July 27, 2010
Barcelona is the number one tourist city in Spain. This is in clear evidence when you get there and walk along the famous Ramblas. Literally thousands of people seem to be walking there at the same time, and if you look down the street you see a mass of moving heads that appears to be some sort of demonstration or rally. But it isn’t – it is merely a mass of tourists!! The prices in this area of Barcelona are jacked up too and when we would enter a shop or restaurant, the employees would automatically speak to us in English.
There were lots of tourists when I first visited Barcelona 36 years ago, but the major change since then (besides the obvious changes and modernization of the city that have taken place) is that the language of Catalan is predominant everywhere you go. City signs are first in Catalan, second in English, and castellano (Spanish) is relegated to third! If there is only one language on a sign, it is Catalan. 36 years ago – 1974 – Franco was still alive and Catalan was forbidden in public life, so of course, signs were in Spanish and everyone spoke Spanish. Being the fiercely independent minded region that it is, however, Cataluña preserved its language and culture and now it is proudly used as the co-official language. Of course, the residents of Barcelona speak Spanish also, but some people have commented that they actually prefer to speak English rather than Spanish. There is a great deal of resentment left over from the past, and even lately the region continues to lobby for increased autonomy. If they got their way, Cataluña would be a completely independent country.
Barcelona is not only the tourist capital of Spain, but it also the most important port. Prof. A and I have discussed this. The port is huge and there are container ships and container yards spanning at least a square mile, in my estimation. Therefore, her theory is that the region would not suffer too much from its separation from Spain, but rather Spain would suffer from the loss of Cataluña. I don’t know what will ultimately happen since I have not been following the issue closely, but it is in the newspapers nearly every day and within the last few weeks there have been some massive demonstrations in Barcelona. The one time when everyone was unified was when Spain won the World Cup. Some of the most important players came from Cataluña and Barcelona’s soccer team is the best in Spain.
That being said as a preface, when we were told we had a free weekend to do whatever we want, I didn’t have to think twice before choosing Barcelona. I loved its independent spirit and feistiness when I went there 36 years ago and I couldn’t wait to visit (or revisit) the Gaudi landmarks and the Picasso museum. So about 2 weeks or more prior to the scheduled weekend, we went to make reservations. I had hoped to take the Ave (the bullet train) but it turned out to be too expensive, so we booked airline tickets. Five other young women – decided to go together and stay together in an apartment to make it cheaper
for all of them. For only two people, however, we found out it would be quite expensive so we reserved at another apartment building. We were told that there are many people in Barcelona who own these small apartments in desirable areas of the city (the Ramblas area especially) and they have companies take charge of renting them out to tourists who go to the city for a short stay. It is a good deal because the apartments are more than just a hotel room. You can save money by buying your own food and cooking it in the apartment. At the end of your stay, there is a cleaning service that comes in to clean it for the next guests.
A Mexican girl among these five, who speaks fluent Spanish, had arranged for a bus to come to Barradas to take us to the airport, and sharing this among all of us saved us a lot of money. The flight was to leave at 7 am on Friday, July 23, so we had to be ready to leave at 4 am!!
Even though there was a strike of the air traffic controllers in Madrid, it did not affect our flight to Barcelona. Everything went very smoothly.
When we arrived in Barcelona, the luggage came quickly and we all went together to take a bus into town from the airport. We had been told to take this bus to the Plaza de España and then take a metro or a city bus from there. La mexicana was taking charge and I let her, even though it soon occurred to me that the bus was making stops beyond the Plaza de España and maybe it was going to Plaza Catalunya, which is just north of the Ramblas. However, I went along with her advice to get off the bus on the next stop after Plaza de España. I later realized I should have asked the driver and saved us taxi money.
When we got off the bus, Dale and I spied a taxi stand and soon were off on our own. Actually the taxi driver was very nice and helpful. He had never heard of the name of the street on which our lodging was located, but looked it up in his map book. He found it and took us to the Ramblas, stopping close to where we had to go, and showed us how to get there. He advised us that the small streets and alleyways could be dangerous, full of pickpockets, so we should always go back to the Ramblas whenever we were walking around. In fact, he was reluctant to let us off there, sure that we would be robbed! I made sure he got a nice tip.
Arriving at the narrow, dark street, first we couldn’t find the exact address. Finally we found it and saw that we were facing a locked entrance covered with graffiti. We had no idea how to get in, so we pressed some buttons next to the door even though I didn’t like the idea of disturbing other people.
Finally we took out the reservations again and I read the directions on it carefully. I wanted to kick myself! I had received these instructions at the travel agency and had forgotten to do anything about them. We were supposed to have called 24 hours in advance to get instructions about what to do when we got there. We asked at a nearby cafe where we could find a public phone and were told there was one at the other end of the little square we had entered.
I had absolutely no idea how to use the phone – I had never used a public phone in Spain before. Since we’ve been here, I have relied on email exclusively, since I did not bring my cellphone, wanting to save money by not using prohibitively high international Internet & phone rates. I tried inserting coins and pressing the codes indicated to get instructions. I got some instructions but didn’t understand them completely. However, one thing I realized I could do was use a credit card so I wouldn’t have to worry about having the right change or not getting change back from a one euro coin. I stuck the card in the slot and dialed the number on the reservation. A voice came on saying that my call could not be completed as dialed, or something to that effect, followed by some clicks and then the line went dead.
Shit, now what, I thought. I was beginning to get desperate and panicky, and was on the verge of tears. I told myself to get a grip – I had to take control because I was the one who spoke Spanish and Dale was depending on me. I was wishing we hadn’t left the other chicas in such a hurry… Here I was – the bilingual teacher who gets compliments on my great Spanish, and now I was just feeling like a helpless American tourist!
I decided to try to find a place where I could use a regular phone. A hotel – that was it. We went back to the Ramblas wheeling our suitcases behind us ( a common sight, by the way) and I headed for the nearest hotel that looked large enough to have a nice reception area with a phone. At the hotel, we were able to use a hotel phone, which charged us only 40 centimos, instead of the 70 centimos I would have to pay at the public phone. I asked if I could just dial the number, and she said to dial 0 first. (So THAT was the problem!!)
I was very relieved and happy to talk to a very friendly and helpful person on the other end. She told us where their office was and reassured me that we would be able to get our keys, leave our luggage there if we needed to, and even use their Internet. Buoyed by the release of built up tension, I happily led the way to the office following her instructions. It was only a short distance away.
The woman at “Visit All the World”, the company that handles these apartments, was Swedish and very nice. We had to wait awhile but it was worth it because she switched us to an apartment that was already vacant and clean, so we would not have to wait until 3 pm. Keys in hand, we headed out, our bags in tow, to search for the breakfast place she recommended before going to the apartment. We were both very tired and very hungry, so we were going to take care of our stomachs first!!
The restaurant, named “Ra”, was behind the Boquería Market, a huge fruit and vegetable market halfway up the Ramblas. We had a sort of American style breakfast (which was what Dale wanted). Dale had bacon and eggs, toast, coffee and juice, and I had a tortilla española (a sort of omelet with potatoes inside), French bread, coffee and juice.
We finally got into our apartment, which was an interesting experience in itself! The doorway to the building (the one covered in graffiti) was actually quite small and we had to duck to get in – it reminded me of Alice going into the looking glass, the portal to Wonderland!! Once inside the foyer, there were stairs leading upward but our apartment was on the 4th floor. We had been given specific instructions about what to do: even though the apartment was really on the fourth floor, it was officially on the 3rd floor, because there is a floor called E (Entresuelo) which is between the Bottom floor and the 1st floor. In U.S. terms, our apartment was actually on the 5th floor because what we call the 1st floor is here considered the Bottom floor or Lower Level. The first floor is one flight, usually, above that, or in this case, another flight above the Entresuelo.
We were also told that the elevator was extremely small, barely enough for us to fit in with our luggage. In order to fit, we had to stack the suitcases on top of each other and stand very close together (good thing we like each other – ha ha!). The doors closed as a woman’s voice said in Catalan “Doors closing” (something like “Trancan portas”). We pressed the button 4 and when we arrived on our floor, the voice said “Planta tres” and “Ouvrim portas” (open doors). The doors opened and we were at the door of our apartment!
The apartment, once inside, was very nice and modern, with black furniture and white walls. There was a bedroom, an anteroom with closets, a bathroom, a kitchen/dining room, and a living room with a TV. Each room had overhead lights and lamps and all were well lit. The shower was interesting – it had glass around the sides and an opening but no curtain to protect the floor outside from getting wet. The shower head was very adequate but the faucets for it were confusing. If you turned the main faucet to the right, you got water from the shower head. If you turned it to the left, water squirted out sideways from two sets of jets on either side! This was nice if you wanted to take a shower and wash off without getting your hair wet. However, we had to be careful with the hot and cold settings. We also discovered there was no soap, although there were towels. We made a mental note to buy soap sometime today.
We took a nap for about an hour, then by 1 pm were feeling refreshed and ready to sightsee! I had an agenda planned out: Today we would go to the nearby places, because of our late start ‘ the old Cathedral, the Palau de la Musica and the Picasso Museum, all within a short walking distance from each other and from our apartment.