Tours have their good and bad points. The worst bad point is that they always leave early. We got up at 6, after staying up until midnight to get our laundry done. I was exhausted. I’m almost useless when I first wake up, uncoordinated, pokey, distracted, confused, and likely to stumble into walls. Being married to an extreme lark is a classic comedy setup. Somehow we managed to be ready at the city bus stop on time. We made it to the tour bus, Starbucks tea in hand, with five minutes to spare.
Our tour guide spoke (at least) three languages: Catalan, Spanish, and English. He would alternate sections of banter. We learned later that the collapse of the Spanish economy in 2008 led to a lot of highly educated people being forced to take jobs for which they were seriously overqualified. This guide was more than just a docent. He had read biographies of the major figures in his tours; he did the Dalí tour as well as the Montserrat/Gaudí tour we were taking. It reminded me that “docent” is one of the few jobs in my field for which my BA in History qualifies me.
Could be fun. Maybe I’ll try it one day. Maybe that would be an entry point to working somewhere overseas.
Busing from site to site is a significant chunk of our experience of a new country. It’s part of how we get a sense of the geography of a place. It’s a chance to see outlying suburbs and agricultural areas. Otherwise, it’s a way of limiting ourselves to the company of other tourists, rather than hanging out with locals.
Due to the fact that we had chosen a Monday, our only real option was a (more expensive) extended tour that included a couple of extra sites. The first was a factory town where Gaudí had spent time as a young designer. We visited an unfinished church. He had set aside his work on this building and wound up working on La Sagrada Família, which we had seen the day before, never realizing that he would depart this world without finishing either. I spent most of this part of the tour thinking about my own unfinished projects and kicking myself really hard.
One of the most fascinating things about Gaudí was the way he modeled his buildings. They called it a funicular model. He would suspend chains to make the shapes he wanted – UPSIDE DOWN – and then put a mirror under the bottom. His father was a coppersmith, and this made me wonder where he came up with the idea of these hyperbolic paraboloids. He was ill as a child, a very common trait of major geniuses, and I thought perhaps he had spent time with women in the family as they sewed clothes. Just a guess. Or maybe he liked to hang his head over the side of his bed and play with the blankets.
Gaudí was ahead of his time. He used a lot of recycled and reclaimed materials, and he made a special effort to make this particular church blend into the natural surroundings. It was easy to see how the exterior had been made to match the local palm trees. He had this rainbow batik thing going with the stained glass windows. The holy water fonts were made of massive bivalve shells. I hadn’t realized how far back the roots of this eco-friendly architectural ideal extended.
We had a funny linguistic moment during the lecture. The guide was talking about how Gaudí ordered “slock” from England for one section of the church. At the same moment, my husband and I realized what he meant, and we both blurted out, “Oh, slag!” The guide agreed, repeated our American pronunciation a couple of times, and said he would have to remember it. The Spanish language only has five vowels. It’s debatable how many occur in English (which English?), but we have closer to 20, and non-native speakers can’t always hear these distinctions, much less reproduce them.
We got back on the bus and headed toward Montserrat. This day would turn out to be a buffet of alternative transportation, as we transferred to a train that took us to the higher elevation. Montserrat would be a fascinating and beautiful place even without the history. We learned that it had an irresistible allure for climbers, and half the rescues in the Pyrenees happened here, as the rocks are like super crumbly. I saw three young women in climbing gear walking briskly, and I had a moment of curiosity about what it would be like to carry that mindset. There’s plenty to do on solid ground to keep me busy.
Tours are usually a combination of structure and limited freedom. I found this out that one time when my youngest brother almost got left behind at Chichen Itza. We had the option of either staying with the tour or going off on our own, and there would be a break of roughly two hours before we headed back. The options were the scheduled tour of the music school with a choir concert, going up the funicular to the top of the mountain, visiting the art museum, and eating at the cafeteria. We stuck with the group during the tour, figuring that if we watched the clock, we could do both the museum and the viewpoint after lunch.
The music school was interesting enough, although it was probably included as much for a fundraising opportunity as anything else. These young boys spent most of their time separated from their families, with the advantage that they got to travel to far-flung corners of the world as they trained their voices. A few got to learn the pipe organ. When it came time for the concert, out they came, clearly still so young that walking in line and standing in ordered ranks was really challenging. Their voices were pure and sweet. The music was in a minor key. Then the pipe organ came in, with a dissonance straight out of a climactic scene in a horror film. Awe was not the word. This was the boss level. Suddenly you could understand how an entire congregation could come to believe in a literal Hell.
The church itself had some great Mucha murals, interspersed with some mediocre representational art. Then we got to walk up in a line and see the Black Madonna. She was in an acrylic box with a cutaway so everyone could touch her sovereign’s orb.
We walked to the cafeteria. I had brought a jar of chickpeas with mixed vegetables just in case. It turned out that there were plenty of veg-friendly options and the food was great! That always puts me in a good mood. I was starting to pull it together after my rough night. Then we had a decision point. These are always better when everyone’s glycogen levels are restored to full functioning. It was a Gift of the Magi moment. He wanted to make sure I got to see the museum, which had works by at least half a dozen artists I knew and appreciated. I wanted to make sure he got to see the viewpoint, even though, as I have probably mentioned, I FREAKING HATE funiculars. We looked at the time and decided that if we were quick up at the top, we could still manage 40 minutes for the museum.
When I saw the steep angle that the funicular car would ascend, I balked. “I changed my mind.” I was entirely serious, but he thought I was joking, which is how we wound up on a Ferris wheel together on one of our early dates. (“Why are there zip ties on this thing?”) Somehow, once again, I found myself locked into a tiny can that was about to be vaulted far higher than human beings are meant to go. It was okay, though. It’s true what they say about repeated exposure to anxiety-producing situations. I got over my thing with revolving doors, and now I guess I’m over my thing with funiculars.
The view really was everything it’s cracked up to be. We could see fluffy clouds cruising along below us. We looked down at the earth-tone patchwork that was the agricultural area in the valleys below. It was obvious why people had been making the effort to come here for centuries on end.
We headed back, only to find a long line that wasn’t going anywhere. A car came up and went back completely empty. (This type of funicular has two cars that rely on each other being on opposite ends). A group of young Americans chattered about whether their tour bus would leave without them. When we made it back to the bottom, we had only 20 minutes left, and as a consequence would have to forego the museum. There really was too much to see up here in half a day, a situation custom-designed for FoMO. It’s better to recognize and acknowledge FoMO and beat it down, with a crowbar if necessary, because there are a billion billion things in this world and we’ll never see all of them.
At some point on the bus ride back to Barcelona, I nodded off. We pulled into downtown fairly early. My husband made the executive decision that we should buy our train tickets, first so that we had them in hand, and second so that we were completely sure how to get to the train station on time the next day. This took an extra hour due to some kerfuffle in the Metro. I saw men in emergency services outfits, running, with BOMBERS written on their backs. I freaked out a little, to my husband’s amusement, because he knew that it meant ‘firefighters’ and they weren’t actually a bomb squad.
I got to try out my Spanish at the train station ticket counter. Astoundingly, I got it right, and the ticket agent found us a significant discount a couple hours later in the afternoon. We’d be going to Valencia, we’d have time for lunch in Barcelona before we left, and we’d be saving a chunk of cash. Well played, Polyglot Girl. Never underestimate the additional courtesies to be earned by attempting the local language.
Now I dug in my heels. “I’m not leaving Barcelona until I see Park Güell.” A more organized person would have understood that this would have been a better match with our trip to La Sagrada Família the previous day. We could easily have walked there and taken our time. We took a cab. Regional place names are the hardest, am I right? I’m from the Pacific Northwest, and good luck to you if you don’t know the “correct” way to say Oregon, Willamette, or Puyallup. So, when I asked the cab driver, “Va a Park Güell?” and he replied with a laconic “Sí,” I could hardly believe it. I’d listened hard, but I never thought I could reproduce it intelligibly. I was starting to feel the beginnings of linguistic competence.
We got there 30 minutes before the park closed. This was my husband being magnanimous. I knew there was no point buying a ticket, but I’d read that there was plenty to see outside the official enclosed area. He asked what I wanted to do, and I said I’d be satisfied if we just walked around the perimeter. It was great. There was a terrific view, and from the back you could look down on the area inside the wall. There were all sorts of runners and dog-walkers. I knew that if I lived in Barcelona, I’d be here at least a couple of times a week on my own training runs. It was only half an hour, but it was a fantasy bubble in which I felt I was experiencing the city in the way I’d want to if I lived there.
We walked back downtown, making another 11-mile day out of what had started as a butt-in-seat tour day. We’d taken two kinds of bus, train, funicular, Metro, and a cab. We had a late dinner and spent a bit of time organizing our gear in preparation for the next day. We’d be pulling up stakes and preparing for more frequent location changes.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.