Barcelona is basically the Nerve Center of Spain – only Madrid is larger in size, but Madrid is the capitol, stuck in the mountains, cold, and, well, it’s just not Barcelona. Simply put, Barcelona rocks. I spent one night there a couple of weeks ago, and I felt like I needed to take a long rest break after I left. This is a city that runs on the energy of its citizens.
Barcelona ( pronounced with a lisp: ‘Bartheloma ‘) is on the right coast, a few hours above Valencia. The thing you notice most about Barcelona is that everybody is outside, all the time. The weather was sunny but chilly – in the east coast of Spain the wind comes down from the mountains, and when there’s snow on them there mountains, a chilly wind does blow.
Which fazes the citizenry not one bit. The sidewalks are filled with tables and chairs, some of which have awnings and wind curtains. From morning till late in the night, these open-air cafes and bars are jammed with patrons, seemingly uncaring about the wind chill. I honestly don’t know if they’re more cold-blooded than we are, or they just don’t want to be seen cowering inside in search of central heat. I suspect it’s cultural, but I know this: it’s contagious. I spent zero time in my hotel room, preferring to just walk the streets and look at the people, stopping every hour or so for something to drink or eat, basically melding into the rhythm of the city.
The streets often have a center mall built into them – this strip of center sidewalk is choc-a-block with motor-cycles and scooters, and often has beautiful benches, inlaid with mosaic tiles, there for the resting pleasure of those people who need to kill a little time waiting for the crossing light.
A brief explanation is in order regarding the whole ‘crossing the street’ thing. First of all, the pedestrian lights have no yellow signal – the green flashes briefly – very briefly – and then the whole shebang goes red. If you’re silly enough to get caught mid-street when the light goes red, simply put, you’re fair game.
Have I mentioned that nobody in Barcelona just toddles along? Every intersection looks like the starting line at the Indianapolis Brickyard on Memorial Day, everybody revving their engines and exchanging confident, knowing glances that seem to say, “ The second this sucker goes green, I am Out Of Here. Muy pronto, hasta la vista, Baby, zero to infinity…” – you get the idea.
So what you have is a city of infinite intersections, crammed with speed demons on two and four wheels, eager to go like a Bat out of Hell all the way to next intersection, where a lot of slamming of brakes happens, and everybody sits there, getting ready for the next lap.
Meanwhile, nobody, and I mean, nobody, jumps a red light. Doesn’t happen. Rules are rules. Jay-walking is common, but honestly, there’s precious little difference between that and legal crossing. The second that green pedestrian light starts flashing, anybody silly enough to get caught in the road just plain Beats Feet. Back in High School we had something like this in track practice – it was called ‘wind sprints.’
So what you have, city wide, in thousands of intersections, is fanatical acceleration, heavy braking, and a cross-current of scrambling, dashing citizens, each trying to catch their breath before the next walk-light pops green.
And get this: I never saw or heard any accident, any swearing, any rude gestures. This whole Formula One crossed with Olympic Trials thing is just business as usual. Another day in the Windy City. No wonder everybody is thin.
Let me also mention this: in this and the next city in this saga, one of the reasons I love to walk around looking at people is that so few of them look unhappy. There are couples of all ages holding hands, often kissing, usually very well dressed, and simply put, outside and enjoying life. This kind of thing could catch on.
I only spent a night in Barcelona, but I spent four nights in Seville. Why? Because I could.
Seville basically stole my heart. It is the fourth largest city, about 700,000 folks, and some smart people began designing it into a tourist-friendly town many years ago. The main street in the city is serviced by a tram that looks like it’s out of the set of Blade Runner, but runs at a reasonable speed among the pedestrians – think of it as Seville’s version of San Francisco’s cable cars. During the day, this place is swamped with people, many of them vacationers from the rest of Spain, walking up and down the streets, and dining outside on sidewalks under the orange trees, heavy with fruit.
The town vies with Madrid as the true home of Flamenco – there are guitar-makers in every block, and the street are full of performers, playing at all levels of talent, on every instrument you can think of, accordians, fiddles, trumpets – I even heard a guy sawing away on an Erhu, a kind of Chinese cello – he was pretty good, if a little geographically confused. I rented a motor-scooter and toddled out to a suburb for a round of golf, and on the way spotted jugglers performing for handouts at an intersection. Jugglers at Red lights – Spain in a nutshell. Please don’t ask me about the golf – some things in Spain are very similar to some things in the US, including my putting.
I needed a haircut, so I thought, why not? A little hubris never hurt anybody. I’ve been hearing about this barber guy in Seville for years – as it turned out, it was Figaro’s day off, so a guy named Chano lowered my ears – as famous barbers go, he was pretty good. He was recommended by the staff at my hotel, and a brief word is in order about the Hotel AlfonsoXIII.
I generally rate hotels on the quality of their shower heads and towels. I figure I can sleep anywhere, and extra money for extra service is just biting into my slow horses/slower cars budget, so I’m basically a Motel 6 kind of guy. Or I was until I pitched up at Alfonso. It’s a registered landmark, owned by the city, run by a famous hotel chain, and it became one of the favorite characters in my trip. When was the last time you took a picture of your hotel lobby? It was a lovely combination of dark paneling, 30 foot high murals, 10 foot high flower arrangements, and a staff that couldn’t wait to book you a meal, rent you a scooter, find you a guitar maker ( or two ), and simply put, make you day a little better. Man, a guy could get used to this.
But everything ends, or in this case, is interrupted, because I’m not done with Seville by a long shot. Or Barcelona, for that matter. Onward.