The Passport Files: Barcelona

My passport turns ten this March, which also means it will expire. It’s a good time to look back on ten years’ of travel. First up: My first touchdown on another continent, and my first solo trip.

Las Ramblas, Barcelona

It’s been ten years since I ordered my passport and bought a $360 Lufthansa ticket to Barcelona. It would be silly to “review” the place now; Spain was still operating on the dirt-cheap peseta when I was there, I’ve forgotten most of the places I saw, and a great deal of what I did involved great quantities of beer and sangria. My aim in this series is not to review the places I’ve been for current travelers, although I’ll try to mention some attractions and accommodations when I can remember specifics. Rather, I want to get my thoughts and memories down, at least the ones worth reading about. Despite the fact that in my spare time I’m a writer, and despite the fact that technically my college major was “Journalism,” on most of my trips I did not keep a journal. So, before I wash my brain cells with any more alcohol, I’d like to put some memories in writing, provided they don’t involve me passing out in a chair by the hostel’s swimming pool.

When I bought that ticket, I was working a temp job in CBS’s legal department. I had just moved to New York City, and at that time I was content to spin my wheels, in essence to get paid for looking for a job. You see, in 1999-2000, they were handing out jobs at the airport. The science that made this website possible had infiltrated everyone’s sense of self worth, to the point that we all just assumed we could turn down jobs until the right one came along. If CBS wanted to pay me to transcribe legal documents for an hour a day and surf the web for the other seven, well, I was more than happy to take that deal. This atmosphere – what we now call the dot-com bubble – also convinced me that it was perfectly okay to take a vacation in the middle of a temp assignment. “I thought only permanent employees could take time off,” said one worker passive-aggressively. I’d quit my last temp job in the middle of a job-hunting “vacation” just so I could stay in New York, rather than return to Wisconsin. I figured that assuring CBS I’d be back on May 6 was a step up in terms of professionalism.

I chose Barcelona mostly because it fit my big three criteria: It was warm, it was on an ocean or sea, and it was big enough and cultured enough that I’d find things to do if it rained. (One bonus was that my swarthy looks would allow me to blend in rather nicely, a consideration for numerous trips from South America to Western Asia.) I also chose it because I wanted to work on my Spanish, forgetting the locals’ disdain for Castilian in favor of the regional Catalan tongue. (You Spanish speakers won’t be spat on for using it – don’t worry.)

My plane ticket and my passport – that was the extent of my planning. A couple of days before my flight, I hastily researched a hostel, Kabul on Las Ramblas. Today its website says, “if you only want to sleep, go somewhere else.” That was true then, too. Kabul was a den of cheap-beer consumption, cigarette smoking, laughing, yelling, card playing, and God knows what else, particularly before and after embarking for other watering holes for the night. (I’m sure the smoking rules have changed by now.) It was a great place to meet other travelers, and situated right on Las Ramblas, it was ideally located for the drunken sojourn back from the club, provided you could fend off the aggressive drug dealers and pickpockets. It was kind of like being in the bar from Star Wars, but for backpackers. Just bring your own sheets and some earplugs – there are no private rooms here, only shares.

Las Ramblas may be a tourist trap, but it’s one of those great pedestrian avenues of the world that’s worth at least one stroll. At the other end, just past a Christopher Columbus statue, lies the Mediterranean, so you’ll be delightfully rewarded regardless. The Olympic Village, site where the greatest basketball team ever assembled once played, lies just to the east.

Other walkable daytime destinations include Parque Guell and Sagrada Familia, both creations of Antoni Gaudi. Parque Guell offers a terrific vista of the city.

If you’d like to dance like a frat boy with other tourists, a pier filled with cheesy nightclubs stretches out onto the water near the end of Las Ramblas. If you’re looking for a more rustic nightlife, good times can also be had at Ovella Negra (the Black Sheep) – also near Las Ramblas. It’s probably no less touristy but will offer a different vibe.

When I stayed at Kabul, I went on an overnight trip with about ten other travelers to the small resort town of Sitges. It’s about 35 miles southwest and reachable by train. During the months of July and August it’s like the Spanish Provincetown – a major gay destination and party town – but in early May, the hotel rooms and bars were mostly empty. The beach was warm but the water was still cool. It was a welcome respite from busy Barcelona, and a good way for me to wrap up my stay.

If you’re considering traveling to Barcelona, be sure to check airfare in late February and into March. Iberia Airlines currently has flights from New York for as low as $483, but it might pay off to hold out – in March 2009, round trip tickets were available for $210. No, that’s not a misprint.

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