Oh Barcelona

All great experiences follow with some not-so-great experiences. Barcelona was a topsy-turvy ride with contrasting emotions, family-sized Texas bonding, inexplicable stench, some trippy architecture and a whole lot of touristy tourists.

My sister, the true Madrid-ite that she is, left me with minimum expectations from Barcelona. Almost everyone else I met said exactly the opposite. Barcelona is known for its glamarous, explicit beaches, it’s Modernist architecture and some solid nightlife. Let me highlight some highlights that lit my little trip:

1. The Stench: The first thing I noticed about Barcelona was this lingering drainage-inspired stench that filled most of Old Town. Coming from this country called India that is also known for its stench, Barcelona was a little less worse. Apparently, the general slope of the land in Barcelona tilts towards the ocean and thus, all the drains seem to flow towards old town, hence the stench. According to a tour-guide, a lot of chemicals are used to nullify this stench, but alas, to minimal effect.

2. The Thieves: Barcelona is full of silly pick-pockets, cunniving theives and annoying people who love to ruin things by stealing things. My dormmate’s camera was stolen. My other dormmate’s 600 Euros were stolen. A friend I met in Amsterdam had his wallet stolen, and almost had his phone stolen too. The Texas friend I met in Barcelona dodged an attempted con that would have had his money and passports stolen. Also, my phone was stolen. So, perhaps my negative bias towards Barcelona is somehow born out of this personal catastrophe. It was wiffed away from right in front of me. I was watching the oh-so-incredible England v Italy game. I had placed my super-precious phone in front of me on the bar, and in literally two minutes, it was gone. It just disappeared. Oh, the agony. It was so difficult to fathom that it had just disappeared. I have always been paranoid about my personal belongings, and it took me little less than a minute to realize it was missing. Oh how I looked at every one around trying to figure out who this dastardly culprit was, but staring doesn’t solve things. It was gone. I don’t know what I am more upset about – losing my phone or being affected by the loss of my phone. Attachment to lifeless objects is pretty pathetic.

3. The Young Americans/Australians: I met a LOT of Americans and Ozzies in Barcelona. A LOT. It was like going to Barcelona was a fad that everyone just had to embrace, so Facebook and the world could embrace the craziness that had just been unleashed on them. Young Americans/Australians love Barcelona because Barcelona knows how to party, and all Young Americans/Australians want to do is party, and talk about how hungover they are the next day, and how much alcohol they’ve consumed over the past few days. And, if that’s their definition of fun, sure. Don’t get me wrong, I am pretty much a “young American.” But, I feel what I want from this holiday is more than just partying, alcohol and hangovers. I have had enough of that in Austin, TX. I didn’t suck enough culture out of Barcelona, or I didn’t seem to find enough.

4. The Architecture: This entire post makes my experience in Barcelona seem more negative than it actually was. Amidst all the drama, there was some serenity. Gaudi’s architecture in Barcelona is so intriguing. It’s daring and extravagant and his magnum opus, the Sagrada Familia is breathtaking. The attention-to-detail, the passion and life that something so stationary and inanimate can exude is definitely worth checking out. I biked around Barcelona and saw most of his buildings. I think the most interesting part about Gaudi is that he seemed so ahead of his time, and so bold in his designs. There is this general theme that distinguishes geniuses from the rest – they can see the future like no one else.

5. The Rebellion: The concept of a country within a country is fascinating. Catalunya, where Barcelona is, craves to NOT be a part of Spain. Catalan desperately wants its independence and pretty much functions like its own country with distinctly different traditions and culture. This notion of desiring independence seemed fairly obvious to me, and I was in Barcelona only for two days. Small things like giving precedence to the language Catalan over Spanish, and big things like not supporting Spain in the Euros make the local dynamic so unhealthy. The current economic crises is not really helping the situation either. Blaming the Spanish government for the current unemployment madness becomes oh-so-easy. Behind all the glory and beauty of Barcelona, there is a lot of trouble and pockets of rebellion. Maybe, “rebellion” is a more exaggerated expression, but there is definitely some unrest.

The whole purpose of this Eurotrip is  introspection. Corny as it sounds, I want to get out of my comfort zone because I feel that handling discomfort teaches me a lot about myself. The ups and downs that came with Barcelona exemplified this. This city also gave me some incredible conversations with daring people. I met an accomplished individual who had just quit his lucrative job to travel and do some soul-searching. And our semi-intoxicated, sublimley genuine conversation about the ambition behind life was extremely refreshing. I also got to spend some quality time with a friend from Texas I really admire, and his father. We bonded over the reason we first became friends – football.

Amsterdam is next.

P.S. Local beer = Estrella = nice.  Forgive the aggresion in this post.

A Tad Bit of Madrid & A Little More of Porto

A revisit is refreshing, literally and metaphorically. I had a few extra hours in Madrid before flying out to Porto. Not taking advantage of this would be plain lethargy. But, lethargy is non-existent at the beginning of exciting trips and I headed into the heart of Madrid.

My first visit to Madrid some four years ago was quite a milestone. Under the supervision of my sister, I had my first ever beer. What followed after were all possible extremes of alcohol-induced behavior, largely inspired by “college”. And now having graduated, there is no real excuse to let alcohol take control. So, to come back to Madrid, actually enjoy a beer and not drink it just to lose my wits is refreshing. The other interesting part of Madrid was eating some typical spanish garlic prawns that my dad was obsessed about and spent a whopping three days trying to explain to mum how to cook it. Three tries later, mum nailed it and I now know exactly why my dad was so adamant about it all.

Porto is the most offbeat city on my extremely conventional euro trip. And that’s not saying much. The irony of evaluating the first destination is that there is nothing to compare it with. And, the joy of holidaying makes everything seem more dandy than it is. One thing I can affirm through experience is that the hostel I lived at in Porto, Yes! Porto is the best hostel I’ve ever stayed in. And that’s saying a lot. Besides being friendly, socially encouraging, party-promoting and tours-providing, they offered a 10 Euro home cooked Portuguese meal which included a soup, a starter, a main course, some desert and 5 alcoholic beverages. Not only was it cheap, but they also got the whole hostel together and gave us a taste of some local food. Brilliant. And I could go on and on about the hostel. I really could.

I walked around the first day breathing in all the localness I could. Porto is so beautifully tiny that it didn’t take long to get an idea about the pretty city. Porto is officially the only place in the world where port wine is made, much like champagne and France. So, I undertook a day trip into the port-wine-producing paradise that is the Douro Valley. Not only was the valley stunning, but the vintage wine that we tasted was absolutely sinful. I’ve never had any form of alcohol that was as smooth as the vintage wines I tried there. It’s only for the best that I cannot currently afford it. This day also included trips to smaller towns close to Porto including Aramante and Larego. This port-wine tour was slightly expensive so I was the only backpacker among some older, well-to-do people. But, the fellow tour-members were a fascinating bunch and included beer/restaurant owners, and a technologist who was traveling with his family in a mobile home across Europe. Someday, I will dare to do the same. Someday.

The second day left me Porto-ed out. I did two city tours back to back, one was a walking tour and the other was on a Segway. Yes, a Segway. While the former was more insightful, the latter was more fun. Segways look awkward for sure but the concept is pure genius. The ease with which you can maneuver yourself uphill, downhill, left and right is so delightful. It’s effortless, fast-paced and so bloody fun. I’d buy one as soon as I have excess amounts of money. Or, maybe I’ll just stick to doing tours, that seems a little less socially awkward.

I had to switch hostels my last night in Porto. The super hostel I was in was booked because of a music festival that SXSW and ACL would laugh at. So, I moved further out close to the beach to this other hostel called Peste. I didn’t expect much because it was a whopping 30km away from the center, but it was a delightful little house which was more of a friendly home than a paid-for hostel. Again, the people I met there were so wonderfully nice and so eclectic. They included animators, PHDstudents, film-makers and students. But, what brought us all together was that we were all travelers and well the fact that we could all also speak English. We drank and dined in Portuguese style which seemed not that different from what everyone does. The steak we had after was heavenly. It was rare and moist, dipped in some serenely delicious garlic cream sauce. The meat was tender and the whole experience was superme, despite being my second dinner of the day. Now, that’s a sign of some good food. Once we were all buzzing, a bunch of us headed to the city to enjoy the nightlife. Like most European cities, the night didn’t get started till 1am. Plus, you can drink on the streets so everything was Vegas/Nola style. We were actually buying beer (illegally) from these aunties on the street for a Euro that our host knew oh so well. There is this added advantage of partying with locals – they know so much more. But, the worst part of Porto was the nightlife. Yes, it was buzzing and lively and the crowd was great, but there was just way too much smoke. Everyone smokes in Porto. And when everyone is drunk and out, everyone smokes even more. Additionally, smoking indoors is allowed so that didn’t help. I must have consumed over twenty cigarettes worth of passive smoke. My clothes, considering the slightly larger surface area, must have consumed several more. Everything on me smelt of smoke, even my underwear. There was a point when I found it kind of hard to breathe. Yes, it was bad. Worse than Dubai and Dubai is bad when it comes to smoking. I remember one of my tour guides was complaining about the same thing. Apparently 2020 is when they’re going to ban smoking in Portugal. Right, I’ll make a trip after that.

All in all, go to Porto. It´s not too touristy which is a massive positive and has some delightful sights to offer. The people are not too bad either.

P.S. Portuguese Beer = Super Bock = Super Indeed.

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