Friday, May 25, 2007

Spain Part One: Overview and Arrival

Spain was Liz's idea. I don't mean that in a "well, this was your idea!" kind of way, but in a "huh, I never thought about going there but that sounds cool" kind of way. Understand that our vacations tend to be a few days long at best, and we tend to either go camping, go visit friends or family, or some combination of those two things, so two weeks to ourselves was a novel idea. OK - it sounded like Paradise. She could have said "let's go to Rwanda" and it still would have been cool.

But Spain as a country really hasn't ever been on my radar. The extent of my knowledge of the language include counting to ten (thank you, Sesame Street), asking for the bathroom (thank you, Refreshments) and asking for a beer (thank you again, Refreshments.) I vaguely knew its history and role in the Roman empire, and I read some of Hemingway's books set there, but otherwise I didn't really even know the country's geography. Barcelona? Madrid? Without a map, I was helpless. But that's the kind of travel experience I like - going to an unexpected place and finding something unexpectedly awesome. And if there's one phrase that sums up the entire trip, it's that - unexpectedly awesome.

Spain also has the distinction of being Europe's last fascist dictatorship. I knew of Barcelona from the 1992 Olympics of course, but a scant 17 years before that - three years before I was born, in 1975 - Spain was as fascist as Nazi Germany (or, perhaps a little more appropriately, as fascist as Mussolini's Italy.) Spain sat out of World War II because it was in the middle of its own Civil War, an extremely bloody conflict where entire villages were being slaughtered by both sides, Republicans (the democratic current government) and the Nationalists (the fascists under Franco.) Franco eventually won, with Madrid the last city to fall, around 1936 or so, although pockets of resistance both democratic and Communist continued to hold out into the 40s (and the Basque separatists in the north carried out terror attacks long after.)

After Franco's death, democracy was restored by Spain's King (they have a royal family kind of like Britain, and while the King was ostensibly Franco's puppet he obviously had some liberal democratic ideals) and Spain has since voted in both conservative governments and more liberal, socialist governments, most notably in 2003 to remove the pro-Bush PP party from power and end Spain's involvement in the Iraq war. Oddly enough, while I saw a little anti-Bush graffiti, there was none of the anti-Americanism I saw in both London and Italy during the 1999 Bosnia conflict; I saw more Anarchist and Neo-Nazi graffiti than anything else. Go figure. In fact, with a couple of exceptions, we were largely ignored as Americans - when people realized we spoke English, they tended to assume we were from the UK (likely due to the large number of British retirees in Spain.)

So Liz and I bought some travel books, made arrangements to fly into Barcelona and out of Madrid, and decided to rent a car to see the countryside. Spain is probably as car-friendly as Europe gets (which is to say you'll still die of sheer terror driving there and get lost a lot), so this seemed like a dandy plan. We worked pretty much up to the point where we got on the plane, and flew out on the 9th. A long overnight plane ride, a dozen episodes of "Heroes," and some shitty airline food later, and we were in Barcelona ready to conquer the country.

We packed our stuff into a Dodge rental car I'd never heard of, got some vague directions to our hotel on the opposite side of the city, and promptly got lost. In fact we spend the next several hours lost and trying to find our way around, Liz taking a crash course in "let's remember how to say 'but show me on the map where we are right now' in Spanish" and trying not to cause too much destruction. Liz managed to misplace her glasses (which is why, as you'll see, she's wearing her sunglasses in a lot of the pictures from the trip. Good times.) We eventually found the hotel and checked in, and the jetlag caught up to us. The worst thing we could have done was sleep at two in the afternoon (if only we realized about the Siesta!), so we wandered the neighborhood looking for a supermarket, stocked up on food and bottled water, and wandered some more.

Our hotel was right across from the Mediterranean beach. It was still a little chilly, so we didn't put on the bathing suits, but we walked for a while and just enjoyed the fresh air. Like all European cities, Barcelona is made for walking. It's only in retrospect that I had anything in Spain to compare Barcelona with, but it truly is a beautiful city. It's extremely clean (I noticed this, but didn't know how it compared to other cities of size like Madrid), very well maintained, and there's obviously a good deal of money floating around. It has an air of life about it without the sometimes sinister edge you find in other large cities (say, Madrid where someone almost stole Liz's backpack). It's really modern. It reminded me a lot of, say, Phoenix if Phoenix were on the ocean somewhere.

That night it took very little to put us to sleep. I think dinner was a loaf of bread and a little lunchmeat, and we went down like we'd been double-teamed by Ali and Foreman. The next morning, while Liz slumbered, I pulled out the Rough Guide and started making a plan of the things we would see in our last day in Barcelona (suggestion: spend more than two nights in Barcelona, especially if one of those nights is after you get off a plane and you spend the day wandering around lost.) At Crabby's suggestion, the first place we'd stop was the Sagrada Familia - Gaudi's architectural masterpiece and the most unique church/cathedral (it's actually a temple) I've ever seen.

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