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Trip 8 -- Morocco and Southern Spain

Entry #3: Barcelona-Narbonne-Paris

Friday, January 23, 2004

Arriving in busy Barcelona early on the first Friday morning of the new year, I figured I'd better find a hotel immediately. Ideally it would be one near the main divided thoroughfare, La Rambla, with its flurry of activity, colorful bird and flower markets, and absolutely spectacular outdoor food market. The Hostal Galerias Maldŕ, central and cheap, had no single rooms, and neither did their nearby affiliate. Other places listed in my guidebook had gotten too expensive. I was on my own to find a place that looked cheap and acceptable.

I stumbled upon a place that seemed to be run by a friendly Indian, who told me, as far as I could tell, to wait while he checked on the availability of rooms, but when he returned ten minutes later he proved to be a maintenance worker of some sort. I found a sparkling-clean, well-kept place that would be only €20 for the night, but upon looking at my map I realized I was quite a distance from the center of things - somehow, in fact, I had crossed La Rambla without realizing it and was now near the largely Indian district of El Raval.

Eventually, just off the Plaça Reial, I noticed a small sign for the Pension Tere. Several letters had fallen off the sign, and the place was reached via a dark staircase under which a homeless man had set up his own makeshift hotel. I rang the bell and was greeted by a four-foot-tall octogenarian bearded lady, who required a half hour to ascend the staircase but could sharply rattle off fifty sentences or so in about fifteen seconds. She led me to a spartan room with dirt-caked blinds that hadn't been opened in decades. It was €15 a night. Perfect.

Having finally found a hotel, it was time to book the overnight ride to Paris the following day. I hoped to find a cheap second-class train, but the only direct train was the €99 luxury "Trenhotel," which seemed a bit exorbitant. A lady at the train station said I could do it using two trains, with a change at Cerbčre at the French border. The three-hour ride from Barcelona to Cerbčre would be pleasantly cheap - €8.25 - but then she looked up the French fare table and said the ride from Cerbčre to Paris would be at least €86.

I walked across the street to the bus station, where I discovered that the bus would be only €82 - still overpriced, but seemingly the cheapest option. However, all the seats had already been booked. I went back to the train station to try for the Trenhotel - also sold out!

Dejected at having spent a couple of hours of planning and made no progress, and realizing it was nearly 15:00 and I hadn't eaten or done any proper sightseeing yet, I wolfed a large sandwich and joined the throngs at Barcelona's most unusual attraction.

Nothing could have prepared me for the amazement I felt when I first looked up at the Temple de la Sagrada Familia. Designed by the inimitable Antoni Gaudí, the temple was begun in 1882 and is still barely half finished. Imagine a gingerbread house, a forest, and a giant octopus all rolled into one architectural wonder and you sort of have an idea of what this thing looks like.

Gaudí spent the last couple of decades of his life working on the temple, largely taking his inspiration from nature (the interior pillars are all designed to resemble different kinds of trees in a forest), making plaster models of his visions (many of which were destroyed in the Spanish Civil War and are now being painstakingly restored in the workshop-museum under the temple), and leaving explicit instructions for the architects who would continue work after his death. Even so, subsequent designers incorporated their own ideas, fitting them in neatly with Gaudí's plan, so the resultant building - the modernistic Passion Facade, the extremely ornate Nativity Facade, the wonderful mosaics and sculptures near the top of the temple - is a splendid mishmash of different styles that somehow work together as a whole, or will when this thing is finally finished.

I joined a long queue to climb the narrow spiral staircase to the top of the temple's towers; there were so many people that when I finally entered the tower itself the line was barely moving, and I regretted having committed to the trek, but of course the stairway was too narrow to retrace my steps. It took over an hour to ascend, enjoy a few glimpses of the upper sculptures and mosaics and the superb views of the city, and endure a few vertiginous experiences - there are four main towers, and the walk took me through all of them via a series of slanted, narrow open-air ramps.

Aside from the temple, I was initially underwhelmed with Barcelona - it seemed like just another big city. Compared with Sevilla, the streets weren't as enchanting, the restaurants not as appealing, the cathedral not as enthralling. And it was crowded with tourists who had snapped up all the Paris-bound transportation. I didn't even speak the language: In Barcelona they spoke Catalan, which is sort of a hybrid of Spanish and French and has a cute little letter written l.l, pronounced differently than the normal double l. It was more work than I felt like dealing with.

At night I walked out to the Port Vell, which I hoped would harbor some kind of romantic atmosphere but was essentially a large shopping mall, and then further on to La Barceloneta, supposedly a waterside street lined with excellent seafood restaurants, but nothing really grabbed my attention. So I wandered until I found a pleasant spot called Agut, which specialized in Catalan-style game.

Inspired by the Temple de la Sagrada Familia, I figured I'd seize the opportunity to visit another Gaudí masterpiece, and so the next day I toured the Palau Güell, a palace he designed in his early years. While not as unusual as the temple (except for the colorful chimneys), it is still splendid: The upper floors all surround a central room that can be transformed into a chapel, and the ceilings increase in complexity as you move further into the house.

I had my last Spanish lunch at - where else? - a seafood stand in the central market, where €9 bought me a huge platter of grilled vegetables, a whole grilled fish, and a flan; and I grabbed some bread, pate, and spicy chorizo for dinner on the train.

The Museu d'Historia de la Ciutat, which just happened to be free on the first Saturday afternoon of the month, so of course I had to visit, was also remarkable. Barcelona was originally the second-century Roman city of Barcino, and the museum basically consists of excavated ruins that tell the tale of the city's development. You start at the bottom and see the foundations of the old Roman city, and then move upward to see how the city was continually developed on top of itself: how a pool was built on top of the original Roman shops, how a seventh-century church and bishopric complex was built on top of the second-century vats used to clean and process fish. Then there are the old wine canals, and the public laundries. A truly fascinating place.

And it was then that Barcelona began to grow on me, once I learned something of the city's history, and once I got to associate the city with a few people I'd gotten to know: my bearded innkeeper lady, the Indian maintenance worker (who recognized me on the street the next day and stopped to say hello), the woman who'd helped me through my acrophobia on top of the Temple de la Sagrada Familia's high towers. And with that, it was time to go.

When the 19:20 local from Barcelona to Cerbčre departed, my car was nearly empty, and I broke out the sausage and bread, preparing for a tranquil meal. At the first stop, however, the train filled up completely. Inexorably, the seats next to me were taken by a family with a squirmy kid who inadvertently kicked me more often than I deliberately kicked him back.

Most people on the train were headed for destinations in France. By some miracle, when we disembarked at Cerbčre my car was near the entrance to the station building, and I was first in a queue of about 70 people all trying to buy tickets for the French train, which would depart at 23:25, a little over an hour later.

I asked for a ticket to Paris, and the agent chuckled and grinned with an icy smile that suggested I'd better have several credit cards handy. It would take three more trains to get me there and the fare would be €129. Stunned, I thrust over my credit card, and he gave me tickets detailing the times and prices of each part of the journey. I would take the 23:25 to Narbonne, where I'd have an 18-minute layover before riding for four and half hours to Lyon, and after another two-hour layover I'd take a final train to Paris. More than $150 for the journey and the connections didn't even allow for a decent night's sleep.

I felt like I'd been fined. As the other passengers bought their tickets, I paced around the station, muttering epithets to the French train company. In a way I had been fined, because I hadn't booked my trip sooner. What bothered me wasn't so much that the fare was so high - if that's what it is, so be it - but that there were people on the bus and the Trenhotel who were making the trip in one straight comfortable shot for far less money.

I looked at my tickets again. The trip to Narbonne was only about €8. The next leg, to Lyon, was €35. Why was this trip so expensive? It was the TGV, the super-fast train from Lyon to Paris, which took only two hours but cost €86 because the agent had had to book me in first class - second class had been sold out.

I examined the schedules in the station, looking for alternate routes. I noticed that there was a direct unreserved train to Paris departing early in the morning. It also stopped at Narbonne on the way and would arrive in Paris at 17:40. Anika had said we couldn't check into our hotel-apartments until 17:00 anyway, so I figured there was no rush to get to Paris by the morning.

By now everyone else had bought tickets, so I went back up to the agent. "If I take the train to Paris tomorrow morning, would it be cheaper?"

He paused for a moment. "Yes," he said unconvincingly. Then, more confidently: "Yes!" Then doubt crept back in. "Yes?" Then he was sure. "Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!" It would be only €75.30. Elated, I exchanged my original tickets for a new set and a hefty refund.

I broke the journey in Narbonne, figuring it would be a more pleasant place than Cerbčre to hang out for a few hours ("Narbonne is a town, Cerbčre is just a village," the ticket agent had said) while I waited for the continuation to Paris. Between Cerbčre and Narbonne I sat next to an Argentinian woman who was on her way to Zurich to visit friends. She had initially had the same problem with Barcelona that I had - that it was just another big city with too many tourists - and, like me, she had grown to appreciate it after getting to know a few people.

The train stopped in Narbonne at 0:53, and I realized that I really had a considerable layover - I wouldn't continue the journey until 9:36. I didn't really feel like finding a hotel - I'd become fixed on making the trip as cheaply as possible - and so I made my way into town, hoping to find a tranquil bar or cafe where I could while away a few hours before coming back to the train station. What I really needed - dare I say it? - was something like a Denny's, where I could nurse a flaccid Belgian waffle for six or seven hours and read.

Narbonne seemed like an attractive, proper little town. It had a canal running through the city center, flanked by a pedestrian promenade, and all the important buildings were nearby. The first open establishment I came to was a raging, smoky disco - not exactly what I was looking for - but eventually I found a brasserie called the Globe. I got a small jar of wine and plunked myself down. Soon I was joined by a Spanish-speaking businessman and his friends, and we got into some sort of political discussion before the bar closed at 3:15. He actually invited me to join him and his group at a disco, but it was some distance out of town, there would be no way for me to get back to the train station, and, heck, he was considerably older than me. So I walked back to the station, where I sat on an uncomfortable chair and, all things considered, slept pretty well.

It was an uneventful ride to Paris. I slept for most of the morning and, in the afternoon, watched the French countryside roll by as I ate an orange, a croissant from the Narbonne station, and ten cookies I'd bought in Morocco (I'd been carrying them around so long at the bottom of my backpack that the chocolate had glued them together and there was no way to eat them except five at a time). This train was no TGV, but it still moved at a pretty fast clip, so fast that when we passed a train going the other way the displacement of air sounded as if the trains were colliding. Even so, we arrived in Paris 40 minutes late. I hopped on the metro and found my way to the Pierre & Vacances apartment-hotel near the Parc des Buttes Chaumont, northeast of the city center.

It was Sunday evening, and the neighborhood was deserted. I wondered what frame of mind someone had to have been in to decide that we should stay in a desolate area eight metro stops from the Châtelet Theatre. I'd ridden camels through neighborhoods more lively than this. I made my way up Rue de la Villette, passed nondescript apartment blocks and businesses that were all well locked, save for a Lebanese restaurant and a public phone and Internet center. The apartment-hotel was functional and bland, with boxy, generic furniture and practical kitchenettes containing microwaves, refrigerators, and cutlery that had been given only the most cursory of washing before our arrival. Erica and I reunited, and the Lebanese restaurant came in handy.