Our Barcelona flat is located in the middle of the city, and the middle of the tourist district, which means we’re within walking distance of just about everything, but also slammed by crowds and traffic everywhere we go. In fact we’re right next to the famed Gaudí house, and from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. there’s a line of people waiting to see this landmark that curls around the block. Yes, you can pay to see the Gaudí house, just like you can pay to see or do just about anything else in this city. Visit the inside of a cathedral or climb the steps to the top of the Christopher Columbus statue? You gotta pay. Stop walking too long and have a costumed character engage you to pose for a picture? You gotta pay. Who says capitalism is dead?
Speaking of street performers, we thought they were really talented. Turns out the city only permits a few in the public spaces, and assigns them specific places to play. Singers and musicians have to apply and audition for the permits. Some others you might see, especially the roving costumed ones, are illegal, taking their chances with the authorities.
Day 7 was spent walking—at times this trip seems less like a vacation than a forced march. A walking tour, followed by walking the Rambla, and general wandering about, and by the time we made it back from a late dinner, each member of our group had counted more than 20,000 steps. Considering my usual daily schedule consists of walking Henry (our dog) around the block and then parking in a chair to write and edit, this is quite a test for my tootsies.
Re that dinner: sister Carol (my sister, not a nun) found a local place a kilometer away called Seasons. Being in the tourist area had made finding authentic cuisine a challenge. The fact that the truly Catalan restaurants typically don’t open until 8 p.m. had also tested our American expectations. The first couple of outings here had been disappointing. Instead of Catalan fare the menus offered dishes like spinach tortellini and burgers. I half expected Babu Bhatt to suggest the beans and franks (that’s an old Seinfeld reference, btw). But Seasons was the real deal. Try “The Last Dinner” with crunchy chicken, banana chips, fluffy corn, and soft bechamel; or the lobster paella.
Day 8 took us to Montserrat. I was told this place is a must-see, and now I’m telling you. You have to take a train, and then a rack train or a cable car to get to the top of the mountain where there’s the old monastery (where about 70 monks still live). Now the place is a major tourist attraction, so in addition to the monastery there’s a hotel and restaurant, and of course a variety of shops. The Museum at Montserrat holds a quite spectacular collection of paintings by Picasso, Renoir, and a host of Catalan painters whose work is as good as most of the more famous masters of the 18th and 19th centuries. I only wish the audio guides had provided more about each of them and their works.
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Montserrat, however, is the array of tiny chapels scattered around the mountains, some of them so remote and perched on the edges of cliffs. You can take a funicular almost straight up to the Chapel of St. Joan, and from there a variety of hiking trails can get you much, much higher. (At your own peril, though. It’s an interesting contrast to the U.S., where every venue is completely responsible for every person’s safety.) For me, the thrill is imaging the lives of the people who built this place, back when transportation was by foot and animal. (It was founded in the 11th century and rebuilt between the 19th and 20th centuries.) And then there’s the dedication of the monks in residence, who spent their days in this extreme hardship and isolation. Such was their devotion to a system of belief that seems all but forgotten, one that placed God in the center of all things, instead of man. In Lisbon I purchased a copy of The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, and have been immersing in the observations of Portugal’s most revered writer (posthumously, naturally). He writes about similar things (in the guise of one of his many heteronyms, Bernardo Soares), such as how our species has replaced God with humanity, and mostly about what it is like to live apart from the self-centeredness that the religion of humanity promotes. Not that this realization has ever caught on, but his writing (1920s to 1930s) seems to provide a bridge from one era to another.
On the way back from Montserrat, among the throngs fighting for seats on the train, I couldn’t help noticing that on the highest peak near the monastery was a cross. A few miles closer to the city, and another mountain peak, and upon it was a cell tower.
– Dona and Joe