Our first full day in Spain! We wake up to a comparatively sunny morning, only maybe a hundred yards from the Mediterranean. There’s a fence in the way, but you can totally see the ocean from our campsite if you stand in the right spot. The jet lag problem is over and all is well. We’ve been here fewer than 24 hours, and we already know our way around. We have a place to sleep, we have groceries and stove fuel, we know where the bus stops are, we’ve been on the most pertinent routes, we can find the store and the Starbucks, and we have wi-fi and power. This makes a big difference in our confidence and comfort. The only things we have to do today are to eat lunch and choose some interesting activities.
Getting ready for the day at a camping is a bit high maintenance. We have to gather up everything we need to shower and change clothes and carry it back and forth across camp. We have to figure out how to dry our towels. After we eat breakfast, we have to wash our dishes and pack them away again. I’m not kidding when I say that you can add a mile to your day in camp just by going back and forth to the restroom and doing basic chores. There’s about a half mile a day involved in going back and forth to the bus stop, also. It’s all part of the trip. We’re learning about how French and Spanish people vacation, feeling the climate, spotting new birds, noticing different/foreign design elements, trying to read signs, hearing various languages, watching how kids interact with each other and their parents, and on and on. For instance, probably ¾ of the dogs we will see during our trip are off-leash, but they are preternaturally well behaved. It defies credulity. There should definitely be a TV show called “Train Your Dog the Spanish Way.”
We’re still on the “wing-it method” and we have to come up with a plan for how to spend our day. This is another idea based on our trip to Iceland. We had three weeks there, and most of our stops were very small towns by California standards, so there was always plenty of time to see every single thing on our wish list. Spain cannot be “done” in one trip. Spain is so full of awesome stuff that it makes me hyperventilate a little. I had gone on a planning extravaganza, marking dozens of places on my Pinboard, skimming every guidebook in the public library published this century, and marking favorites on TripAdvisor. This is a guaranteed recipe for FoMO. If you lived in Spain for a year and spent all your spare time visiting museums and historic sites, you still couldn’t see everything worth seeing. In retrospect, it might have worked out better if we had each picked one must-see for each city.
We decided to walk around La Rambla because of its high rating in the guidebook. Hands down, La Rambla is one of the coolest places in the world. Everything we see is worth a photo, and as a consequence, I don’t really take any. I had read the advice to avoid taking “postcard shots,” because there’s no way an amateur with an ordinary camera will be able to take that kind of perfect shot. I focus on odd corners that stand out to me. We venture into a bookstore, looking for a birding guide, something I never manage to find during the trip. I find a cookbook I really want, and realize that my Spanish is good enough to get me through most of the recipes without help. Then I picture how beat up it will be after two weeks in my pack, and I pass.
We eat lunch at a natural foods restaurant that would fit right in where we live in SoCal. Spain is very much on the cutting edge when it comes to allergen labeling, dairy alternatives, and especially gluten-free baked goods. We both eat wheat all the time, but we notice. What we’re experiencing is the opposite of the picture all the guidebooks have given, which is that Spaniards eat nothing but jamon, sausage, and steak. Special diets can be a real area of concern for so many of us who would love to travel more, but have no way of knowing what we would eat. It looks as though the hospitality industry is alert to this and starting to make serious accommodations.
After lunch, we “ramble” around some more and make our way down to the water. There’s a huge monument to Christopher Columbus. We head toward the maritime museum, but never make it inside, because there happens to be a replica 18th century Russian frigate docked there. We pay about $5 for the pair of us to board and take a tour. This is one of those moments when the bucket for the bucket list has to get supersized. It turns out that this ship – and others like it around the world – goes out a few times a year for sailing adventures. My husband is well-versed in the history of the Napoleonic Era, particularly naval battles, so I quiz him a bit about life on a frigate. When he tells me how many men would sail on a ship this size, I freak out. Where did they sleep?? The more we travel and visit historic homes, ships, fortresses, etc, the more I am impressed with how little personal space people seemed to expect.
Next, we walk up the waterfront to a park. We’re planning to get up to Montjuïc. It turns out there is a funicular cable car involved. Man, I hate those things! It will be such a blip on the trip overall, just a few minutes out of two weeks, but for me it’s a real test of physical courage. I want to jump out and run screaming down the hill. Not only does it sway quite a bit, but a fiendish whistling wind blows through and I start swearing. Then I spot an interesting bird and get distracted. Is that… a magpie? They’re everywhere. I’ve never seen a magpie in nature before. There are no crows in Europe (!!!), so it’s always interesting to spot any other kind of corvid. We’re going to an historic site that has been in continuous use for over a thousand years, and all I can think about are birds.
This is why we can’t quit museums. We’ve chosen this particular site because it’s at a high elevation and it seems like one of the more famous parts of the city. The first thing we notice is that the ticket taker is a polyglot. I ask her, and she speaks four languages. Four languages in the US probably qualifies you to be an ambassador. In Europe, speaking four languages is probably equally as common as speaking only one. The next thing we notice is that Montjuïc is obviously a highly proficient fortress. Hundreds of people could survive a zombie attack here. It’s only when we start wandering through the displays and reading the placards that we find out its history is much more complex. It has been a prison and a place of execution. It started as a lighthouse, and was continuously expanded and rebuilt, showing in various incarnations in period drawings and illustrations over the centuries. In the beginning, as early as the 10th century, it was a Jewish cemetery. What we’ll see over and over in Spanish museums is evidence of the overlapping of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim culture, and a frank admission that non-Christians were expelled in 1492. It is humbling to be an American and to know that nothing in our entire nation even remotely approaches the age of so many of the places we visit in Europe. It is also a solemn experience to read over disquieting events from the past that involve only other nations and cultures. We can read about a battle or other event, not have any vested interest in either side, and take it in as sad or unnecessary. We can imagine having written history that dates back to antiquity, as well as corroborating physical culture, and acknowledging that this history includes atrocities as well as triumphs. It’s humbling. It also seems difficult for Americans to do, perhaps because we’re still such a young country.
We always know it’s about time to wrap up the day because the temperature starts to drop and the wind kicks up. We spend almost all our time outdoors when we travel, and it tends to induce an early-bird schedule. We decide to walk downhill through the park and head for the Magic Fountain. It’s a succession of lovely smaller parks, fountains, and topiary. We notice dozens of people sitting on the steps outside of a closed museum, and we figure there must be something going on. This is a moment of serendipity, even more so than discovering the replica frigate earlier. About a minute after we sit down, a troupe of young male gymnasts puts on a breakdancing performance. They’re all in matching tracksuits, and it’s plausible that they compete. They pass the hat, we throw in a euro, and I say, “You guys were awesome.” The young dancer brightens and seems about three times as flattered by this as I would have expected. I’m still trying to think of a compliment that would make an American react this way.
As we head down the hill toward the fountain, we notice that some very big crowds are gathering. There is a little food booth, and I glance at the menu to see if maybe we should get a snack. Chips, popcorn, nachos, soda, champagne, rum, vodka… I’m tickled by the idea of nachos and champagne side by side.
Watching the Magic Fountain is an exercise in modernity. The fountain itself is very impressive, far beyond anything we’ve seen in Las Vegas, and the show is worth getting sprayed a little. The modern part is that about half the crowd are holding up their cameras, phones, and selfie sticks, mostly trying to take video. I can guarantee that none of the videos will be worth watching. There’s no way that a wobbly, blurry video with tinny sound is going to impress anyone at home. It’s a light show, so no photo is going to give the effect of the dozens of colors either. All that’s happening is that everyone who holds up a camera blocks the view of everyone in the back. I wait until a relatively camera-free moment to take a shot, and only realize later that the picture worth taking was the one with the hundred lighted rectangles. How do we know we experienced anything until we’ve seen how we looked while we were there??
We head home and my husband appears to magically summon a bus on command. I’m concerned as we head back to camp; we’ve left all our stuff unattended for over 12 hours. It isn’t so much that we were worried about thieves as about curious children. I have a spooked moment when we walk up and see one of our chairs is tipped over, but it turns out to have been the wind. Everything is fine. We still have a perfect 100% record of safety in Europe, and nobody has ever seemed remotely interested in our gear. I hear differently about hostels, probably because they include travelers from all over the world, while campings are full of local families and people who come to the same spots year after year.
We eat a late dinner and go to bed. We have walked just over 11 miles and seen everything we could see in a day.
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.
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