Barcelona Day 2 – Architecture & Gypsy Pickpockets

I slept awfully the night of the football match. I just couldn’t get warm despite taking a long hot shower and the duvet on my bunk was frustratingly inadequate. I resorted to sleeping fully clothed but kept waking. Mainly courtesy of the Japanese guy who staggered in at 4am and then kept talking in his sleep. Japanese must be up there with Arabic and German as a language which sounds angry even when it isn’t.

In the end I just got up, took a shower and drank the free coffee in the lounge area whilst planning my day. But not before watching the French guy getting frustrated for a while. He was drawing quite a crowd and I explained to some new arrivals that they could watch all day if they wanted. They assumed I was being serious and declined.

First up on day two was the Sagrada Familia church, considered by many to be the masterpiece of the famous architect Antoni Gaudi. Much of the best architecture in Barcelona spewed forth from the mind of this genius or from his students and his sphere of influence. My take on his work is that he was clearly a bit weird, very clever and possibly under the influence of something or other. But whatever his inspiration, his works make for good viewing.

The Sagrada Familia is like no other church I have ever seen. The exterior is adorned with the weirdest of statues and organic shape forms. In fact the whole thing looks like it rose from the earth with a life of its own.

Gaudi died in 1926 when the church was barely started and progress since has been sporadic on account of various interruptions, such as the Spanish Civil War and way too many siestas. When I first arrived, having done not very much research, I was disappointed to see the cranes. Claire and I have terribly bad luck with major tourist attractions and their need to be renovated around about the time that we arrive. Angkor Wat and the Petronas Towers for example. So when I realised the cranes were part of the ongoing attempts to complete building the church I was relieved.

La Sagrada Familia
La Sagrada Familia

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La Sagrada Familia
La Sagrada Familia

Just before taking this photograph I had my first run in with pickpockets. Barcelona is famous for them and I was, believe it or not, hoping to get targeted. A group of eastern European women descended upon me with a petition to improve access to the Church for disabled people. Obviously Spain likes to pick it’s champions wisely, so a group of bedraggled eastern European gypsy women who speak about as much Spanish as I do is a great choice to address the rights of disabled tourists.

I knew what they were doing from the minute they started their attack. I keep my valuables in my front pockets where I can barely get them out myself, and my rucksack is bloody awkward to open too and had nothing but a bottle of water and cereal bars in it. The only thing in my back pocket was a couple of old maps intentionally folded up to look a bit like a wallet. Suffice to say I was actually looking forward to being pick-pocketed as I knew they would get nothing.

As I signed the petition – on behalf of Mickey Mouse at Go F*** Yourself Street – I could feel one of the four chattering women slipping a finger into my back pocket. It was interesting to be aware of what was going on as to the unwitting this scam is very effective. The one in front of me started loudly demanding money (for the disabled of course) and the other two kept touching me and pulling the sleeves of my lightweight summer jacket to try and distract from what was going on behind me. I didn’t want the maps so they got to keep them. Though I suspect they needed their pen, which I took great delight in stealing from right under their noses. Fools.

For some unknown reason I decided to not go inside the La Sagrada Famila. Maybe the incredibly long queue put me off, but whatever the reason this was a decision that with hindsight would have haunted me. Fortunately somebody helped me see sense later in the week. So you’ll have to wait to see what the interior looks like.

Then I pressed on to the Hospital de Sant Pau, another architectural masterpiece that really appealed to me but obviously not to anybody else. The place was pretty much empty aside from me, the security guards and about 8 other visitors who looked bored. Two of them paid 8 Euros each to get in at the same time as me but then promptly sat down to eat a picnic before leaving.

The hospital was built between 1901 and 1930 and as with a lot of buildings built in the past it looks as if no expense was spared. The buildings here are extremely impressive examples of modernist architecture. Not that this means much to me, but here are some photos to show you. Check out the really cool knight with the sword and my arty orange tree shot.

Hospital Sant Pau
Hospital Sant Pau
Hospital Sant Pau
Hospital Sant Pau with its orange trees
Hospital Sant Pau
A Knight guarding the patients at Hospital Sant Pau

The hospital has been renovated and much of it has now been converted back to how it was first conceived. Interestingly a number of quite severe adaptations were made to the buildings in the interests of improving the health care that could be provided. It was actually only closed as a fully functioning hospital in 2009. What with my bad luck with injuries during the period 2007 to 2009 I feel like not coming to Barcelona to get bashed up was a missed opportunity.

It is almost depressing that buildings like this just don’t seem to be conceived any more. I understand why but it is sad to think that in the end they will all disappear and we will be left with endless metal and glass monstrosities.

This was my final day in this part of the city so I then set off to explore the nearby streets of L’Eixample and Gracia. This is what Claire and I will often do – I would even go so far to say that it is what we are best at. Just walking around randomly and somewhat aimlessly to see what we find. What I found was a delightful district that felt more like a selection of individual villages and less like part of a huge city. I also found a petanque game being played by pensioners and hung around watching for a while hoping they would invite me to play. They didn’t. Note that the Barcelona residents have the good sense to wear proper coats, scarfs and hats in February.

Gracia, Barcelona
Gracia in northern Barcelona
Petanque in Barcelona
Petanque in the district of Gracia, northern Barcelona

I sat in a couple of plazas to enjoy the comings and goings for a while and then bought some bread and chorizo for lunch back at the hostel. Then I had a siesta. I was feeling rather Spanish at this point.

In the afternoon, after waking from the brief siesta I headed back to the Old Town. I felt like I could live in Barcelona for years and still never get to grips with this amazing jumble of streets and people. The challenge of exploring further was too tempting to resist. After paying to enter what must surely be the world’s most awful chocolate museum (I was the only visitor for the whole 9 minutes it took to complete the experience) I soon found my way back to the Cathedral which I was unable to enter on day one.

Inside, the Cathedral was typical of your average historical religious building. Architecturally impressive, dripping with gold artifacts and begging for money. At one point I burst out laughing at the shameful attempts to extract money from paying guests. On both sides of this quite considerable building are long rows of shrines to various saints. You know how Christians sometimes light a candle in a church for the purposes of giving extra power to their prayers. Well at the Cathedral of Barcelona they go one step further. Every shrine offers a more modern candle lighting opportunity. You stick your money in a slot and select an electrical LED which will blaze away for a pre-determined amount of time.

Inside La Catedral de Barcelona
A shrine inside La Catedral de Barcelona, complete with LED coin operated candles

Look at all that gold inside the cage. The whole place was stuffed full of gold. I saw people slotting large amounts of money in and lighting up whole rows of LEDs. One old woman was piling money into various machines, Las Vegas style. Baffling stuff. But I wasn’t at the Cathedral to point and laugh so I went in search of the real reason for my visit. The roof. I found it courtesy of a lift and was rewarded with an impressive view of the city.

Atop La Catedral de Barcelona
The roof of La Catedral de Barcelona
The view from the top of Catedral de Barcelona
The view from the roof of La Catedral de Bareclona

The rest of the Cathedral was quite interesting. They keep geese in the cloisters and this area is also stuffed full of shrines. I did my bit for the travelling community by leading a group of elderly British holidaymakers to the lift, where 3 of them proceeded to interrogate me about what else there was to see in Barcelona. They were far more excited about the Churros and Chocolate than anything else, so I drew them a map so they could find some.

This is all it took to awaken my chocolate addiction so I then went and ate Churros and Chocolate again before heading back to the hostel where they were handing out free chocolate cake. This sort of thing happens in hostels. They really are great, as was the cake. Later on I ate a pizza and went to bed. Which meant another lengthy chat with the American-Korean girl and the naked Austrian. On the second night I got the hang of looking her in the eyes whilst looking mostly unfazed as I spoke to her about the culinary delights of Morocco.

The next morning I woke up at 9am, packed loudly to annoy the Japanese guy who I had still never seen in daylight, bid farewell to my new friends and set off to my second hostel on the other side of the city.

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