large numbers of Japanese tourists when I was there. I took the regulation photos, did a bit more pottering around, then headed off back to La Rambla.


I went to the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, but they were closed for the day. The approach to the museum had a sloping ramp which was very good for wheelchairs and fantastic for skate-boarders. There were considerably more of the latter. Unable to see any modern paintings, I decided to go to one of Gaudi’s houses, just off La Rambla. I’d read somewhere that there were some magnificent sculptures on the roof. Is it necessary for me to say that the roof was closed for renovation? But they did let us have a look at the empty basement, and didn’t charge either. So that was a bit of good luck.


Among the tokens that my receptionist friend at the hotel had given me was one for a self-service restaurant where you could eat as much as you like for about 8 euros. I wish I could remember the name of the restaurant, but the food was excellent, both hot and cold, and literally all you stuff inside you. And you don’t have to leave a tip, either!


I spent the rest of the day wandering up and down La Rambla, looking at the human waxworks, taking some snaps, and was pretty worn out when I got back to the hotel.


Another awful night, but the next morning I was leaving. My receptionist friend was still on duty and wished me a safe journey. I walked over to Plaça de Catalunya, half of which was still closed off, though the workmen had yet to make an appearance. A few dossers were still sleeping on the benches as I walked towards the bus stop. They probably had a better night than I did.


As I was boarding the bus I gave a beggar lady 5 euros and she said something to me in Spanish which I didn’t understand but seemed to catch the word Dios (God). The bus pulled out and as we rounded the square I saw a municipal worker emptying a litter bin. It was the last thing I remember of Barcelona.

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