Claire and I left France from Avignon in the early morning, when the city’s streets were for a moment quiet after another long festival night. The prospect of was travel easier and more exhilarating in the early morning, when the sun rising over a quickly moving landscape promised both a new place and a new day.
Two regional trains would carry us slowly into Spain, and then through it, to Barcelona. We boarded the first. It was made up of old fashioned carriages, the seats all confined to small compartments, which we reached through the narrow space that had been left to a corridor. In the compartment two short brown couches, sitting three to a side, faced each other, so that people sat with legs and arms intermingling. The carriage quietly conjured up black and white images of lovers solemnly parting on a platform edge, or of coated men, smoke and subterfuge, from an age when rail travel was glamorous.
We headed immediately south, to Montpellier, then traced our way slowly west along the Mediterranean. Near the border we entered a tunnel, through the Pyrenees. The carriage went dark, a brief power cut as the source of electricity changed, and we emerged into Spain.
Unluckily, perhaps stupidly, we chose the only carriage with broken air conditioning on our second, more modern train, with familiar aeroplane seats. Only after leaving the station, when the doors were closed, did the temperature start to rise. The heat eventually made me drowsy and I drifted in and out of an uncomfortable sleep until shortly before our arrival in Barcelona. Europe was in the middle of a heat wave, which broke, in many countries, the record highs of every year since official recordings began.
Our hostel was incredibly difficult to find. We paced up and down the long and lively stretch of road called Las Ramblas, carrying our heavy packs, irritated by the slow amble of people watching street performers. Two mimes painted as convincing demons happily terrified small children, while, nearby, a man patiently balanced a large mountain bike on his chin.
We found the hostel’s address eventually, and, still unsure, entered the unmarked building and climbed a long flight of stairs up to the fifth floor. I searched though bunk beds and a messy kitchen to find the staff, who were tanning on the terrace. We were checked in quickly and then happily abandoned for the more appealing sun.
That night, after a few drinks in a few different bars, we lay sweating into our pillows, too hot to sleep. Momentum dripped slowly from my skin. The trip, conceived as an answer to too quick shuttles through European capitals, had started to feel dizzyingly rapid. I had clung to the idea of rigorous travel, hoping that our stops, although short, might still allow limited but tangible insight. But movement was by now a familiar part of my everyday routine and, with a head thick with the heat, I started to succumb to Brad Newsham’s idea that travel “is like chemotherapy. You just go through it, endure it, hoping that the right things get into your bones, bring about some beneficial change, inspire some wisdom, and that all the others don’t kill you.”
I got out of bed late, hoping each time I woke that a little more sleep would leave me more rested. After a complimentary breakfast of toast and cakes we went out and were welcomed into the Mercat de al Boqueria, from which our hostel took its name, by the skinned heads of lambs, eyeballs still floating terrified in their sockets.
In different parts of the market were fresh fruit, fish, meat and sweets. People haggled incomprehensibly over the baffling array that lined every shelf. The smells, always strong, were both pleasing and putrid. The floors were slippery, wet with melted ice and the dirty water left by fish sellers hosing down their sold out stalls.
We bought some fruit juice and walked down along Las Ramblas to the seafront, past a massive column, a statue of Christopher Columbus perched on its top. An antiquated cable car stretched past the shore. Still skirting the water we strolled along the city’s harbour to the start of the beaches. People lay closely packed on the course building sand, at right angles to the sea, facing the sun. We lazed away the afternoon there, cooling off occasionally in the murky, lifeless water.
Barcelona was, for me, defined by its beaches. The next day we made an obligatory visit to the iconic, and still under construction, Sagrada Familia. Cranes hovered over the spires, disrupting our postcard expectations. And we walked from one end of the city beaches to the other, past the many naked men and occasional naked woman who frequent Platja Mar Bella, through crowded families building sandcastles on Platja Nova, and, as we got closer to the centre, past cafés on the sand, placed at 50m intervals, playing youthful music.
Spain has no law against nudity, it is permissible unless it causes a public disturbance. Later that week we saw a man sitting stark naked and happy in one of the city’s many falafel shops, carefully ignored by the other customers.
Barcelona’s cathedral is in the Barri Gotic, the city’s oldest quarter. It is adjoined by the only arch of the aqueduct still standing, and is close to what remains of the Roman wall. The cathedral itself is not spectacular but its enclosure, centred on the cloister, is unusual, inhabited by ducks and a terrapin, who share the space with numerous palm trees.
A €5 banknote blew across my feet while we wandered through the building. It had fallen from the nearby donation box, for organ maintenance. I hesitantly put it back, but felt like I needn’t have. We had been charged €4 to enter the cathedral. Prayer candles were extra, available with a Jesus or Mary motto as desired. More simply, you could place a euro into a coin operated box and watch the small glass wick on a plastic candle light up.
Claire was starting to feel ill, she suspected from drinking too much of Barcelona’s over chlorinated water. I walked her back to the hostel and then went to the Picasso Museum alone. It was filled with his juvenilia and none of his greatest works, but was organised chronologically and gave me some sense of what Picasso was about. I then went to the beach to cool off, before going back to check on Claire. She was still not feeling well.
But it was our last night and we had still not gone out, properly, in the city that we saw still heaving late every evening, especially along Las Ramblas, its frantic spinal cord. We had also been woken up, irritable, by people falling into their hostel beds not long after sunrise. An irritating young Norwegian, who routinely told everybody patient enough to listen about how wealthy his country was, had fallen asleep on the floor, between backpacks, that morning. He slept there until well into the afternoon.
Claire felt better, but rested while I wrote. I then went to the supermarket and bought beers which we drank sitting on the fountain at the Plaça Real, surrounded by other budget conscious travellers and a group of Somali’s, involved in some sort of squabble, policemen feigning ignorance nearby. I started chatting to one nearby, because I did not yet know where he and his friends were from, and wanted to find out. Spain had no African colonies to speak of.
He could speak English, Spanish, French, Somali and a smattering of Arabic. I spoke to him about Africa and his impression of Europe. He had been to France and England but preferred Spain, I suspected, because of its slightly less formal economy.
It turned out to be a very long night. We went back to the hostel after the beers on the Plaça, because, having decided to go on to a nightclub, we needed to change. Somebody handed us a flyer, promising discounted entrance into a club that sounded as good as any other. We went there, and found it filled mostly with tourists. Hip hop played in the basement and pop on the floor above. We danced to both until it closed, still full, at 6:00a.m.
A swim seemed like a good idea, so we went to the hostel again, walking amongst a stream of haggard people, past vendors dispensing beers and red bull as needed, to fetch our costumes. Young Italian men were struggling with the key at the hostel door. Impatient, I opened it, and was followed in quickly by a woman they seemed to have surrounded. She lifted her top casually and I realised that she must be one of many the prostitutes, of indeterminate sex, I had seen loitering down this and other side streets. By the time we had made our way back down the stairs, ready for the beach, she was gone.
It was still dark when we got to the beach, so we spread out our towels, lay down and, once comfortably intertwined, fell asleep. A young woman woke us, shouting “you… you must see,” when the sun appeared over the water. The sea turned slowly to silver, but for a line of gold below the sun, that spread as it climbed. I waded in, hoping it would wake me up. The water, dirty every other time I had been to the beach, was now crystal clear, so that I could see the pebbles on the bottom glisten in this first light. Claire joined me for a swim and we frolicked for a while but did not feel refreshed.
After drying off we fell asleep again, on our damp towels. A crowd of pensioners had surrounded us by the time we woke, making use of the beach as they must always have.
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