Half term holiday: A week in February when you want to curl up with a jar of Nutella and a spoon with a blanket over your head rather than face another day of English winter. Or you could simply go some place sunny. Since Spain has always recharged our solar batteries, C and I came to the same conclusion almost simultaneously: Barcelona.
We arrived during the visually pleasing hours after dark when you can't really see the trash or graffiti, though even during the day there isn't much trash or graffiti in Barcelona. The night time lights make everything glitter, and there's a thrilling sense of mystery about arriving at night. When the airport shuttle drove by a gigantic purple-lit fountain near the center of town, it felt as though we'd entered a magical kingdom.
The Irish writer Colm Toibin says, "I wrote every day between the ages of 12 and 20 when I stopped because I went to Barcelona, where life was too exciting to write." I felt it too, and it was a good thing we were only there for a week, otherwise I'd never write another blog post or short story again. I'm still trying to figure out what it IS about Barcelona that was so bewitching. After we came back, I started asking my English friends. Well, they said, it's a young city, it's international, tolerant, architecturally fabulous, compact and walk-able. Yeah, but doesn't that describe San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver and a bunch of other European cities?
Here are the differences I observed: Barcelona is a place where people seem to feel comfortable taking risks, particularly with architectural design. Antoni Gaudi is Barcelona's best known architect and his creations test the intercept between imagination and structural integrity. His buildings don't come together at right angles. They flow, undulate, even ooze. The still unfinished church of the Sagrada Familia, under construction now for 100+ years, looks on one side like a sand sculpture, the kind where you construct the turrets of your castle by dripping wet sand atop previous semi-dry layers.
Then, when we were walking the Gothic quarter one sunny afternoon, I noticed a feeling I don't generally get in cities; it felt as though we were in a real neighborhood. When strolling around London, you can't help but feel its heavy-weight grandeur. The buildings are imposing, in fact, downright intimidating. London buildings exude a sense of importance and I can't help but feel unworthy in their presence. But Barcelona's residential areas are different. The scale is smaller and the streets are more narrow, bringing the building facades closer together. Almost all the apartments have balconies and many of the balconies have freshly laundered clothes and bedding waving in the breeze. You really feel that people live there. You can imagine talking to your neighbor by simply stepping onto the terrace.
That neighborhood-y feeling is also in the cafes, tapas bars and tiny restaurants. One thing I love about European cities are the surprises behind doorways; courtyards, gardens and warrens of passageways leading to hidden rooms. Many of the restaurants where we ate were no wider than two car lengths, but as you ventured further inside, the places would get deeper and taller, with stairways to multiple levels of eating intimacy. Barcelonians are also fun-loving interior designers. Z had a fit of giggles over the table lamp next to us one night made to look like the caricature of a boy with a lamp shade on his head and an inch-long switch that toggled up and down between his legs. The shops, too, are a study in compact specialization. Handmade shoes and leather goods proliferate. I entered a Hobbit-hole of a stationary store and felt like Virginia Woolf picking out her next journal. Not that I can write like Virginia Woolf, but the shop probably hasn't changed much since her time.
If I were the sort to ever settle down and open a cafe, it would have to be based on the stand-up tapas bar. C found one early on and we satisfied our five o'clock munchies there every day. Along the bar they set out plates of freshly prepared finger food; tuna-stuffed marinated red peppers, bacon-wrapped mini sausages, slices of potato and egg torta, and all manner of fish or cheese combinations atop slices of crusty baguette. You could simply fill up your plate, order a glass of wine and when you were ready to pay, they would count your toothpicks to determine the bill. Be sure to drop a few pounds before you come to this city so you can indulge in your early evening tapas in addition to your ten o'clock dinner.
Being on the water also gives a city a particular personality. Here it's relaxed, beach -focused, with a promenade that accommodates pedestrians, not cars. You can't walk down a street near the water without seeing a bike rental shop with a range of choices from the electric variety to four-person cruisers that look like ATV's without an engine. Dotted along the beach are playgrounds and exercise stations where unselfconscious Spaniards perform shirtless pull-ups and abdominal crunches.
I've made a promise to myself to come back for a multi-month stay. If you're at all inclined to explore Europe, start in Barcelona. Or fly to the least expensive hub and go straight away to Barcelona. Your eyes, nose and taste buds will be especially appreciative. Not to mention your solar batteries, and perhaps your soul, will be recharged.