A European interval – Barcelona and beyond

My first trip to the United States had come to an unexpectedly premature end (for reasons discussed elsewhere), so I was left with a summer interval, and no plans. I could have tried to find some work, but that idea gave me a headache, so I booked a flight to Barcelona instead. Of all the major European countries, Spain was the one I'd visited least (just a day trip to Seville, which doesn't really count), so a few weeks touring seemed like an excellent plan. As standard, I left with only my first hostel, and a car rental booked - the rest would be made up on the way. Barcelona I arrived at my hostel in Barcelona to be greeted with a question - "Are you coming to the beach tonight?". This slightly bewildering and somewhat blunt question had only one possible answer - I was staying in hostels to be sociable - "Yeah, I s'pose...". As always, I'm wildly positive. It transpired that I had arrived in Spain on the night of the Hogueras de San Juan, or the Bonfires of San Juan - a day celebrating the true start of summer involving bonfires in town squares, fireworks, and general all round partying. The bonfires weren't in evidence in Barcelona, they're apparently more of a small town thing, but instead everyone headed down to the beach, beer and fireworks in hand (literally - I'm sure some people must lose limbs via hand-launched rockets) and partied until the early hours. There was even a brief group swim in the sea - at 2am! It was most definitely a positive welcome to Spain!
Parc Guell entrance

Parc Guell entrance

Parc Guell

Parc Guell

Tiled benches

Tiled benches

I took my sore head up to Parc Guell the next day. Built on a hill overlooking the city, the park was one of the many things in Barcelona designed by Antoni Gaudi - Catalonia's most celebrated architect, and key proponent of the Modernist movement. The park was planned to be the centre of a luxury housing development, however just the park was completed. Despite the general dry and dustiness of the place, the sculpted organic walls and pathways, the relaxed 'communal' areas, and above all the views of the city, make it a gorgeous park to spend time in. It is a long trek from the centre of town (I'm not a big user of public transport), but well worth the hike. I had been warned that there could be long queues for tickets for Barcelona's main attraction - the Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família (or just Sagrade Familia), so I booked a guaranteed entrance time in advance, just in case. Not having to get up early to beat the queues meant that I could enjoy a trip to a bar with some people from the hostel to watch a football match. This would become a familiar outing in the days to come - with Spain already out of the World Cup at this point, bars were often nice relaxed places to watch international matches - often with people from the various countries still playing. One of the hostel staff seemed keen to ensure that everyone had a good time, so the post-match return to the hostel was soon turned into another outing to a bar in the city... I was fortunate not to be too hungover when I arrived at the Sagrada Familia - this place needs your full un-blurred attention.
Sagrada de Familia

Sagrada Familia

Under construction

Under construction

Spiral staircase in Sagrada Familia

Spiral staircase in Sagrada Familia

Morning light through the stained glass

Morning light through the stained glass

I made an initial circuit of the cathedral, as I'd arrived well in advance of my ticketed time. This was good for two reasons - firstly to take in the hugely impressive exterior of the building, and secondly to smugly walk past the already two hundred strong queue for walk up tickets. The building work has been going on since 1882, and despite over 130 years construction, it is still surrounded by cranes, and covered with workmen. The general estimate for completion is another 15-20 years. Gaudi provided the original design, and presided over nearly fifty years of building, and they still follow (as best as possible, considering the incomplete plans) his original concept. And what a vision! Eighteen soaring towers (eight of which have been built) and three distinct faces covered in gothic detail coat the exterior, while the inside, though significantly cleaner design-wise, still boggles the mind with its architectural grandeur. One of my particular favourite parts was seeing the late morning light shine through the stained glass windows, casting multi-coloured shadows across the internal floors and pillars. A trip up one of the towers, winding staircase back down, and the basement gallery (with a scale model of the completed cathedral) rounded off a particularly enjoyable visit. It's a shame that I think the whole concept of religion behind the construction is a bit daft - I imagine that the spiritual experience could be even more affirming. After seeing two grand sights in the city, and now three nights running drinking, I spent the next day in an idle wander. I took in the popular, and notorious for pickpockets, Las Ramblas - a street which, in comparison to the rest of the city, has barely anything to recommend it. It does, however, provide a way to get into the old town and gothic quarter. Seemingly miles of narrow, winding lanes which deposit you in isolated courtyards, next to grand architecture (much of it Gaudi's work), buzzing markets, seedy avenues, or jarringly back into the wide commercial streets. An easy place to get lost, but somewhere you would have fun doing so. These areas contrasted starkly with the north-western L'Eixample area (on the fringes of which my hostel was found), where wide boulevards and organization were the standard - though I must admit to preferring the shadow lanes of the gothic quarter.
Palau de la Musica

Palau de la Musica

Meat on a string

Meat on a string

My final day in Barcelona, I took the Metro across to Montjuic (Jew Mountain - lovely name) - one of the major concentrations of sights in the city. While there were nice things to see (the Palau Nacional and the fortress), and the walk from the northern to southern ends pleasant enough, I was a bit jaded after several days of wandering during the day and partying by night. It was also incredibly hot, and I must have drunk at least four bottles of water on the walk. I didn't really stop anywhere en route to actually enjoy the scenery, I was on a mission to get to the end, to tick this box... entirely against my principles... It was time to move on and leave Barcelona. For now. It's a gorgeous city, and I will definitely revisit in the future.
Sculpture by the cathedral

Sculpture by the cathedral

Waterfall at Montjuic

Waterfall at Montjuic

Would you let a child have this?

Would you let a child have this?

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