September 28, 2012

I walked down the dirt path to the train station early this morning. It is quiet and calm and green outside of the city, and the vegetation is wild and rugged and abundant. It actually feels a lot like Central America to me.

After taking the train to the Plaça de Catalunya, I hopped aboard a bus to Montserrat, a mountaintop monastery about an hour outside of Barcelona. Montserrat is the second-most visited site in all of Spain, so the bus was packed, but I managed to snag a seat at the front. The countryside outside of Barcelona is scattered with sharp and rocky peaks, which are covered by scrubby trees and plants. Villages dot the landscape in little pockets of white and pink and orange, but the land is mostly wild.

The bus drove through the valley, gradually gaining in elevation, and then Montserrat was in view, higher than the other peaks, bare rock spires reaching skyward. When the bus came to a stop, I climbed aboard a cog railway, the land dropping away around me.

The monastery (built originally in 1025) sits atop the mountain. The view is tremendous and, while I found the outside of the basilica unremarkable (the original structure was destroyed by war and fire), the inside was really quite beautiful. I wandered around for a bit and then found a seat in the nave to listen to the boys choir.

The monastery supports a music-based boarding school for about thirty boys, and the students sing for visitors every day at 1pm. When they came out together in two neat lines — black robes and white tunics and looking so solemn — everyone in the basilica breathed in together and smiled. Because they were ADORABLE. When they sang, their eyes were bright and their eyebrows raised and their voices were pure and high and I wished they would go on singing forever.

The monastery is said to hide the Holy Grail (Napoleon literally dismantled the place stone by stone in an effort to locate it). I looked around, thinking that maybe I could find it, but no luck.

When I got back to Barcelona, I set out to explore El Raval, the grittier cousin of Las Ramblas. Like many of the barrios in Barcelona, El Raval is full of narrow streets replete with balconies of Catalan flags and drying clothes waving in the breeze. But it’s just a little bit dirtier, a little bit sketchier. I felt totally safe exploring in the daytime, but I understand why people tell you to be on your guard at night.

Having already walked a several of miles by that point, I nevertheless decided to take on an adventure of epic proportions: there is an aerial tram from eastern edge of the waterfront all the way up to the peak that lies on the western side of the city, so I put the tower in my sights and began working my way towards it, intent on taking the cable car over the city as the sun set.

Today I learned that one’s relation to a tall landmark on the horizon can be monumentally deceptive. As I walked, it didn’t really seem like the tower was getting any closer. But I persevered, walking at a good clip, enjoying the sites along the way. Even after my legs started aching, I walked on. Even after I took several wrong turns, I walked on. Even after my feet started pulsing, I walked on. I walked and I walked and I walked along the entire waterfront and then halfway down La Barceloneta. I eventually began talking to myself, serving as a cheerleader, which made me laugh out loud and appear even crazier. But still, I walked on. And then, at last, I was there, Glory Hallelujah, I had made it the nearly six miles to the tower. And there was rejoicing! And there was mirth! And there was merriment!

And there was also a sign: CERRADO POR FUERTE VIENTO.

That's right. It was closed.

And, honestly, this was such a perfect ending to my journey that I didn't even mind. I just threw my hands into the air and then lay down on the ground.

Eventually, I rallied and hailed a cab back to Las Ramblas, where I got a delicious paella dinner and then walked to La Perla 29 Teatre at La Biblioteca Catalunya. I’ve heard that Madrid is Spain’s big theatre town, so it must be pretty great, as there is so muchtheatre in Barcelona. (The brochure I have lists 57 theatre and dance shows playing this week.) Most of the plays are in Catalan, and I wanted there to be at least a remote possibility that I would understand what the hell was going on, so I picked out a production of Luces de Bohemia, a classic Spanish play written in 1920 by Ramón María del Valle-Incán. Since it’s so well-known here (everyone reads it in school), I was able to find a synopsis online, as well as a few articles explaining the play’s historical context and literary relevance.

The space was really cool — raised, three-quarter seating against walls of exposed stone, high Gothic ceilings, and a dirt floor. The set was simple, featuring a streetlight, a bar front, and a few tables and chairs that moved around depending on the scene. There must have been a fog machine running on a low setting for the entire evening, as the space stayed very atmospheric, the light cutting through the air in graceful lines. The acting was fantastic, the mise en scene was truly beautiful, and I was even able to understand some of the language.

I walked back into the mountains late at night, my mind full of Spanish poetry. This is a wonderful city.