The sleeper train from Paris to Portbou, just inside the Spanish border, started promisingly. A French woman and an American woman who’s been in France for 8 years shared the six berth cabin with me. I didn’t get to sleep straight away and then I started to feel a little unwell, partly I think due to motion sickness, which I don’t usually get. When I walked down the hall to the toilet I realised how much the train was leaning. The pressure in my ears told me there were tunnels and the lean said these were serious corners. Swinging from corner to corner the train rocked and rolled the way a ship shouldn’t. There was to be no sleeping for me with that sort of movement and the space between the bunks wasn’t high enough to sit up. I sat in the empty bike section for a while, then with a woman who’d escaped her own cabin because another passenger was making it impossible for her to sleep. I wondered if that explained the loud music I’d heard sometime earlier. About 4 am I started to feel better and the swaying had stopped, so back I went for a few hours sleep.
The other two got off in the last major town, after which the train stopped at almost every village until the end of the line, separated by headlands on the Mediterranean. Their terracotta colours were revealed as it started to get light. French police went through the train at the border. They asked if I was alone in the cabin, which made me wonder if they were on the lookout for particular individuals following the massacre in Paris. Once in Spain and at Portbou train station, nearly every passenger rushed for tickets to the onwards train leaving immediately for Barcelona. I wanted to stop for a bit and enjoy the small town-ness, the only thing being that the station didn’t have anywhere for me to leave my big bag.
Cats hung around their lair immediately outside the station. Steps led down to a steep street. I stopped at a bakery for a warm crusty fruit baguette and took it down to the waterfront to eat. Hills came down on either side. Prickly pear hung about the place. It was still getting light but was already warmer, and drier, than Paris. People walked their dogs or drove old cars. Information signs suggested there were things to see on walks from the village but I wouldn’t be doing much with my bags. After a while I walked around the nearest headland to see where everyone was going.
A marina full of small boats sat in a dead end with a high concrete wall seawards. I defrosted in the sun. Small signs dotted around town gave testament to a fellow called Walter Benjamin. He’d escaped over the hills from France and supposedly had free passage through Spain. Then the next sign I found said it was where he had committed suicide. It seemed a sudden turn of events and I thought it unusual to commemorate someone for killing themselves in your town. The next sign, back near the station, cleared things up. He’d gone to the local police to make his travel across Spain all above board but they’d decided not to let him continue. Because of his terribly ill health they didn’t arrest him straight away, which gave him the opportunity to escape the pain and incarceration. Otherwise Portbou was a cheery little border town of retirees and their dogs.
I caught the train from there inland to Figueres for the Salvador Dali museum. The display in the train said it was 17 degrees outside and I nearly did a little dance. Small fires burnt, lending smoke to the smells and haze in the air. Grass as long as tall bamboo formed boundaries to fields. At Figueres, men sat in a dusty square outside the station. The trees still had hold of a fair handful of leaves. A big shuffling fellow, perhaps originally Caribbean, wanted to hang out after I’d been to the museum. He seemed genuine, but I just wanted to do my own thing at my own pace. Something about the town reminded me of Asia. The dust, the occasional sewer smell, the worn look to buildings. However it was perfectly clean and tidy, well signed and the profusion of wires in the streets were neatly bundled against buildings and around windows instead of being strung all over the place in an unruly mess.
The museum was different from any other I can remember. More an immersive experience than purely observational. Once through the entrance, a hallway wrapped around a circular courtyard with large windows letting light in and the viewing out. The courtyard was filled with a series of sculptures joined together. An enormous bronze strong woman on the bonnet of a Cadillac whose mannequin occupants would be personally rained upon for years to come. Atop a tower of truck tyres, a man held aloft a yellow boat dripping with huge blue globs of water. Behind all this, a wall of glass exposed a huge Dali wall painting at the back of a room topped with a glass dome. And that was just the start. Several storeys of galleries surrounded the courtyard, each filled with typical Dali stuff. On the top floor a series of prints appeared to be a response to the horrors of war – bodies caught in barbed wire, soldiers shooting from behind a barricade with dark red pooled up under them. As I left I finally saw the huge pink wall and tower with massive eggs on top. I mustn’t have taken the typical approach that means you see these as you come up from the town.
A second exhibition around the corner was included in the admission price. It was of pieces of jewellery Dali made. Huge glittering pieces with mechanical movements. His idea was to return the value of jewellery to the art of it, instead of the rocks themselves. His pieces succeeded, but it seems his idea didn’t take off.
I enjoyed a proper felafel kebab back in the dusty square (they’re not done the same way in Edinburgh) and caught the train to Barcelona in the late afternoon. The plain stretched away to sudden hills in the distance and I realised how this landscape informed Dali’s paintings where figures are on a plain with distant hills on either side behind them. It wasn’t as abstract as I’d thought! The benefits of seeing art on its home ground. Closer to Barcelona, mountain tops in the distance were scattered with snow. The sky turned soft pink over them. As it got dark, villages along the way didn’t light up. There were street lights, but a complete lack of light from the homes still faintly visible. I guess all the window shutters aren’t decorative. Neither were the shutters on my eyes, as I let myself nod along for the rest of the trip.
I had the next day in Barcelona before an overnight train to Granada. I was a bit slow getting going in the morning, planning my day and looking up which vegie or vegie friendly restaurants would fit on my route. A small one on a court yard was a five minute walk away. I set off through back streets. Artwork on roller shutters over shops, reminiscent of graffiti, provided colour and depth in the closed streets. It was cool but clearly going to warm up with the sun on the remaining yellow leaves in the courtyard. I tried the huevos rancheros, eggs on corn tortillas with spicy green sauce which turned out to not be spicy. The ‘piquant’ in the Spanish might have been a better description. Sustained, I headed off to look at the outside of a crazy big church mostly by Gaudi that’s still being built. It was started in 1882. Referring back to the Notre Dame’s centuries of building work, is the last to still be under construction with such a time frame? Tourists crowded around. Open top buses stopped for passengers to get their shots. Kids chased huge soap bubbles made by street performers. Parrots chattered in palm trees. Palm trees!
After enough of the spectacle I went off in the direction of some other bits and pieces to walk past. Boys of all ages kicked footballs about, the round type. Orange trees were frequent. I like a street fruit tree. Sitting for a snack on a park bench along Passeig de Sant Joan, I tried to imagine how pleasant it would be to have so many big green trees in the street in the middle of summer, with the busy-ness of people all around.
There were a few noticeable things about the wide streets of Barcelona. Judging by the numbers of separatist Catalan flags draped over balconies, it would be a yes vote here if the independence movement got the referendum it desires and that I learnt about on the back of the Scottish one. The next bit was the shape of intersections. The corners of blocks are cut off so that the intersection is a big diamond shape and you can park on the edges of the diamonds. It does mean that pedestrians have to zigzag instead of going straight, but this might be offset by the wonders of pedestrian signals that go every single time without there being a button to push. No more waiting a whole cycle when you’ve just missed hitting the button in time, or jaywalking instead as the case may be. Actually, this might be my favourite thing about Spain because I’ve always thought they should work that way! The last thing is the pavers on the footpath coming from a decorative mould that I guess also means they’re not slippery. Streets and streets of lovely functional pavers.
Wandering the virtually carless back alleys of the old town, I was drawn to a broad glass, brick and ironwork building. It turned out to be an exhibition space so I went in to check it out. A large open space in the centre revealed an excavation of the bottom halves of seventeenth century houses. They had been half knocked down to have a citadel built on them. A hundred years later it was returned to public use and used as a market square. The current building went up, and over time fell into disrepair. Local activism eventually led to it being restored. At some point the local council went into a partnership with a university to build something else inside the building to try to fund its maintenance. The building works started to uncover these really well preserved old houses and further activism stopped the new building from progressing. I guess now the funding comes from the guided tours of what lay beneath all along, essentially preserved by the large open space required for its use as a market place for so many years. I could go on about brandy distilling structures, sewer outlets to the canals donkey’s years ahead of the buckets of waste thrown down Edinburgh alleys, and so on, but this post is already long enough!
I made for a street recommended to me, but it wasn’t really my thing or not its season. I found my next vego stop near the beach. A tasty tempeh burger and sangria, since I’m in Spain. It was getting dark and I was racing the clock but a friend had said something like, check out the water fountains by the beach. I didn’t find them, but I did find a flat sea under a fading blue and pink sky. A random sculpture broke the horizontals. I passed a woman going in the opposite direction who looked slightly askance at the older white fellow washing inside his shorts at the beach shower. I wanted to see her face when she got further along and found the younger black man having his shower completely starkers. Perhaps by the time she got there he would be up to washing where his shorts probably should have been. I raced back for my backpack, taking advantage of the sides of the diamonds to go diagonally back to Diagonal Avenue.