So I figure since my blog’s name is From Barcelona to Bali I should probably write something about Spain. Tagged on to a month-long European tour, my rendezvous with this amazing country did not disappoint in the weirdness department. Our agenda consisted of touring the Northern coastline, Barcelona, and then driving up to one of my favourite European cities, the lively and culturally rich San Sebastián, located on the coast of the Bay of Biscay and only 20 kilometres away from the French border.
Heaven… or Hell?
After driving for hours, we decided to stop at a quaint seaside resort just north of Barcelona, where we discovered we could conveniently take the train from there into the city itself. We weren’t especially keen on driving in the big cities (Florence was particularly interesting), so this seemed like the perfect solution. Perched upon a long white-sand beach and boasting an enormous pool, the resort was reminiscent of one of those charmless all-inclusive Mexican deals. But, the setting was pretty, and after being holed-up in tiny little hotel rooms right on busy main streets (with the bathroom down the hall), this was a nice change.
I was charged with securing accommodation for the majority of the trip, calling around for available rooms and switching languages every three days, so I reluctantly prepared to inquire after a room yet again. Since my Spanish was more than a little rusty, I hoped-against-hope that the people at check-in knew another language besides their native one. It was cheating, I know, but I was so damn tired that I just wanted it to be easy. So I greeted them first in Italian (nada), then French (je ne sais pas), and then finally, English (success!). Before I knew it, we were booked for four nights in what we thought was paradise.
Trapped in Cattle Class
The nightmare started the next morning, when we were herded down to the breakfast parlour (which had an early cut-off for breakfast, so naturally you had to fight the crowds to get there first-thing and score a good seat, or any seat for that matter). We joined the masses of families with their screaming children (some things never change, no matter what part of the world you’re in), and basically felt just like cattle feeding at the trough. Service was non-existent, and the food was about as far away from flavour country as possible. Not really the kind of mentality and atmosphere I gravitate towards while on vacation. It was also that kind of place where people got up at the crack of dawn just to reserve a poolside chair with their towel, and then stay there all day. Really, really annoying.
Nude or Prude?
Then there was the beach. For many Europeans, Spain is like our Mexico – people go there on vacation to relax and hang out at the beach. Note that I wrote “hang out”. Needless to say, it was packed from one end to the other with overweight, middle-aged sunburned tourists. And it wasn’t just your everyday sunning-on-the-beach, oh no. Little did we know that this particular stretch of sand was a nude one. And let me tell you, Europeans are not shy – really not shy – about stripping down, no matter their size or level of wrinkly-ness. So instead of a lovely sea view, we got to gaze upon very large, very leathery nude sunbathers. And that’s because we couldn’t get a seat by the pool. Sigh.
Barcelona to the Rescue
By contrast, Barcelona was awesome. We took the train right into the city and proceeded to explore every inch of the place like the good tourists we were. We got on a hop-on/hop-off style tour bus and checked out everything from the Sagrada Familia to Casa Milà, the Arc de Triomf and the Picasso museum. And we couldn’t miss seeing the melting-wax-inspired work of architect Antoni Gaudí, which is visible throughout the city (the Sagrada Familia being his most impressive feat). With its grand harbour, vibrant downtown core and lively port, Barcelona reminded me a lot of Vancouver. Not surprisingly, it’s also a sister city to San Francisco.
Food to Die From
Every so often we resigned ourselves to eating at the resort, where the cuisine would be best described as, well, downright gross. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a great place to go if you’ve a hangover and are craving greasy spoon tucker. True to beach-style form, it offered no shortage of full-fat battered fish and salty chunky fries, burgers, ice cream; basically anything fried and super-bad for you. Seriously, you wouldn’t even know you were in Spain… there wasn’t a paella dish in sight. I did luck out one time when I discovered an English pub off the beaten track serving a green curry and rice combo, which when washed down with a nice watery Strongbow cider was borderline decent. Let’s just say we were extremely thankful for that train, where in less than an hour we could dine on authentic Basque cuisine in the heart of Barcelona’s old quarter. It was a bit logistically-challenging to go there for every meal, though.
The Coup de Grâce
What really tipped the experience to a comical degree was when I was on the strip one scorching day shopping for a bathing suit. I was idly browsing when I heard some terrific shouting from along the boardwalk. I looked over to see a very large, very white young man with a blond buzz cut, red baseball cap, massive beer gut and arms the size of tree trunks marching along the street. This guy couldn’t be missed as he waved and raged at random passers-by for no apparent reason. The best part was he was heading straight towards me, a path of terrified people parting in front of him as he walked.
I managed to avoid his fury by ducking behind the racks, and once safely out of view, watched as he cursed at people, even striking out at one or two just for kicks. I mean, the guy was totally out of control. And of course, security was nowhere to be seen. We decided that this would be a good time to hop back on the safety of the train and get the hell out of the Twilight Zone for a bit. It wasn’t until we saw the guy again hours later, walking up and down the boardwalk, doing the same terrorizing, when security and the policía finally wrestled him down to the ground screaming, and escorted him off the premises. It was quite the sight.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I did end up finding a bathing suit. Although, looking back now (viz., Nude or Prude?, above), maybe I should have just gone native.