Kayaking and festivities and more Gaudí

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Ok, the kayaking. The people who run that outfit really know their target market. The Kayak Guy wandered though the backpacker bar I was in at precisely the right moment to catch people just drunk enough to sign up, but not so far gone that they couldn’t fork over a deposit. And even smarter, the whole business didn’t start until noon the next day. Naturally I got there a bit early, and since we were on Spanish time we didn’t actually get on the road until around 1 or 1:30pm. Miraculously though, this didn’t really bother me. I haven’t been wearing my watch much these days and I was determined just to let things happen in their own time. No, really!

There were 8 of us in total. Two “workers”: JB the Kayak Guy (American), and Renate, an employee of the larger organization* (Croatian, or maybe it was Slovenia), and 6 participants: JP (Canadian – Quebeçois), Jessica (American) and her boyfriend Spiro (Australian), Ellen (also Australian) and her boyfriend Tyrone (you guessed it… Australian) and me.

We got on the road in a rattly blue minivan with Renate at the wheel and JB navigating, which turned out to be a less-than-ideal combination. In fact, the whole thing had a real seat-of-the-pants feel to it that did not inspire extreme confidence. Most if the gang slept the whole way north, but I was awake so I got see how many wrong turns, about-faces, and scenic detours we took before we finally got to the beach. Then again it was a really nice beach, and it was a perfect day:

Sunny, sandy Mediterranean beach. No complaints here.

The confusion continued, but eventually we were kitted out with double kayaks (I shared with Renate), and lifejackets, and paddles, and were given the most perfunctory kayaking instruction ever. This did not inspire confidence, nor did Renate, who had arms like twigs.

JB, and kayaks, and snorkels

Nonetheless, we got underway and made it over to a rocky shore where we got out our snorkels. I’ve never snorkeled before, so even though there wasn’t a lot to see it was still really cool. I followed a school of fish around for a while, and generally enjoyed the fact that I was snorkeling in the freakin’ Mediterranean, on the Costa Brava. Others of the group reported seeing an octopus that I missed, but sounded really neat. I’ll definitely try snorkeling again. It’s amazing how much you can see even though your face is only inches from the surface. I had no idea.

Then we got back in the kayaks and headed across the bay to try and find a cave** that JB had heard about from the guy at the kayak rental place. It was a hard paddle, and the waves were mildly concerning, but eventually we made it to a nice cove. It was too shallow and cold for snorkeling though, and we headed out again to try and find the mythical cave. We never did find the cave, but we got to watch JP (apparently a very experienced kayaker) dump his boat and lose his t-shirt and take a somewhat worrying amount of time to get himself sorted.

By this time I think all anyone wanted was a beer and something to eat and to be warm and dry, so we headed back to the beach. And that’s where we found just what we needed.

Spiro and Jessica, with chips on the side

Ellen and Tyrone, chilling

And JP, and me!

We had a long ride back to the city, where our BBQ turned out to be a meal at Travel Bar Port (“You can order anything from this side of the menu”). But there was more beer, and I had a nice time talking with everybody, especially Spiro, who was on his way to Clown School in a few days. (Good luck Spiro!) All in all, it was a good day. I got some sun and sand and clear blue Mediterranean water, and I got out of the city, and I met some new people.

The next day – my last in Barcelona, turned out to be the beginning of the biggest yearly festival in the city:

La Mercè is the "most important festival" of Barcelona (Catalonia, Spain). It has been an official city holiday since 1871, when the local government first organized a program of special activities to observe the Roman Catholic feast day of Our Lady of Mercy. (In Catalan, La Mare de Déu de la Mercè -- The Merciful Mother of God; in Spanish, La Virgen de la Merced -- The Virgin of Mercy.) Although the actual date of the holiday is September 24th, the festivities begin a few days before.

The year 1902 saw a new impetus to the celebrations, with parades containing the first appearance in Catalonia of papier maché "giants" (known as gegants i capgrossos in Catalan or gigantes y cabezudos in Spanish), the first Castell competition and the importation from the Emporda region of a dance that was spreading throughout Catalonia: the Sardana. The holiday has enjoyed immense local popularity ever since.

Among more recently introduced traditions are the annual Catalonia Wine Fair, a special "correfoc", a marathon race***, and the particularly popular pyromusical, which is a spectacular display of synchronized fireworks, water fountains and music conducted at the base of Montjuic hill. (Wikipedia)

My hostel was really close to the action, so I spent quite a bit of time just wandering around the area. I visited Place Jaume early in the day, and saw some of the papier maché "giants". There was a stage set up, and an announcer, and every once in a while a couple of these gegants would get picked up and would dance around in front of the stage, accompanied by music played mostly on some unidentified double-reeded oboe-like instruments that were very duck-like in their tone.

Gegants i capgrossos, all lined up in Place Jaume.

The main event of the afternoon was to be the Castell competition, but that wasn’t due to start until 12:30 so I wandered some more, and ran into the beginning of a parade! Marching bands (Including marching bassoons! No mean feat.), more funny oboe-thingies, and more dancing whirling giants…

Who doesn’t love a parade?

I made my way back to Place Jaume to see the Castell competition (the building of human pyramids, for those too lazy to click on the link above). By the time I got there, the parade had found its way there too, by a different route. And if I thought the square was packed before, that was nothing to what it was like now. It was scary-full. I stuck around long enough to see the entrance of three of the teams of Castellars – they came into the square in a pilar formation – a tower four people high supported by a load of beefy guys at the bottom, with one weary and nervous-looking guy on top of them, and a woman on top of him, and a young girl on top of her. It was impressive but also scary. The little girls at the top wore helmets, but the whole thing seemed quite dogdey.

In fact, the last team I saw enter – I think they were the local Barcelona gang - were downright scary. In every case the guy at the second level of the tower (called the dosos – the one supporting the two above) looked like he was trying really hard to hold it together, but in this last case it was obvious that the dosos was in trouble. He knew it, the crowd knew it, and it seemed like it was just a matter of time before the whole thing ended badly. Thankfully, the tower made it through the square (did I mention that the towers were moving?) and was safely dismantled. By this time I’d seen enough and really just wanted to get out of the crush of people, but that was easier said than done. In the end, I “hitched” a ride with a couple of older women who had the right combination of tough-old-bird and crowd respect to manage to burrow through. I just followed in their wake.

This is how crowded it was. That kid was lucky.

I heard second-hand accounts later from people at the hostel who’d stuck around for the actual Castell competition – it sounded like it was interesting to see, but not worth the crowds.

More wandering, and I happened on a demonstration of Sardana dancing. As Rick Steves says:

“For some, it’s a highly symbolic, politically charged action representing Catalan unity – but for most, it’s just a fun chance to kick up their heels. Participants gather in circles after putting their things in the centre – symbolic of community and sharing (and the ever-present risk of theft)… Holding hands, dancers raise their arms – slow-motion Zorba the Greek-style – as they hop and sway gracefully to the music.”

It was just that kind of day. It was like every corner I turned revealed some new inexplicable but festive event. Even the museum I went to – the Museu d’Historia de la Ciutat**** – was free that day. Eventually it all got to be too much and I retreated to the hostel, but it was great way to end my time in Barcelona.

Oh, and that’s not even mentioning my visit to a second great Gaudí sight – La Pedrera. It’s an apartment complex that Gaudí designed and it was just FANTASTIC. There was a really good audioguide and a nice sort of museum in the attic. And you got to tour the roof terrace, and a typical apartment, and it was great. I think my favourite parts of Barcelona were anything to do with Anton Gaudí.

La Pedrera

I tried to get out to see Parc Güell, also designed by Gaudí, but by the time I got off the metro and realized how long a walk it would be I turned around and went right back to the hostel. It’s been over a hundred days now, and I now have a very highly developed sense of when I am DONE.

In fact, I was done with all of Barcelona. I’m in Granada now, and the head cold that was threatening yesterday has held off a bit, and I’m at the end of a nice long lunch. Things are not so bad.

* The larger organization being “Travel Bound”. They had two bars in Barcelona catering to the backpacker crowd. This means they had cheap but crappy food (including the inevitable full English breakfast and Marmite on toast), lots of drink specials, lots of nightly activities (pub crawl, anyone?), wifi, and the chance to mingle almost exclusively with 20-something Americans, Aussies, New Zealanders and the occasional German or other. These places are good relief sometimes, but I wouldn’t want my whole trip to be about them.

** The whole thing had been advertised as “kayaking and cave snorkeling with a BBQ included.” A bit of over-selling, I think.

*** Reading this Wikipedia entry was the first I heard of the marathon. It was clearly not top-of-mind for Barcelonians. (Barceloners? Barcelonitas?)

**** Great Roman ruins, and you know how much I like a good ruin. There were even spots where you could see the wheel ruts on old Roman streets and mosaic tile floors. Very evocative.


Phonella said...

You've really described the Spanish atmosphere in this post! I'm on the edge of my chair enjoying all the sights and sounds!

Alexandra said...

Ah, Barcelona... lived there for 13 months between 2006 and 2007 and it was a great treat. I'm a huge fan of the castellers and if you want to see them in action, there are lots of clips on youtube. It seems pretty dangerous and they fall all the time, but there are remarkably few injuries. Three people died in 200 years.

I hope you got to walk around Gracia, which is really the best neighbourhood in Barcelona...

Congrats on your year abroad!

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