To make this easier, I am going to sort it into days. Huzzah! I’m not sure what is interesting and what is boring traveler tales, so it’s a bit long. Huzzah!
2-3-12: Reading to Stansted (Which is Technically in London but Really Not)
Hilary and I began our journey at 4:20 in the afternoon. A bus trip and a stop at the ticket booth, and we were off! Our first train was direct to Paddington, so it went by very fast. Caught the tube from there, then the Express from Liverpool Station. Aside from a few slight mix-ups, all that went well. The Express was incredibly slow (due to delays). A desperate German guy was quite distressed about potentially missing his flight to Berlin. When we finally pulled into Stansted Airport, he bolted out the door and ran up the going-down escalators.
We had already reserved a hotel for the night. We decided to go with a taxi for transportation, as it was getting late and we weren’t sure how else to get to the hotel we’d reserved. Hiring a taxi at the desk was easy, but it took a few tries to figure out how to escape the airport. “This is the hardest part of the leg!” we complained after finding the glass doors locked. Then we spotted a British guy go out another set of doors and we followed. Freedom!
Located the hotel, checked in without a hitch, went to our room… but the power wouldn’t turn on. We worked at it for about ten minutes before we figured out you have to leave the room key in a slot. Apparently we are expert travelers, but the smaller details are our inevitable failing. Had dinner in the hotel (extensive but yummy), showered and got to bed.
2-4-12: London to Barcelona – How We Almost Died, but then We Thrived
At 3:30 a.m. we were up! Checked out, caught the shuttle (which the taxi company had neglected to mention the night before), then got to the airport. Ryanair (or maybe all European flights?) insists that travelers have their tickets cross checked with their visas and then stamped before the travelers go through security, so though Hilary and I had already checked in we had to stand in an everlasting line to get our tickets checked. That done, we went through security. Both our bags were pulled out to be checked. I’m still not sure why mine was chosen–Hilary’s had toothpaste loose.
We grabbed coffee/water/breakfast and waited for our gate to come up. They only assign the gate when boarding starts, which means when our gate came up (42) we had to run halfway across the universe to find it. However, we arrived in good time. Hilary had accidentally chosen priority seating, so she had to sit by herself in the front while I sat back with the commoners. I read for most of the flight. At one point we hit really bad turbulence, possibly the worst I’ve ever been in. It lasted about ten minutes with us diving and climbing and turning like a roller-coaster. Everyone else seemed to be pretty nervous–and though the sight of the mountains did make me squirm a little, I also found myself grinning. Maybe I should be a pilot.
Despite the majority opinion of the passengers, we did not die, but in fact had a peaceful landing in sunny Barcelona. Hilary and I grabbed a bus into the city and located our hostel. Neither of us had stayed in a hostel before, so we were both a little nervous and eager to see what it would be like. We were staying in the Sant Jordi Hostel chain, in their Sant Jordi Alberg one. It was really clean, and reminded me a little of a dorm, with a shared kitchen, dining room and living areas. We couldn’t see our room yet, so we stored our backpacks and went off to find the Rambla, a famous street in the city.
By now I was famished, so we made a pit stop in one of Barcelona’s many, many cafes for second breakfast (ham and cheese sandwich + tea). We consulted a map the hostel had given us. Full and warm, we set out again. By following the crowds, we were able to locate the street.
La Rambla is long and wide, typically European with crowds and tourist shops. We walked down, admiring the buildings and people. At one point we followed the crowds into a covered market off the main drag. It was packed with people, meat, cheese, candy, fruits, fish, spices–all color and sound and Spanish.
Later we left La Rambla again and wandered in the side streets. Once you left the Rambla, the crowds nearly disappeared (which I’ve found also true in Venice and Rome). We popped into an old church (Placa de Sant Josep Oriol) and poked around. Then we returned to the street for some tourist shopping. Both Hilary and I picked up some hand painted Spanish fans. We headed toward the harbor, believing that to be the location of the famous cathedral. (In fact, it was not the location.) Before things got too sketchy, we started asking English speaking locals for directions. We made our way back up the street, down another side street, but we never did find the cathedral. (I should have googled pictures of it before we left, because we thought some other tiny church might be it.) We did pass some interesting shops, including a weapons store where I stood at the window and gaped for several minutes. Unfortunately I wasn’t checking any luggage, and I doubted Ryanair would let me bring a dagger or pistol on the flight with me.
Stopped at a little bistro for lunch and chirros (wasn’t that great, sadly). Then went back up the Rambla. I bought a scarf and art print on the way. Before we left the area, Hilary wanted to do some clothes shopping. I followed her in, and ended up buying a very pretty knit dress for quite cheap.
Then we went back to the hostel. Hilary was planning to go out that night to the “Crazy Saturday Night Party” the hostel was hosting. Since we were running on very little sleep, we thought it wise for her to nap. We were able to go into our rooms at this point. We were in a mixed six person room, and when we looked in it appeared from the mess that we would be sharing it with four boys. But at least we were together! We poked around the room (which had nice lockers and a balcony). Then I went out to the lounge area to read while Hilary slept.
A few hours later, we were both starving. We asked the fellow at the desk to recommend a local restaurant. It was only 6:30, and he looked at us like we were completely insane. “You want to eat now??” But he gave us some tips, and we set out. On the way we popped into a Napal shop and got ourselves lost, so it worked out in the end. Well, except that we ended up in the wrong restaurant (which we only found out later). But there was some very pretty Art Nouveau architecture across the street, so worth it in my mind. I had teriyaki chicken and a weird fried cheese thing (sort of like a mozzarella stick but without the texture of cheese.)
Walked back to the hostel (passing the restaurant he’d actually recommended on the way). Some Brazilian travelers were making a traditional dish for dinner, and invited everyone to eat with them. It was very good! We sat together and swapped stores and watched part of the football (soccer) game. I helped Hilary wash the dishes and clean the kitchen when we were done. I never got around to donating two euros for the meal, so I’m going to say my labor paid for the little I ate.
People started drinking around then, in preparation for the party. I had this interesting exchange:
Friendly Girl: Are you going to go to the party tonight?
Me: Um, no. I’m not really a partier, and actually I don’t drink. Plus I’m pretty tired.
Friendly Girl: Oh! … Why did you come to Barcelona, if not to party?
Me: Um… To see the cathedrals…?
Heh! Anyway, eventually they all left. I crawled into bed and equipped myself with white noise, a hoodie, a dark blanket, a sleeping mask, and a sleeping pill. With these helpful aids, I managed to mostly sleep through the night (though the guys coming back to turn the lights on and off repeatedly and shout about the football game did make it difficult). Over all, a good day and successful conquering of hostel life.
2-5-12: Barcelona to London – The Sagrada Familia and the Blizzard
Woke around 9:30. Got dressed, got my stuff together. Hilary woke shortly after. We checked out, then took off to find the Sagrada Familia.
We stopped in a cafe for breakfast (two delicious donuts and tea). The workers only spoke Spanish, and it wasn’t till I sat down after ordering through sign language that I realized I probably could have pieced together enough of the language to order in Spanish. Oh well. It was yummy.
About a half hour later (with some help from a friendly Spanish gentleman), we approached the Sagrada Familia. For those that don’t know, this is a church that began being built in 1883 (estimated completion is 2026). It’s designed by Gaudi primarily, but is constructed with the touch of many modern artists. When I was getting ready to see it, I wasn’t sure I’d like it. Modern? Not so cool. But it was actually one of my most amazing experiences I’ve had in a cathedral.
You have to buy tickets to get in. I actually didn’t mind this, because the tickets are one of the ways they pay for the construction. It’s kind of cool to be part of the project, albeit in a very, very small way. The line was short, and soon we found ourselves walking in.
My jaw literally dropped. I’m not sure when the last time was that I felt so awed by a cathedral. It was massive–bigger on the inside–with white marble and tree-like columns. It felt like walking into a white forest (or Lothlorien), with your eyes constantly drawn up. It was such a contrast to St. Peter’s in Rome. St. Peter’s is huge, but to me it also felt heavy. The mighty weight of the church was awe inspiring but also a little oppressive. In Sagrada Familia, it was the opposite. It was huge, but it felt light and airy.
The stained glass was breathtaking. The colors were vivid, flowing from reds to blues to greens and so on. I was looking at them, wondering why Gaudi hadn’t used figures to portray Biblical stories (as is traditional). Then I thought, “God is in these colors. These colors celebrate God vividly.” The simplicity of the colors was so beautiful. More touching to my soul than illustrations would have been.
They were having mass and singing below the church. Hilary and I watched. It was sort of ethereal, listening to the songs under the white marble trees.
Parts of the church are still unfinished, with clear windows instead of stained glass. When it’s done, it’ll be amazing.
We peeked in a side room at a short exhibit about Gaudi’s design process. It was really cool to see how he was inspired by nature (especially local nature), but he used modernism.
Went out the “back” (opposite the temporary entrance, but really the side of the church). The Nativity scene again took away my breath. It was so expressive–deceptively simple at first glance, but actually complex. It was like a puzzle. The longer you stared, the more you saw.
On the way out, we stopped in the gift shop. Then we wandered back toward the Rambla. It was a long walk, with no buses running the way we wanted to go. We stopped in Plaza Catalunya to kill some time chasing pigeons and watching the locals feed the birds. We ate lunch in a little restaurant. The waiter was incredibly sweet, an older man who barely spoke English but who joked with us and got us laughing. It was very fun.
After lunch, we walked a bit more on the Rambla. I bought a fun coffee mug. But we were cold and quite tired (we’d walked a good deal of the city already). We grabbed some gelato, then went ahead and caught the bus to the airport. After getting through security, we stopped for tea. Then we killed time by looking in all the duty free shops. I found a bright yellow plushie of the Sagrada Familia, which I half wish I had bought because it was just so weird. As I later explained to Hilary, “I don’t know about you, but my reaction to that church wasn’t, ‘I really need this to be a plushie!'” Still not sure if I was horrified or delighted.
We amused ourselves in the airport for several hours. At long last we got on the flight and made our way back to London. There wasn’t bad turbulence. However, there had been a “blizzard” in London earlier that day. This combined with a crazy thick fog made for the first landing where I literally couldn’t see anything out the window. But we were able to land.
Hilary wanted to try to make it back to Reading that night, so she could get to her class at 9 the next morning. I already had the hotel reserved for the night, and considering it was one in the morning I decided to opt out of trying to maneuver buses and trains (some of which were closed anyway). The hotel shuttle wasn’t running that late, so I hired a taxi. There was an hour delay for taxis, so I took a seat to wait. Not long after I had sat down, Hilary came to find me. Apparently the bus wasn’t leaving till three in the morning and wouldn’t get to Reading until nine thirty. She decided to go back to the hotel with me and then attempt to catch the first train. She left to grab some food and drinks for us while I kept waiting for the taxi.
A little after this, I overheard one of the taxi agents telling some other customers (who wanted to go to the same hotel) that they could just take the parking bus out and it would drop them off across the street. I canceled my reservation, then Hilary and I set out to catch the bus. It was rather confusing, because we both had assumed the bus had one stop and then we’d just walk. But it had several stops, and in the thick fog we could barely see anything. At last I spotted the McDonald’s arches, which were near the hotel, so we got off and prepared for a hike in the snow and a dash across the busy streets. We started to walk, and then the bus driver pulled up beside us. “Where are you going?” he asked. “Um, to the hotel,” I answered, though technically the taxi guy had told us not to tell him this. The bus driver told us to get back in, it was too slippery to go walking and he’d drop us off there. So we did, and he did. I’m not sure if he normally stops there or if he just felt bad for us.
About two thirty in the morning we finally were in the hotel and in bed. Glorious.
2-6-12: London to Reading – A Peaceful Return
Hilary got up early and left. I had intended to lounge around, have breakfast, and generally chill out, but when I woke up I was quite nauseous. Armed with shortbread Hilary had bought me the night before, I decided to go ahead and get the last leg of the journey over with.
It was quite peaceful, actually. Everything was covered in snow, so it was fun to watch out the window. I stopped in Liverpool and Paddington for changes, so I was able to get a nice warm lunch. I finally arrived in Reading about two in the afternoon.
Over all, an exciting adventure.