The train arrived and the train departed and I was all aboard, leg one of an immeasurable number of legs to come. To Barcelona.
The train itself was terrific. It was smooth and modern and clean and spacious, and I spent the first hour looking out the window in admiration of the rolling Spanish countryside, as pristine as Cervantes had described it some four hundred years before. It reminded me of Texas hill country, all shrub and rock and sand and dirt, pastoral but plain, brown but beautiful.
I wasn't yet caught up on sleep, and my eyelids drooped. So I stood and made my way to the onboard cafeteria, coche cinco, where I ordered un cafe, only the third cup of my life, and a muffin. I brought the pair back to my seat and made quick work of both, and soon my eyelids no longer drooped. I had time to spare and a wide laptable at my knees, so I began to write, and I didn't stop writing until the conductor called Barcelona! two hours later.
I was almost disappointed that I was already there—couldn't the ride be just a little longer?—but I knew there was much more train to be had later; right now, there was city to be seen.
I stepped onto the platform and out into the street and realized I'd planned my time in Barcelona even less than my time in Madrid, which is to say not at all, not a single destination jotted in my notebook. So instead I oriented myself east and took to it, knowing that sooner or later I'd hit the waters of the Mediterranean.
The streets of Barcelona meandered with me, unknowingly pointing me more than once back in the direction I'd come, until I found myself an hour later not much further than where I'd started. So I descended to the subway and ascended at La Rambla some minutes thereafter right in the thick of it all. Just moments from the pier, La Rambla was full of life on that perfect Sunday afternoon, a sprawling pedestrian median with artists and vendors and performers along the sides, cars slowly working their way down the boulevard at either distant end.
I followed La Rambla to the water and onward to the peninsula of Barceloneta, and it was on those calm shores that I first set my feet into the waters of the crisp blue Mediterranean. Like reaching the Pacific after a month on the road just one year before, the great expanse of sea before me felt cleansing, indescribably momentous, a baptism signaling a communion with a new place and a new self.
I rested in the sand. Eventually I left, snaking my way to the Gothic district in search of a hostel, the roads becoming narrower as I walked, the buildings taller and closer, the architecture less modern, more historic, all the more beautiful.
Dios mio, it was beautiful. I liked Madrid, and I loved what I had seen of Barcelona to that point, but there in el Barri Gotic, I fell in love with the city, wooed by her magnificent stonework and her Old World charm, her lush flora and her lovely patios, her linens hanging from every last Juliet balcony that adorned her pink and yellow walls. It felt like the Europe I'd always dreamed about, like the Europe out of a movie, too impossibly enchanting to truly exist. But there it was.
I learned quickly that there are no wrong turns in Barcelona, that left, right, and straight were all equally incredible—hell, backwards too—each a secret door to an awesome surprise of comically grand proportions, each a reminder to expect the unexpected. Make a left down this skinny alley here, of course it leads to the insanely gorgeous Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar. Make a right over on that corner, well obviously you'll hit the thousand-year-old Barcelona Cathedral in all its Gothic glory. Thirteenth century not old enough for you? Just stay straight and you're bound to end up bumping into the fortifications of the Roman Empire built two millennia ago, what else would you expect? Or just head back the way you came and enjoy a little more of that old man's angelic opera, straight from his vocal cords to the wondrous streets of Barcelona.
I walked and I wandered about like that for hours, I'm sure, losing myself in the depths of this new world, this new Old World; I suppose when a place has two thousand years to age, it does so only like the very finest wine, rich and flavorful, classic, sophisticated. Finally, I turned into a little hostel. I checked in and I dropped my belongings, I got a meal, and then I hit the streets again for a long sunset walk, once again losing myself in bustling Barcelona.
This place was magic, seemingly not just in form but in function, for when I was finally ready to adjourn my walk some hours later, having navigated at random and losing all sense of direction, looking up for a sense of my bearings and a path back to my hostel, there it was, right in front of me, as though I had summoned it from thought alone.
I walked through its doors and I showered and I lay down in bed, legs relaxing after a long day. The door clicked open and a few roommates entered, Damien and Sara and Lisa, I soon learned—Damien a student from Colombia by way of Berlin, Sara and Lisa nurses from southern Germany, all on holiday, all in Barcelona for a few days of fun. They were heading out for a drink and asked if I wanted to join them. I hesitated a moment, unspeakably tired at that late hour, but quickly smiled and acquiesced; it was Barcelona, after all, and they seemed like nice people.
We found ourselves a charming little bar with local flavor and we carved ourselves out a little nook in one of it's dark corners. We ordered a round and we talked of our travels: how long we were staying, when we'd arrived, where we were from. The round came and then another, shots and then more beer, and I found that I was having fun, a whole lot of it, that as the minutes wore on these strangers were becoming less strange, that they were becoming friends, Damien with his great energy and Lisa with her jovial laugh and Sara with her thoughtful, sleepy eyes, all of us bonding over shared English and a growing pile of empty bottles between us.
Someone suggested we go dancing, and we were all for it, so we left the charming little bar in search of musica y baile. It was late, and the empty streets echoed with our voices, with the gentle rattling of Damien's skateboard on the uneven cobblestone, us each taking turns rolling along atop it.
As the alcohol soaked its way into the crevices of my mind, long-lost Spanish began to float to the surface. I spoke it with ease and with confidence, which is not to say with fluency or accuracy, but it seemed enough to be understood, enough for Damien to appreciate, though I should note that Damien was certainly the polyglot of our group, excellent command of English and impressive German and fluent Spanish, which, coupled with his pleasant and extroverted persona, led to more than a handful of good-natured conversations with passerby as we continued our search for dancing in those early morning Gothic streets.
Though fun, the search was clearly futile, not unless we wanted to catch a cab to the trendier, swankier parts of town. Instead we simply returned to our charming little bar and got another round, perhaps one more, before Damien had to return to the hostel for a few hours of sleep before his 5AM flight back to Berlin. Lisa and Sara and I bid him goodnight and continued on to one more bar, one more round, then made for the hostel as well, sleepy and drunk on equal parts life and liquor.
We all woke the next morning at ten, Damien already gone, and quickly packed our bags as the hostel receptionist tapped his foot impatiently at the door. Tarde.
The three of us stepped out onto the balmy Barcelona boulevard and began saying our goodbyes, but then the girls asked if I wanted to join them in search of a new hostel for the next night, and I, also in search of a new hostel, gladly agreed. We stopped for a quick breakfast and coffee and then walked the alleys until we came upon a simple enough space, fifteen euros, and we paid for three beds. The room was clean but hot, uncomfortably hot, so I stowed some gear and wandered back outside, me off to the beach and Sara and Lisa opting for museums that morning.
I retraced my route from the previous day—I couldn't believe I'd only been in Europe for forty-eight hours—and arrived at an emptier beach than I'd remembered, cloudy skies and a cool breeze and a Monday morning driving others away, I assumed. But no matter: I spread out and opened a book—Hemingway's very fitting The Sun Also Rises—and passed a good hour sitting in the sand.
I was certainly enjoying this form of travel, the blank itinerary and directionless aims, but I figured it couldn't hurt to see a few of Barcelona's renowned sights, so I made myself a little map and took off for its starting point at the other end of town, hopping a bus and depositing myself on the outskirts of Park Guell.
It's astonishing how parts of Barcelona look just like San Francisco, architecture and greenery and some streets so strikingly similar. But out by Park Guell, it was the hills too, wildly steep ascents that leave one both panting at a street's summit and feeling well-rewarded with a stellar vista. The closer I got to the park, though, the more Barcelona seemed to outdo its California cousin, the hills becoming so vertical they required escalators, block after block of rolling metal stairs, maybe seven sets total before they gave way and forced its passengers to climb the rest themselves.
But what a worthy climb it was. There, atop all of Barcelona, a Gaudi-designed park with the most marvelous view of the city below and the sea in the distance, the enormous La Sagrada Familia jutting up from it all like the great palace of Oz. And in the middle of the park itself, a funny little village, the remnants of a long-abandoned project to build a little city in the middle of this grand park. There was a queue to tour the little city, a long one, so instead I gazed from afar and continued upward into Guell's heights, each look back toward the city more rewarding than the last.
At the very summit I had a snack, more bananas and an apple and a peach I'd picked up from a merchant way down below, and then I made for my next destination, La Sagrada Familia, not particularly knowing how to get there but confident that if I walked toward the towering palace in the sky, I'd soon enough figure it out.
La Sagrada Familia is another work of Gaudi, a cathedral. But La Sagrada Familia is not simply a cathedral, it is a Gaudi cathedral, which is to say it's utterly ridiculous. Construction kicked off in the 1880s, and it's still under construction—yes, some 130 years later—cranes towering high above and scaffolding flanking its sides. It's huge, indescribably huge, unphotographably huge. It's very large.
But it's size isn't what makes it ridiculous, at least not in full: it's the design. La Sagrada Familia looks a bit like a funhouse, all winding spires and cryptic scrawl and, perhaps, some giant carved fruit somewhere up there, all cubist sculptures that make the Romans look like Storm Troopers and the disciples look like Cylons and Jesus Christ himself look like Jesus Christ as he might one day return in the world of The Terminator ("I'll be back").
It's a strange place, and I heard it's even stranger inside, so I was a little disappointed to see such a long line, wrapped around the cathedral itself, and an admission costing more than my hostel for the night. I debated lingering, queuing up amongst the tourists, but ultimately decided against it, certain I could spend my time better elsewhere in beautiful Barcelona.
So I continued my Gaudi tour, past Casa Mila and Casa Batllo, both with equally whimsical facades but a similarly substantial line and ticket price, returning to La Rambla and grabbing a pastry at El Mercat de la Boqueria and a hearty heaping of paella back in the Gothic district. And then back toward the hostel, where along the way I ran into the beautiful familiar faces of Sara and Lisa, my heart swelling at the sight of people I knew as a stranger in a strange land.
We stopped for a minute to chat. They had enjoyed a great day of sightseeing, recounted what fun they had riding the cable car from La Rambla to Barceloneta, and now they were off to dinner. I told them to enjoy, that I'd see them later.
In truth, I probably had a little bit of a crush on Sara: the way she smiled with those droopy eyelids, the way she spoke with her thick German accent, the way she wanted to come to America to see "the cowboys" of the West, the way she played German hip hop from the crackling speaker of her phone as we lay in our adjacent beds later that night without much to say, all of our shared English words by that point dried up. Yes, I liked her, but Barcelona had my heart, and so having already eaten and not wanting to impose on their dinner anyway, we parted ways. I returned to the hostel and rested, washing a few items of clothing in the sink and laying them out to dry in the stifling dorm, then took one more lap about the barrio, my last night with fair Barcelona.
I woke the next morning and packed my things, slipping out of the dorm without waking Sara and Lisa, sad to leave them but with places to be. I hustled to the train station to catch a 9:15 train to Marseilles, or rather to begin a series of connections that would terminate in Marseilles later that night. I was sad to be spending nearly a whole day, eight full hours aboard four separate trains, in transit, but Barcelona was a little rainy anyway, and I was also looking forward to more time to relax, read, and write after walking nearly fifteen miles the day before.
Though my interrail pass secured me limitless access to most of Europe's trains, some high-speed and long-distance routes required a reservation, which should really just be called a surcharge, for they come with a fee of about ten euros and are needed even if you're looking to catch an empty train departing in dos minutos.
My 9:15 route to Marseilles avoided these charges by making connections in Gerona, Cerbere, and Avignon. Though this slowed things down a bit, it would also afford me the opportunity to peek my head out of the station at each transfer and, if I liked what I saw, spend a little more time in any of those smaller towns and worry about getting to Marseilles later.
But actually getting my ticket proved difficult. My Spanish had definitely strengthened in those few short days, conjugations and syntax beginning to flow back to me, and I was having a grand time of buying coffee and pastries, even responding to small talk from those who offered it on the street. I knew I was nearly intelligible, but I was trying, and the locals seemed to appreciate that, seemed able to parse out the meaning of my mumbles and my missteps. And so I approached the ticket counter with confidence, greeting the receptionist with a "buenas dias" and explaining that "necesito un billete a Marseille con el Eurail Pass, con coneccions, salida de aqui a las nueve y quince."
The agent didn't seem impressed; rather, he seemed quite confused. I showed him my Eurail pass and, to make things easier, even slid my phone across the counter, the full list of train numbers and connections already compiled with the aid of a mobile service Eurail offered. But still, nothing. He understood that I wanted to get to Marseilles, that I knew, but he seemed to be wholly unfamiliar with the Eurail pass, as though it were a foreign document with no worth to the Spanish rail system. He sent me to the information desk.
So I went to the information desk and repeated my request, a little less confidently, and they seemed to understand well. "Ventana vientiuno," I was told: back to the ticket window.
I obeyed, almost, choosing ventana vientidos instead. This was probably a poor choice, for the man behind the ventana of ventana vientidos seemed much less friendly than my confused-pero-muy-simpatico agent at ventana vientiuno. He welcomed me with a cold grunt and I once again explained my request and once again slid my phone to the other side of the counter. He examined my route and frowned.
"El route es ..." he paused, "no bueno."
I returned the frown. ?Que? I thought. Es muy bueno, !y cuesta nada!
He told me to go back to the information desk where they could provide "ayuda," and I reluctantly did, annoyed that I had missed my planned train, annoyed that my perfect route had been dismantled (and insulted!), annoyed that I was being passed between these two ends of the station like a ping pong ball.
I tried my luck with another agent at the information desk and she found me a new route, a route with only one connection and three hours less of transit time, a route which skipped all the great chances of exploring Spain's smaller towns and required a reservation of eleven euros for the first leg to Montpellier.
But it did leave later, which would give me another few hours in lovely Barcelona, and I didn't have the stamina to keep at this ticketing business for much longer, so I relented and thanked her and paid the eleven euros and went on my way, back out of the station and back into town.
I found a simple cafe for a simple breakfast, wrote for a bit, walked to Les Corts, home of the University of Barcelona campus and a futbol stadium, and then slowly meandered back to the station around 13:00 in search of my train platform, which didn't appear to be printed anywhere on my ticket.
I may have been subtly scammed by the ticketing agents—I couldn't tell whether their dismissal of my preferred route was a deliberate upsell or an attempt to help—yet I had otherwise felt safe while in Spain, blending in enough to not attract attention and not worrying too much about the safety of my person or possessions. But as I walked about the train station in search of my unnamed platform, a West African man, tall and perhaps forty years old, made a nod of familiarity as we crossed paths, as though we knew each other, and said something in Spanish that I didn't understand. I apologized—lo siento—and turned back in the direction I had come, and he had turned his head as well and his face was a mean scowl and I quickly repeated lo siento and hurried away.
But as the minutes ticked by and I still hadn't found my platform, we crossed paths again, this time by the ticketing machines, and he demanded a euro so he could get a ticket. Lo siento, a third time, and an about-face once more, to more angry mutterings splashing in my wake.
It was probably a harmless hustle, at least in the physical sense, but his intimidation angered me until my mood was buoyed upon finally finding the platform, platform five, and onto the train I went. The "reservation" here was definitely superfluous—I had nearly the entire car to myself — though I was disappointed that the train was a bit muskier and darker than the one from Madrid. I took the opportunity to spread out, feet up on the seat at the other end of the table, and smiled at the idea that this train was actually headed to Paris by way of Montpellier, that if I wanted, I could simply abandon my plans of transferring to Marseilles some three hours later and be in Paris—Paris!—by supper.
Patience, I told myself. Paris would come. But first there was Marseilles, there was Italy and there was Greece and there was Turkey and Holland and Denmark and more, more cities and more countries and more people and sights and experiences and lovely European days and nights than I could ever imagine.
Yes, Paris would come, but first: Marseilles.