25. And That’s a Load of Bull!
Unlike Jessica and Samantha who continued north, I went east, away from the coast and into the south-east region of France to the medieval town of Avignon. I’d originally planned to spend a couple of days in Avignon, but when I heard that one hour—the time the bus stopped enroute to Barcelona—was heaps of time to experience what Avignon had to offer, I reshuffled my itinerary without a moment’s hesitation. Funny thing is if I’d made that decision earlier in the trip I would’ve been filled with regret. But by this stage I didn’t bat an eyelid. Like I said at the end of the previous chapter, I was becoming exhausted, jaded and yearned for a couple of weeks to put my feet up and recharge my batteries, so I trudged off the bus and into town with an Oh well, I’m here. Might as well have a look mentality. I arrived at the Palace of the Popes. Easily the most impressive building in Avignon, it shadowed the town with its grandeur and literally oozed power and money. In the fourteenth century during the reign of three popes the heart of the Catholic Church was relocated to Avignon for various political reasons. This so-called New Rome quickly became extremely wealthy and all sorts of art, paintings and other extravagant objet d'art were acquired. While most of the items are still on display I didn’t give the building a second glance since I’d seen enough grandiose buildings and valuable artefacts to last me a lifetime. After taking a couple of happy snaps I continued to the Pont d’Avignon. Unlike the Charles Bridge in Prague, the Pont d’Avignon is neither grand nor imposing. Heck, it isn’t even finished and barely stretches halfway across the Rhône River. The only reason it’s still around and hasn’t disintegrated into mounds of rubble at the bottom of the river is that it was built as a personal favour to God. Stop me if you think I’m nuts, but if a supreme being with the
power to destroy heaven and earth asked me to build a bridge I would jump to it. And that’s exactly what Bènezet did, the shepherd God picked out to be his chief builder. Shame then that the bishop did not jump with him. When Bènezet told the bishop what God wanted him to do the bishop thought he was loony and sent him off to a judge for sentencing. To test the shepherd’s state of mind the judge ordered Bènezet to pick up a heavy boulder and move it to where he wanted to build the bridge. Without fuss Bènezet did as he was told, much to the shock of the bishop and townspeople. From then on Bènezet received all the help he needed and enough money to build bridges right along the river. Instead of lingering at these two sights, because truth be told they did not interest me, I took a quick stroll through Avignon. I could not believe how much it reminded me of Siena. Not so much because of the architecture; in that respect the two towns are poles apart. Siena is rustic and earthy while Avignon is ornate and decorative. No, what made me think of Siena was Avignon’s infrastructure, a haphazard arrangement of cobbled lanes, narrow alleyways, winding avenues and tree-lined courtyards. The main square was shaded by leafy trees, surrounded by cafes and small theatres and, being Saturday, crammed with a small market. Normally I would not waste a second getting amongst it, all in the hope of grabbing a bargain, but this time my attention was drawn elsewhere. At the mouth of one of the many lanes that led into the square was an agitated congregation of people handing out leaflets. Curious, I wandered over. I took a leaflet and although I couldn’t read it there were enough pictures on it for me to understand what was going on. These people were actors on strike. Of the many things Avignon was famous for amateur theatre was near the top of the list. I stepped back out of harm’s way, expecting the protesters to pull out placards, signs and megaphones at any moment and start
rampaging through the town. To my amusement they chose a different course of action. They suddenly stopped and laid down in the middle of the road, aiming to cause as much disruption to traffic as possible. In other cities this would work, but in Avignon where the streets are narrow and not known for carrying heavy traffic this was far from the truth. Instead of traffic chaos or inconvenience as hoped, the only feelings these actors’ protests generated from bystanders were curiosity and bewilderment. I returned to the bus and found Danielle, Ari and Kara waiting outside, admiring what was easily the best view of the town. Stretching out before them was the Rhône River, the Pont d’Avignon and an all-encompassing vista of Avignon. “Hey, guys, how was Avignon?” I asked. “Great,” Danielle answered. “Doesn’t seem like there was much to do.” “But that’s why we loved it,” Ari told me. “We sat around, played UNO, drank wine and just chilled out.” “So I take it you didn’t check out the Palace of the Popes.” “Nah, not really,” Kara said. “We’ve been to Rome and seen St Peter’s,” Danielle said, “so I really don’t think we’ve missed much.” “But Avignon was a great place to recharge the batteries,” Kara added. “Especially before going to a place like Barcelona,” I said, turning to her. “Yeah,” Danielle said, “from what we’ve heard it’s one of those cities with so much to do and not enough time to do it.” “You’re not wrong,” I agreed. “You’ve been?” Kara asked. “Well, passed through is more the phrase I would use.” “Why?” Danielle asked. “What happened?” I told them about my previous visit to Spain. “Bunny hopper from hell, huh?” Ari said, highly amused.
“Oh yeah.” “Then it’s a good thing you’re not driving,” he said. Back on the bus and before we even got started Chad, our guide for the journey, opened his mouth. Now here was a guy who could easily hold a conversation with a fish, breathe and eat a steak dinner all at the same time. I’d first met Chad when I was on my way from Rome to Naples. Let me give you an example of what went down when he picked up the mike. “Welcome aboard everyone! Now, as you are aware there are safety regulations on this bus and since you’ve heard them all before I won’t go into too much detail. Oh, check out that tree! Y’know, it actually reminds me of a tree where I grew up. I’m from the US by the way, but don’t hold that against me. And this tree had the best tyre swing on it. Don’t you guys just love tyre swings? Did you know that tyre swings are more popular than normal swings? By the way, just around the corner Mount Vesuvius is coming into view. Now there’s a behemoth of a mountain. Killed a few thousand people in 79 AD and still has not settled down. If you look carefully you can see him still smoking away. So who’s getting off at Naples? Crazy place! It’s as bad as New York. So who’s been to New York? Did you like it? Isn’t the shopping brilliant? But boy does it have smelly taxi drivers …” It was a similar case as the bus wound its way to the French/Spanish border. “Olè! Hope everyone has their maracas ready because we’re about to paaah-tay. Does everyone here like sangria? If you do you’re in for a treat. They make the best stuff in Barcelona. I remember this one time at college my frat made heaps of sangria. Whoooeeee! Now there was a great party, of what little I can remember anyway. And hey, it must’ve been awesome because I got soooo tanked I slept under the dean’s desk in my underwear. You should’ve seen the dean’s face when he walked into his office the next morning and found me watering his pot plant—” he flashed a grin. “Boy, was that a tough semester!”
In the time it took us to get from Avignon to the border and into Catalonia I swear Chad never came up for air. But it wasn’t only random pieces of information that he rattled off. Not long after we’d crossed the border he gave us a piece of very bad news. “… and about accommodation in Barcelona, for those of you who pre-booked you have nothing to worry about. But those who haven’t—” he paused for what he thought was a dramatic effect, “— well, all I can say is don’t knock park benches until you try ’em …” Barcelona is a city where accommodation even in the off season is scarce and should be booked well in advance. Even then it’s best to cross your fingers and toes. Come summer, however, crossed fingers and toes just don’t cut it anymore and instead you’d better start praying for a miracle. As the people without accommodation realised when they started making frantic phone calls at our next rest stop. It didn’t help their cause that Barcelona at the time was also hosting the world swimming championships. Of course, Chad had the perfect solution for those who were left out in the cold, so to speak. “For those who could not get a place to crash, don’t stress. Barcelona is a fairly happenin’ place and there are heaps of bars and clubs where you can spend your night. In fact, I guarantee you’ll be spoilt for choice. So when we get in tonight what I recommend you do is find a locker, dump your bags and boogie down all night. And if you pick up, that’s a bonus. At least you know you’ll have a bed for the night. After all, it’s Saturday night in Barcelona!” “What do you say, guys?” I said. “Are you eager to hit the town tonight?” “Fine by us,” Ari answered. We agreed to meet by eight-thirty at the Kabul Hostel, which was near the main street and central to everything. It was a twelve-hour trip from Nice to Barcelona so when Kara and I finally staggered into our hostel we were tired and hungry.
“Geez, I was wondering if you guys would ever show up,” said a voice behind us. “Jules! How are ya?” I said. “What happened to you two? How come it took you so long?” “Traffic,” Kara answered. “Yeah, it was nuts,” I agreed. “So, Jules, tell us where are the good places to eat around here? I’m starvin’.” Julia had already spent two nights in Barcelona. “You and me both.” “Haven’t you eaten yet?” Kara asked. “No, I was waiting for you guys to show.” “Oh, aren’t you nice,” Kara said. “Well, I didn’t want to say anything.” “Modest as well,” I added. “We’re supposed to be meeting Danielle and Ari at the Kabul Hostel for dinner. Do you know where that is?” Kara asked. “Sure do.” Chad was wrong. Barcelona was not vibrant. It was much more than that. The instant Kara, Julia and I left the hostel the city’s atmosphere smothered us completely. The whole place seemed to be alive. Everywhere I turned bars teemed with people and the air crackled with Latin rhythms and boisterous chatter. There was even more energy at Plaça Reale, the square the Kabul Hostel overlooked. “Sorry we’re late guys,” Danielle apologised when she and Ari arrived. “Our hostel is further away from this place than we thought.” “No sweat,” I said. “Hey, Jules, how are you?” Danielle smiled in Julia’s direction. “Starving.” “You’re not the only one,” Ari sympathised. “Do you know any good places to eat, Jules?” “You bet. Follow me.” I found myself standing outside a place I had frequented many
times while I was in Amsterdam. Once again, like at Flunch, everyone abused the all you can eat salad bar that Maoz offered. “Does anyone remember how to get to the bar Chad was telling us about?” I asked. “He called it the Fairy Bar,” Danielle said. “It’s somewhere near the wax museum,” Ari recalled. “Are you guys talking about the bar with trees?” Julia asked. “Yeah,” I said, “you know it?” “You betcha!” she answered with a smile. The atmosphere in Plaça Reale was buzzing, but along La Rambla, the city’s main tourist strip, it was throbbing. The whole area pulsated with loud music, raucous laughter and gaudy neon lights. The bar—Bosc De Fades or Forest of the Fairies—was not on La Rambla, but one street away. From the outside it was nothing to look at, but once inside I saw how right Chad had been in his description of the place. The bar was anthropomorphic in all regards. Planted randomly throughout were fake trees complete with human faces etched in a variety of expressions. It wasn’t just the personalities oozing from the trees that made me believe I was in a Brothers Grimm fairytale, but that the branches reached out and formed an umbrella of foliage above us. But the weirdness was not limited to human-like trees. Every available space was plastered in two-way mirrors, sideways mannequins, fairies, gnomes and abstract works of art. This and the cruisy atmosphere made the bar a perfect place to sip chilled sangria, relax and unwind after a long day of travelling. Shortly after midnight we called it a night and returned to our respective hostels. “Geez, it’s warm,” I mentioned to the girls as we walked across Plaça Reale. “I’m dreading my room,” Kara said. “It’s going to be ridiculously stuffy.” “Don’t
It was a shame then that I did not have a sleeping bag. Well, I did have one, but in my infinite wisdom and foresight, had sent it home. I figured that since I was going to be staying in places like Spain where summer nights are hotter than Jalapenos I wouldn’t need a sleeping bag. How wrong was I! While it was thirty-five degrees outside, inside my room was minus three. And as I pushed past the snowboarders who were lined up outside waiting for the first snow of the season, I thought of my mother’s words when I’d phoned her from Nice. “Darren,” she said, “why is your sleeping bag here? You’re going to need it. Are you stupid? Why won’t you listen?” “Mum,” I replied, “its like forty degrees here. Why the heck am I going to need a sleeping bag?” “You never know. Just because it’s hot now doesn’t mean the weather can’t change.” “Mum, it’s the middle of summer here. I would welcome a cool change.” And so it went for some twenty minutes until finally my ear was red and my head was hurting. As I shooed the seals and penguins out my bed and said goodnight to the lost Eskimos who’d camped in the middle of the room, I wondered how in the world my mother could know my room mimicked the Antarctic. The only possible answer scared me to my bones—my mother was psychic and could control destiny, just to prove a point. After a frigid night’s sleep I brushed away the icicles that had formed around my face, had a much-needed hot shower to thaw myself out and shuffled down to the foyer. Kara and Julia were already in the middle of breakfast. “So where haven’t you been, Jules?” I asked. “Nowhere, really. Yesterday, just to check out the city I hopped on a bike tour.” “How was it?” Kara asked.
“Not bad.” “But since you have a better idea of where everything is,” I said, “I vote you guide for the day.” “I second that,” Kara said. The three of us strolled to the Metro and I was overwhelmed by the peace of the city. The marauding hordes of tourists and locals that had overrun the city the previous night had vanished, leaving the streets quiet and filled with a lazy dulcet atmosphere. It was a short train ride to Parc Güell, one of the many places around the city where the legacy of the famous architect, Antoni Gaudi can be found. Built in what was the highest part of the park, overlooking a large portion of the city was a terrace that had all the trademarks of a Gaudi design—bright colours and curved edges. Gaudi had a naturalistic way of thinking and believed if nature didn’t use straight lines in its construction then why should he? Even the supporting columns of the terrace were intertwined with aspects of nature. The top was sculptured so it represented a tree’s foliage while the columns themselves were slanted to represent wind-swept trees. To further add to the theme, halfway down the stairs leading from the terrace to the ground was a colourful wide-jawed mosaic lizard that completely explained why the word gaudy had been invented. “Where to now?” Kara asked when we reached the park’s exit. “La Sagrada Familia,” Julia answered without hesitation. Of all the Gaudi buildings the most famous is the church that he started, but failed to finish. Gaudi was a man of routine and liked to go for a walk after a day’s work. It was during one of his evening strolls that he was knocked over by a tram. These days you would like to think that everyone about you would rush to your aid, but you have to remember things were different back then. Not only did your grandfather have to walk ten miles to school every day in a blizzard in his bare feet, but people were given or denied medical treatment based solely on their appearance. It just so happened that on that fateful day when he was
knocked down, Gaudi was wearing tattered old clothes and when someone did finally come to his aid he was taken to a hospital for the poor where his treatment was inadequate, resulting in his untimely death. This is a shame. On admiring the church I could only imagine how stunning it would have been if Gaudi had finished it. The only portion of the church that Gaudi did complete before his sudden death was the front. Made up of four columns with the central two reaching to a height of one hundred metres, each is interspersed with aspects of nature and meticulously decorated in religious figures and symbols. “Jules,” I asked, squinting up at the exoskeleton of scaffolding and cranes shrouding the sides of the church, “you took the bike tour yesterday. Did they say when the church was due to be finished?” “2011.” Kara was surprised. “That long?” “Well, yeah. The towers and the rest of the church might not take long, but because the plans Gaudi left behind were inconclusive there’s a lot of room left for interpretation. The work is stopping and starting as the architects try to sort out their creative differences. The only aspect they’ve managed to agree on is the number of towers the church is supposed to have.” “How many?” I asked. “Eighteen all up. Twelve for the apostles, four for the evangelists and one for Mary and one for Jesus.” “I reckon they should leave the church the way it is.” “Why?” “Because Gaudi’s style was very unique and I seriously doubt anybody would be able to capture it. If there are as many architects as you say, this church will end up being a complete shemozzle. It’ll be a case of too many cooks.” We arrived at Parc de la Ciutdadella after midday and wandered up to the park’s impressive Gaudi designed fountain. Unlike his later
work the fountain was neither colourful nor curvaceous, but had a definite art deco style about it. Either side of a man-made lagoon a grand pair of curved staircases ascended to a central apex on which rested a four-horse chariot that was similar to the sculpture on top of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. What made this fountain unique was the water feature. Unlike other fountains where water spurts from concealed jets beneath the surface, here the water cascaded from beneath the central apex and into the lagoon below. This waterfall effect is what ultimately gave the fountain its name, The Cascada. The three of us returned to the hostel. It was Sunday afternoon, which meant that any shops that had opened for Sunday trading were now closing for a siesta. This left us with little to do but have a snooze ourselves. Before I go on I would like to thank you for reading this far. I really hope you have found my book entertaining and informative. If not then I sincerely hope you’ve kept the receipt and you can just say you bought it for a present and that your friend already has a copy. And if they ask about the coffee stain you can always blame it on the ink running because the stingy author couldn’t spring for the decent kind. Now you’re probably wondering why in the middle of my chapter on Barcelona I’m thanking you. Well, I’m about to get a bit controversial and I reckon after the next couple of pages you might throw the book down in disgust or use it as kindling in your fireplace. (I use it to level my computer desk and I know my friend Sarah and her husband Bourke keep it in their bathroom because apparently it’s really absorbent. Go figure!) Anyway, you might think I’m joking, but when I was writing emails home and mentioned that I was going to a bullfight a workmate and good friend from Scotland decided that I was no longer a person she could associate with and ended our friendship with a series of abusive emails. I don’t know what your views on bullfighting are and
instead of sullying your judgment with my views just yet I will try and present an unbiased description of what happened next. It was early evening when the girls and I returned to La Rambla to meet up with Danielle, Ari and a few others from their hostel. With anticipation and to a certain degree trepidation, our big group pushed its way through the crowds to the nearest subway. On the train I was chatting to a lady who’d come to visit her daughter on the Spanish leg of her European tour when she asked me where I was originally from. “India,” I answered. “Whereabouts?” “Chennai.” “Oh really?” She looked at me with a wistful expression. “You wouldn’t know anyone called Fabian Mendez would you?” “No,” I answered. “I reckon Mendez sounds more Spanish than Indian, don’t you?” “How about Salmon?” A knot of excitement began churning in my stomach. “Yeah, my uncle’s family name is Salmon.” “Do you know Olivia Salmon then?” “You’re joking right?” “No, she’s a friend of mine.” “My God! Olive married my Dad’s brother, Cyrus. It’s actually Olivia Assey now.” The two of us were instantly reduced to yelps of excitement. By the time we’d settled down and exchanged email addresses the train was pulling into Monumental Station and we had to say our goodbyes. It was a short walk to the only active bullring in Barcelona, but when we’d reached our seats my excitement had been diluted with apprehension. I’d seen pictures of bullfights and heard the stories, which ranged from the exciting to the macabre, so I didn’t know what to expect or how I’d handle it.
At five o’clock the sound of horns signalled the arrival of a VIP in the corporate box, and the show began. To a fanfare of Spanish trumpets and the crowd’s raucous applause the gates at the other side of the ring opened and three toreadors, their capes draped around their shoulders, strode into the arena. Following in their footsteps were their assistants who were really nothing more than rodeo clowns without the funny pants. Their task was to hand out swords and capes and when necessary, distract the bulls. Trotting in behind these were two mounted horsemen whose horses were blindfolded. Bringing up the rear were the cleaners and four draught horses whose job was to remove the dead bulls from the ring. After each bowed to the dignitary sitting in the corporate box they left the ring and an atmosphere of anticipation filled the arena. A musical introduction and thunderous cheers signalled the arrival of the first bull. Each bullfight consists of six bulls, two for each toreador. I expected the first toreador to stomp into the ring, cape swinging and flapping in the wind. Instead, the far gates of the arena opened and the two blindfolded horses trotted out. The bull watched closely as the riders were given lances and proceeded to circle. I was reminded of what Chad had said: “A bullfight is a bit of a passion play, similar to that of Hamlet. Like the Danish king the bull is the only one who is unaware of its fate.” Without warning the bull charged at the rider’s horse to its left. The horse, unable to see, stood its ground. The bull rammed harder, causing the horse to buckle. I was not too keen on this aspect of the fight. This bravado was short-lived and with a deft gesture the rider thrust his lance into the nape of the bull’s neck. Instantly, the bull retreated. But not for long. Hardly a moment passed before the bull lowered its head, exposing the full extension of its horns, and charged. This time it was the other horse that received the full brunt of its
power. But no sooner had it connected when the rider jabbed his lance into the bull’s neck. The bull backed off while the riders exited to the sound of unrelenting applause. I scanned the arena and it appeared that our group were the only ones not cheering. The applause grew louder as the first of the three toreadors entered the ring and faced off against the bull. In his hands were two skewers
bottlebrushes. Once his assistants had positioned themselves around the ring, ready to distract the bull at a second’s notice, the toreador raised the two skewers and pointed the tips straight at the bull. Sensing an attack the bull lowered its head and began to gouge the ground with his right hoof, stirring up dirt. The crowd fell silent. I inched my way to the edge of my seat. The bull snorted and as if on cue the toreador charged hard and fast. The bull charged back. I believe courage and bravery go hand in hand, but in this case, it’s not courage you need, but a whole lot of craziness. Let me tell you, if a bull charged towards me I would not be charging towards it, but bolting away in the opposite direction, shrieking at the top of my lungs regardless of what I held in my hand, unless that something was a panzer tank. I watched with a mixture of awe and horror as the toreador sprinted towards the bull and jumped directly into its path. Then with the skill of a gymnast, he twisted to his left as he planted the tips of the skewers into the bull’s neck and landed at its side. The crowd roared, once again unrestrained in their adulation. An assistant handed the toreador another set of skewers. Again, he turned and ran towards the bull. This guy was fucking nuts. It would not take much—a step in the wrong direction, a mistimed jump, the odd stumble—for the toreador to give new meaning to the term horny.
But all things come in threes, as do crazy acts involving pissed-off bulls. The crowd had barely settled down again when the toreador grabbed two more skewers and raced towards the enraged bull. What happened next is something that I can only describe as a macabre sort of dance. Grabbing his cape from one of the assistants, the toreador began to wave it in front of the bull’s face until it charged. The toreador seemed nonplussed as he shuffled his feet like someone dancing the flamenco, transferring the cape from one hand to the other and allowing the bull to run under it. Twenty minutes later the bull was exhausted, its coat velvety from blood, its breath ragged from its wounds. Judging by the feeling of anticipation sweeping through the crowd, it was obvious the fight was nearing its conclusion. As if on cue the toreador walked to the side of the ring where he was handed a sword. The bull watched as the toreador approached and placed the cape just below its nose. The bull bowed its head and studied the cape intently. This guaranteed that the nape of the bull’s neck was now completely exposed. Two things are done to the bull before it enters the ring. The first is an injection of muscle relaxant into the animal’s neck, rendering it unable to lift its head up more than halfway. The second is the attachment of a small ribbon at the base of the bull’s neck. While the muscle relaxant aids the toreador to gain a clean shot of the bull’s heart, the ribbon ensures a clear aim for a swift kill. The toreador was setting himself up for the final attack when suddenly the bull charged, causing the toreador to back-pedal. The crowd’s cheers turned instantly to jeers. Not fazed at what was going on in the stands the toreador resumed his position in front of the bull, and this time when the bull charged he was ready. Like he’d done when he was wielding the two skewers, the toreador did a Michael Jordan impression and drove the
sword deep into the bull’s neck, piercing its heart. The bull went down. Unlike the rest of the crowd that was cheering unabashedly, everyone in our group was silent. This changed at the conclusion of the second fight because while the first fighter was good, the second was not simply better, but the world’s best. Where the first fighter simply waved the cape in front of the bull from a standing position, El Huli would do so while standing, kneeling or even lying in front of the enraged beast, thereby increasing the risk of being gored and adding the risk of being trampled. Our cheers grew louder when the third fighter entered the ring. Like El Huli, he would dance in front of the bull and do other more flamboyant, highly dangerous stunts, like turn his back on the animal only to swivel out of the way at the last second before the bull’s horns connected with his posterior. By the fight’s conclusion we were cheering and shouting to the person in the presidential box to give the toreador a token of appreciation for a great performance. In this case, as custom dictated, the ear of the bull the toreador had just killed. It was the aim of all bullfighters to receive both ears and a tail. A reward that the first fighter could only dream of. As I discovered earlier, the crowd was fickle and would turn against a toreador if he failed at killing a bull the first time or if his fights were prolonged and dull. “Well, what do you think?” Ari asked us as the last bull was dragged from the arena. “It was good,” I said. “Better than I expected.” We pushed our way to the exit. “It was, wasn’t it?” Kara said. “Would you go again?” Ari asked. “That depends,” I answered. “On what?” Julia asked.
“I think we were lucky. We got to watch one of the world’s best fighters. If I saw fighters that weren’t as good as El Huli or that third guy—” “Like that first one?” Danielle commented. “Exactly. I’d feel sorry for the bull.” “I don’t know about everyone else,” Julia said, “but I’m hungry.” “What do you feel like?” Kara asked. “Steak!” I answered. Ari nodded. “Me too.” “There’s a lot of beef in there,” Danielle pointed out. “Didn’t Chad say the meat of fighting bulls is the best there is?” Kara asked. “He did say they’re well taken care of,” I said. “They get all the best grass and get to take all the hot cows out to their paddock for a roll in the hay.” Julia slapped me across the back of my head. “Well, bulls need love too.” Kara rolled her eyes. “Anyway, the meat of fighting bulls is supposed to be extremely tender.” “It's a pity we don’t have a kitchen in the hostel,” I added. “We could visit the market tomorrow and pick up some steaks.” “Why steaks, Daz?” Julia asked. “The best bits are the tail and the balls.” “I’ll say it again,” although this time I did so with more than an ounce of sarcasm, “it’s a pity we don’t have a kitchen in the hostel.” “I suppose we could get Maccas,” Kara suggested. “That’ll do,” I said. From the above, you might assume I am advocating animal cruelty, but no. I did enjoy the bullfight, but I can honestly say it’s not something I would do again in a hurry. But being in Spain, I felt I should experience a bullfight first-hand so at least I’d know what I’m disagreeing with. The next morning I met up again with Kara and Julia in the
foyer. “What’s the plan for the day, girls?” They looked at me and shrugged. “I can see the excitement in this place is catching. So you girls don’t really want to see anything?” “Nope,” Julia answered as she turned to Kara. “How about you?” “Nothing really. How about you, Daz? What do you want to see?” I could tell they were waiting for a long list of responses. “Haven’t got a clue, Jules. I suppose we could check out the Picasso and Dali museums or those Gaudi houses.” The girls answered in unison, “I don’t think so.” “I thought as much.” “You know,” Julia said, “I’d be happy to go for a ride in the cable car, take in the view of Barcelona and then spend the rest of the day on the beach.” “By gum I think she’s got it,” I said. On a clear day the scene from the cable car would be spectacular and endless, but unfortunately the day was not clear and the city was covered by a mixture of smog, dust and heat haze. Despite this we could still see enough of the city to gain a decent concept of how sprawling Barcelona is. In fact, as the car ascended upwards the ordered arrangement of streets made me think of Manhattan. By the time we’d walked down to the beach Julia’s enthusiasm had simmered. “It’s not the best beach,” she said as we stepped to the edge of the promenade. “What do you expect?” I said. “It’s fake, simply created for the 1992 Olympics.” The beach itself was not that bad as the many people sunbaking on the sand would have agreed, but by unspoken agreement the three of us preferred to give it a miss and we dawdled back into town.
“Come on, guys,” Julia said as we turned back onto La Rambla and were quickly enveloped by all its erratic noise and chaos, “I’ll take you to this great market. The lollies there are yummy.” “Yeah and maybe we can get a bull testicle or two,” I suggested. Kara shot me a dark look. “No, thank you.” Mercat De La Boqueria was just off La Rambla and apart from being one of the few places where you could buy bulls’ balls and tails there was also a great selection of sweets and confectionary as well as an amazing range of fresh fruit and vegetables. Since mangoes were in season I bought one and ripped into it. By the expressions that filled the girls’ faces me eating a mango was one of the most disgusting things they’d seen. “Darren,” Julia said, “anyone ever tell you you’re a pig?” Kara could not speak because she was in shock. “Whuh?” I mumbled. “Thik id fantisig.” “You’re gross, Daz.” “Tank youd.” Smeared in juice and in dire need of a bib—or a trough—I endured the frightened stares of random strangers as the police cordoned off the area to protect innocent bystanders. But it was a small price to pay because it was easily one of the most succulent mangoes I’d tasted. Julia just sighed and handed me a tissue. Once I’d cleaned myself up we returned to the hostel to watch some TV and grab a few zees. The girls were still snoozing when I left the hostel shortly after six. After the bullfight I’d agreed to meet Danielle, Ari and their room-mates Nicola and John for dinner at La Fonda, a restaurant famed for its affordability and mouth-watering food. The restaurant opened its doors at eight-thirty and even though the five of us arrived at eight, the line had already stretched down the street. It was near to nine o’clock when we were finally led to our table. Not that any of us minded because the food was definitely worth the wait. I was gobsmacked at how flavoursome everything tasted.
Needless to say by the time we finished eating and decided to call it a night we were so full that our ability to walk had completely vanished and all we could do was waddle. It was six-thirty
following morning when I ambled
downstairs to find the foyer filled with weary-eyed backpackers. “What are you doing up, Daz?” Julia asked. “Yeah, Darren,” Kara joined in, shaking her head. “You should be in bed. You’re not leaving today too are you?” “No, actually far from it. I’m going to Montserrat with Lana.” “Lana?” Julia asked. “You remember her. She came with us to the bullfight. Blonde girl, slightly shorter than me.” “No idea.” “Doesn’t matter. Take my word for it she was there.” “Where’s Montserrat?” Kara asked before adding quickly, “What’s Montserrat?” “It’s this place north of the city, a monastery in the hills built in recognition of when the Virgin Mary appeared.” “Aren’t you over churches?” “Oh I am, but apparently the scenery out there is unique and the guy I was travelling with in Sicily told me I just had to go. And since I’m here I thought why not?” “Fair enough,” Julia said as I helped her on with her backpack. “Well, you’ll have to tell me all about it when I see you in London.” “Will do. See you, girls.” They picked up the rest of their stuff and marched out to the bus stop. Lana appeared shortly after. “Ready, Darren?” “You bet!” Montserrat was a little more than an hour’s train journey out of the city and nothing could have prepared us for what we were about to see. When we first witnessed the landscape we were lost for words.
Instead of the usual pointy triangular monoliths, these mountains were skinny and very steep with rounded tips. They reminded me of chubby fingers. Well, that’s what I thought. Lana had different ideas. “My God, all these mountains look like penises. Big erect ones!” Sheesh, I thought to myself. And they say guys are sex crazy. “Thanks for that insight, Lana, much appreciated.” “Anytime.” Lana smiled broadly. “It’s good to see Mother Nature knows what she wants.” “Big and bulgy, apparently.” “Smart woman!” The scenery grew more spectacular the closer we got to the monastery where we were greeted by a marvellous view of the mountains and a completely unhindered view of the Catalonia, a region known for its open plains, rustic villages, vast barren beauty and for being home to Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso. The monastery was renowned for having one of the best choirs in Europe, but there was nothing else that Lana and I had not seen before. So we found a quiet spot in the courtyard to sit and take in the scenery and fresh air. “God, it’s nice up here,” Lana said, closing her eyes and relishing the cool breeze that washed over us. “It’s just so quiet and peaceful.” “Yeah, I know what you mean. It’s so good to get out of the city, away from the smog, dirt and heat.” “Most definitely, Darren. It was so worth coming up here. Even without the mountains I would come up just to get away from the craziness of Barcelona. God, that city is hectic.” “You’re tellin’ me, but you know what?” “What?” “I’m going to miss the whole siesta thing. Ever since Italy I’ve loved that it’s mandatory to have a nana nap in the afternoon.” Lana agreed. No surprise then that when we returned to the
hostel we went straight to our respective rooms. I woke in the early evening and went for a stroll around the Barri Gottic area of the city. Being the oldest part of the city meant it was a literal maze to navigate. What struck me as strange though was that it seemed to have more atmosphere and character than I’d found down the full length of La Rambla. The shops were less tacky, the cafes more relaxed and tapas bars more lively. My last day was spent not doing much at all. After a quick visit to the apartments that Gaudi designed and built—the Casa Mila, Casa Calvet and Casa Batlo, which like the rest of his designs were colourful and curvaceous—I spent most of the day trying to find accommodation in Portugal. Something that proved extremely difficult to come by. But I wanted to rock up anyway and see what happened, which at this stage looked like me spending my nights on park benches. Lost in thought about this next leg of the journey, I didn’t notice the two girls who approached me. “Excuse me,” one said. “Hable Inglès?” the other asked. “Sure do. What’s up?” “Could you please tell us how to get to this arch?” The arch in question was a smaller version of Paris’s Arc De Triomphe and was actually named the Arc de Triomphe. It was one of the many entrances into Parc de la Ciutdadella. I pulled out my map. “Are you a tourist?” “Yeah.” “Oh, sorry, we though you were Spanish.” “Hey, I’ve been called worse,” I said, pointing them in the right direction. During my two and half years away I’d been mistaken for English, Italian, American, Egyptian, Greek, Spanish and on rare occasions, a terrorist. At least I knew my place in the world.
And it certainly wasnâ€™t in Barcelona. This was an extremely vibrant and exciting city, much like New York and London, but I could see why reports about Barcelona were mixed. It was dusty, swamped with smog and ran at an exhausting pace that sucked people dry. And really, in the grand scheme of things Barcelona was just another city. Iâ€™d seen more than my fair share of them on this trip and was not in too much of a hurry to see more.