There are very few trains from Granada to Barcelona. The ride is approximately 16 hours long and traverses a great deal of mountainous terrain before arriving on the Mediterranean. The distance is too far for most bus lines and air travel within Spain is prohibitively expensive so I decided to take the overnight train. The atmosphere on the train was extremely festive and reminded me of something out of a spy novel. The bar car was a popular hangout with tourists from all over the world meeting and telling stories as the train sped through the warm night air. The train stopped periodically at deserted terminals for long periods of time. Sometimes I would get off a nameless, deserted station to enjoy a cigarette. Sometimes I just watched through the window. I have never been able to sleep well on any form of transportation but eventually I gave up and went to my seat, reclined as far as I could, felt instinctively for the pouch containing my passport and traveller’s checks that lay against my skin. Eventually I did manage a few hours of fitful sleep.
When I woke the sun was shining through the window of the car. I looked out upon the country that passed by the window. We were passing through the outer suburbs of Barcelona. They looked to me like the suburbs of any major city. In the distance I could see the gun metal band of the Mediterranean Sea. Something stirred in me when I saw the sea for the first time. While the Bay of Biscay and the English Channel are both awe inspiring sights, both are also merely extensions of the Atlantic, a body of water from which I have lived no more than 3o miles for my entire life. I had never seen the Mediterranean before, a place which I had only read about in history books and European novels.
Immediately upon disembarking from the train I felt the thick humidity of the Mediterranean climate. I made my way from the train station through the crowds of the city with my pack heavy on my back. The central boulevard of the city, Las Ramblas, is a hot bed of activity. Tourists, street performers, vendors and prostitutes all mingle about this central artery of the city. My hostel, Barcelona Dream, was located on a street of Las Ramblas. Barcelona Dream is an excellent choice for low cost accomodations. The rooms are clean with balconies overlooking the street below. There are free lockers, computers, plenty of bathrooms and a spacious lounge with couches and televisions downstairs. The hostel was an interesting mix of all nationalities and I quickly made friends with a number of people from all over the world with whom I would check out this fantastic city.
After dropping my gear I made my way post-haste to the beach. The walk to the beach was a long one which took me down Las Ramblas again to its terminus by the docks of the Port of Barcelona. I could see the Olympic Village left over from the 1992 games with the magnificent metallic circles of the Olympic Rings. I made a left and followed the broad promenada which ran parallel to the Sea. Throughout Barcelona that June there were orange flower petals all over the streets which fell from the trees. Their color highlighted the vibrance of this ancient city. One of the first things I noticed was the pillar of Christopher Columbus with arm extended toward the New World. As I wandered east toward the public beaches I came across many arab vendors selling various hand made crafts and other sundry items. I did buy a pair of sunglasses from one of them to shield my eyes from the piercing sunlight that shone down. My walk took me past mansions crawling with ivy, government buildings flying the Spanish colors and modern art sculptures that stood in the open for all to admire.
The beach was extremely crowded. At that time I had become accustomed to Spanish beaches which are adorned throughout the season with nearly naked and gorgeous European men and women. The white sand was hot but the beach was large enough to handle the many tourists who basked in the sun. There were many other differences to beaches I had seen elsewhere in my travels. Patrols of vendors selling drinks or jewelry wandered the beach in packs of two or three. When I swam in the water of the Mediterranean it was blessedly warm, like the Gulf of Mexico in summer. The water was a flat grayish blue and there many flat stones of incredible colors in the surf. I took home with me two gorgous rocks that I found in the surf at Barcelona. I spent much of my time on the sands.
Over the course of my four days in Barcelona I saw and experienced much. One of my first stops after settling in for a day was the statue of Columbus. I paid the three euro for the ticket and rode the elevator up the narrow column to the observation deck at the top. Although the column is only fifty feet or so high it offers a magnificent view of the city. One can see the harbor, the surrounding hills, and the buildings of the city stretching into the hazy distance. The column of monument is so narrow, though, that it shakes in the wind which I found to be a slightly nerve-wracking situation. I did stay long enough to take my best photos of Barcelona.
I also made my way to the local history museum, which, as it turns out, is built on the Roman ruins of the original town of Barcino. The museum was built adjacent to the cathedral in the center of the city, within the original Roman walls, which still stand and ring the heart of the current city. The ruins themselves were discovered when the land was excavated during the construction of the current museum and becames its premiere exhibit, last stop for museum visitors. Along with a wonderful girl from Australia that I met in my hostel, I visited this museum. The primary exhibit in the museum was a study of Don Quixote. Don Quixote is a book that every American student studying Spanish has to read at some point or another. The work gives us the word quixotic, which means overly idealistic and the term tilting at windmills, a metaphor which signifies any obviously futile action. In Spain, however, the book takes on special significance and is considered a national treasure as much as the Puerta del Sol and the Alhambra. The exhibit detailed Spain the time of Don Quixote and particularly focused on Quixote’s visit to Barcelona. I learned a great deal about Barcelona in that museum. I learned that Barcino was one of the original Roman towns in Spain, dating back over two thousand years. During the Civil War the town, along with much of Spain sided with Pompei against Julius Caesar. Barcino thrived through the centuries on trade and fishing. During the black plague in the 14th century Barcelona was almost wiped out just as most Mediterranean ports which engaged in heavy trade.
After learning all about Barcelona’s long history we took the elevator below street level to the site of the Roman ruins. We walked over catwalks which extended over the remnants of a winepress which still has the fossilized remains of grapes on the floor. We also saw an ancient dyeing factory, which had the traces of bright colors used to dye cloth. The excavation told the story of a town that thrived on commerce millennia ago. While I would see even more remarkable exhibits in Rome later that summer, at that time, these were oldest archaelogical remains that I had ever seen.
Adjacent to the history museum sits the cathedral of Barcelona, a gothic masterpiece which sits atop the ruins of many ancient churches dating all the way back to the ancient Roman temples of Barcino. The cathedral is a magnificent example of gothic architecture with its soaring vaults, columns and chapels. In the center of the Cathedral is an open courtyard in the middle of which is a pool of water. A gaggle of swans swim in the water or walk around the courtyard creating a light and beautiful contrast to the austerity of the gothic church. I enjoyed the atmosphere of cathedral so much that spent half an hour sitting on a stone bench in silent enjoyment of the place.
After three weeks of travelling in Spain I did not set an ambitious itinerary of sightseeing but rather decided to wander about where ever I felt like going. In addition to the museum and sights I have already mentioned I also saw a city that was grimy with age, pollution and population. Many humdrum buildings on out of the way streets were decorated with magnificent graffitti murals of cartoonish figures. The streets were covered with flower petals and everywhere a bright sun shone down at all times. By night the city became a very exciting place.
Barcelona in many ways reminds me of tropical cities in America like New Orleans or Miami. All such cities by night are places of revels, mystery and danger. Barcelona is heavily trafficked by thieves, hookers and panhandlers who seek to make a living by fleecing the unwary tourist. I found it best not to walk too far from very public areas and to travel in groups. Barcelona more than compensated for this dark side, however, by its incredible variety of bars and clubs. Along the waterfront there are many small bars and big clubs where one can enjoy a refreshingly cool cocktail or dance to contemporary dance music and hip hop. All in all I found Barcelona to be an exciting city where I had a good time, learned a great deal about Spanish history, enjoyed lots of sunshine on its fantastic beaches and relaxed in the low key atmosphere. Barcelona was a great way to round out Spain before travelling on to France.