From the train station, we took the subway to our hotel, dropped of our bags and started to explore the city.. Barcelona is a great city with a population of about one million and is the second most visited city in Spain after Madrid. The subway system seem relatively modern and the trains ran every three minutes. Our hotel was less than a block from Barcelona’s tourist center, Las Ramblas, which was very convenient. Las Ramblas is a beautiful pedestrian boulevard that stretches about 15 blocks, starting at the main plaza in Barcelona and ending just before the sea. It’s as well know for pick-pocketers as well as its restaurants and buskers, of which there are all plenty. You could easily spend an entire evening walking up and down Las Ramblas a few times. We spent the rest of the day eating and walking around the neighborhood as well as arranging our train tickets for Madrid. We chose another overnight train, but this time we thought we’d try the first class seats.
The next day, we took the subway (and an impressive hike/escalator ride up a very steep street) to Antoni Gaudi’s Park Guell which was built in the early 1900s. The park itself is a huge work of art and offers excellent views of the city below. In the afternoon, we attempted to see La_Sagrada_Familia, one of Barcelona’s most famous landmarks which is a beautiful church that has been over 100 years in that making and is not even half finished. Unfortunately, they didn’t feel the need to tell us it was closing in half an hour until we waited an hour in line to buy tickets. Guess we’ll put that one on the list for next time we’re in Barcelona. We spent the night getting some rather terrible Paella and then walking down to the harbor area
We started Sunday off rather early because we were taking a day trip to theMontserrat monastery, about an hour and a half outside of Barcelona by train. Pili had heard from several people that this was a must see and that we would not be disappointed if we went. I had no idea what to expect, but was very glad that we went. the ride from the train station at the bottom of the mountain to the monastery was on a “rack railway” which is a typical train but with a type of rack and pinion system in the middle of the tracks to help pull it up the 1,804 ft incline to the top. Located there is a church, the monastery itself, an information center and a huge cafeteria. From there we immediately took a funicular to the very top of the mountain where we got some great photos of the landscape below. We opted for the hike back down to the monastery, which took about an hour. After a quick lunch, we headed into the church and made a pass by the Virgin of Montserrat, which is the most popular attraction there as many people believe the statue to have mystical powers. We decided to take the cable car back down to the train station and headed back to the city.
To celebrate new years in Spain, everyone starts by going out to eat. This presented a significant problem in Las Ramblas where about 10,000 people all decided to eat between 10 pm and midnight. We checked earlier in the day if any places were taking reservations and the few that were had a stripped-down “special menu” at a “special” price of about 3x normal. We figured we’d take our chances. So, we set out at about 9:30 and picked a restaurant that had one of the shorter lines. We didn’t end up waiting too long and were eating by 10:30. Out by 11:30 and on our way up to the Plaça de Catalunya to ring in the new year. Now, the other thing that you’re supposed to do in Spain at midnight is to eat twelve grapes (one for every month of the year). Being so accustomed the the resourcefulness and entrepreneurship of the Peruvian people, there was no doubt in my mind that there would be tons of little old ladies selling grapes everywhere, that we’d be making our way through a sea of people selling bags of grapes. But in fact, no one was. No grapes for us this year. Add it to the list of things to remember next time we ring in the new year here…
We were standing in the midst of thousands of people and it occurred to me that not only was there no stage or performances of any kind for the waiting crowd, but there was no clock. Well, ok, there was, but it was an old fashioned clock on top of a building with no second hand. In one of the stranger new years I’ve been part of, people just seemed to kind of scream when they thought it was midnight – no one was 100% sure of the exact moment. Times Square this wasn’t. We headed back down Las Ramblas looking for anything to catch our attention, when indeed something did. We heard what sounded like an outside DJ coming from one of the side streets. It turned out to be a percussion group standing in the middle of two buildings playing drums. There were about ten people in total and they had attracted a crowd of about a hundred people. Eventually the police “suggested” that they find another place to play, so we followed them. They got kicked out from that spot, so we followed them again, and got kicked out. Again. By this time they were starting to get the impression that the police somehow didn’t like the spontaneous crowds that were forming so they had decided to go back to the house that they were staying at. We talked with them and it turns out that they live all over the world and only get together on occasion to play like this. How cool is that?
The next part of the story is one of those things I could write ten paragraphs on and not do it justice, so I’ll just keep it to one. We all hopped on the subway to follow this group back to their house. There were the 10 members and about 10 people following them. No sooner did we get into the subway station and they started to play. Loud. Here we were in the dead quiet subway station at about 1 am and all of the sudden it sounds like Bourbon Street. Most of the people were definitely into it, but the looks on their faces were priceless all the same. We got on the subway and the same thing, all of the sudden they just started cranking out these fierce beats in the middle of a crowded subway car. I looked around and some of the passengers were clapping along, while others had a look that can only be described as a combination of horror and disgust on their faces. This was the epitome of those moments that you cherish as a traveler – one that you couldn’t have created in your mind and one that you know will never happen to you again. One that you know would have never happened to you if you hadn’t got on that plane. But there you are at that moment, in the middle of it all – tunneling underneath Barcelona at 1:30 am on a train, listening to a group of rouge drummers entertaining complete strangers with their rhythmic beats. We hung out at their house for about an hour then headed home.
For our last day in Barcelona, Rick and Fanette decided to catch up on some sleep while we decided to try to ride the cable car that spans the harbor. When we got to the tower that it leaves from, it was closed due to high winds that we really couldn’t feel. We waited for an hour or so and got to watch the Millennium Dos (a futuristic-looking high speed car ferry) dock, which was pretty cool. We eventually got on the cable car and rode it over the harbor to the beach. On the way back, we had to take the bus as there was a line of about 40 people heading back on the cable car which only runs every 15 mins and taking only 15 people at a time. We packed up and left our bags at the hotel. Our train left at 10:30, so we had some time to kill, which we spent by walking and eating. While Rick and Fanette opted for the couchette, we thought we’d give RENFE‘s first class “reclining seats” a try this time seeing as how nice the Thalys train was. This turned out to be a mistake as this train was a quite a bit older and first class meant a small compartment with six seats instead of six beds. The seat backs didn’t recline, but instead the bottoms of the seats slid out to make a rather uncomfortable chair. The arm rests in between the seats didn’t go all they way back, so there was really a very limited number of positions to try to sleep in. The other people in our compartment were nice enough, but I didn’t get more than two hours of sleep. I guess it just wasn’t meant to be. I rather enjoyed the ride though as most of it was through the Spanish countryside which was illuminated by an almost full moon. At one point I watched a huge passenger jet cut its path through the night sky while listening to Pink Floyd’s Learning to Fly. Occasionally, we’d stop at a small, centuries-old train station in the middle of nowhere. Our train arrived in Madrid just before sunrise.