21 September 2009 – Nou Camp, Parc Guell and the ghost of Gaudi

The gates of Parc Guell

The gates of Parc Guell

Monday morning had me checking my phone every five minutes to see if the Mad House had called. Every time I looked and saw no missed calls and no texts I became more sure I hadn’t got the job. Ok, so I didn’t really want it but if I couldn’t even get a proxy call centre job I didn’t want what hope did I have? It seemed the only people who wanted to employ me were people I couldn’t bear the idea of working for. Oh well, back to the drawing board.

The rain had miraculously disappeared overnight and we looked from the hotel window at a clear blue sky. Our first objective of the day was the Camp Nou stadium, the largest stadium in Europe. Using our T10 tickets, we took the train to Sants Estacio and then hopped on the metro to Les Corts, which, according to our map was the closest to Camp Nou. We didn’t need the map for long because, after walking a short distance, the stadium was easily visible and we just walked towards it.

It really was an impressive sight. The eleventh largest stadium in the world, with a capacity of 98,787, it was a bit of a change from our own humble St Mary’s and dwarfed even the impressive Cardiff Millennium Stadium and the new Wembley Stadium. Apparently there are plans afoot to increase the seating by another 13,000 to make it the largest in the world. I can’t imagine how they fill it but it must be a stirring sight, not to mention deafening.

Although it was free to go inside and have a look around away from the pitch, tours of the stadium cost €17 (a great deal more than the £6 we paid to tour St Mary’s a few years ago). I was content to stop for a drink in the café and let Commando take the tour. Seeing as I don’t really have a job €34 is a bit steep and it’s not as if I haven’t seen a football stadium before. The pictures he took were enough for me. Although he found the sheer size staggering (especially when viewed from the press box right at the top) and liked the interactive glasses that gave a presentation about the stadium, the tour itself was unguided, a kind of follow the arrows affair, so not as informative as our St Mary’s tour with no chance to see the cells or the hospitality suites. Having said that, the facilities are second to none, with a museum, trophy room and chapel. Personally I found the prices in the café a bit high and the staff quite off hand and unfriendly. I suppose with a club as big as Barcelona the personal touch is a bit much to expect.

Next on our list was a visit to the old town. Everything I’d read warned to be on guard against pickpockets here so it was with some trepidation that we took the metro to Parallel and stepped out onto the corner of Carrer Nou de la Rambla. This is a narrow road filled with traffic and run down looking little shops and restaurants leading to La Rambla. The closer we got to La Rambla the more interesting the buildings became culminating in Palau Guell, a town mansion designed by Gaudi with huge wrought iron gates that carriages used to enter. It is possible to go inside but, yet again, time was against us. I guess it is one more reason for us to return to Barcelona in the future though so it’s not all bad news.

La Rambla is a pleasant street with a teaming central pedestrian reservation filled with café tables, flower stalls and the famous living statues. We settled down at a table belonging to Pizzeria Ideal Restaurant, ordered a pizza and coffee and sat back to appreciate the parade of people, street art and general hustle and bustle. This is without doubt one of the most famous streets in the world for people watching one of my favourite pastimes.

Suitably refreshed we set off to do some window shopping. We wandered along, admired the colourful wares at a little food market, peered into various shops then headed off towards the maze of little streets that make up the Barri Gothic and Born. Before long we were hopelessly lost and not really sure which district we were in but it was fun nonetheless poking round the little shops, looking at the buildings and the people. When the shops began to close for the siesta which lasts from 2 until about 5 we began to work our way back to La Rambla and, more by luck than by judgement, we eventually found ourselves back where we had begun, outside the Parallel metro a few Euros lighter and laden with a couple of extra bags.

Our final excursion was the one I had been looking forward to the most, Gaudi’s famous Parc Guell. Neither of us were sure exactly where it was or what to expect but we set off on the metro feeling pretty confident that it would be easy to find. A look at the map showed us that Alphonse X was probably the best station to head for although none seemed that close.

It was very hot and muggy when we came out of the station and we really didn’t have a clue where we were or where to go next. There was a little park close by so we decided to sit down in the shade and get our bearings. No sooner had we sat down than a wizened old man with a cane appeared as if from nowhere and sat beside me, ‘Are you looking for Parc Guell?’ he asked in perfect English. We were both astonished, not to say a little alarmed that he knew what we were looking for and that we were English just by looking at us. I took the map out of my bag and the gentleman pointed out the best route, he told us there was a bus that would take us there as it was quite a walk, he even told us where to get the bus, what number and how much it would cost us.

We decided to risk the walk, after all we are seasoned walkers, besides we wanted to find somewhere to stop for a drink on the way because we were hot and thirsty. As we waited to cross the road I looked back at the park. The bench where we had been sitting was empty and there was no sign of the old man. Perhaps it’s true that only the English are mad enough to venture out in the middle of the day and I suppose that there is really only one thing that tourists would be looking for in that particular area, even so it was a little eerie, especially as he disappeared so quickly.

We walked up the hill on Ronda del Guinardó and were relieved to see a tiny café called Euro Polis half way up. Thankfully it was open so Commando ordered a beer and I had a big glass of fresh orange juice, which was heavenly. We sat outside drinking and musing about the old man who had helped us. I joked that he was probably a ghost sent to help lost tourists, he did bear more than a passing resemblance to an elderly Gaudi when I came to think about it. Commando said he could have been a mirage and we had imagined him because we were so hot and thirsty. Whatever he was we were glad he found us and pleased to be sitting in the sun with a cold drink.

If it wasn’t for our pit stop I don’t think we’d have made it to the top of the hill. The higher we went the steeper it seemed to get. Near the top we turned onto Traverssera de Dalt as the old man had told us. It sloped gently upwards for a while and then we were going slowly downhill, which was a bit of a relief. The old man had said we’d see the signs along Traverssera de Dalt so we walked along looking more for signs than the shops we were passing, although I think there was a church there somewhere. The road seemed to go on forever, then, just as we began to think we’d been led astray, we saw the sign at Carrer de Larrad. Looking up the steep hill I sighed and wished we’d taken the bus after all. It was boiling hot and it looked like a long hard climb ahead. This was a hill that Made the Big and Little Hills at home look like gentle slopes. The pavements were uneven cobbled affairs and there were crowds of people going up and down. Still we had come this far…

Eventually, just as I thought I couldn’t take another step we were at the top and looking at the entrance to Park Guell, a big gateway with mosaics and crowds of people. Then I saw the steps! Everything was up hill! Gaudi seemed determined to keep his admirers fit.

After a moment catching our breath we set off up the winding dirt path, ignoring the flights of steps leading to the huge stone pillars that support the serpent benches. Before long we forgot we were even climbing, everything was so breathtaking (and I don’t mean just the climb). There were giant structures of stones that looked like dirt, columns like wizened treetrunks and arches woven in amongst the trees that looked as if they had grown there rather than been built. Our path opened out onto the famous serpent mosaic benches and we stopped for a while to rest and admire the magnificent views over the city.

Apparently Gaudi used the impression left by a workman sitting naked in clay to design the shape of the benches. I’m not sure if this is a myth or the truth but they are very comfortable to sit on, especially after such a climb to reach them, and the mosaics are beautiful. The views across Barcelona are spellbinding, we spent a long time picking out the landmarks we had worked so hard to see the day before and Sagrada Familia is unmistakable almost as if Gaudi planned the whole thing just to show off his creation. The benches surround a large open space filled with musicians, people selling souvenirs and crowds milling amongst them. People stop to scratch pictures and messages in the sandy floor and others spread out picnics. It is a wonderful place to linger and watch people of all nationalities passing by.

It looked for a while as if it might rain again and, bearing in mind the rain of the day before, we set off to climb a little further amongst the trees. Luckily the weather held and when we reached the gates at the top we stopped for an ice cream. After all the climbing and the heat I’m pretty sure I’d earned the calories for that ice cream. As we ate we began our winding decent. Every time we turned a corner we found another view of the city spread out before us. We wound our way down under the columns and were delighted to find an area beneath the benches with beautiful mosaic ceilings. We passed the house where Gaudi and his family spent their final days. I’d love to have bought a ticket and gone inside to see how he lived and the furniture he designed but time was getting on and this would have to be one more reason to come back again. Finally we were back where we began and the final surprise was the giant mosaic lizard fountain, hidden from view at the start by the crowds and the greenery at the entrance.

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