Barcelona! – Day 2: Queues, Processions & Freaks

Inspired by the previous day’s serendipity with the market, we were intent to catch up on the sightseeing program. Reconstructed from memory, today’s agenda had Park Guell and Sagrada Familia on it – two of Barcelona’s main landmarks created by the visionary architect Antoni Gaudi.

We took the underground and climbed the hills to Park Guell (and, shit, was there climbing involved! The park lies on top of some really steep hills, and even though some of the streets leading to it were equipped with escalators, the climb was not for the weak or faint-hearted!). Catching our breath on the way, we came face to face with the first queue of the day: about a hundred people were lining up for entry tickets, and the welcoming sign at the door announced that tickets being sold were valid for entry 3 hours from now. After short contemplation, we weighed our options and turned away, deciding to try our luck the following day, and booking said tickets online.

Heading back into town, we read up on the possible itineraries, and found a day’s architectural walk through downtown, starting at Sagrada Familia. Nic had his mind set on the place, as, technically, this was the main reason for our choosing Barcelona as our next destination in the first place. I had only vague memories of the whimsical cathedral from my first brief acquaintance with the city, and was also curious to explore it in more detail. Turned out, both our hopes should not have been held too high. Upon arrival we faced yet another queue, coiling like a big fat snake all the way around the cathedral, and looking pretty desperate. To add to the disappointment, two of cathedral’s eight towers were completely covered with scaffoldings – either being built, or renovated. Sagrada Familia is a work in progress, stretching over a hundred and thirty years, and still not anywhere near the finish line. The fact that the original Gaudi’s designs were burned in the fire a while ago, and had to be reconstructed by all means and imagination possible, did not speed up the process. Still, looking at this unfinished masterpiece, one cannot help but admire the genius mind that imagined it. Even with the existing 8 towers the building looks humongous, but the original design called for 18 (!) When (and if) all 18 are finished, Sagrada Familia will be the tallest church in the world.

La Sagrada Familia
La Sagrada Familia

Having admired the masterpiece in progress from the outside, we ventured off on our foot walk through the architectural downtown. Much to our amazed satisfaction, not only did the buildings mentioned in the Lonely Planet exit, but they actually were worth looking at, and could well compete with the publicly known tourist attractions. We went past a string of amazing art nouveau buildings, randomly scattered through downtown Barcelona – each a more unusual projection of architectural grandeur of the century.

By way of architectural musings: during our walk through downtown, I could not but notice some common features in all the beautiful buildings populating the city. Where Verona was distinguished and united by balconies, Barcelona was definitely a city of windows. Long and vertical, decorated with wooden shutters of all forms and colors, they made the buildings look more open and slim, reaching for the skies like city trees deprived of sunshine.

We seemed to have been the only ones, straying off the beaten path – our walk through the side streets and forgotten alleys was mostly solitary, with barely a tourist in sight. However, every time we came out into the opening or crossing marked by a famous sight, it was so besieged by fellow-travelers, patiently queuing in endless lines around it, that we had to turn away in frustration mixed with disgust.

The only place we managed to get in that day was La Cathedral (aka the Barcelona Cathedral), that in addition to its beautifully Gothic architecture boasts its own garden in the yard, with flowers, palm trees, a fish pond full of koi and a flock of 13 white geese proudly residing on premises.

La Catedral

Beautiful and unique as downtown Barcelona is, with its phantasmagorical art nouveau buildings and mysterious-looking streets and alleys, the strongest impression of the day and our whole trip was yet to come. We happened to be in the city at Easter, and although we briefly read somewhere about Catalan Easter processions, we could not, in our wildest dreams, imagine just how gorgeously creepy and magnificently scary they were!… But all in its turn.

Aimlessly walking around downtown in the late afternoon, we stumbled upon the first, most regular-looking one of all. The clergy of the Barcelona Cathedral, serious, yet cheerful-looking, all dressed up to the nines, were taking Jesus for a walk around the block. Jesus was relaxing on a huge cross, towering over the crowds. The priests of varied ranks, were marching in slow and dignified order around the cathedral, stopping every now and hen to give the crowds an opportunity to cheer, pray, cry, or sing, according to their tastes and inclinations. The procession was stylish, dignified and despite the guy on the cross had an overall positive mood.

Cheerfullness did not last long. The second procession we caught up with while exploring the neighborhood alleys was headed by an oompa-band playing funeral marches, followed by severe-looking Catalan women, in black clothes and high head dresses, carrying tall body-size lit candles and hugging gold-encrusted Bibles to their chests. Behind them moved a maxi hearse made entirely of flowers, on top of which the statue of Mary Magdalen dressed in what looked like bridal gear was hugging the dead and bloodied body of Jesus. The dead body looked a bit too realistic to my taste, but the crowds gathering the procession did not share my sentiment – everybody was gushing simultaneously, and taking selfies with iPads… Upon closer inspection the hearse turned out to be hollow inside, and carried by on shoulders of a dozen or so people guiding the thing from the inside. This was only the beginning of the fun, though. The hearse was followed by a festive-looking Ku-Klux-Klan gathering in black dresses and purple cassocks with only little holes for the eyes. They were silent and concentrated, carried heavy lanterns, and included both, grown-ups and children, all in black and purple clan gear. In the falling twilight, walking slowly and solemnly along the narrow dark alleys of a medieval town, the procession looked freakishly weird.

Following the Klan group in a mesmerized admiration, we walked back into the main square, where thousands of people gathered to greet the third and the biggest procession of all. This one was made up of two walking hearses at a respectable distance from one another. The procession was headed by scary-looking group of a couple of dozen men dressed in black pointed cassocks with little slits for the eyes, all carrying torches or lanterns. Judging by the air of authority, they seemed to be the higher-ranking members of the same medieval Ku-Klux-Klan revival, and looked like they meant business. By now the twilight thickened, and the black figures looked especially menacing and spooky.

The first hearse of the final procession was a lushly decorated golden flower-bed with the statue of Jesus in a crimson robe carrying the cross on top.

Right behind it a group of middle-aged and elderly women, dressed in black robes, was walking barefoot and in chains, each carrying a decent-size wooden cross of their own on their backs. A couple of women were also making simultaneous attempts at flogging themselves with whips they happened to have handy.

They were followed by yet another group of Klan guys – these in white robes with dark green pointed cassocks, followed by the main attraction of the evening – the last hearse that looked like a cross between a throne and a bed. It was made of what looked like heavy gold, decorated with white flowers, and filled with candles. Amid all this luxury sat a big figure of Santa Macarena, or the Catalan version of the Virgin Mary. Suspiciously Mary was wearing a bridal dress and a golden halo crown, although, I am by far not an expert on Catholic Easter traditions…

Looking at the processions in the quickly thickening twilight, you could not help but think that a sight of cassocked men with torches and women flogging themselves with whips was probably the last thing you could imagine seeing in the middle of a 21st century European capital… This should definitely be on every self-respecting Goth’s list! Another one of the lesser-known weird sights of this world added to the bucket list of our collective experience…

Barcelona! – Day 1: The Beginning

Technically this was not my first visit to Barcelona. I have been here before. Once. For work. Which is almost as good as never having been there at all…

True, the job got me travelling. And took me to places I would have never seen otherwise. But travel for work comes with a price. “Living out of your suitcase” does not quite sum it up… You wake up at weird un-Godly hours, and when you do get to sleep, you do so on a plane, on a bench at an airport, or standing up in a check-in line, and master 10-minute power-naps between meetings. And most of all – you go to all those amazing places, but you neve, EVER, get to really see them. You become fluent in hotel speak, and airport speak, you see an occasional convention center or a restaurant, but that’s pretty much it. Despite all this, however, you still get to go places.  And for freaks like me – this is what counts!

My first trip to Barcelona barely put a spot on my already superficially extensive travel map. But it did leave some nice, if only vague memories, and when we started thinking where on earth we could spend the long Easter weekend at, Barcelona quietly sneaked onto the top of the list. Before we realized it ourselves, the tickets were bought, the hotel booked, and we were ready to go. Barcelona, here we come!

Not as fast as we thought, though. The flight was delayed, but we were on vacation, and weren’t really in a hurry. With enough skill, an airport wait can be turned into a fun and relaxing pastime – it’s all in the attitude, and much better than sitting in an office anyway. The wine from the lounge helped as well…

Barcelona greeted us with sunshine and that very special light and ambiance, that distinguishes a truly southern city from everywhere above the 45th parallel. That only confirmed our good intentions and sealed the holiday mood.

The aptly named Aerobus, connecting the Barcelona airport with the city center, promptly delivered us downtown, and without much wandering around we found the way to our hotel. Booked on the Internet for purely co-incidental reasons, Hotel Curious could boast exceptional location on one of the many side streets off La Rambla, Barcelona‘s main pedestrian thoroughfare. Housed in an old, but completely renovated building, it had nice modern facilities, the friendliest staff you could imagine, and the slowest lift on the planet.

We did not come to Barcelona to spend time indoors, though. Having thrown our carry-on into the room, we set off exploring the neighborhood. The list of sights with addresses, directions, and other useful information carefully prepared before the trip, kept lying on the table in our Munich apartment, so we had to rely on memories and the Lonely Planet. We had two full days ahead, and were ready to gather our bearings and reconstruct the plan, figuring out that the best way to do so will be out in the sun, ideally supported by a refreshing drink of mild alcoholic content. Beginners’ luck was on our side – within 5 minutes of randomly strolling around in search of a place to land, we stumbled upon one of the main sights that topped the list forgotten at home: Mercat de la Boqueria – the famous Barcelona Food Market! Turned out, our hotel was right next door to it. Well done, us!

La Mercat de la Bouqeria

Now, the guidebooks did mention that it was fabulous. Many went as far as putting it on a must-see list for visitors to the city. What they all forgot to mention, or simply could not convey in words, was just HOW fabulous the place actually was! The abundance and variety of colors, the tempting smells, the hectic yet relaxed atmosphere – any photos or words won’t really do the place justice. You simply MUST experience it in person! We weren’t going to wait for any special invitations, and took to the happy market ambiance like regulars.

Having grabbed a quick hamon snack on the way, we quickly located a landing point: a seafood bar/restaurant with an open kitchen, tall stools around a stylish bar, and a fantastic display of fish and shell food. Our local swagger did not last long – the first thing we did was offer two sangrias: a totally touristy drink that none of the regulars on the market would be seen dead drinking, but what the hell?!… We were tourists, and sangria is exactly what idiots like us associate Spain with!

A quick hamon snack

The next touristy thing on the menu was tapas. Here we actually restrained ourselves, and avoided ordering anything that screamed “I am a stupid tourist” off the extensive menu, and took things slowly by observing the locals. Struggling with our sangrias and munching on tomato bread (a simpler version of an Italian bruschetta) that the girl behind the bar insisted to throw in with the drinks, we were savoring the afternoon sun. A family of four with a little girl and a slightly older boy, sitting across the corner of the bar from us looked like they knew what they were doing (which was easy to spot, for they did NOT order anything even remotely resembling sangria), so we followed their example. The grilled seafood tapas platter that we ordered was filled with the freshest and the most aromatic water creatures you could imagine, and unlike the purely touristy tapas I vaguely remembered from my first visit to the city, did not contain any huge chunks of stale bread.

Sangria! (Tourists, beware – it looks way better than it tastes…)

We followed our choice in dishes by observing the little girl, who was trying everything her parents were ordering – curiosity, approval and disgust clearly registering on her face throughout the process. It was her we have to thank for one important culinary discovery of the trip – PadrĂ³n peppers. Tiny little green things – not exactly of the sweet bell pepper variety, but not quite the spicy chilies either, they were lightly grilled, and served seasoned with rock sea salt. A total and utter taste buds delight! I was immediately hooked. How so much flavor, scent and color could be contained in such tiny little thingies was beyond me, but they were absolutely mindbogglingly delicious! Nic gave up on his sangria and ordered a beer, but I stuck to my guns, and finished both (even if I had to regret it later).

Having enjoyed a couple of hours of seafood and peppers at the market (our initial plans of figuring out the itinerary totally forgotten), we finally had to tear ourselves away from the bar in an attempt to experience the rest of the market. It was definitely worth the effort and sure was a sight to see – piles of spices, rows of hamon, fruits of all shapes, colors and sizes, colorful sweets and pastries were filling every corner and stall of the market. Highlighted by the rays of sunshine sneaking their way through the roof of the market, they presented an utter delight to the senses and a temptation hard to resist…

We could easily roam the market for hours and hours till its closing time, but had an appointment to keep. When reading up on things to do in Barcelona in preparation to the trip, and remembering the fantastic food walk Jodi Ettenberg from Legal Nomads did for us in Saigon, we booked a tapas walking tour online.

Excited about getting insider information on the city, and tasting some great food on the way, we arrived at a meeting place, where our guide and another 7 or so participants were already gathered. The walk turned out to be rather disappointing (we definitely were spoiled by Jodi!), and the food was not much to write home about – it only confirmed my initial suspicions about tapas being little sandwiches, but you can’t get it all, can you?… We met some nice people on the way, and happy and tipsy turned in for the night, full of anticipations for discovering Barcelona further.