Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Tale of Two Cities: Barcelona and Paris

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”  Charles Dickens

Barcelona Cathedral

I love Barcelona! My three-day visit was a last-minute add-on because I couldn’t get a reasonably priced flight direct from Florence to Paris. Anything that didn’t cost nearly 500 euros was routed via Barcelona, with a long transit but not really long enough to go into the city. Luckily, I took this as a sign that I should schedule a proper visit there.

Before heading for Spain I took the train north from Florence to spend a night up in the foothills of the Alps near Turin with friends Giorgio and Amy, daughter Olivia, dogs Honey and Beauregard, and the cats. I had spent some time with them in 2010, just a few months after I started my new life. It doesn’t feel like all that long ago… We had a fun evening and a two-hour walk with the dogs in the morning before Giorgio took me to Turin to catch my plane.

The Barcelona trip turned into a scouting visit for a longer stay later in the year. I love the place. It’s just the right size, easy to walk around, and there’s so much to see. The food is fabulous, with much more variety than I found in Italy. I could have spent all day grazing in the central food market, La Boqueria, on La Rambla, where the fruit, vegetables, dried and preserved foods, olives, charcuterie, fish and seafood, cheeses, chocolates, marzipan fruits are displayed like still lifes.

Although I didn’t have a run while I was there, there is a meetup group that gets together for runs each week; and there are some good places to run, including along the seafront. The Barcelona marathon is held mid-March, so I’m pencilling that in for 2015.

Plus, of course, there’s the amazing architecture, art, museums, film, history.… The weather was also perfect while I was there.

I got a crick in my neck from walking around looking up at rooflines and facades of buildings. I visited a number of churches, including the beautiful Barcelona Cathedral, which has a garden that is home to a gaggle of geese. I like the Museum of Contemporary Art, which has a stark white interior and is easy to navigate through. The Museum of Modern European Art is in a beautiful old building crammed with figurative sculpture. The Museum of Contemporary Culture is a large industrial-looking place that puts on events and film, but there was nothing much happening during my stay. They have special programs for people with Alzheimer’s. I heard recently about another gallery that’s doing something similar, but I can’t remember where that was (hahaha). The Museum of the City of Barcelona doesn’t attempt to present even an overview of the city’s history, but the building is interesting and on the lowest level there are important and extensive excavations of a walled Roman settlement here that dates back 2000 years to when the city was called Barcino.

My hotel was very near La Rambla and the Raval barrio. I would happily stay anywhere in the central city, from Raval on the western side across to Born (near the Picasso Museum, the seafront and the park) on the eastern side. There is excellent public transport, but I walked everywhere.

I had a perve at the Erotica Museum on La Rambla. There is a big collection of early photography, and some home movies dating from the 1920s that were in the collection of a king whose name I forget. There is erotic art from all over the world.

The highlight of my visit to Barcelona was seeing the interior of Gaudi’s still unfinished La Sagrada Familia. I knew the exterior from photographs, but if I’d ever seen pictures of the interior it didn’t make an impression. It’s absolutely stunning. All the religious iconography that you expect to see inside a cathedral is on the outside. The interior is still busy, but with very clean lines. The columns and walls are a beautiful muted grey; all the colour comes from light filtered through stained glass in simple abstract designs. It must be wonderful to attend a musical event there.

La Sagrada Familia

Whereas I found Barcelona very welcoming, Paris was the opposite. I thought I would make good use of my week there, on what was my fourth visit. (I visited Paris in 2001, 2011 and just last month.) Instead, I felt constantly thwarted and became increasingly frustrated, as if I were moving in ever-decreasing circles. The apartment I’d lined up in Montmartre just didn’t work for me.  One problem was I couldn’t get and stay online. I decided the next morning to bail and walked the streets looking for a hotel. I finally found somewhere on the edge of Montmartre, in a rather seedy area. However, I could only book for three of my remaining seven nights. Paris, it turned out, was booked to the gills for the French Open tennis. 

With the help of Monique, a friend from Bali, I got a couple of nights in a decent hotel near her (but again with unreliable internet) in the Bastille area. That still left me with two bed-less nights. After spending a very frustrating night and morning looking at all the options, I gave up on Paris altogether. My friends at Albury Travel in Oz got me on to a flight to Dublin the next morning, two days before I was meant to transit through Ireland en route to New York, and I found a good hotel for two nights. Finally, the day before I left, after a VERY frustrating week, I could go and visit some museums and take a long walk with Monique around some areas I hadn’t seen on previous visits. Rue Mouffetard, in the Latin Quarter, is gorgeous.

I had hoped to enjoy not being under work pressure, but I just ended up in a week-long funk. My bad mood affected everything, so that nothing flowed smoothly or easily. I take responsibility for this, but I just couldn’t get out of the loop.

I did achieve two things, though. I ran two races back-to-back: a 10K women’s event on the Saturday, and a 20K race from the Bois de Boulogne out to St Germain en Laye on the Sunday. This was fairly ambitious, given that I could count the number of runs I’d had in the last two months on the fingers of one hand: a morning run beneath the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur at the end of March; and, in April, a half marathon in Florence, Min’s and my Paris landmarks run, and one solo run in Florence along the Arno. I hadn’t run at all in May. I managed the distances without any trouble, though my times were slow: 59:33 minutes for the 10K and 2:12:32 for the 20K. I wasn’t bothered; I just wanted to get out there and clear my head. Monique trekked out to St Germain en Laye for the second race to meet me at the finish line, and made us a lovely lunch afterwards back in Paris. Unusually for a race with 3,000-odd competitors, there were no loos at the start (and only about six at the finish). We all had to dash off into the bushes of the Bois de Boulogne to relieve ourselves!

On Tuesday morning, after six nights in Paris, I checked out of my hotel and got a cab to the airport, having left it too late to get a shuttle bus. I ended up with an insane taxi driver. When, amazingly, we arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport in one piece, I shouted at the driver: “I thought I was going to DIE!!!” I threw 80 euros at her. “You’re a f@*king terrible driver!!!”

Of course, to top things off, on checking in I was charged for excess baggage. It was that sort of week…

I’ve spent the last two days calming down in Dublin, going to the cinema (“Mud”) and the theatre (the amazing Paul Reid in “Man of Valour”), having my hair done, walking and reading. This was my first stop after I left New York seven months ago, so it seems fitting that I’ve had this chance to regroup here before returning to my New York life today. 

1 comment:

  1. I love your honesty Rob, sometimes I behave really badly (less so since leaving Delhi!)I know I'm behaving badly but feel totally powerless to address my behaviour. I think to have travelled for as long as you have and to (by and large) had mainly positive experiences is fantastic. Don't get me started on Taxi Drivers!!!