Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold;
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon.
Our freedom as free lances
Advances towards its end;
The earth compels, upon it
Sonnets and birds descend;
And soon, my friend,
We shall have no time for dances.
The sky was good for flying
Defying the church bells
And every evil iron
Siren and what it tells:
We are dying, Egypt, dying
And not expecting pardon,
Hardened in heart anew,
But glad to have sat under
Thunder and rain with you,
And grateful too
For sunlight on the garden.
- Louis MacNeice
The opening poem (one of my all-time faves) couldn't be more apt. It went through my head so many times as Josh and I traveled through Spain. The third verse haunted me as we climbed up into the sky, amid the awesome construction of Barcelona's Sagrada Familia. And the poem as a whole seemed the best possible epigraph for Madrid and the horrific events of the 11th of March. Subscribers may recall that Josh and I were in Barcelona on the day of the bombings; and rolled into Madrid two days later literally right into Estacion Atocha, beside one of the peeled-open train carcasses. But a day later, we were sitting in the sunlight in Parque Retiro, watching the life of the city go on. It was something. Here's a bit of what it looked like. As in the later dispatch (posted earlier, Memento-style), Josh's fine photographic contributions are marked with the Skeet Shooting® icon, .
- Skeet and I met at Victoria Station and hopped on the Gatwick Express. This resulted in more Behind the Scenes Dispatch action! Actually, I was writing a very important letter, but never mind.
- We had some quite good laughs onboard EasyJet, then arrived in Barcelona, where we were thoughtfully met by Josh's childhood friend Angie. We hop a bus to her place, which is quite centrally located, drop our bags, and hit the town just after sundown. First image: the hill-top 1992 Olympic village (and a lion).
- This is at the waterfront; the lion is part of a very tall Columbus statue. Nearby is the very funky, and recently rejuvenated, pier. We subsequently meet Angie and her husband Roger at a restaurant that is hosting an art opening for a friend of theirs. Good beer, good snacks, good conversation in English and crappy Spanish. (Because neither of us has two words of Catalan.) Very good time. We retire.
- Morning and we (Angie comes along) head for Placa Catalunya to meet a few of Josh's uni friends, who are also in town. We see various things, including this great church with guard geese. Apparently, they're very mean and they've been there forever the Geese that Guard the Temple. Start humming the first few bars of "Little Green Bag" and check this out: Reservoir Geese.
- Another church. You just don't feel like you're in a European city if you're not pummelled by churches.
- Me, Angie, and her dog Lemmie.
- They have a fantastic market, just off Las Ramblas (the justly famous pedestrian drag). We grab great bags of fruit and nuts. Josh is crowned as the Pepper King. Dude, lose the banana. You're the Pepper King.
- Barcelona has its own Arc of Triumph, in the Parc de Ciutudad darned impressive.
- This was also the day the bombing happened. We started getting dribs and drabs of news. And that night we came upon the beginnings of the first outdoor memorial to the victims.
- So one of the really essential things about Barcelona is Antonio Gaudi. Gaudi was an art nouveau (you might say surrealist) architect who designed and built half of Barcelona he's basically their Sir Christopher Wren. It's just his stuff is a lot more, erm, striking to look at. We booked tickets and showed up for the tour of Palau Guell. The Guell family were rich Gaudi patrons and he did their entire city house.
- Including the roof. I should have more pictures of Palau Guell, only I don't. Suffice it to say it was groovy. Acid-trip groovy.
- Back on Las Ramblas, where they sell a bit of everything, including livestock, Josh and I thought this was bottomlessly funny.
- You see Gaudi buildings just walking around. Trust me, they're impossible to miss.
- And then came the Shoe Odyssey. I made the brilliant tactical maneuver of buying a (second-hand) pair of hiking boots the morning of departure. It turned out there was a reason they'd been sold back: they were actually medieval torture devices, with little nails (or something) positioned to poke right into your little toes. Angie and Josh, complete sweethearts that they are, took me on a shoe shopping trip that was truly Odyssean, principally because I had the following set of seemingly mutually exclusive requirements: I don't wear leather; I wanted to be comfortable walking for miles; I didn't want to go broke; and I didn't want to look like a complete tard. I compromised a bit on the last two requirements and in our 12th or so shoe store, finally put us all out of my misery.
- Walking back, we got caught up in a huge solidarity march organised by the government: play Spot Skeet® in the mob. We fought our way through it and holed up back at the ranch.
- Actually, the real compromise with the shoes was that I bought Nike. This called for an urgent project of deSwooshtification. Amazingly, even after removing the two most prominent Swooshtikas from each shoe, there were still four left on each (non-removeable). Ah, well, it was a victory of principle.
- After this, we got busy drinking and Roger cooked for us. Here they are, our incomparably lovely hosts, Angie and Roger and Lemmie. If you read the earlier footnote, you'll know how much we owed Angie for taking us around and explaining local culture and politics. On top of that, Roger is an architect and, as Barcelona is all about architecture, staying with these two made all the difference to our experience of the place. Did I mention Roger's masterful and subtle cooking? Or Lemmie's 900+ names (they have a list on the wall; anyone can give the dog a new name)? Mainly, I should mention their fabulous graciousness as hosts and general good humour and great company. Lucky us. Gràcies y salut, Roger and Angie.
- Morning, and stop number one was Sagrada Familia. What can be said about Sagrada Familia? For starters, if it's ever completed, it will be (the late) Gaudi's greatest achievement. The first stone was placed in 1882 and it's not entirely clear they're any closer to the end than they are from the beginning. It's absolutely freaking huge; just towering. And the tallest bits aren't up yet. Some (including Angie) say it can never be completed. But the most amazing thing was going up in it while they were still building it, literally, that minute, right in front of our eyes. It was like hanging out in Rome hundreds of years ago watching St. Peters go up. Truly a privilege.
- The spires that hold the interior up take their cues from towering trees.
- Here's one of the completed facades. It's taking so long to build, some parts are uncompleted while others have decades of soot on them.
- Here's a tiny bit of the scaffolding supporting construction.
- We were literally five feet from this guy. And he wasn't doing manual labour, he was an artisan making moulds for the capitals.
- And they let you climb up to nearly the top of this construction site. The magnitude of the construction city they'd constructed up in the air was as impressive as the church were building.
- And there we were, right up on top of it.
- Next stop: Parc Guell. This was an entire, sprawling park, all done by Gaudi in, basically, late Willy Wonka.
- Skeet, who had brought art supplies and was to sketch his way across Europe, began with this building, presumably the Spanish home of the Lollipop Kids.
- On our way out, we climbed up to the highest point in the Park. You see that thing towering over all Barcelona? That's Sagrada Familia.
- Next stop: hook up with Angie for a cablecar ride across the harbor!
- Quite a ride. (That's the Columbus statue, beneath which we stood our first night.)
- The car deposited us on Barcelona's chilly and pebbly beach, where we skipped stones.
- When we got back to the center of town, the memorial had already begun to sprawl. Pulling up our courage, we tried to sleep, thinking about traveling in the morning to Madrid, by train on the day of national elections.
- Madrid's Estacion Atocha has, strangely, pleasingly, a whole greenhouse inside it.
- Much less pleasingly, but no less strangely, we stepped out to our first sight of Madrid: the makeshift memorial to the victims of two days earlier. We pause to try and absorb this. We then get on with the serious business of scoring some roasted chestnuts and some directions to el centro.
- The city was also draped with Spanish flags with black ribbons on their hearts.
- Another memorial in Puerta del Sol. This is where we found an English rugby jersey, amongst a lot of other tributes.
- On a lighter note, we were highly amused to discover a shop that is all ham, all the time. (I was reminded of Cartman's thoughts on the true meaning of Christmas.)
- We came upon a couple of young kids playing football with their dad in Placa Santa Ana. I kicked an errant ball back; I feel I'm getting pretty good at this, for an American.
- After sucking down a couple of Cruzcampos (the tasty local lager), and eating our fill of free bar tapas, we headed for the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia the central modern art museum, and open until 11pm! They have big, cool, glass elevators out front. . .
- . . . from the top of one of which, the rapidly growing memorial at Atocha was visible. Totally fittingly, we viewed Picasso's Guernica inside.
- On the way out, night fully descended, we enjoyed the magical plaza in front of the museo (check out the sky).
- Here it is as Shot by Skeet.
- We ambled back into the 17th-century Plaza Mayor and admired the stunning frescoes by streetlight.
- Morning, and we head out for coffee. We pass several drunken singing people (still out from last night) and a large number of four-foot-tall nuns, on their way to vote (today is election day). Our goal is the other big art draw, the Prado. However, it was gorgeous out, and so we paused before going in. We decided to quickly check out Parque Retiro, the main public green space. Thank goodness we did it turned into the best afternoon in memory. (Better described in the from-the-scene dispatch.) Anyway, here's the big, beautiful lake at the park's center.
- We circled round, then took up a position on the steps right by the water, and before a big monument.
- Josh got busy sketching a stone lion. Here's his reference shot.
- I can't begin to describe how fantastic this spot, this day, was. (So much so I immediately had to text Ali a description of the scene.) We literally sat there for hours, lounging in the sun, scribbling in notebooks, casting our gazes around, unable to develop any desire to leave. I recited "The Sunlight on the Garden" out loud. We discussed how easily we could have not been there: we could have not taken the trip (organising it was a close thing); we could have stepped into the Prado, instead of coming here. Really kind of overwhelmed by the beauty of the day in the proximity of so much death three days before we lay there amazed. How very quickly grief dissipates. From the notebook: "Yeah, this goes on my short list of all-time great travel days. Doesn't get much better than this."
- And, in all that time, if at any point boredom threatened to creep in, we'd be entertained by some boaters lured in by the siren song of a big fountain, right by us, jetting out into the lake. I can't tell you how many people we saw get soaked.
"Aoogah, look all these hapless bozos."Eventually, though, one actual hotshot did appear a rowboat with two guys and a girl in it. Earning our eternal and unbounded admiration, the guy rowing actually managed to swing the stern of the boat around beneath the fountain simultaneously driving the girl into his lap and soaking his rival. That was just about the slickest maneuver I've ever seen.
"They all think they can get close."
"It's a siren's song 'we won't founder on the shoals'. These guys need to be tied to the mast."
"Here comes another hotshot."
- We finally dragged ourselves away (though we actually came back later for another hour or so), and saw some more of the park: the Palacia de Cristal.
- We immortalised ourselves, using a handy empty plinth.
- We finally wandered into the Prado. We saw the original of Velasquez's "Las Meninas" which was re-imagined so stunningly by Picasso. God, I didn't even mention the Picasso Musuem. When you're in Barcelona, go to the Picasso Musuem; wow. Anyway, in the Prado we saw a famous El Greco I like.
- And a famous Hieronymus Bosch that Josh kind of grew up with.
- Here's the biggest black ribbon of them all five stories. We saw it walking up the Gran Via at dusk, which we really liked: lit up, trendy and they had runway lights embedded in the bus lanes.
- It terminated in Plaza Oriente as night fell, a real stunner. Check out that cool Photoshop gradient on the sky by the horizon.
- We darted around, delighted, shutters clacking with abandon. Venus rose again.
- We hung a left there and ended up on sort of a Royal Mile. This included the Palacio Real (check out that sky gradient again), which we agreed made Buckingham Palace look like a hulking stone outhouse.
- A bit of detail.
- I don't know what this was in the background, but you can tell from our expressions we're having a heck of a night (go fill flash). It was also walking amongst the crowds here that we made the official declaration: Spanish women are hot.
- We were kind of racing at this point, as we had an overnight train to Algeciras (and our ferry to Morocco). We just had time to swing by our favorite joint, from the night before: Los Gabriellas II, where they have very cool murals on every wall and not to mention Cruzcampo and world-beating olives.
- Unsurprisingly, our last image of Madrid and the one I take with me was the one we'd never been away from for more than a few hours: the memorial at Atocha, now many times the size it had been on our arrival, only the morning of the day before.
- Now, the sea of red candles lit up the night.