Check-in 1/1: Barcelona

Well, it’s unanimous: Barcelona has far exceeded every other city on our trip. We left a still-empty hostel Thursday morning and took a bus into the center of the city to find our new hostel, Gothic Point. Immediately after walking in the door, we found a camera in our face. A reporter from a Barcelona news channel appeared shortly after and asked us a few questions about why we had chosen the city to celebrate the new year. Our egos sufficiently inflated with newfound fame, we finally made it up to what turned out to be the most unusual hostel dorm I have ever seen. Instead of the usual short bunks, the upper level of beds towered on stilts eight feet above the ground. Individual beds are contained in boxes with curtains that can be pulled across the front, making the room feel like a little city of high rises.

We decided to start our sightseeing nearby at the Picasso Museum. The area our hostel and the museum are in is called Born, and just walking through its narrow cobblestone alleys was an adventure in itself. Along with several museums, Born hosts a ton of restaurants and shops (we soon dubbed it the hipster quarter), plus at least two big churches. The Picasso Museum was in a grand old stone building with plenty of courtyards and arched doors, but it was probably the most poorly organized museum we’ve seen yet. We walked through Picasso's childhood (surprisingly traditional art) and blue phase, and even got to admire several witty pieces inspired by Degas.

Satisfied we had finally found all the rooms, we next visited La Rambla—the huge shopping avenue that is infamous for the amount of tourists and pickpockets it attracts. We wandered into a few music shops that caught Kai’s eye and admired high walls lined with big, tattered red boxes that could be opened to reveal stacks of sheet music.

Next up was La Boqueria, which is a big market just off La Rambla. Even though it was the evening, all of the vendors’ stands were completely stocked with beautifully colorful produce, candy and anything else you could possibly want.

All our senses satisfied, we walked the rest of La Rambla and then back to Born, stopping at an antiques market along the way.

For dinner we settled on a quiet restaurant near the hostel that promised some cheap tapas. Tapas are not truly Catalonian, but the concept of building a big plate of a bunch of different types of food is something no college student can resist. Whatever I ate was good, but at one point the host lifted up a huge pan of paella for a few Barcelonians that had wandered in to see (we later found out Thursday is paella day for the city’s restaurants). Our next good meal, I vowed, paella would be mine.

Friday we decided to skip our traditional walking tour and see the city by bicycle instead. With our fearless and endlessly cool local guide (seriously, he’d lived in at least 10 countries, spoke six languages, swims in the sea every day sans-wetsuit and used to teach scuba), we spent three hours seeing some of the most famous and varied parts of the city. We biked through the narrow, tourist-packed streets in the center of the city:

to the wide-open boardwalks along the sea, where we stopped to admire the ports and modern architecture built when the city hosted the olympics.

Then it was on to Parc De La Ciutadella, which was remarkably quiet after the heavily populated boardwalks and avenues. We biked through hedge-lined squares and by the dramatic Gaudi fountain:

and even spotted a giant mammoth statue nearby.

Then we started the real city biking portion of the tour and took a busy street up to the northeast corner of the city to visit the old bull fighting ring and Gaudi's famous Sagrada Familia.

I always hear Gaudi’s work compared to Dr. Suess, and it’s true. Sagrada Familia almost looks like it was made with that sand castle technique where you soak sand and then drop it in little drips until it forms narrow, bumpy towers. Not my favorite effect for a building on such a massive scale, but it was definitely unique and piqued my interest even more to see the rest of his work in the city.

We biked back to the center, bid our guide goodbye, and found some lunch. I had my delicious paella, plus fish (I wish I knew what kind—among the best I’ve ever had. But I was so lost reading Catalan off the menu I hadn’t even realized it was fish I’d ordered.) and a strange whipped cheese for desert. As it was New Year’s Eve, the girls and I decided it would be fitting to do a bit of shopping so we made our way up to the big plaza near the top of La Rambla. No one bought much but there was plenty of people watching to be had, and at least four Zaras within a few blocks of each other. (They were, in fact, all different inside if you were wondering.)

Sunlight long gone, we realized it was time to go back to the hostel and get ready for the evening. By nine we were back downstairs, where the common room had become one giant party. We reunited with Kai, who informed us he had tried to stop a purse snatcher who had run past him outside in the alleyway. Kai got a punch in before an accomplice tackled him, allowing the thief to get away. Who knew he had it in him? (Just kidding, Kai. Sort of.) Capitalizing on his new hero status, we found an English guy and an Aussie to play some vicious rounds of cards with us before we all migrated to the alley for some general international socializing. The purse snatchers ran past with two more purses while we were there, and just as we were formulating a red-rover inspired plan to catch them our favorite hostel staffer shouted he was about to make the 20 minute walk to the beach.

Just as we reached the edge of the water, fireworks started going off at both ends of the bay. We scarfed the grapes we’d brought (you eat 12 for good luck in every month. I only had 11, so I guess December will be rough?) and swapped enough kisses to last me for many new years into the future. The fireworks almost didn’t matter—there were crashing waves, miles of soft sand, Portuguese songs, new friends and some of my favorite people in my life all around me. Jessica and I took a moment just to marvel at it all; that you can pick up and do something new, and it feels like the most natural thing in the world.

But the night was still young, and we had places to be. We walked the boardwalk and admired the huge lines outside of the big clubs, the entire beach already pulsing with music and shouting party-goers. We caught a cab to the north part of La Rambla to City Hall, a big night club that was one of the few that narrowly made our budget. We took it easy near the bar area with our Portuguese friends from the hostel until the club really got going (it’s true no one goes until 2 a.m. at the earliest). Like the rest of the city, the club was filled with Italians, and I soon found myself speaking more Italian than I ever did in Rome. I befriended a group from Turin and not a single one of them spoke English—the perfect cure for my homesickness for Rome.

Many hours later, I realized I’d managed to lose everyone else (sorry, Mom). Two of my Turin friends offered to walk me back to the hostel. Along the way we realized the stairs leading down into the metro were open, and I almost reached for my map to double check that it was really open that late at night. Then I heard birds chirping and saw the beginnings of sunlight creeping into the edges of my vision. A clock in the metro confirmed my suspicions: It was 7 a.m. We laughed all the way onto the first metro car, where we met a guy from Barcelona who quite seriously informed us he was on his way to another club. Looking around the car, it was obvious he was not the only one still celebrating the new year. What a city.

A half hour later I found Kai and Jessica safe and sound in their beds. I used my last remaining energy to drag myself up the infinite ladder to my bed, and slept. Until 8 a.m., that is, when the group of 10 from France in our dorm decided it was time to get up. I guess there’s always tonight for sleep.

So, happy 2011 everyone. My still-growing love for Barcelona will make leaving Europe in a few days even more difficult, but I can’t wait to see everyone back in the States and start to explore what 2011 holds for us all. For now, I’ve got my Bucky shirt on and I’m off to find a place to watch the Rose Bowl later.

1 January 2011 · Comments

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