Bouncing into Barcelona

Our flight from Morocco into Barcelona was quite unprecedented. Not just because we’d never been there before. And not just because along the way we had the unprecedented sensation of flying over Gibraltar. But because our landing itself was unlike any we’d experienced before.

Leaving Morocco, flying over the Rock of Gibraltar

Our aircraft was approaching the runway, perhaps 20 feet off the ground, when suddenly it accelerated, pointed its nose up, and began to climb again. As we looked at each other in bewilderment, and just a wee bit of concern, a flight attendant announced on the PA, “ladies and gentlemen, the captain has decided not to land at this time.”

Oh. Well if it’s not too much trouble, do you think he could be prevailed upon to land sometime tonight? Preferably before this bird runs out of fuel?

After circling the air space once, we finally did land, without a hitch. There were emergency vehicles waiting to greet us, but that’s standard procedure whenever there’s ay kind of problem. But we never learned just what the problem was.

All we know is that we were then even more behind schedule than we’d been already. So we missed the metro train we’d been hoping to catch to our Airbnb lodgings, and had to wait nearly an hour for the next one. As a result, it was 11:00 p.m. on the dot when we finally got there. This was significant because it turned out that our host had a policy, which he didn’t bother to mention in advance, of charging an extra 10 dollars when guests check in after 11:00. Anyway, we got settled in and had a good night’s sleep, and the next morning we were off to explore the grand seaside city of Barcelona.

The first day, our first destination was the Gothic Quarter, which is the oldest part of town dating back to ancient times, although many of the buildings are actually reconstructions and not as old as they appear. Still, it offers some approximation of what the city must have looked like many centuries ago, when these alley-ish pedestrian streets were full of citizens going about their business and dodging the contents of chamberpots being emptied from the windows overhead. Nowadays, these thoroughfares are lined with cafes, restaurants, and shops. We stopped into one of the latter to do some browsing, and ended up purchasing a couple of cute bags that fold up very compactly and can be used to tote extra items on the go and for grocery shopping.

When it came to shopping for groceries, we had the same problem in Barcelona that we’ve encountered in more remote areas and less developed nations. It was just really really hard to locate a single supermarket-like outlet where we could purchase everything we needed. Instead, we had to rely mostly on produce stands and mom and pop stores — though we did find at least one decent (though not outstanding) supermarket, in a not terribly convenient neighborhood.

After the Gothic Quarter, we continued down to the waterfront, where we spotted two prominent pieces of sculpture: One is called Gambrinus, and it depicts a giant lobster, though it almost looks more like an interplanetary invader. The other is Face Of Barcelona, a really cool pop-culture inspired work by noted artist Roy Lichtenstein.

From there, we headed to Cuitadella Park, which was the site of a royal fortress a couple of centuries ago. Now it’s where Barcelonans go for R & R, and tourists go to get in some great photos. One feature worth snapping is the old bandshell, with gold-colored neoclassical sculpture, modeled somewhat after Trevi Fountain in Rome. In the park, in a couple of different locations, we encountered fellows blowing huge bubbles that people would do selfies with, and of course they expected or hoped for donations in return.

On the second day, we visited what we’d consider the two highlights of the city, at least as far as we were able to see. And both of them were largely the brainchildren of a single man, visionary architect Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926), who actually left his stamp in numerous places around the city. The first was Sagrada Familia Basilica, an absolutely jaw-dropping spectacle even for anyone who’s already admired church architecture that is older and more celebrated.

Stepping out of the subway station, you turn around and there it is looming on the horizon like a mountain range up close. It’s a combination of something like Gothic and Art Nouveau architecture, though from what we can tell it’s more like a combination of Perrault fairy tale and Star Trek. You can’t help being impressed by it — it absolutely demands that you be impressed, for better or for worse. Some people are repulsed by it — novelist James Michener called it “one of the strangest-looking serious buildings in the world”, and George Orwell referred to it as “one of the most hideous buildings in the world”. Other people are just shocked and confused by it. But there are many others who absolutely love it, and we are among them.

Walking around it and taking in its staggering depth, detail and variety (you keep finding what might be called the religious or architectural equivalent of “hidden Mickeys”), you can’t help but wonder how one mind could have conceived of it all; in that respect, as well as in its grandeur, it compares to the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Actually, Gaudi didn’t exactly dream up the whole thing by himself, though apparently he deserves nearly all the credit. The original design was by another architect, and groundbreaking began in 1882. But that designer left the project, and Gaudi took it over the following year, radically transforming the design to suit his own delightfully warped vision. He continued working on it for more than 40 years, remarking that his “client” (the Guy Upstairs) had plenty of time. But alas, Gaudi himself didn’t. He died when it was far from complete, and indeed it remains unfinished to this day. There’s a major push to get the job done by 2026, the centennial of his death. With the completion of a particular one of its spires, it will become the tallest house of worship on earth. It’s already perhaps the most unforgettable.

From there we made our way to another of Gaudi’s wonders: Park Güell, a 17-hectare (42 acre) plot of nature and architecture that reminds one of Dr. Seuss. But since it came first — dating back more than a century — then we might figure that it inspired the Good Doctor instead. In fact, it’s pretty hard not to have that suspicion.

The park was pulsing and humming with people, so it was hard to find a comfortable shady spot to have our lunch when the time came. But we finally lucked out right in front of a trio of folk musicians. Actually one of them was more of a dancer than musician, expertly keeping time with his boots while stamping out a flamenco-flavored rhythm.

Late in the day after spending a couple of hours in the park, we realized that we were missing a piece of hardware: a specialty screw, one of two on a mount for a GoPro. (The GoPro had not been on it.) It was attached to a strap on Dennis’ water pack. Since it would be impossible to find a replacement screw, we’d need to just buy a new mount — which probably meant ordering it. So we were beginning to have visions of scouring the entire park looking for a needle in a haystack.

But it didn’t come to that. We just scrolled through the photos we’d taken of ourselves until we found the most recent one with the mount intact. Then we went back to that location — which was not far — and retraced our steps from there. Finally we found the screw just a few feet from where we’d discovered it missing. At first, we’d overlooked it because it had rolled or been kicked up against the edge of the sidewalk. And it was next to a grating, so it easily could have fallen in, and been lost like Clementine.

As we were nearing the end of our tour, and posing for selfies beside a feature that everyone else was posing beside, we encountered a family from our old stomping grounds of the San Francisco Bay Area. As we exchanged chitchat with them about travel experiences (they were on a protracted tour themselves, though not nearly as long as ours), it occurred to us that we sounded like seasoned pros at this travel game. Which we suppose we were by then.

From the park, which was on a hilltop, we could spot another attraction we’d thought about checking out: Montserrat. It’s actually a mountain that reportedly offers the best view of the city. There’s also an amusement park up there, as well as a monastery. But considering the brevity of our stay, we decided not to spend the time and money required to get up there, particularly when visibility was so poor. So we’re saving that for another day.

The following day, we packed up (taking along the full tube of toothpaste left behind by the French couple who’d been in the room next to ours), left the Airbnb, caught a train back to the airport, and hopped on a plane to Istanbul. And we’re happy to say that the flight out of Barcelona was much more routine than our flight into it.

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May 18th-20th, 2022

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