Travelling North: Canada, Here We Come

After arriving back in New York City, I only had a few days before I was setting off in another direction to visit another city, this time even another country. I had to visit the Brazilian Consulate to pick up my passport – I had felt very naked being in a foreign country without it, but I hadn’t really had much of a choice – and sure enough my brand new Brazilian was now affixed to one of the previously pages. On long flights or train journeys I often amused myself by flipping through the pages, counting the various stamps and visas that I had accumulated over the course of the year, and even some from previous years, remembering all the places I’d been to and the stories and memories that went with them. But my Brazilian visa would have to wait, because I had another international trip planned before I boarded that plane to São Paulo. Next stop was to the northern border and onwards to Canada!

But I did have a few days in New York to chill out with Melissa for a little while, do my laundry and prepare myself for the next trip, and explore a little more of the city. Melissa ended up having a family emergency that took her back to New Jersey for most of the time I was around, so I set out alone one afternoon to discover a huge street festival that was celebrating the Feast of San Gennaro, a religious commemoration to the Patron Saint of Naples that has evolved into what is essentially a huge Italian food festival in Little Italy in southern Manhattan, and a celebration of and for all the Italian-American immigrants. There were street vendors congregated for miles along Mulberry Street selling all kinds of food, mostly of the Italian cuisine like pasta, lasagne and sausages, as well as drinks like coffee, sodas, beers, wine and cocktails, and other stores offering souvenirs, trinkets and games. The festival stretched on seemingly forever, and in the end I stopped and grabbed some lasagne as I walked through the scores of other tourists that had flooded the street. My only regret is that I didn’t have a bigger stomach, and a bigger budget, to try all of the amazing food that I saw and smelt.

Tourists flooded the street festival of San Gennaro.

Tourists flooded the street festival for San Gennaro.

The festival stretches on for dozens of blocks, with road closures so it could open up into one huge event.

The festival stretches on for dozens of blocks, with road closures so it could open up into one huge event.

***

Only a few days later it was time to head to Penn Station on the east side of Manhattan, where a train would be taking me north to Canada. By this stage of my time in New York I was having friendly conversations with all the doormen in Melissa’s building, since I had got to know them all so well with my frequent coming and going during the last month – except for one of them, who still gave me a sinister look and asked “May I help you?” every time I passed him, despite it being quite obvious I’d been crashing there for the past few weeks. Thankfully, the only interrogations I would be subject to for the next ten days would be border crossings between the United States and Canada. I had decided to get a train because it was a cheaper than flying, it was less stressful to get to the train station than it was to get to the airport, and because if I was perfectly honest, I was beginning to miss the sensation of good old fashioned train journey through the countryside – one of the things I’ll always treasure about my journey around Europe. Granted, at almost 11 hours it was the longest single train trip I’d made so far – with the exception of the Trans-Siberian, of course, and perhaps the overnight train from Paris to Barcelona – but it was made better by a substantially more comfortable seat and a fully functional dining car with a range of greasy foods that were probably overpriced for what they were but tasted so satisfying that I didn’t really care. I watched the countryside of upstate New York fly by through the window, and I passed the time writing my blog and reading my book. The woman in the seat next to me didn’t appear to speak much English, or if she did she – as I would soon learn most French-Canadians do – chose to pretend she didn’t, so I didn’t have much in the way of conversation.

The Canadian flag flying high in Montreal.

The Canadian flag flying high in Montreal.

The border guards were stern but still friendly. When they flipped through my passport and saw the array of stamps and visas, it was clear that I was a seasoned traveller and they didn’t second guess any of my assertions I was just meeting friends in Canada. We had left Penn Station a little after 8 o’clock that morning, but the sun was already setting on the city of Montreal by the time I disembarked from the train and made it out into the street. When I went to an ATM to withdraw some Canadian dollars, I was reminded that I was no longer in an English speaking country – or at least, a non-English speaking province of the country. There was some English, but all the signs and notices were primarily in French. It threw me off a little, after recently spending so much time in the UK and US, but I recognised enough of the words from my time in Paris, as well as through basic linguistic knowledge, to navigate my way through the metro and to the hostel I was staying at that evening, and where I was due to meet my friend Stuart. I had met Stuart several years ago when we had both been studying in Sydney, where Stuart was an international student rather than an exchange student, so we’d had several years of classes together instead of just one semester. He moved back home to Calgary, on the other side of Canada, but agreed that he could take a holiday himself and meet me in Montreal.
“I’d love to hang out, and Montreal sounds great!” he’d said to me when I’d initially proposed the idea. “Anyway, you wouldn’t want to come to Calgary, believe me. Montreal – let’s do it!”

***

After arriving into Montreal relatively late, Stuart and I went out to have a quick dinner and then spent the evening in our hostel, catching up between ourselves and chatting with some of the other people in our hostel. Originally we had planned to stay with Stuart’s cousin in Montreal, but when those plans fell through we’d had to make some hostel reservations. It was kind of nice, to be honest, to jump back into the hostel culture after spending so long staying with friends and Couchsurfing – if you don’t count the brief stint in Ireland (I don’t, really, considering how little time I spent and how few nights I slept actually there), I hadn’t properly staying in a hostel since I was in Madrid! Although the place we stayed at was more of a house that had been converted into a hostel by putting a large number of bunk beds in a few of the rooms. It was a little bit chaotic, and a few of the people seemed like they had been living there for months from the way they had settled in, but on the whole we were surrounded by other friendly travellers.

On our first morning we decided to get most of our sightseeing out of the way, although to be honest there aren’t a great deal of iconic tourist attractions in Montreal. Nevertheless, Stuart had a list of buildings that his mother had written him of places that we should see, so we went off into the crisp morning air and flawless sunshine to check off the sightseeing list. The French influence on the province of Quebec and particularly Montreal were noticeable in highlights such as their own Notre Dame Basilica, as well as all the streets being named in French. It was a little like being back in Paris, except… not.

The Notre Dame Basilica of Montreal.

The Notre Dame Basilica of Montreal.

The silver dome of the Bonsecours Market.

The silver dome of the Bonsecours Market.

Monument à Maisonneuve, in the middle of Place d'Armes, just across from the Basilica.

Monument à Maisonneuve, in the middle of Place d’Armes, just across from the Basilica.

Jacques-Cartier Bridge crossing the Saint Laurent River.

Jacques-Cartier Bridge crossing the Saint Laurent River.

Myself in front of the Saint Laurent.

Myself in front of the Saint Laurent.

All up it was a lot of walking around the Old Town of Montreal, so it took us most of the morning. I was warned it would be a little cold this far north – by New Yorkers, at least – but the walking combined with the strong sun meant that we were pretty hot and sweaty towards the end of our sightseeing tour. We also visited a tiny free museum that we stumbled across that was all about the history of maple syrup – Canadians take that stuff very seriously. And of course, our stroll around Montreal would not have been complete without a final destination of the Montreal ‘Gay Village’ for what we believed to be some hard earned beers.

I thought it was just a cute nickname, but the gay area is literally called 'The Village'.

I thought it was just a cute nickname, but the gay area is literally called ‘The Village’.

Stuart enjoying a beer after our morning of sightseeing.

Stuart enjoying a beer after our morning of sightseeing.

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Once Upon a Time: Prague Castle

I’m not going to lie – of all the major touristic attractions that I had known about, heard about and made plans to visit, the thought of going to Prague Castle made me unexplainably excited. I’d heard so many things about Prague being such a beautiful city, and the thought of a castle on a hill that overlooked the city inspired foolish, romantic notions of fairytale settings and wonder and magic. Of course, realistically I know it was just going to be a castle, but I let part of myself get swept up by the fantasy daydream.

***

The following morning both Tomas and Matej had to leave for work, so they left me to my own devices to explore the city, with nothing but a key so I could come and go as I please. And a fair bit of advice, of course, as to which buses to catch to get where, and what things I might like to see. “If it’s your first time in Prague, I assume you want to go to the castle,” Tomas had said as he’d told me all this before he’d headed out the door. He’d been right. So I set out on the bright and sunny morning to catch a tram that would take me across the river and up the hill to the castle. As we got closer, it became harder to see the castle, as we drove through areas of greenery and it became a lot harder to look up from inside the tram windows. The line map on the top of the tram car had a little picture of a castle next to the stop that you were supposed to get off at to visit it, but… it was sort of in between two stops. I wasn’t sure which one to pick. My Lonely Planet guide was no help. There were no obvious English speakers that I could ask, and no one seemed friendly enough to approach. Oh well – in the end I just followed a bunch of other tourists who seemed to be on some kind of tour.

When I got off the tram, my surroundings were slightly off-putting. It was like a ghost town – other than the group that had gotten off with me and were wandering slowly away, there was not a soul in sight. But I was left standing in the hot and heavy sun, in a cobblestone area that looked like a set from a Shrek movie (except it was obviously real, not an animation), making me feel like I was in a deserted theme park more than anything. Was I already inside the castle complex? Was this just some random town, or village? I was so confused, but in the distance down one main road, I could see the spires of the castle emerging above the closer rooftops. I set my course towards them, and made it just in time to see the final procession of the changing of the guards, not unlike the display I had seen in the Old Town of Stockholm in Sweden. As they marched off down in the direction I had came from, I turned to the main gate of the castle grounds. It was topped with intricate golden metal framework and statues of men that appeared to be in various stages of combat. The picture was, of course, completed by the tourists doing typical tourist things such as taking photos with the stern, solemn looking guards at their posts at the castle grounds entry. I chuckled and took a few photos of the gate itself before wandering into the grounds.

The guards walking away after the ceremonial changing.

The guards walking away after the ceremonial changing.

The gate that served as the entry into Prague Castle grounds.

The gate that served as the entry into Prague Castle grounds.

As I began wandering through the courtyards, I realised that the castle itself was not one huge ancient building, the the greater limits of an area that included a few large churches and palaces. I wandered through the first courtyards looking for my way into these said palaces – I could see the spires pointing up into the sky above the buildings immediately in front of me, but it was like a maze to get through everything.

The spires of the chruch taunting me - just out of sight... sort of.

The spires of the chruch taunting me – just out of sight… sort of.

How anyone actually gets a good picture of this thing is beyond me.

How anyone actually gets a good picture of this thing is beyond me.

When I finally made it to the churches, there were some guide ropes set up, as though there was some kind of line to get inside, but there was no one lining up so I simply walked on through and into the building. I had just entered into the halls of the St Vitus Cathedral, and was gazing upon the St Wenceslas Chapel. The echoing chamber was full of people, but the chapel itself was beautifully lit up by the sunlight pouring in through the windows. However, while it was gorgeous, it was just another church, so I headed back outside after taking a quick look around.

The front view of St Vitus Cathedral.

The front view of St Vitus Cathedral.

Inside the St Wenceslas Chapel.

Inside the St Wenceslas Chapel.

I doubled back the way I came until I came to a ticket office – wait, tickets? Yep, while wandering the castles courtyards and gardens were free, apparently you needed tickets to enter into each of the main attractions… including the St Vitus Cathedral. I wasn’t about to pay to visit it again, and they had weird ticket packages and bundles that had different validity dates for certain things, and it all just seemed too confusing. I had managed to sneak into the first church undetected, so I figured I would move ahead and see if there was any way around the entry fee to see some of the others. I never ended up even finding the Vladislav Hall in the Old Royal Palace, but I did come across the Basilica of St George. However, it was a much smaller building than the first cathedral, with one entrance where someone was collecting tickets. I pressed ahead, figuring I could return later with a ticket if I so desired.

Courtyard in front of the Basilica of St George.

Courtyard in front of the Basilica of St George.

Side view of St Vitus Cathedral, complete with scaffolding.

Side view of St Vitus Cathedral, complete with scaffolding.

There were a lot of beautiful courtyards and minor buildings throughout the castle grounds, and when I reached the edge wall there was a view that stretched into the horizon, the view from the castle of the old kingdom below. However, in the end I found the whole of Prague Castle to be an underwhelming disappointment. Yes, it holds the Guinness World Record as the largest ancient castle in the world, and it is the official residence of the President of the Czech Republic. Yes, the Bohemian Crown Jewels are there, but they’re kept in a secret, hidden room, and I didn’t catch a glimpse of them. In the end it was just another set of churches to look inside, and unlike most of the churches I’d seen in my travels, like the ones in Cologne, Rome and Zürich, you had to pay to get inside all of these. After swearing that I had seen enough churches to last me this journey, it was a little more than I was prepared to do. So I followed the stepped walkway that led to Prague Castles exit, and crossed the Vltava River and headed back to Old Town Prague.

View from the castle grounds over Prague.

View from the castle grounds over Prague.

Even the exterior of some of the random building around the castle grounds were particularly beautiful and enchanting.

Even the exterior of some of the random building around the castle grounds were particularly beautiful and enchanting.

Steps leading down to the exit of the castle tour.

Steps leading down to the exit of the castle tour.

Truth be told, even though the castle ended up being a bit of a let down for me, I still took immense pleasure in wandering the streets and enjoying the ancient and natural beauty that resonated throughout Prague. The castle was a nice aesthetic touch, visible across the river in the distance, but there was no need to actually visit it to get that fairytale feeling.

***

The next day was something a little bit different. Tomas was a landscape architect, and when I arrived on Tuesday he had told me that on Thursday they were going to get a visit from the mayor of Prague. The apartment complex in which they live had had a garden that was ugly and dying, not good for anything, so Tomas had taken it upon himself to put in hours and hours of hard work to restore the garden, complete with spaces for children in the complex to play, for people to plant gardens and vegetables, and a general sitting area for anything from an outdoor feast or picnic to catching up with a neighbour over a cigarette. Somehow, their garden had been entered into a competition, and unsurprisingly, had won. “There’s going to be a TV crew and everything,” Tomas had told me about the mayors visit. “They’re probably going to interview me too.” I could tell he was excited about the whole thing, but a little nervous about being on TV. Matej had been busy preparing food the day before, and that morning there were a bunch of official looking people, camera crews, TV hosts, as well as all the neighbours out in the garden. I watched on by the table of food, not really understanding any of what was being said, but feeling a little special to catch an inside glimpse into what was probably a special event for a lot of them, but what was for me as authentic an experience as I might get in everyday life in Prague.

Or maybe that’s selling my time in the city short. It was an interesting and non-touristic experience, but I also spent a lot of my time in Prague just hanging out with Matej and Tomas, eating local food at their local favourite places, walking around the beautiful city, or hanging out at night and watching movies, with them introducing me to some strange Czech ones as well as sharing their favourite Hollywood films – Death Becomes Her was a hit all around. I just only just now started to feel fully recovered after my excessive Pride binging in Southern Europe, and I realised it had been roughly two weeks since I had done any kind of crazy partying – extremely uncharacteristic of me – but I was rather enjoying the break, and it had given me the time to fully regain my strength.

I did spend one afternoon with Tomas and his friend Ondra having a stroll through a lush green garden area. I was amazed at the luck I had been having with the weather, and the daylight had been coming long and strong for weeks now. Beer was free flowing in most parts of Prague – you could could get it in plastic cups to go from many places, much like the set up for Pride in Paris, and so the three of us got our big cups of beer and took them outside to enjoy them on the grass. Ondra was a little quirky, but still a nice guy. He only spoke in English half the time, the other half in Czech, which made him a little mysterious to me, but I think Tomas explained it as that his English just wasn’t that good. Or he just didn’t like speaking English, whatever. But the three of us managed to have some funny conversations, with Tomas a relaying translator, having a couple of deep and meaningful discussions as well as laughing at the random and silly things we observed in the park around us. Tomas also took me over to a nearby church at the park. It was open, and free to all, but photography was prohibited. Inside, there was a case that contained some ancient relics, including bones and artefacts that belonged to saints from centuries past. It was a cool little thing to glimpse, and the church was virtually empty – a sign that I had definitely diverted from the tourist path and off the beaten track.

The smaller church Tomas took me to that afternoon.

The smaller church Tomas took me to that afternoon.

The view of the church from our comfy spot on the grass.

The view of the church from our comfy spot on the grass.

***

I’d enjoyed my very brief time in Prague, and once again it was a little upsetting to have to leave behind people who I had just met, yet had grown so close to in such a short amount of time. “Don’t worry,” I had assured them as I had packed my stuff up on my final night. “I’m breezing through Europe so quickly this time, it just means that I’ll definitely have to come back one time to do it all probably.” They seemed to like that, although they were such nice guys that I’m sure they’d find plenty of new and fun Couchsurfers to fill my place when I left. But I was glad that once again I had taken the opportunity to Couchsurf and meet some amazing people and see some pretty cool and interesting things.

But for now, my time in Prague was at an end. I headed back to the train station on Friday morning, and when I saw the crowds I felt a moment of panic, having not reserved a ticket in advance. But there was just enough room on the train, luckily. I couldn’t really blame everyone for wanting to go where I was headed, because as I boarded the train I was overwhelmed with anticipation and excitement. I’d tried my best to see as much as I could during my time in Europe, and while you would think that that wouldn’t involve visiting a city for the second time, there was just something about the allure I felt that I hadn’t quite managed to shake: I was heading back to Berlin.

Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day

After a decent nights sleep at Valerio’s house, I woke up feeling remarkably refreshed and ready to take on Rome. I had been told by almost everyone who had visited Rome that the city was enormous, and that if you didn’t have a plan of attack you could easily waste all your valuable sightseeing time trying to find your way around the maze of combined modern and ancient history. Lucky for me, I had met Selma in Barcelona, who had seemed more excited than I was at the fact that I was going to Rome. We had exchanged contact details, and at some point during my stay in Madrid she had sent me a huge message that had included a list of all the famous sights, monuments and neighbourhoods, as well as a detailed itinerary of how to make the most of all these things and visit as many as possible in the three days that I had to explore Rome. I felt a mix of overwhelming gratitude and guilt – I hoped she had already had this itinerary written down and had just forwarded it on to me, because what I got had been so much more than I had expected when I’d asked for “a few tips”. Nevertheless, she had saved me a great deal of planning when it came to all that touristic stuff that I’d never really been any good at.

As convenient as getting to Valerio’s house from the airport had been, getting from Valerio’s house to central Rome was somewhat more of a challenge. I had to get a bus to the closest metro station, and then from there catch the metro into the heart of the city. The whole trip should have only taken me half an hour if the public transport ran on time, but I was about to learn very quickly that literally nothing in Italy runs on time. So it took a little longer. Given the size of the city, I was also surprised that Rome only had two metro lines that ran diagonally across the city and intersected only once or twice in the middle. Cities like Moscow, Berlin, Paris, Madrid and even Barcelona all had upwards of around fifteen metro lines, so it was puzzling as to why Rome was so far behind. Valerio would later tell me that the city was working on a third line. It’s completion was scheduled for approximately somewhere in the next several years – Rome wasn’t built in a day, I guess?

When I finally reached central Rome, my first stop was Piazza del Popolo, a large public square with a huge obelisk towering over the tourists crossing the plaza. From there I following Selma’s directions and climbed the stairs up to Pincio Hill. The top of the hill was a beautiful and quite peaceful garden, a stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of the lower streets of Rome that I had been in so far. It was also a spot that afforded excellent panoramic views of Rome, so I stopped to take a couple of photos before wandering through the greenery. I followed the edge of Pincio Hill until I rather unwittingly walked down the next attraction, Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti: the Spanish Steps. It wasn’t until I reached the bottom and arrived at Piazza di Spagna, thought to be the most famous square in Rome, that I turned around and took in my surroundings. The square is a common rest stop for tourists wandering the city, so it was quite crowded, and at the top of the steps sat the French church Chiesa della Trinità dei Monti.

The obelisk in Piazza del Popolo.

The obelisk in Piazza del Popolo.

The view of Piazza del Popolo from the top of Pincio Hill.

The view of Piazza del Popolo from the top of Pincio Hill.

View of Rome from the top of Pincio Hill.

View of Rome from the top of Pincio Hill.

The garden on top of Pincio Hill.

The garden on top of Pincio Hill.

At the foot of the Spanish Steps I came across my first Roman fountain, the Barcaccia, sculpted in 1627 in the style of a sinking boat. Valerio had told me that the water in all of the fountains around Rome was safe to drink. I hadn’t understood at the time, but I would soon learn that similar fountains were scattered all around the city, and thirsty tourists and locals alike could be seen stealing a sip from the flowing water, or filling up their water bottles. The water all comes from clean underground springs and is completely safe to drink as it pours out of the fountain. It was a cute little feature of the city, and particularly convenient given how hot it was that day, and all the walking I still had left to do. From Piazza di Spagna I walked down Via dei Condotti, the posh shopping strip of Rome that was lined with expensive designer and luxury brands. It was an amusing juxtaposition, to see such expensive and modern designer brands in the shop fronts that were situated in some of the oldest streets in the world. Though the entire city of Rome was full of such contrasts – modern stores that were built a few months ago stood side by side in the street with structures that had been standing in place for over 3000 years. For someone who comes from a country as young as Australia, it was a strange concept to fathom.

The Spanish Steps and the church at the top, as seen from Piazza di Spagna.

The Spanish Steps and the church at the top, as seen from Piazza di Spagna.

The Barcaccia fountain at Piazza di Spagna.

The Barcaccia fountain at Piazza di Spagna.

At the end of that street came the Trevi Fountain, one of the more well-known and more highly anticipated sights of Rome. The crowds around the fountain were unbelievable – it was almost impossible to get a photo without someone else being the photo. I actually saw a couple of fights break out between groups who were trying to take photos while other groups were getting in the way. It was actually quite frightening, and at that point I decided I wasn’t going to stay in any areas heavily populated by tourists for any longer than necessary. It was at that point that I broke away from Selma’s itinerary, although not entirely intentionally. I thought I was following her directions to another plaza, but after a while I emerged into a clearing to behold the Pantheon, another instantly recognisable sight. The 2000-year-old temple is now a church, and one of the best preserved monuments in Rome. It was beautiful, both inside and out, and the dome in the roof that is considered to be the ancient Romans greatest architectural achievement allowed a cylinder of sunlight to pour in from the sky. It was a little eerie, but also gave a rather holy feel to the aesthetic of the huge old room. I wandered around the inner chambers and admired some of the artworks and decorations before taking leave back out into the midday sun.

Trevi Fountain.

Trevi Fountain.

In front of (or as close as I could get to) Trevi Fountain.

In front of (or as close as I could get to) Trevi Fountain.

The Pantheon.

The Pantheon.

Alter inside the Pantheon.

Alter inside the Pantheon.

Sunlight pouring through the dome in the roof of the Pantheon.

Sunlight pouring through the dome in the roof of the Pantheon.

A few short streets later and I found myself at Piazza Navona, a long plaza that is home to several fountains, the most famous of which is Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, the Fountain of Four Rivers. The plaza was full on tourists, but it also seemed to be a popular place for buskers, street performers, artists drawing both realistic sketches and caricatures, and peddlers selling all kinds of souvenirs and trinkets. It reminded me a lot of some of the heavily touristic areas in Paris, and I stayed for long enough to observe some of the interesting things going on, and take a few photos of course, before heading off and moving on.

The Fountain of the Four Rivers, the centrepoint of Piazza Navona.

The Fountain of the Four Rivers, the centrepoint of Piazza Navona.

The Neptune Fountain in Piazza Navona.

The Neptune Fountain in Piazza Navona.

La Fontana del Moro, the Moor Fountain, in Piazza Navona.

La Fontana del Moro, the Moor Fountain, in Piazza Navona.

There were a few other things on Selma’s itinerary for the first day, but they were more missable things such as places to eat or where to get some good gelato. I would have followed through and investigated, but by that point I was completely exhausted. My body still hadn’t fully recovered from the breakdown in Madrid, so I ended up grabbing some quick take away food before heading back to Valerio’s to rest and recover for the remainder of the afternoon. I know, it seems sacrilegious in a city and country known for some amazing cuisine, but the last thing I felt like doing was sitting down at an overpriced tourist restaurant by myself. However, I did swing by the Termini train station on my way home, so that I could book my tickets out of Rome for a few days time. On my way there I passed a building which I later learned to be Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II, the Alter of the Fatherland, the National Monument for Victor Emmanuel II, which had also been on Selma’s itinerary. It’s a controversial monument that was built in honour of the first king of unified Italy, and also holds the home of Italy’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the accompanying eternal flame.

The National Monument for Victor Emmanuel II.

The National Monument for Victor Emmanuel II.

After waiting an hour to be served and book my train tickets (again, this is Italy, so no surprise there), I took the metro and the bus back home to Valerio’s. Considering I was far from my peak physical condition, I felt I had done a decent job of sightseeing for the day. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and you certainly can’t see it in one either, so I had a quiet and early night, making sure I got plenty of sleep to continue the exploring tomorrow.

The Seaside and Sightseeing in Beautiful Barcelona

There are many benefits of overnight transit. You kill two birds with one stone by paying for transport plus a night of accommodation in a single cost, and your time sleeping is spent productively whisking you away to your next destination, and you wake up refreshed and ready to venture into a new city. Unless, that is, your luck runs out and you don’t get a bed in the sleeper carriage and are forced to sleep in the ‘reclining seat’ class. It was described as being like business class in a plane, which really meant “You have lots of leg room but the seats are still terribly uncomfortable and actually nothing like business class on a plane”. I had fallen asleep in France and woken up in Spain, but not without the accompanying neck pain and stiff, sore legs that were the result of an inability to find a comfortable sleeping position. I would have been a little more annoyed if it hadn’t been for the fact I’d just arrived in one of my most highly anticipated destinations: Barcelona.

***

When making arrangements for staying in Barcelona, I had discovered that Rich, one of Brendon’s friends who I had met in Thailand, was also on vacation in the city. She was renting out a room through Air BnB, and fortunately there had been a second room in that apartment that I was able to rent out for myself. I’d been unsuccessful in finding any Couchsurfing hosts, and the fact that the price of my own Air BnB room would be less than the four bunk dorm in the hostel in Paris definitely made it a preferable option, so I had booked the room. When I arrived in Barcelona, I dragged myself off the train and through the sunny streets to meet Rich at the apartment. It was around 9:30am and a gorgeous day, with a sky that was a clear and cloudless blue, but the city around me only just seemed to be waking up, with limited traffic and only a few pedestrians. I would quickly learn that Spain generally runs several hours behind the conventional time of most daily events and activities. When I arrived at the apartment, I sent Rich a text message asking which apartment to buzz on the intercom. A few moments later, I heard a shout from above me. I looked up to see Rich hanging out of the window, a big smile on her face and waving down to me. She let me up into the apartment, and she introduced me to the owner of the apartment before sitting down to catch up over a little breakfast. The last time I had seen Rich, she was putting me in the back of a taxi in Bangkok and giving the driver directions in Thai. We’d both come a long way since then, so I told her all about my trip across the Trans-Siberian and Europe so far, and she described some of the beautiful sites she’d seen while she’d been vacationing in Spain. Rich was actually in Barcelona for part of a Spanish language component of her university studies, but she’d arrived early and done some traveling prior to the academic side of her holiday. However, she had been in town long enough to be able to play tour guide for me, so once we were done with breakfast we got ready and headed out to seize the day. Our apartment was right near Arc de Triomf which, having just arrived from Paris, made me do a quick double take. It seems erecting arches on the site of ones victories had been a pretty common tradition at some point in European history. Barcelona’s arch was a fraction of the size of the Parisian one, but it was a still a beautiful piece of architecture among the charming Catalonian neighbourhood. That was one thing I had underestimated before arriving in Barcelona – the desire to distinguish the west coast culture of Catalonia from the rest of Spain. “Argh, it’s so frustrating that I can’t read all the signs!” Rich had bemoaned out loud. I’d been confused at first, knowing that she basically spoke fluent Spanish, but it turns out that most of the signs were in Catalan – a distinction one could probably only make if they actually knew at least one of the two languages. It was at that point that I realised, despite a five week trip to Costa Rica followed by almost a year of language lessons, I really knew next to nothing of the Spanish language.

A beautiful and sunny day in Barcelona.

A beautiful and sunny day in Barcelona.

Rich and I walked to the metro station and caught a train across town to one of the sights she suggested – the botanical gardens and Montjuïc Castle. In proper European fashion, the town was one architectural delight after the next, from the Magic Fountain of Montjuïc, which comes alive with a colourful light show at night, to the beautiful Italian-style building that was Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, or the National Art Museum of Catalonia, to the classical castle itself, which also gave stunning panoramic views of both the city and the harbour and seaside. In our attempt to find the castle, we also got a little lost and somehow stumbled across the Olympic Stadium from when Barcelona hosted the games in 1992, which we were able to have a peek into as well. Afterwards we wandered through the streets on our way back downtown, with Rich pointing out all the features of the cities buildings, and we stopped for a lunch of traditional Spanish cuisine: paella. Despite it being included in every example in every Spanish textbook I’d ever used in my studies, I’d never had the pleasure of eating paella, let alone paella in Spain, so it was a small novelty that made me quite happy.

Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, with the famous fountain in front.

Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, with the famous fountain in front.

The Barcelona Olympic Stadium.

The Barcelona Olympic Stadium.

Inside the stadium.

Inside the stadium.

Montjuïc castle.

Montjuïc castle.

The view of the port from the top of the castle.

The view of the port from the top of the castle.

The view over the city from the castles vantage point on Montjuïc Hill.

The view over the city from the castles vantage point on Montjuïc Hill.

From there we walked home through the historic centre of Barcelona, and up the famous main street, La Rambla. “You have to be really careful around here,” Rich cautioned as we strolled past the many shops and stalls that lined the dividing strip of the street. “Street theft is a pretty big problem. They’re not just opportunists – they actually have professional pick pockets.” It wasn’t so much a matter of safety as it was just keeping your wits about you, and your valuables out of your back pockets. While I’d fallen for a couple of irritating scams along the way, I’d been extremely lucky when it came to a matter of forceful theft on this trip, so I found myself being extra cautious so that I didn’t spoil that record, although most people just seemed to be peddling their standard cheap and tacky souvenirs. Eventually we turned off the main road and wandered through the smaller streets, adorned with art work and exquisite sculpturing, and grabbed a delicious gelato before returning home to rest and ready ourselves for the coming night out.

Rich and I waiting for the paella.

Rich and I waiting for the paella.

The delicious paella.

The delicious paella.

Tiny side streets of Barcelona.

Tiny side streets of Barcelona.

***

The following day, and in fact most of the rest of my time in Barcelona, was spent relaxing and chilling out, rather than seeing any more sights or doing anything particularly touristic. Barcelona was flooded with tourists for the summer, and I didn’t enjoy feeling like a sheep in that collective. Though one of the things I had been most excited for in Barcelona was the beach, so the next day Rich and I took it easy after our night of partying and spent the afternoon soaking up the sun on the sand, and I also ventured out into the waves. The most striking thing about Playa de St Sebastià was that it was “clothing optional”, but unlike many nude beaches I’ve known or visited back in Sydney, which are usually small strips of sand tucked away in the far corners of the city, this beach was one of the main beaches of Barcelona and it was packed. Men, women, children, families, couples, big groups – the sand was full of all kinds of people and a good 50% of them were baring all for the world to see. Topless sunbathing isn’t such a big deal in Australia, but these women had stripped off entirely, as had the men. I have nothing against nudity, but it did feel a little different from previous beaches I’d been to. I think what struck me as so peculiar was how many people, including myself, remained relatively covered up. I’ve always felt as though there’s some weird reverse taboo about actually leaving your swimsuit on at a clothing optional beach, but the term ‘optional’ is taken very literally here – you’re free to chose, and naked and the modest mingle as though there was no difference in their attire at all.

The beach where Rich and I spent the afternoon in the sun.

The beach where Rich and I spent the afternoon in the sun.

In addition to being a nude beach, I’d also read that Playa de St Sebastià was a gay beach, though while it was frequently by gaggles of gays showing off their naked bodies, there was an equal amount of small children also running around naked, something one wouldn’t expect at a designated ‘gay beach’. I guess the atmosphere was just so liberal and carefree that it attracted all kinds of people. Rich and I stayed there all afternoon, and when we were done we decided to walk home instead of catching the metro. The streets of Barcelona were the perfect blend of seaside relaxation and a festive, lively flair. In the early evening, when the sun was setting but the streets were bathed in twilight, we went for another walk and saw may people in the parks around Arc de Triomf and saw lots of skateboarders and roller skaters, as well as street performers and other people just enjoying a stroll down the promenade. Compared to my arrival on my first morning in Barcelona, it felt like the city had finally woken up.

Arc de Triomf and the promenade during the day.

Arc de Triomf and the promenade during the day.

Although, while the city had definitely woken up during the day, there’s always a lull in activity when most people observe the beloved Spanish tradition of an afternoon nap, or siesta. They slowly take their time waking up again in the afternoon, but it’s when the sun goes down that the city truly comes alive…