Don't Stop Me Now I'm Having Such A Good Time...
The aforementioned Queen song is probably my favourite of the band’s and a tune I figure would make great ‘closing titles music’ for a move about my life. I can see it now: I walk off into the sunset, the picture fades to black, the credits roll and people leave the cinema unable to rid their brain of the repeated line “Don’t stop me, don’t stop me, don’t stop me…”
Unfortunately for me those very lyrics could find no escape from my head the entirety of my recently completed holiday; despite the fact it was Freddie Mercury’s final hit that was more appropriate for our first destination.
So, to a brief preface of my holiday: my ol’ mate, Hayley, was making her way back to New Zealand by way of Portugal, Spain, Italy, Spain again, Germany, America, Canada, Mexico, finishing up in Howick – as you do. So, for her month in Europe she enticed her Uni friends to keep her company along the way. Cess accompanied Hails through Portugal, I met them in a Spanish city of which I’m sure you can guess by now, Hails and I then went on to Italy, she then went back to Spain to meet Kaisa and finally the Hayley baton was passed to Mick for the last leg in Berlin.
With that short backgrounder out of the way on to the holiday itself. Unfortunately all good holidays don’t start on the Spanish coast. They start, instead, at Stansted Airport – a locale that Mr. Mercury would never dream of writing a song about. And with a 6am flight requiring I check in at 4am I did the seemingly sensible thing and spent the night at the airport. That would be sensible if you enjoyed sleeping on a cold concrete floor. Desperate times call for desperate measures; so I was forced into reading my first book in over four years just to pass the time. Many torturous hours later I boarded my ‘luxurious’ Ryan Air flight to Barcelona…
Or so I thought. It appears that Reus, where I would embark the plane, is some 90 minutes from Barcelona itself. This came as a surprise to me as on Ryan Air’s website Reus was accompanied by the word ‘Barcelona’ in brackets. That’s like Air New Zealand’s website listing Hamilton with ‘Auckland’ in brackets or Ashburton with ‘Christchurch’ in brackets.
No sleep, no Barcelona and I was given a further kick to the teeth thanks to T-Mobile not switching my mobile to international roam despite spending 15 minutes on the phone with them the previous afternoon making sure it was good to go.
One 90 minute coach ride later I arrived in Barcelona with no way of organising a rendezvous with Hayley and Cess. Alone, lethargic, languageless – this was turning into the worst holiday of my life and I was only one morning into it. Eventually I won a battle of persistence with a Spanish coin phone with an appetite for Euros. I made contact with the girls who said to meet them by the fountain in the plaza. “Wicked, I’ll see you there in half an hour!” Click. What fountain? What plaza? Where?
Anyone that’s been to Barcelona will know that fountains and plazas are as common as abandoned Olympic Games’ venues. Alas, I jumped on the Metro and headed in the direction of the first place on the map that said ‘Plaza’. I got off, come up above ground. Bingo! One plaza, one fountain, and two familiar faces. My holiday could finally start.
Having dumped my bags it was time for a wander ‘round. The girls had already been in town for a day (hence their over-familiarity with fountains and plazas) so they gave me a whirlwind tour where I become acutely aware that I was the only ginger in Barcelona.
I was now beginning to regret my decision to get in the holiday spirit by sporting an untrimmed beard. Looking like Osama Ginge Laden is a sure fire way to draw attention to yourself in Barcelona. Thankfully my chin now had much needed extra cushioning; a positive seeing as my jaw spent a considerable amount of time over the weekend dropping to the ground as I spied the stunning Spanish women every five metres.
The Spaniards aren’t just famous for their beautiful chicas (or txicas as they are known in the province of Catalonia); they also have a reputation for their tapas. We happened upon an amazing tapas restaurant so good we returned six hours later for diner. It was the complete dinning experience as we were treated to some local entertainment where the illegal French-African immigrants, with portable shop of fake Gucci belts and Prada bags, played cat-and-mouse with the local police.
Another thing the Spanish do well is fall asleep around 2pm. So with all the shops closed for siesta we decided to be proper tourists and visit La Sagrada Familia: a church, of sorts, designed by Antoni Gaudi – known in Spain as “God’s Architect”. It seems every building in Barcelona worth a look was built by Gaudi. But what makes the Sagrada Familia so special is that Gaudi died – in 1926 – before he had completed the building and it is now a masterpiece in progress. Ancient stone steeples are accompanied by modern scaffolding. And for this reason tourists come flocking; and thusly wait hours to journey up the centre of the towers. It made about as much sense to me as people queuing for 90 minutes to ride an unfinished roller coaster.
It was also of little surprise to learn that Gaudi had a penchant for mind-altering fungi. And so the Sagrada Familia was a hotchpotch of gothic-looking Catholic facades juxtaposed against steeples adorned with multi-coloured fruits to represent the four seasons. He even managed to sculpt his own image amongst a scene of Jesus’ birth. Like most geniuses he was a proper nutter.
Having completed our first Catalunian must-see it was down to the waterfront for €1 San Miguels. And what else should you do in Spain at 9:30 on a Friday night? Go to the local shopping mall of course!
This city kept crazy hours – which wasn’t a good sign since a big night out was in order and I had yet to sleep. If the locals slept at 3pm, shopped at 9pm and ate dinner at 11pm, then what time did they party? 3am is your answer.
The girls, armed with their Lonely Planets, were in charge of the sightseeing itineraries and my job was to have planned a good night out in Barcelona. My choice was City Hall where Derrick Carter, a DJ from Chicago, was spinning – it made sense to me. Besides, you can be inside a dark club and still take in the sights of Spain. A good night was had by all and three of us did well to make it through to 6am (just as the locals were hitting their stride).
I was awoken four hours later to commence Saturday’s events. It began with possibly the best breakfast known to man. Txurros and txocalate. Quite simply, this was small fried bread sticks that you dipped into a cup of hot chocolate - which had a consistency just below solid. For a sweet tooth like myself this made a morning meal of Coco Pops and Nutella look like child’s play.
We then gathered some picnic supplies and headed to another of Gaudi’s creations - Park Güell. No prizes for guessing that this is a park. Set on el Carmel Hill with an amazing view over downtown Barcelona, it was designed by Gaudi based on an English park. Clearly he’d never been to Hampstead Heath as Park Güell didn’t have any grass… which made picnicking on dust and pebbles a touch unpleasant. Luckily the stunning views and more of Gaudi’s tripped-out architecture more than made up for the discomfort.
From there we headed back down town and into Barri Gothic – the Gothic Quarter – for dinner. And then it was bedtime for me having had four hours sleep over three days. Even a city as amazing as Barcelona can only keep you awake for so long.
Sunday morning and I arose with a great sense of excitement. Today was the day I would go to Camp Nou – or the Nou Camp as the Hispanically-challenged would say. Home to the best club in Europe, FC Barcelona, the Nou Camp holds just over 98,700 fans! I had figured I would be doing this slice of sightseeing by myself but whether it was the chance to see some architecture of a different kind or the lure of sweating Spanish soccer players both Cess and Hayley were well keen to come along for the evening’s match against Sevilla.
What was more of a surprise was that the game sold out. A city of 1.5 million and almost 10% of the population paid to see their local team? It didn’t compute. Auckland has almost the same population and you can barely get 30,000 of them to show up to a home game. Perhaps it’s ‘cause the Auckland rugby team is rubbish? But that’s a debate for a whole other blog.
I went out to the Nou Camp alone that morning hoping to purchase some returned tickets at the gate. It quickly became evident I wasn’t the only one given such a hot tip. Next and final option – touts. I spoke no Spanish and the touts spoke no English. If it weren’t for the fact both parties were keen to see some Euros change hands then the 20 minute ‘conversation’ would have been excruciating. Sense was made but unfortunately no dollars and cents were exchanged as I couldn’t source three tickets at a good enough price.
Having failed at the Spanish Hustle my consolation prize was to do the official tour of Camp Nou. For any Wellingtonians out there that dote over their WestpacTrust Stadium you need to learn what a real sports arena should look like. I knew it was going to be big and I knew it was going to amaze me but I had no idea just how spine-tingling amazing it feels like to stand inside a stadium that holds near on 100,000 people. I instantly promised myself to make sure, before I die, that I’m in this stadium again when there’s a game on.
The tour itself was genuinely interesting. From the dressing rooms, to the chapel, to the press room, the chairman’s enclosure, the commentary box, to the museum - where I learnt the fascinating history of FC Barcelona. Founded by Joan Gamber the club was viewed as a centrepiece for Catalunian nationalism. Gamber was also using the club’s success to campaign for an independent Catalunian sports team to compete in the Olympics in the mid-1920s. His downfall began when an English School’s choir came to Barcelona to entertain the home crowd. Of the nine songs they performed one was mistakenly the Spanish national anthem. Not surprisingly the Catalunian crowd booed the kids, the Spanish government weren’t having it, Gamber was exiled to Switzerland, where a combination of pride and depression got the better of him and he knocked himself off.
My tour was completed with a bonus exhibition in the museum were the best newspapers in Europe were invited to display their greatest ever football photos. Needless to say I spent more time in the museum than in the Sagrada Familia.
I rejoined Hayley and Cess well after my specified time but still soon enough for a lunch Neptune would be proud of. Cess had spied a seafood restaurant that took picking your crayfish out before it was served to a new level. It wasn’t just crayfish to be selected but every edible species under the sun… er, sea. Prawns, calamari and deep friend whitebait washed down with, of course, San Miguel.
Keeping with the ocean theme we then went downtown to the beach. It’s been over a year since I’ve set foot on the sand and it’s frightening just how therapeutic the beach can be. The three of us sat there for hours doing nothing but debate what lyrics followed the triumphant line ‘Barcelona!’ in Freddie Mercury’s song of the same name. The argument has yet to be settled.
The evening was finished with a sunset photography competition, which I’m sure you can tell without even seeing the other entries that I unanimously won, and then a meal 20 metres back from the Mediterranean Ocean.
The final Monday morning was spent with a brisk walk down La Ramblas – Barcelona’s famed, tree-lined main street – just so I could say I’ve ‘been there, done that’.
So as the sun set, the picture faded to black and the credits rolled the three of us flew out of Barcelona with the ‘wrong’ Queen song ringing in our heads. Well, it wasn’t that inappropriate. We had had ‘such a good time’ in Barcelona – a city with a very Australasian feel: from the inner-city beaches, to the seafood, to the underdog feeling of being Catalunian. If it weren’t for the language barrier it would be an incredibly easy city to live.
And on that alarmingly sincere note I shall wrap things up. Next stop: Mafia, magma and more scooters than you can shake a strawberry, vanilla and chocolate gelato at.