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Friday, March 19, 2010

Day 1 Barcelona Trip Review 2010

Today was holiday in Madrid so there was little traffic on the way to Atocha Train Station. I didn't sleep too well with the anxiety of the trip upon me and was looking forward to that first coffee with the served breakfast - and traveling at 300 kilometers per hour.

I'd arrived maybe 25 minutes early for my 8:30am departure on the super-fast AVE train and walked through security in maybe 10 seconds. 15 seconds later I was at my "via" and got in line with those going to Barcelona. 4 minutes later I was next to the train itself and had time to kill so I enjoyed my surroundings and marveled at the pointy nose (actually, it was the rear) of my train. My car was the last one, the "Club Class" car, car #1, la-dee-dah. hehehe...

The Club Class car is a 2 by 1 seating configuration and mine was at the window while my "neighbor" had the aisle. No problem. While I usually request and aisle seat it hardly mattered on this 2 hour and 52 minute trip to Barcelona. Besides, he got off at the only route stop in Zaragoza after just 1 hour and 20 minutes into the journey and so I had the two seats to my self after that.

The breakfast was served swiftly, maybe 20 minutes after leaving Madrid Atocha Train Station. We had a choice from the menu, either a bacon quiche with asparagus on the side or, what I chose, a whipped fried egg with a huge slice of bacon, tomato, croissant, bread roll, tiny bottle of olive oil, and coffee with the strawberry yogurt for dessert. Who has dessert with breakfast? It was all tasty, hot, and served on a large, cloth-covered plastic tray with real china plates, real metal silverware, and real ceramic coffee cups. Everything was "real". Oh, and they served us all juice upon boarding in real glasses, too.

With an hour and a half left in our trip I ventured ahead to mid-train to join a mob of other travelers getting their second coffee of the morning. I was surprised to see one young Spanish women drinking a beer - at 10 o'clock in the morning!? But wha-evuh'. Unfortunately, the windows in the bar-car were at the height of my mid-section so I could see absolutely nothing without bending down. A group of older, shorter Spanish ladies sipping coffee and talking loudly didn't seem to pay any attention to the wonderful views they had thanks to their stature.

We arrived on time, at 11:22am, in Barcelona Sants Station and we all got off immediately. The last time I went to Barcelona was also by train, but they didn't have the fast AVE train yet, not until 2008, and I remember a sense of confusion upon reaching Sants Station with the rest of the travelers. Where do I go?? Not this time. I went straight to the metro and made my way with confidence.

My first stop was to the Barcelona Tourism Office - and they really rolled out the red carpet for lil' ol' me, BarcelonaMan. I thought, "Man! Madrid's Tourism Office doesn't even know MadridMan exists and I live there!!" I'd been in constant correspondence with them for the previous 2 weeks so they were well prepared for my visit. They gave me not only a folder full of useful, detailed tourist literature but also a Barcelona Press Card, issued specifically to me with my name and the dates I'm in Barcelona. The Press Pass is good for entry into nearly every (or every) museum, Antonio Gaudi structure, tours and tour buses, trams, teléfericos, and cultural sites in Barcelona. The list of participating entities is long and distinguished, probably 60 of them. This card isn't for just anyone, mind you, only for media, journalists, and travel professionals such as yours truly. Next time I come to Barcelona, they told me, the Barcelona Press Card would be sent to my hotel.

Next, I checked into my Hostal Martina in the Eixample District at about 1:30pm and the owner was here to meet me. Nice woman. I'd stayed here before and she remembered me. After she showed me my incredible room (wow, wait 'til you see the photos), she invited me to the salon and we drank coffee and chatted for about an hour and a half about the tourism and hostel business and the affect on it from the worldwide economic crisis. As I said, she's a very nice woman and interesting too so the time passed very quickly.

Now it's 2:30pm so I thanked her for the coffee and conversation and excused myself to see Barcelona. For the most part, the morning had been sunny on the train as well as the early afternoon. But no sooner did I leave the hostel did it get cloudy and threaten rain.

My plan was to take advantage of the sunny-ish skies and see Barcelona from "above", from the Mount Tibidabo amusement park and church. There are some wonderful views from that vantage point, but it didn't look like the views would be good afterall as the clouds rolled in. It's just as well, too, because I took the L7 underground TRAIN (not the metro) from the Plaça de Catalunya, got off at the end of the line at Avinguda del Tibidabo, and crossed the street to the Tramvia Blau. I waited with 5 other tourists until one of them discovered that the tram doesn't run on weekdays, ONLY on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays. Turns out, that's true. And I suspected as much but thought since it was a holiday in Madrid today that it was the SAME holiday here in Barcelona. Nu-uh. Nope. Not here. The Tramvia Blau DOES normally run everyday but only from the spring through autumn - and we're about a week (??) away from officially entering spring. So... Maybe tomorrow/Saturday? Doubtful. Maybe Sunday? More possible. But it all depends on the weather. They say it'll rain all weekend. Wonderful.

So after all the newly-informed tourists left the Tramvia Blau stop, I crossed the street once again to "Hop On" the Barcelona Bus Turistic and "simply" use that as my transportation back to the Plaça de Catalunya. This was a mistake as I quickly found out. Not only was I sitting in the back-of-the-bus on the lower level, my seat was like two steps up from the surface and A) my head kept hitting the air conditioner unit with every road bump and B) I couldn't see out the window until I bent over to waist-height. (I know, this seems to be becoming a common theme) Not only that, but the bus was full-full-full and then there was traffic and it took nearly an hour to reach the Plaza de Catalunya. I'll take the bus again and sit on top IF the weather's good as I'm fighting a cold now and won't take any chances.

I get off the bus, now it's like 5pm and I STILL haven't eaten lunch and nearly starved. I text my buddy S.R. in Madrid, asking him where that bar in the Boqueria Market he raves about with their good food and drinks. He quickly replies and I make my way to the market for a wonderful meal, real local goods I'm imagining. If you haven't been there before, the Boqueria Market is beautiful - BUT BIG. ENORMOUS, in fact, and the stands/stalls are all very close together. I'm going 'round and 'round looking for this bar-restaurant, "Restaurante El Quim", it's called. I can't find it anywhere! Eventually I do come across a layout map of all the merchants and find the bar. GREAT! So I go to the area where it should be. Nothing. Can't find it. I ask a merchant, a real fish monger wench, (and I write that with all due respect to not only her gender but for the hard job that it is) and she kindly points me around the corner, still going around in circles with no luck, and finally I see the sign. Restaurante El Quim. IT'S CLOSED! ARGH!!!! I imagine they have "normal" restaurant hours and, well, logically, it would be closed at 5pm - now 5:30pm - but hoped since it was in the market which never closes, except at night, that they'd stay open too. Nope. My loss. Okay. Another day it will have to be. I did enjoy, however, watching the piles upon piles of shellfish at the seafood merchants. They had a coule of lobsters which were as big as my thighs!! (look closely in the photo below)

I walk upward through the El Raval neighborhood and find the famed "Elisabets" bar-restaurant. I'd eaten their menu del dia the last time I was in Barcelona and like it fine, Catalan food at very good prices. So I take a table in the middle of the restaurant, very casual setting and I'm tired and ready to eat. The waiter comes along and tells me they JUST closed the kitchen and only have cold foods. Huh! No thanks. He apologizes and I leave dejected and a stomach as empty as the Tramvia Blau on a Friday afternoon - before spring. Man! I just can't catch a break today!

Continuing up through El Raval, now at 5:50pm, I see a place I'd passed before but never stopped in the Bar Castells on Plaça Bonsucces, 1. THIS is my kind of place (for good or for bad). It's unassuming, basic, home made food at very reasonable prices. The place is mostly empty except for a group of 20-something Spanish women chatting away over their coffees and a (guessing) Norwegian family talking about Barcelona, and an English family calmly sipping wine. Otherwise, the dining room is about empty. The bar, on the other hand, is packed with people having coffee or merienda. THIS IS THE TIME, afterall, not for a big meal as I was about to order. And so I did...

My order, a cardiac attack waiting to happen, included three slices of lomo (pork steak), 2 long links of sausage, a fried egg, fried potatoes, and (thankfully!) three large slices of tomato. This large combination plate, when ordered, brought a surprised look from the face of my Spanish waiter (who in the world would order such a thing at THIS HOUR?!) and I expected similar looks from those around me upon the arrival of my plate. But, luckily, the Spanish women behind me didn't seem to notice and I tried to eat quickly, attempting to remove the majority portion so as not to bring disapproving stares from passersby. It was good, though, and only cost 6.40 Euros. Add a HUGE mug of beer and the total was 9.60 Euros. Leave a very Spanish tip of 40 Eurocents and that's a 10 Euro lunch, folks, and a good one at that; unassuming, tasty, good portions, in a comfortable setting. What more could you ask?

Now it's 6:45pm, getting dark, raining a little more seriously, so I decide to head back to Hostal Martina and get some work done, write this blog, make some phone calls, and relax a bit after a long, somewhat unsuccessful first day in Barcelona.

But on my walk back, I stop in to one of these self-serve candy stores where they have 1001 items you scoop yourself and take up to the cash register. I'm standing there in line, mindin' my own business, when a hoard ot 12-15 year olds rush into the shop, going straight to the back, then all rush back out the door 15 seconds later, some of them with pockets full of candies, you can hear the wrappers rustling around, big stupid grins on their faces. The last kid through opened the bin right in front of the register, grabbed a handful of stuff, and ran out as the clerk grabbed her camera and tried to take photos of them as they all ran away. This prompted another girl of the same age to come into the store, telling the clerk that it was illegal to take photos of minors and that, get this, one of the kids she was photographing was her cousin. And if she, the girl complaining, catches the clerk photographing minors again she'll smash her face in. Can you believe that? All these kids were well-groomed and dressed in school uniforms, all carrying book bags, middle-to-upper class kids, and having a ball stealing from the local Chinese-operated candy shop, giggling and having fun committing their crimes to the delight of their friends waiting on the sidewalk to make their collective get-away, a successful grab-and-dash, a story they'll enjoy telling to anyone who'll listen - except to their parents. That wouldn't be "cool".

So here I sit, reclined on my large bed in my large room at Hostal Martina, very comfortable in my pajamas, admiring the beautifully tiled floors and ornate ceiling, and my mansion sized bathroom in the architecturally modernisme Eixample (Dret) neighborhood, just above Barcelona's Old Quarter. It's probably the best area in which to stay in Barcelona as you're close to everything but with a much lower tourist-to-local ratio.

Tomorrow's another day, starting early with breakfast provided here at the hostal, then a Gourmet Barcelona Walking Tour, a Catalan cuisine sampling, taking place mostly in the Mercat de la Boqueria market. This tour was highly recommended by the woman at the Barcelona Tourist Office so I'm anxious to go. Immediately after the tour I'm off to Sitges, a Mediterranean coastal town about 35 minutes south by train. There, I'll have a tapas lunch with some old friends. Looking forward to that too! Hope we have good weather.