Wednesday, January 22, 2014

20-21 January 2014 - Tarragona to Barcelona, the heartland of Catalonia

I got in another early start which helped updation of the expense account. This is a habit over long years of travel – every little expense goes into the book. I have found this useful at times, particularly when you get back to a country after a lapse of time, to gauge how prices have moved. I was at the breakfast table as soon as it opened at 7am. As usual the fare consisted of only uncooked food – cereals, fruits, cold cuts, pastries and Danishes, yogurt, breads and spreads, juices and beverages. The breakfast fare across the country was predictable. These things, however, do not affect my treatment towards them! After the heavy breakfast it was time to pack and get ready to leave for the Renfe station to catch the train to Barcelona. While checking out the reception clerk helped me with reasonably priced accommodation in Barcelona. I was grateful for that especially since he mentioned that it is close to the railway station in Barcelona. Vinod and I headed for Barcelona and expected the broker to confirm inspection of the ship either there or in an Italian port by the time we got to Barcelona.

The taxi driver wanted to know whether we intended to travel by the fast or the slow train to Barcelona; the stations are different for the two types of trains. Since the fast train costs Euro 38 in tourist class to Barcelona against Euro 8+ by the slower one, the time difference being about 45 minutes, I decided on the latter. We took tickets for the 8.56 am train, which arrived on the dot. It was a commuter service, but managed to get seats of choice. The apparently slow train did speed upwards of 125 kmph! I got busy working on the blog and at times glancing at the beautiful Mediterranean Sea, which almost ran parallel for some distance. Before I knew it came the announcement that the train is arriving into Barcelona Sans station. It was a bit ahead of time. As I was readying to get down I pulled out the hotel reservation and asked a lady passenger for direction to it. She indicated that I would have to return by another train from Barcelona. I was more than confused. Upon disembarking we spotted a tourist info centre and decided to seek further directions from there. The pleasant lady said that the accommodation was out of Barcelona city and involved quite a commute. We asked if she could recommend a suitable hotel nearby. She suggested that we speak to the travel agency at the station. The Cote Ingelsis agency outlet was manned by a helpful girl, overgrown somewhat, who gave us two options. We took the one just in front of the station, Hotel Expo, which also happened to be the cheaper one at Euro 65 a night. It was a steal compared to the one in Tarragona. We expected the hotel to be basic considering the price. We were pleasantly wrong.  The room was spacious enough, the food good, the service efficient and the locational excellent.

While we were checking into the Hotel the broker confirmed inspection of the ship in the Italian port of Gaeta on 22nd. Therefore, it was decided that we should make best use of the time in Barcelona doing rounds of the city’s attractions. As I had not researched adequately for the tourist tour we decided on a two day hop-on, hop-off city tour on the Barcelona Bus Turistic Company bus. The two day ticket came for Euro 35 and a host of discount coupons valued at Euro 200; quite another fact that one had to spend many multiples of it to avail of the discounts (entry to the acclaimed aquarium was Euro 25 and the discount a majestic Euro 1.50 !). The tour is arranged in two routes, Red and Blue. Red tour takes you around the southern part of the city and Blue tour the northern parts. Since we wanted more time at the FC Barca stadium, which was covered by the Blue tour, we decided on the Red tour on the first day. Moreover, the Red tour started right between the hotel we were staying and the Barcelona Sans railway station. I had an excellent view of the huge station and the lighthouse style towers and the massive sculpture of the Parc de l’Espanya Industrial from the 9th floor room. This was the site of a textile mill in the past. It is now a park and recreational centre with boating facilities. Not far from it is a gigantic sculpture by the celebrated modern artist, Joan Miro.

The Plaza d’Espanya looked majestic to merit a hop-off. Central to the square is a magnificent fountain by another modern artist, Josep Mara Jujol. Behind it is the old bull ring, the Arenas, converted to a most modern commercial complex, without losing its architectural value. The fountain is in direct alignment to the majestic Palau Nacional on the Montjuic (the name is derived from an old cemetery here) hill and park – the setting for the 1929 International Exhibition and the 1992 Olympic Games (notice the interplay of the digits 1,9 and 2!). The Palau now houses 1000 years of Catalan art. The views of the city are spectacular from the Montjuic hill. Within close proximity is the Poble Espanyol (Spanish village) and the main site of the 1992 Olympics. A leisurely stroll is called for here to admire the Olympic Stadium, the Palau Sant Jordi (designed by a Japanese architect), the Telefonica communications tower inspired by the Olympic flame, the Sports University, the lovely water cascades and the brilliantly manicured lawns.

We rejoined the bus tour to enjoy panoramic views of the Cruise Terminals en route to the World Trade Centre. There is a cable car service from the Montjuic hill to the WTC in two segments. It promised to be best way to see the breathtaking sights of the city. The MSC terminal was most impressive – two huge cruise ships were berthed at the exclusive terminal which had separate vehicle accesses to it. The rest of the cruise terminal had many aerobridge type passenger accesses. From the WTC we walked to the the impressive Columbus Column, the magnificent 180 meter monument to one of the greatest explorers. In close proximity to it is the La Rambla, a magical and colorful boulevard, the Maritime Museum and the Port Vell (the old port). Vinod and tried a ride on the Segway; I feel it is ideal for use after parking away from crowded shopping centres.

From the Port Vell point we rejoined the tour once again and got down at the Barri Gotic. The Gothic Quarter has been witness to much of Barcelona’s ancient history as a Roman town. However, the focus in the area is the Cathedral. After a visit inside, as a believer and as a tourist I spent some time enjoying the beautiful plaza. A young boy was trying to attract attention by making soap bubbles with a couple of ropes dipped and waved in the air. He was beside himself when I showed him a few photos I took of his skill. The tour for the day wound up with a short visit to the Placa de Catalunya, which links the old town with the newer extension in the 19th century and a drive through the Passeig de Gracia which is considered to have some of the best pieces of ‘modernisme’, Catalunya’s home grown new art – Gaudi is the main theme master, along with Montaner and Puig. The stone façade of the La Pedrera suggests the movement of waves, splashed by the wrought iron of the balconies. The building was under renovation.

With confirmation of the vessel in Gaeta Port on 23rd arrangements had to be made for travel to Gaeta via Rome and deferment of flight from Madrid to Cochin. While the latter was once again efficiently handled by Candida in Cochin the travel agency at the Barcelona Sans station came to our rescue once again. However, the air travel and hotel arrangement in Rome cost us precious sightseeing time. With that organized we reached the Placa de Catalunya by the Red tour to transfer on to the Blue tour. Vinod and I decided to sit through the tour till we reached the Barcelona Stadium – the one point agenda for the day was just that! However, the attractions on the way kept us riveted with the informative commentary.

The Sagrada Familia, a large Catholic Basilica, was begun in the late 19th century and is still under construction, and is arguably the most visited monument in Spain. It was Gaudi’s dream and he had devoted much time to it. When asked about the slow pace of construction Gaudi is supposed to have said: My client is not in any hurry (meaning, God). When finished, the basilica will have 16 towers, 12 for the Disciples of Christ and 4 for the Evangelists. The drive through the old district of Gracia gives a flavor of the bygone years. The Park Guell, another of Gaudi’s attempts, was unsuccessful in that the project was incomplete and was handed over to the local administration before Gaudi’s death.

Finally we arrived at the FC Barcelona Stadium. There are two stadium side by side and it was difficult to know which one was the FC stadium. Even from the outside the site was a disappointment. The grandeur and the aura that I felt outside as well as inside the Real Madrid Stadium were absent here. The entrance fee was high too. The tour is poorly sign posted and hence, we had to move about a bit before we sighted the entrance. The stadium is reported to seat 100,000 people, but was not a patch on the Madrid one. The seats were faded and the arrangement did not look as grand. Where the stadium scores is in the tunnel – it is extremely well done up. The Museum and mementoes were well displayed; the audio of the Barca roar – welcoming the players on to the ground and signaling a goal - is a highlight. Apart from the usual memento vending machines and the photographers is the large merchandise store of FC Barcelona. The prices are outrageous - the price of a Messi t-shirt is Euro 85! The disappointment with the place was such that we decided to get back to the hotel early. I got down on the way for another feel of the Placa d’Espanya, the fountain and Arena, a night view of the Montjuic Palace and the work of John Miro called Woman and Bird, which towers to 22 meters.

Dinner at the hotel consisted of pasta and apple strudel with ice cream. I went to bed wondering if I saw any evidence of Barcelona being a sex capital.

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