BARCELONA, SPAIN: It is in the nature of my work that, while I do travel a lot, it is almost always of the 'here today, gone tomorrow' nature. A plane flight or two to somewhere in Europe, drive a new car, overnight with dinner, drive again the next morning and away at lunchtime to the airport again. It doesn't give time to more than sample places, and make - almost inevitably broken - promises to come back and give it more time.
Barcelona in Spain is one of those places where I've flitted into like a butterfly many times in recent years. I guess it is because the roads system around and outside the city is a great mixture of qualities and types of carriageway, with also some splendid scenery, that car companies have been favouring the area lately.
It is also, from an Irish journalist's point of view, often an easy place to get to, there being quite a few direct flights from Dublin. That's one less airport to be hanging around in, or racing through, on a trip.
This week, because I had two trips back to back, one to Barcelona and the other to Mainz in Germany, I opted out of returning to Dublin and arranged to fly directly from Barcelona to Frankfurt, arriving roughly at the same time as colleagues coming out from Dublin. It gave me the opportunity to stay an extra night in the Catalonian capital, and, of course, an extra half day as well.
So I'm writing this on my trusty AlphSmart Dana in a Pizza Marzano on the Rambla, as a city that works hard by day gets ready to play hard at night. The 'hard' epithet may be a little rough, rather they get out and enjoy themselves. I suspect there's more than a little of the same Celtic gene here as we Irish have. Only here they do things in much greater style.
I'm footsore, though no longer tired after a couple of hours of a nap in my hotel - not the 5-star one I was in last night, but a 3-star right in the heart of the Gothic quarter which is half the price I'd pay for in the centre of Dublin, is scrupulously clean, and every guest arriving is offered a glass of Spanish bubbly right there at the reception desk. Where else would you be going?
It was a great fun afternoon, slogging around the narrow tall streets and the alleyways that were often quite dingy on first look but invariably had a pearl or two of surprising shops. Like the one which specialises in stuff for visual entertainers - clown costumes, jugglers' balls and clubs, magician stuff. Or the emporium that sold nothing but holy pictures, christ and madonna statues, rosary beads, staffed by a couple of old dears who were dealing with customers of a surprising range of ages.
Of course, a typical Spanish thing, the number of places devoted to kids' clothes and toys is far and above what we'd have in Dublin. The Spaniards (oh, there's a term from the 19th century?) dote on their children and if it is a truism that adult Spanish people of modern generations are probably more stylish than their counterparts in Northern Italy, we know where it starts ...
There's no point in trying to deal with it in depth here, but Barcelona also has a great tradition of architectural style, from classic business-city broad boulevards to the excessively off-the-wall creations of Goudy, some of which are still being built long after his death. I particularly like the octagonal street intersections in the post-Gothic built areas, although they do have the effect of making it easy to get a little lost?
They have a light electric tramway system here, something like we've been building in Dublin for what seems like a century, and which is due to 'go live' in about three weeks. But what's really cool about it here in Barcelona is that they've planted grass back around and between the rails, instead of the raised and already rusty rails we're getting at home. It is really cool to see a tram gliding across grass, apparently in some kind of hover fashion. Surreal, almost.
And the famous Rambla itself? A mixture of fast food, souvenir shops, tarot card readers, 'statue' entertainers mostly painted in gold or silver, and a big number of outside tables operated by cafes where one can watch the passing theatre for the price of a beer or a coffee. It is arguably more interesting by night, and a writer with an ingrained habit of people watching can totally enjoy.
Anyway, it's been great, and before I head back out for a late stroll on the Rambla to my hotel, and probably another beer-and-people-watching session, I'm making another promise to myself. As far as possible, I intend to start stringing out these overnight trips by an extra day in the future. Time to myself. Because it is just not fair on these places to give them the rush treatment.
Before my friends and colleagues flew back home today, I'd suggested that I'd have two or three pieces written about the car we'd been driving before I came out to eat tonight. Hasn't happened, actually, but I don't feel guilty. There's a two-hour plane trip to Frankfurt in the morning, and that'll be plenty of time for them.
Carpe diem, isn't that it? And maybe even a couple of diems now and again. It's good for the soul. At the very least ...
(Written June 8 2004)