Vive! España!

Barcelona...the beauty, the art, the people

Having heard so much about the city of Barcelona, the beauty, the art, and the people, I decided it was time to dust off the old Spanish vocab and check it out myself.  After eight years of high school and college level Spanish, I thought I knew a decent amount of the language.  What I quickly learned was how those lessons once memorized become vague recollections without constant practice.  Now I was only prepared with a few key phrases in the field.  I knew some necessities like “¿Dónde están los baños?” Where are the restrooms?  “Cerveza, por favor.”  Beer, please.  And “Ayuda me!”  Help me!  This last one could come in particularly good use after enough “cervezas, por favor.” 

But what about something more grammatically complex?  Like, “No, I don’t think poking the bulls while running with them is a very good idea!”  This could be handy in Pamplona during San Fermín, otherwise known as the Running of the Bulls.  But what does this have to do with me, you may be asking?  Good question. 

I wanted to experience the Spanish language more fully, to learn it and live it.  I had already decided Barcelona was my top choice, now I just needed to sign up for an immersion program.  My trip would be both an exciting vacation and an educational experience.

Barcelona is located in the Catalunya region on the northwestern coastline of Spain and its first language isn’t Castilian (how Spaniards call the Spanish language) but Catalan.  Catalan is a language rooted in Latin, like Spanish, that is unique to the region.  Luckily, most Barcelonians speak both Castilian and Catalan. Interestingly, many don’t learn the Spanish language until they reach primary school. 

When visiting Barcelona, I suggest you start by finding a nice outdoor café to rest, relax, and begin feeling the vibe of the city.  If you’re docking in the marina walk towards the Christopher Columbus monument – it’s hard to miss.  You can take a stroll here along the oldest part of the harbor, Port Vell. 

Then head straight behind the towering Columbus statue to check out Las Ramblas.  What you will see and experience on Las Ramblas will leave you entertained and coming back for more.  This pedestrian boulevard beginning at the port leads 2 km into the city and is a constant source of activity with its restaurants, shops, hotels, and more.  There are people milling about, selling crafts, food, and even live pets.  It’s a people watcher’s paradise.  If you stayed in one spot all afternoon, you would see a wide variety of street artists and performers – from the serious to the silly. 

There are many living statues along the streets and depending on how you react to clown or mime like people... it could be a funny or scary experience.  However, you have to appreciate the commitment these performers demonstrate.  They are dressed in a variety of costumes like the stalwart seafarer, wearing full stormy weather gear, ringing a bell, steering a wheel and rocking a person-sized ship.  And down the street, you’ll find a modern day Atlas carrying the world on his back.  They stay perfectly still until that moment you drop a Euro or two in their hat and then they spring to life – ringing bells and swinging the world round and round.  It’s really quite exciting to watch.

People watching on Las Ramblas will be much more enjoyable if you’re having delicious tapas and even yummier sangría.  Tapas are the perfect snack – in fact that is exactly what they are – small portions of food.  Make sure you wash all that down with a glass of sangría, a mix of red wine, brandy, and fruit.  If you pass by Italiano’s, a gelateria and bar, along Las Ramblas, take a seat and drink sangría out of a glass the size of your head – and it’s not just quantity here, but quality too.

You should be feeling pretty good by this point and may want to partake in a very old Spanish tradition – siesta.  Experiencing a true siesta made me long for a revolution to take hold of the U.S.  Everyone goes home and rests for a couple of hours and then dives right back in to whatever it is they do regularly – except refreshed.  Imagine what life would be like without that 3 o’clock slump.  No running for the coffee maker or wishing you could crawl under the desk for a 20-minute catnap.  Can you imagine? 

One thing in particular separates Barcelona from the rest of Spain and that is the work left behind by Antoni Gaudí (1852 – 1926).  An architect, an innovator, and an artist, Gaudí’s genius is undeniable.  He found inspiration in nature and its impact upon him is evident in his creations.  One of his most remarkable structures is La Sagrada Familia, a basilica of astonishing proportions and exquisite detail.  Its construction began in the early 1880’s originally under architect Francesco del Villar.  However, after disagreements with the founders, Gaudí was assigned to the project.

More than one hundred years later, La Sagrada Familia, is still under construction.  Due to lack of funding and war times, the project was slow to finish.  Gaudí spent the majority of his life dedicated to its completion and today there are architects working hard to realize his vision for this magnificent cathedral. 

When you visit La Sagrada Familia come prepared, physically and mentally, if you want the full tour.  You can walk around the outer parts of the church examining the detailed craftsmanship, like the Nativity scene. Go inside and stare up at the beautifully vaulted ceilings and visit the museum below to see the workshop full of people creating miniatures of the basilica, following Gaudí’s original specifications.  But, if you want the full meal deal, you’ll want a view from the top.  There are two ways to do this and neither way is especially easy.

However, the first way is definitely easier.  After standing in line patiently, or not so patiently, for an indeterminable amount of time, you board an elevator taking you up a tower.  Once there you still have to climb a winding stairwell. At the top, enjoy the view of the city and an interesting angle of the on-going construction. Then you must walk, yes walk – no elevator ride here – all the way down. 

The second way is to walk both up and down the tower. However, one word of advice, if you are even mildly afraid of heights, experience vertigo, have bad knees, claustrophobic, or any other relatable issue, I would not suggest this route.  As someone constantly trying to overcome her fear of heights, this was a hard lesson learned.  The stairwell is more than just winding; it’s a tight, narrow space without a handrail and has a hole in the middle allowing you to look all the way up and all the way down to the ground.  Let’s just say, after an hour and a half trying to reach the top, I had one too many uncomfortable thoughts about the way down.  My friend, the more adventurous one, had no problems.  I’ll say I’m glad I did it but I doubt I’ll venture up those stairs again any time soon.

The Sagrada Familia experience gave me a fine appreciation for the depth and breadth of Gaudí’s vision.  I only hope it isn’t another hundred years before it’s officially completed.  Two other places I would highly recommend a special visit to are Casa Batlló and Parc Güell.  These demonstrate Gaudí’s accomplishments and can only deepen your admiration for him.  The trip to Casa Batlló includes an audio tour and is well worth it.  Make sure you can take some time for Parc Güell; this park was once where Gaudí made his home.  His imagination ran wild here – it is visually stunning – a definite high point.

Barcelona can sweep you away with all it has to offer.  Las Ramblas and Gaudí are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to discovering this city.  My time there was wonderful and inspiring.  The best part was being able to practice Español.  Studying in a classroom and being forced to use it is the best way to really learn.  I only wish I could have stayed longer but trust me, I’m planning my return.

More Stories By Laura Albers

Laura Albers, who both wrote this article and took the photos, is a graduate student.

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