The “wing-it method” took over in unintentional ways on our second full day in Barcelona. We had an agenda. This was the one day of the week when local Catalan people gathered to do some traditional dance in front of the cathedral. There was also an event flyer I’d photographed, a street fair later in the afternoon where we could probably get lunch. We try to have one or two specific places we’d like to see, and let the rest of the day unfold naturally around that. Usually, it even works!
The bus into town stopped a mile short of our destination. We thought we’d misunderstood the schedule, and we were racking our brains trying to figure out what we’d misread. As we walked in the intended direction, we kept seeing people heading in our direction and wearing race bibs. Aha! By the lack of exhaustion and relative freshness of the clothing, I deduced that it was probably a 5k, although we never did find out. The race detour is a perfect example of something that could just as well have happened at home. We have to take these things in stride, to coin a phrase.
Detours are the best way to see parts of a country that you wouldn’t otherwise encounter. There tend to be official tourist zones where everything is scrubbed up and Bowdlerized. Local people avoid these zones. The prices are higher, there’s no parking, the food isn’t good, and tourist sites aren’t all that relevant to most people’s daily lives (unless they work there). Getting lost or shunted onto a different route is a quick way to peek behind the curtain.
We needed cash. This is an area where travel differs from home life. At home, we rarely need cash, but on trips, we’re constantly paying bus fare, tipping, or finding ourselves at restaurants that only take one form of payment. It also turns out that pay toilets are a common feature in Spain, so it’s best to hang onto those 10- and 20-cent euro coins.
What is more annoying than a pay toilet? An ATM that eats your card. What’s more annoying than that? Seeing the error message in a minority language spoken by fewer than 5 million people. Okay, there’s also a certain coolness factor, but it was hard to appreciate that at the moment. This was a full 60 seconds in the place of uncertainty, with one foot inching over to the place of panic. Fortunately, there was a customer service number with a live person on the other end, and we sorted out the problem. The card had simply expired. We had other options on hand, and we would have to accept that that old card was never leaving Spain. Oh well.
We went on our way, seeing more and more people in race bibs. We cut over toward the Cathedral, but slowed down when we saw a massive crowd in the streets. What was happening? This was one of the all-time great serendipitous moments provided by the wing-it method. We had no idea this was going on, but we happened to be in the right place at the right time, and only because of both the bus detour and the ATM mishap. After a few minutes, we started to understand what was happening. Some kind of acrobatic stunt? We hadn’t seen the first ring of strongmen in national garb, but we did see the men who climbed up on their shoulders. A gang of people climbed up the first two tiers of men and got up on the shoulders of the second ring. Wow! That’s impressive! We were astonished when they kept going, and going, all the way to seven. Lighter and lither young girls climbed up, and at the very top were some spry children. They had barely made it to the top when they immediately clambered down again, using the waist sashes as footholds. We realized it was a timed race, and that there were teams represented by different shirt colors. This was not something I would expect to see anywhere in the US on an average Sunday. It was over in minutes but I’ll never forget it.
We were close to the Cathedral at that point. We could hear the music. There was another crowd, and as we walked up, we saw the circle dance, just like it said in the guidebook. I was so excited! I was going to join right in and try to learn the steps. We saw about two minutes of it, the song ended, the dancers disbanded, and that was the end. What the book said lasted two hours was over in one, and we’d missed all but the last moments. This was our main objective for the morning, and we’d inadvertently traded it for the human tower and an infrastructure glitch.
Something shocked us. A man had set up a begging bowl on a blanket. He had his shirt pulled aside to display the hump on his back. Genuine kyphosis. Here we had a cathedral with a hunchback for a mascot. Hadn't anyone from the church noticed him? Surely he was on disability? I realized that both of these things were likely, and that he was making the most of his no doubt painful condition. I didn’t begrudge him his position, but it made me sad, and I hoped he had joy in his life.
Meanwhile, he would probably have preferred some money to my privilege-gazing.
We set off through a different part of La Rambla, which is really an enchanting place. The goal was to reach the Parc de la Ciutadella. We saw on the map that there was a chain of smaller parks leading from there in the direction of La Sagrada Familia. It was now about 2:00, and we figured we’d stop for lunch first. The closest place that fit our requirements turned out to be down a veritable maze of narrow, dreamlike alleys. Ordering our lunch there was one of my first real experiences with speaking Spanish. I fumbled and missed half of the dialogue – fortunately the waitress was fluent in English and humored me – but I was proud that I understood “integral o blanco?”
Lunch had put us in an expansive mood, and we walked out to a beautifully sunny afternoon. We reached the park. What an absolutely stunning place! Central Park has nothing on the Ciutadella park. It was full of people having fun in every way imaginable. People lounging on picnic blankets, blowing bubbles, roller blading, rowing boats, having birthday parties, playing music. We walked around the perimeter, and then my heart exploded. We had been hearing these wild parrots around town, but I hadn’t gotten a close enough look. They were Quakers! I had a succession of these birds over the years, and I have a soft spot for them. As we got closer, we found that there were dozens of birds with numbered tags around their necks. That surprised me quite a bit. They seemed cheerful enough. They were scampering around on the ground and collecting nesting material. I had read that Quakers live in huge communal nests year-round, but I’d never seen them in person before. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t picked up on this information anywhere, that Barcelona has Quaker parrots (and at least six other species of parrot as well). It was a real bright spot in my day; I wanted to plunk down and coax one into my lap. But they are bitey little buggers and I know better, so we kept walking.
The park got more unbelievably charming as we went on. Why would anyone ever go anywhere but here? It made me want to pack up and relocate to Barcelona immediately.
As we left the Ciutadella, we found that the other parks on the map were not on the same scale. Most were paved, barely wide spaces in the road. What we were seeing was more like a glorified bike path. A nice one, don’t get me wrong, and it would be hard to expect that kind of extravagance to extend for miles. We started to feel the miles. Then the park area ended and we were on ordinary city streets. We saw that La Rambla is a very special, extremely old part of Barcelona, and that the rest of the city is more modern and practical. Translation: not as scenic. This does help to bring perspective and a more well-rounded perception of a city, and it also leads to more reliance on the guidebook, as we realize that these guys know whereof they speak.
We reached La Sagrada Familia, a famous Gaudi building that remains incomplete to this day. The front and back are done in completely different styles. If you stare straight up at it, it appears to be endlessly falling toward you. It’s spooky and kind of atrocious. I found myself spilling forth forgotten Biblical lore, as I was able to explain Catholic iconography that was unfamiliar to my man. It never occurred to me, while I was absorbing all of that in my youth, that it would be useful as reference material.
We went across the street to an information booth and booked a tour for the next day, our last. I had three options in mind, and two of them… only ran on the other six days of the week. Guess we’re going to Montserrat then!
We took the Metro back downtown, an exercise in WHY U NO RESTROOMS? The Barcelona Metro has to be the only place in all of Spain that doesn’t have continually mopped, gleaming floors. It’s also the only place we went where people were not polite and cheerful. A man in a suit completely shoulder-checked me, then froze in place, not acknowledging me in any way, before walking off. It was one of those moments that could have really sealed my impression of the city, if I hadn’t stayed long enough to know it was anomalous. Spaniards are deeply warm and generous people. Maybe he had a headache, I dunno. Maybe he wasn’t Spanish.
When we got downtown, almost everything was closed. Sunday evening is not a rollicking time to be in Barcelona. We had planned on the street festival, which was supposed to run until 21:30. The location didn’t come up on any of our map apps. We found a small grocery store that was still open and picked out things for the next three meals. Then I took the plunge into the ultimate test of my language skills. I asked the clerk if he knew the address. He said no, and called over a young woman to look at the map, but she didn’t know either. Then a customer, who seemed to have had several beers already that day, asked to take a look. He said he knew it and gave me directions. We thanked him heartily and set off. The address was indeed where he said it was; the sign matched, at any rate. Disappointingly, nothing was going on there, and we triple checked the date and time. Impressively, I had totally, totally succeeded at asking for, receiving, and understanding directions in Spanish, even though I have, shall we say, below-average navigational skills. So that was the second of our plans for the day, although the unplanned day we had instead was a pretty darn good trade.
We went back to camp, ate dinner, and stayed up late washing our clothes. We didn’t have much choice in the matter, but we were getting up at 6 AM to make our tour.
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.