Mercury Calling – 3 days in Barcelona

There really isn’t any need for two 4.15’s in a day, yet here we were, both awake before the alarm went off. We could hear the rain hammering down outside through the slightly open window. It didn’t sound nice out there.


The taxi was a couple of minutes early, and we were actually ready when it arrived. The drive through the dark and the rain was made more interesting by the amount of standing water everywhere; it was amazing how much water had fallen since midnight.


BA had texted us to say they were offering free bag check for cabin bags, as they were expecting a very crowded cabin, so we dropped off the larger hand luggage we had. It was at this point that Helen got to know the destination for her birthday break – Barcelona.


We wound our way through the airport, following the yellow brick road through duty free, the only way through to airside now, forcing people to go past all the booze and smellies, as if it was an airport version of Ikea.


It was Nando’s for breakfast; Maccy D’s having now been banished from the south terminal at Gatwick as well, replaced by a Starbucks in the latest refurbishment. Woe betide anyone who wants to get a cheap breakfast or any form of food nowadays. The plus side of Nando’s for breakfast was that there was halloumi.


And then it’s off to the gate and straight on board the plane after picking up half a forest’s worth of free publications available at regular intervals on the walk to the gate. Everyone else was on board the plane in plenty of time and we pushed off from the gate early, it was time to escape from the rain.


Five minutes was all it took for the plane to break through the cloud cover and have us bathed in glorious sunlight. Bright enough sunlight to make it difficult to read. We landed more than half an hour before we were scheduled to, but lost some of that time due to a new and novel approach to unloading a plane. They unloaded the baggage from the hold before they bothered to get any steps up to let us off.


Pre-booking Barcelona transit tickets was a great idea, less than two minutes on the machine in the metro station at the airport and we had our three day passes and were ready to go. Perhaps Southern Trains should look at getting some of these machines for their stations. Even in Spanish, a language I can’t speak, it was still easier to use than the newly installed ones at Crawley and Three Bridges stations.


Their metro system rattles along at a great pace. We had to change lines a couple of times, but everything is well signposted and as we found elsewhere later on, everything is posted in three languages – Catalan, Spanish and English. Quite useful for heathens like myself, who have only just about managed to master a single language – English.


Despite being at the hotel before midday, we were able to check in and dump all unnecessary items in the room and head out for some lunch. We went for that well known Spanish staple – Burger King – before carrying on walking up to La Sagrida Familia. A sight that can be seen from most of the north part of the city. We passed a building on the way up to it that is almost an identical shape to the Gherkin (30 St Mary’s Axe for those who like to be precise), only the textures and colours on the building were better.


Once at the frankly staggering edifice that is La Sagrida Familia, we found that tickets were only on sale online. Thank fuck for smart phones and roaming data packages. Ten minutes later we were going through security, stuffing up their entrance machine due to the poor use of QR codes.


Once inside the gates, well, words really aren’t adequate to describe the magnificence of the basilica. The amazing detailing on the outside of the building, which is still taking shape over one hundred and thirty five years after work started on it, is completely outdone by the scale and colour inside. The towering supports really do look like a forest of trees reaching up to the sky to hold the heavens up. The vivid colours of the stained glass windows let the most amazing shades of light into the astounding space of the building.


The design of the Windows were done before Antonio Gaudi died nearly a century ago, and seeing the banded shades of glass across the spectrum of the rainbow, you can’t help but feel it is a lighter, less foreboding space, but remarkably similar to the effect in Paddy’s Wigwam (The Liverpool Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral to those who are of a sensitive nature). So much so it may be thought that the Wigwam has copied La Sagrida Familia. Only to find that the stained glass in La Sagrida Familia has only been installed in the last twenty years, long after Paddy’s Wigwam was complete.


Even as an incomplete building site, La Sagrida Familia is quite honestly the most flabbergasting building I have ever visited.


From there it was a quick metro ride down to the old town, starting at Placa de Catalunya, where a stage was set up for a rally for International Women’s day. Most had dispersed by now and the sound system was playing Portishead’s “Sour Times” on a loop. We walked through the narrow streets past the remains of the Roman aqueduct and to the Gothic Cathedral, which though impressive in its own right, paled into insignificance to what we had already seen. We carried on walking through streets that were only wide enough for bicycles and scooters, which we found were more than happy to speed along them with no regard for pedestrians, until we found ourselves at the harbour before realising where we were.


With heavy legs we headed back to the hotel for a brief rest, a freshen up and a change of clothes before heading out for dinner. Another city, and yet as always we opted for the local speciality – curry. Only a couple of blocks away from the hotel, it was a fairly small restaurant and there weren’t a lot of spare seats. Choosing the ones next to the door wouldn’t normally be the option we went for, but compared to being next to a table with two food throwing small children, it was the only one that made sense.


The food was great, much better than the Bruges curry catastrophe of half cooked chicken, but once food had been consumed, and being out of the centre on a weeknight, there weren’t really any open local bars, so it was back to the hotel and a reasonably early night. After all we had been up since four.


On day two we woke early, but feeling refreshed, and we had had breakfast and were out on the mean streets of Barcelona early. We found a bus stop and in a rare turn, one turned up a minute later. Travelling through the city on a bus is so much better than using the metro, as you get to see so much more of the city. We were heading across to Paral-lel to get the funicular railway half way up the mountain of Montjuic, to the cable car station to wind us up to the castle at the top.


However we found a sign there to say that there was no service as they were on strike, so it was another bus to wind up the hill, past the palace built for the Barcelona Exhibition in 1889, and the Olympic Stadium built for the 1992 Olympics. Whilst on the bus we could see the cable cars were moving and had people on them. Turns out the sign related to the previous day, and no one had bothered to take it down.


Once at the top of the mountain, we found the castle, which had a little sign outside and a bridge across a wide moat. The sign said it had been built as a small fort. As a group of school children were rampaging across the bridge to get into the castle, we decided to go for a walk around the small fort first.


Jeez, I’d hate to see a big fort. The whole thing was huge; the walls around it must have enclosed a space nearly the same size as the walls of Carcassonne, which we had visited the year before.


We paid extra for a guided tour of the castle, which was money well spent as we were the only two on the tour so got lots of information as we went around the castle, hearing of its history from the eleventh century up to the twentieth century and its part in the Spanish Civil War and what a symbol of Catalonia it was. The hour and a half flew by and we got to two parts of the castle that normal entrance doesn’t allow. The first being a cistern built in the seventeenth century originally , but updated and still used today to supply water to parts of the city, the second being up onto the roof of the tower of the castle with amazing views all over the city and the port, the sea and away to the mountains that surround Barcelona.


We got the cable cars down the mountain, always a nervy method of transport for me as someone with a fear of heights, before going back on the funicular down to sea level and a spot of lunch in one of the many street side cafes. Nice baguettes sat outside in the sun, getting ready for an afternoon of more sightseeing.


Another afternoon in Barcelona, another Gaudi masterpiece to look around, this time Casa Mila, or as it is better known locally La Pedrera (The Quarry – because of its outer appearance). Another place where it’s good to have a smart phone to book online tickets. It would cost an extra three Euros each to walk in off the street and buy tickets at their ticket office. No need for that at all.


Entering into the heart of the building you find yourself in an amazing open air atrium and as you explore the rest of the building you find that it is one of two such atriums, which means there isn’t a room on any floor that doesn’t get the opportunity for natural light.


From the atrium it was up to the roof, and another great undulating space, with views over the late nineteenth / early twentieth century expansion of the city. There are a number of what at first glance appear to be unnecessary adornments of decorated towers all over the roof, but they all serve a purpose. From being stairwells, to lift towers, chimneys, ventilation stacks, water towers, they are all hidden there as art.


Beneath the roof the brick arched attic space forms what is now an exhibition space, but was originally a communal area, an open plan space across the whole of the building; though at one point in the late twentieth century it was split into thirteen apartments. The whole building has no load bearing walls. It is all built using columns and beams, so that any floor space could be changed by the occupants to suit their needs.


The sixth floor, just under the attic has been laid out in the style of a 1920’s single apartment across the whole floor. It has an eclectic mix of furnishing and decoration that would have been in vogue at the time. The space and light is fantastic. The whole building is a work of genius. I’m just in awe of how Gaudi used nature and took it to build spaces that were decades before their time, working out problems that most could only tackle with the advent of computers.


It’s a long standing saying that anything overly decorated, showy for the sake of it, is called Gaudi. Yes, there is a lot of decoration, but I think that if I call anything Gaudi in the future it will be because I think that it is an utter work of genius.


A few hours flew by again, so there was only a quick drink before another fascinating bus journey through the city. Most of this one was accompanied by the soundtrack of two very enthusiastic geeks talking about the “fucking awesome” things that could be done when programming with Ruby.


The plan was to get changed and head back out to the Gracia district, to hunt down tapas and music, however stopping to change after over ten hours of intense sightseeing (and not seeing sights within tents) made it difficult to get started again. Trying to find a tapas bar in Gracia whilst online was proving tricky and we hadn’t even started getting ready yet. When it had got to the time where the bus service to Gracia was going to be coming to an end and we hadn’t found food, it was time to change track, so we knocked that search on the head and looked local to the hotel again.


We found a place that was exactly a block away called Can Resadata and got what pretty much looked like the last two seats in the house. Plates of salad, cheese fondue, more cheese, meats, and baskets of bread all followed with a rich depth of flavours and strengths. We had just about managed to plough through it all when the deserts turned up, followed by espressos. With the bottle of wine and ice cold mineral water that were included, the whole thing was great value at only fifty Euros for the lot.


We were quite glad it was only a hundred yards back to the hotel, where the bar didn’t offer such great value for money. We had to fight our way out to the street to get out as well, as even at eleven at night the queue to get into the restaurant was just mental.


It was a bit of a later start the following morning, breakfast and packing took a bit longer, and there was a queue to check out, and then the room to store the bags for the day to find. We took a stroll into the centre of Barcelona making our way down to the wide open space of the Parc de la Citutadella. The huge fountain in the north east corner of the park was free of water, but it must be a sight to behold when in full flow. Also under repair was the castle of dragons, fenced off and dark inside. From there we could see the Arc de Triomf; in brick it looked impressive, even if it wasn’t as large and grand as its namesake in Paris. On the walk up to the Arc all along one side of the avenue were the imposing law courts, barricaded off to the hoi polloi. We were carrying on walking around the Parc de la Citutadella, and had got alongside the Hivernade, when off to one side we spied another impressive looking building, and so we detoured in that direction.


Turns out it was the El Born Centre de Cultura I Memoria. A large nineteenth century market that has been turned in to a centre for culture and history. Streets and houses from the seventeenth century have been excavated underneath the space and are now on display at a lower level to the old market floor. After some time reading about the history of the city and especially the area around the citadel, we were back out onto the streets, and wandering around more of the old narrow streets of the old city in la Ribera.


By accident we ended up popping out into the cathedral square. It was lunch time by now, so we found another tapas restaurant – Neyvas – where we managed to cram a little bit more food in and top up the tapas levels before heading to the last big venue of our visit.


The Palau de la Musica Catalana. Another modernism masterpiece, which in this case wasn’t built by Gaudi, but by Lluis Domenech i Montaner. We got tickets for the next available tour and had forty minutes to spare beforehand, so wandered the almost alleyways around the Sant Pere area near to the Palau to pass the time.


When we got back the queue for the tour was just building up. There is so much detail in the artful build of a very much working building. It holds over five hundred concerts per year, with a seating capacity of over two thousand (2,146 was the figure the somewhat confused tour guide finally managed to settle on.) At other times it is a rehearsal space for numerous choirs and other groups, and there was such a group in full voice whilst we were on the tour around the upper galleries.


The hour flew by and it got to the sad part of any trip, the part where you head back to the hotel to pick up the bags ready to head back to the airport. A final walk through the streets of Barcelona followed as we made our way up to the Glories interchange, past the Barcelona gherkin, which is called Torre Agbar. It turns out that the locals are quite proud of it if the number of different postcards it appears on at the numerous vendors through the city is anything to go by.


The metro was full and warm as it went through the stations across the city, right up to where we needed to change for another line to the airport, at which point the crowds dissipated and the journey became chilled. We had just enough time in the airport to pick up some vittles’ for the flight, and some gifts for fellow workers before making it to the gate for almost immediate boarding, an on time flight, and a shorter journey time.


Then it was back to blighty and for me the joy of cooler weather.


Definitely three days well spent.


Well, right up to the point where I left our shopping from Barcelona airport on the plane.

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