Rose in the bustling and baffling city of Barcelona to tramp the streets with the aim of finding one of the double decker buses that continually tour the main ‘highlight’ spots. Our resoning simple: we had no idea how to negotiate the transport system with absolutely zero Spanish knowledge between us. After viewing the main cathedral quite close to our lodgings, which was grand and gothic and full of slightly spooky things like matched pairs of sarcophagi hanging off the walls, containing an early contributor to the cathedral and his wife, we continued on through the warm sunny streets. ON reaching the dockside area we found the appropriate orange bus and for 18 euros each bought the right to circle the city, thinking this would help us get oriented. After all, I had only pushed to come to Barcelona for one reason: to see some of Gaudi’s architecture. Of his work, the one that intrigued me was the Sagrida Familla cathedral, a work that is also known as the Cathedral of the Poor; this is because it had no official support and was commenced with public subscriptions only. Still unfinished, once it is completed it will be one of the modern wonders of the world.
A few stops into the tour of the city it was apparent that stylistically Gaudi’s work is related to that of others and has a certain Catalan style, where bright colours, strongly geometic patterns and somewhat extravagant decorative frills are commonplace. Before long the fantastically tall and slender spires of the Sagrada Familla appeared before us. To join the queue, you first run the gauntlet of beggars who continually work the crowd, especially focusing their attentions on the tourists. The long queue slowly snaked its way into the base of the building, where a display explained the many different types of stone used in the construction, and why they were chosen, their breaking strain, their mineral composition at microscopic level, and so on. For the price of admission (8.5 euros) you get to climb the towers that appear so slender from the street and rise some 90 metres or so. However, once you have commenced the climb, being locked within a snaking conga line of multicultural tourists, there is no option but to proceed step by step. What begins as a spiral staircase of about 90 cm width , with a hand rail on the right hand side, quickly narrows into a very tight upward spiral much like being on the inside of a giant snailshell like the nautilus. Seemingly with each step there is less room to place your feet, it is dark, lit only be narrow slits to the outside, and the feeling of claustrophobia grows quickly. It is not helped by young lovers who pause to fool around for ten minutes or more blocking the progress of those below them. No room to get by; plenty of patience required. Claustrophic feelings begin to arise as more climbers come up behind you and you begin to feel squeezed.
At the twenty metre mark, Miriam was not feeling good about proceeding, having bravely overcome her aversion to heights to make it thus far. The opportunity to descend by crossing horizontally to the other tower presented itself, and Miriam proceeded to head downward. It was up to me to continue the upward expedition. The next stretch, up to the sixty metre mark above ground level, continued to narrow and now there were few hand rails, and more holes and little walk out battlement style protrusions where the young again took their chances for photo opportunities and general playing about. Through gaps in the masonry you could get an excellent view of the details on the façade that can only be glimpsed from ground level, such as birds that though made of greenish stone appear light enough to fly from the structure up to heaven. Eventually the staircase pauses and you walk across a bridge like passage where a sign warns you not to linger and of the dangers of strong winds. At the far side the choice is to continue upwards to the highest point, or to start the descent down the alternative staircase. I decided, after taking a few snaps of Barcelona from this height, that I must have caught some height anxiety, for there was no way in the world that I was going to go up any higher.
Turning to the downward stair, I quickly found myself alone for a few minutes, fairly unnerving in the circumstances. Then I caught up (or is that down) to some other downward heading tourists, and soon returned to ground level. Within a few minutes I found Miriam, who had not wasted her time. She had thoroughly explored the Gaudi museum and viewed the interior, where workmen are continuing to push on with the dazzling construction. Inside, huge columns, graceful as giraffe legs, push high into the air, and gold and green ceramic tiles are prepared in sections for attachment to the vaulted ceiling. Everywhere, the fine dust created by the construction work and the water that cools the machinery fills the air. We left with small fragments of the building fabric mingled with our hair, our eyes, and our skin.
Miriam showed me the fascinating displays in the museum that highlighted the breathtaking vision Gaudi has given the world in this building. Regardless of how you feel about religion this man has been inspired by the structures and energy flows of the natural world and has learned so much from his almost clairvoyant reading of such things as fungi, crystals, seeds, animals and birds, the secrets of how strength can be found in curves, parabolas and hyperbolic planes, it is truly a wonder to behold. I was very pleased to have made the effort to see it and Miriam found it equally inspiring.
Having just about reached mental exhaustion point, we found the next available orange bus (but note that there are other buslines running different coloured buses that the orange bus ticket does not apply to, with separate bus stops as well), and taking a vantage point on the upper deck, protected by the windscreen for much of the way, gained a quick view of the remaining touristic highlights as defined by the Barcelona authorities, the requisite grand buildings, remnants of earlier rulers, invaders and so on. All interesting, but the day was coming to an end and we stayed on the bus, happy to be able to lie down in our humble little room; also glad we had brought our own heating element and could make a cup of tea. Tea is seemingly deemed some kind of poison in these parts and could not be seen in the shops.
With a search of the neighbourhood we eventually found a café serving reasonable food and coffee at a price that the locals liked and patronised, and we returned several times to it. This was in the next street along from the Boqueria, and coffee, the lifeblood of this pair of intrepid travellers, was only 1.2 euros against at least twice that for a worse product virtually everywhere else. Think it was called “Bacalla” or something like that in the Portaferrissa.
The supermarket (or supermercat as it is in Spanish) was quite an experience. You enter at one end, go by the security guard, use a narrow plastic basket to gather your selections. Similar to those our parents would have used in the early 1960s, and allowing the store to squeeze more customers into the store. To pay, you line up in one vast queue that is then farmed out to one of about four checkouts. We found that paracetamol was unobtainable in the mercat, a pharmacy being required for that, but we managed to get some bottled water. You just don’t feel safe drinking the tap water, though I don’t know what state the water system is in.
The following morning it was time to bid adios to our Barcelonan experience. We checked out via the smirking sleazy guys at reception, with the free internet PC available at reception that wouldn’t go to any more than a few predetermined sites, and had a weird keyboard that slowed non-Spanish users to almost a complete halt. Basic hotmail use only seemed to be workable. Too bad for Yahoo users like me.
We rolled our baggage to the metro station up Ramblas and after the usual anxiety of trying to figure out the right ticket, the right platform, the right direction and the right place to get off, we made it to the central Barcelona station. Here I waited in line for twenty minutes while someone was stuck at the ticket office getting nowhere, and a Spanish speaking gentlemen didn’t let his lack of English stop him from chatting animatedly to me in an amalgam of Spanish, French , English and a range of other languages. Then the ticket guy shrugged his shoulders and pointed to another queue, refusing to deal with me because I had a Eurail pass. When I eventually found a more helpful woman in the Information & Ticketing area, I confirmed that he could have issued me the tickets I wanted, which were only to the Spanish/French border, from where the intention was to get tickets from the French railways to go on.
So, at last, another dirty, aged train slowly edged us towards Cerbere, the first railway town over the border. Like Portbou on the Spanish side, this is an end of the world kind of place where no one seems to smile. A homeless man lies in his own filth in the waiting area, with his only friends close by him, a bedraggled dog and a marmalade mangy cat seemingly quite happy to be the third member of this nomadic triad. As we waited for our next train to come in – we found that returning to Avignon from here was our only realistic option before nightfall – a woman bought a healthy baguette from the grumpy, sour faced café attendant, walked up and handed it to the homeless man, said “ Bon appetite” and left him in peace. After he had eaten, he walked on his way to who knows where, his dog walking like an old arthritic, his cat sitting across his shoulders as though this was their everyday existence.
There are various forms of torture in the world, but riding on the Spanish and their co-conspirators the French train system is perhaps one of the most persuasive. It’s message to the traveller seems to be – your time is nothing to us. Your journey will take as long as we choose to make it. We won’t tell you how long that will be. Just be assured, it will take longer and will be more uncomfortable than you could imagine. A couple of hours beyond the scheduled time we rattled into Avignon.
This time I made an executive decision. An Ibis sign was visible adjacent to the railyards. Arising to the reception area from a darkened threshold to an elevator that fortunately did have lights, above the crumbling concrete of Avignon station we found refuge for the night. Though it was now almost 10 pm , the hotel was happy to cook up a meal that was more tasty and sustaining than we had enjoyed for many days, the room was clean and quadruple glazed against the railyard noise, and allowed us to have a healing and refreshing sleep. And the cost for all this was less than we had payed for our night in the medieval quarter.
Thus was our Anzac Day spent – the day we remember the sacrifices our armed forces made to help keep Europe free from tyrants through two wars.