Back in 2000, whilst watching Pedro Almodovar’s movie, ‘All About My Mother’ on the big screen, I was blown away by an aerial scene of Barcelona at night. It started from a distance and then zoomed into the city at such vertiginous speed I felt as though I was falling into it, and I would crash-land in the middle of this bright, pulsating metropolis any second. At that moment I felt that this place, with all its beauty and seediness, was calling me.
I followed that call three years later, when I started ticking the items on my ‘bucket list’. I convinced my mother to come along; we are both Australian citizens, but were born in Bolivia and have Spanish ancestry in us, so in a way this was going to be a pilgrimage to our ‘mother-land’.
We landed in Barcelona on a hot September afternoon, but we didn’t have such an auspicious start. When we arrived at the airport, after a 30-hour trip made of four connecting flights and waiting time at airports, our suitcases weren’t on the carrousel. We found out that when we had nearly missed our connecting flight in Zurich, our luggage hadn’t made it to the plane and had been shipped via a different airline. It took us over an hour to retrieve it, the confusion being caused by the fact that our baggage had taken a much more direct route than us, and had arrived the previous day.
Finally, bags in hand, we made it to our hotel, located in the gothic quarter, in the heart of Barcelona. As soon as we freshened up, we went out again, intending to have a meal and a quick look around the neighbourhood. We were tired and jetlagged and wanted an early night.
Instead, we ended up walking for hours on end. The more we saw of Barcelona at night, the more we wanted to see. The streets were winding and narrow, a labyrinth of alleyways, packed with run-down apartment blocks with balconies and courtyards, shops, restaurants and gothic buildings entwined with medieval, Roman and modern architecture.
All the signs and even the map I bought, were in Catalan. We had expected they would be in Spanish and that we would be able to understand them, as both my Mother and I speak Spanish. We couldn’t even find the street where our hotel was on the map, until we worked out that Calle Fernando (Ferdinand Street) in Spanish was Carrer Ferran in Catalan.
We strolled along the pedestrian boulevard called La Rambla. It was a balmy evening and the breeze carried the salty smell of the sea, which was less than a kilometre away, at the other end of the boulevard. We were hungry but had to wait for the restaurants to open at 8.00pm, and by the time we had finished our seafood and chicken paella, washed down with authentic Spanish sangria, the bulk of the patrons were just starting to arrive. The paella had been mouth-watering, but I didn’t think much of the sangria. The one I was used to drinking in Australia was like a sweet fruit punch, whist the ‘authentic’ Spanish sangria tasted like bitter red wine saturated with lemon.
Afterwards we walked on uneven cobblestones around the Gothic quarter, all the way down Via Layetana to the waterfront and back, passing several monuments, historical buildings and the imposing Gothic Cathedral known as La Seu, although we could see from a distance that it was being renovated and partially covered in mesh. Aromas of saffron, rice and seafood wafted from the restaurants, which were busier and noisier than when we had our dinner, over two hours earlier. It was a weekday, a Wednesday, but the city gave no signs of going to sleep any time soon.
We headed towards Plaza La Seu after eleven o'clock at night. On the way there we decided to take a closer look at the cathedral, whose construction – I had read – had started in the 12th century, although it wasn't finished until 1460. ‘Awe’ – a mixture of wonder and fright – is the closest word to describe what I felt as we approached the medieval building from the back and walked around it through a narrow, half-lit alley. I swore, when I looked up, I could see the gargoyles unfurling their stone wings, readying to ambush us. While we walked that long deserted alleyway, we had the distinct sense of having stepped into a tale of Gothic horror and I felt my mother’s grip tighten around my arm.
When we made it to the other side, arriving at the well-lit Plaza La Seu, the atmosphere was transformed. Even though it was nearly midnight, and the cathedral was closed for renovations, the square was buzzing with activity. Families, couples and tourists were strolling, drinking, dining, walking their dogs, or sitting on steps and benches in the street, in restaurants and coffee shops. Children of all ages were playing soccer, roller-skating and riding bikes. The life and energy that the place exuded were infectious, even for these two weary, jetlagged travellers.
I had never been to Barcelona before, and yet there was a flash of recognition inside me at that moment. I had arrived home.
Panoramic view of Barcelona at night from http://remgriff.files.wordpress.com/2008/07/pano.jpg
Gargoyles at La Seu Cathedral, Barcelona
Bel Vidal - Débutante novelist (author of Exuberance), blogger,