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21 Days of Spain

Author: Betsy Lubis
Date of Trip: November 2013

Eventually, we happen upon the south train station where the McDonald’s hasn’t received their egg delivery. The Wi-Fi is working though, so we eat plain English muffins and use their internet to mark a path to our hotel, which, surprisingly, has a room ready for us at 10:00 a.m.

The marathon is set to start and end amidst the modern architecture of Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences. With our week-end centered on the race, we don’t actually visit its museums, science center, or opera house. Yet the design of its buildings, one resembling an eye, another, a whale’s skeleton, and the surrounding grounds are a fantastic site.

After collecting our race packets, we walk along the green zone, Jardin del Turia, until we reach the Gulliver playground: Gulliver tied up by the little people complete with climbing areas, ropes and slides. A school class, 4th graders or so, is there having a good time. We take a left and happen upon a little spot advertising an eight euro three plate menu del dia. For 1), we both order paella which turns out to be plentiful and delicious. I refuse to leave a bite. For 2), fish for me, pork for my husband. Both dishes come with potatoes and a fried egg. I clean this plate as well. We drink Cokes (included in the price). For 3), we’re offered pastry but have room only for coffee. This ends up being the best meal of our trip. Unfortunately, when we return the next day, the place is closed.

Day 14, Valencia
The best part of this day is the Holiday Inn breakfast with the little button on the coffee maker we can push as many times as we want, although it only spits out half a cup’s worth on each push.

We walk: to the Carrefour market in the mall near the race start, to the north train station, where, after some misunderstandings with the pleasant man behind the counter, we secure tickets for traveling from Valencia to Barcelona on Monday and from there to Madrid via the high speed train for Friday, past the closed restaurant from yesterday, and back to the mall where we bypass long lines at the McDonald’s near the entrance to find a place further back where we get chicken sandwiches, fries and Coke without much of a wait.

Day 15, Valencia
Our day’s consumed by the marathon.

Best part: the cheering, yelling “venga, venga” (which I translate as “come on”) and something like “anima” which my husband interprets as “animal” as in “You are an Animal.” Also, lots of percussion groups and oddly dressed-up characters on stilts and skates line intermittent parts of the route.

Worst part: the trash and mess. At aid stations, water bottles complete with screw caps were handed out. Runners promptly dropped the caps in the street. And, the streets at the aid stations grew slick with banana peels and residual gel packets. The goal of keeping the event green and environmentally friendly appeared to massively fail. Plenty of recycling containers were strewn about. Yet, among them, I couldn’t find a single trash can for the one gel packet I took except for a regular sidewalk one I stepped off the course to get to, almost missing a timing mat in the process.

Most unexpected: We’ve finished the race and are readying to leave when I’m distracted by a fairly heavy (for runners, in particular, and for Spain, in general, from what we’d seen) middle-aged woman with a long towel wrapped around her waist. She’s working to pull off her running shorts, tights, or whatever she’d been wearing from beneath the towel. When she gets whatever it is off, she bends over and stuffs it in the same bag from which she extracts a large pair of white underpants. She begins to put these on underneath the towel, which has begun to slip off by this point. Once the underpants are sufficiently up, she flips off the towel before layering on a pair of sweatpants. Her bottom area dressed, she pulls off her race shirt, followed by her sports bra. To my disbelief and to everyone else’s apparent disregard, she’s standing there completely topless, pausing to converse with a couple of people from her race club, before she digs out a sweatshirt and, remaining braless, pulls it over her head.

Day 16, Valencia to Barcelona
For eight euros, we take a taxi to the train station. The train ride to Barcelona is uneventful. We eat the peanut butter sandwiches we’d packed back in Valencia and watch the scenery. The train tracks run close to the Mediterranean for a while. It’s raining when we arrive and, though there’s Wi-Fi in the McDonald’s at the Sants Station, we can’t seem to use it for making a reservation at any of the hostals we’ve highlighted in our guidebook. We revert to the station’s Tourist Information office where the young English speaker behind the counter can’t make one either. However, she can, for a ten percent fee to the TI, make us a reservation in a specific area and price range. We let her do it. She scribbles at a point on the map just off Las Ramblas, telling us it’s the Hotel Atlas.

A scruffy looking kid is hanging around while we’re getting rain covers over our backpacks. Everyone who’s gotten off the subway with us has already dispersed. I’m beginning to wonder if we should worry about him, but all it turns out he’s doing is loitering until no one’s around so he can jump the exit.

We stumble about for at least thirty minutes looking for the pinpoint on our map, asking at least four people, including two policemen, where it might be. We’re less than a block from the place most of the time but it’s raining and the streets are so convoluted in their medieval layout, we can’t find it. Finally, a lady tells us it’s just around the corner and we’re almost right in front of the Hotel Atlas’ front door before we spot the entrance.

For dinner, I tell my husband there’s a venerable Barcelona restaurant on one corner of nearby Placa de Catalunya and a Hard Rock Café on another. We opt for the later. It’s the first we’ve seen of an actual ketchup bottle on the table and it may be the quietest Hard Rock ever. They’re playing the right music. They just aren't blasting it.

After dinner, we walk all the way down Las Ramblas to the waterfront and sit on the second floor balcony of a mall outside Starbucks to drink American coffee and eat brownies for dessert.
Back at the hotel, I’m kept awake by a) the coffee, b) loud Scandinavians or Germans in the hall, c) a trash truck in the street outside our window for more than a few minutes sometime around 1:00 a.m.

Day 17, Barcelona
We follow the steps of a Barri Gothic walk we’ve plucked from our guidebook, throwing in a couple of detours here and there. One is to La Boqueria Market, where we buy expensive chocolates (though not the ones shaped like women’s breasts) and walk through the meat, vegetable, and fish stalls. I’d read that Barcelonans have been buying their animal parts at this location since 1200. All the produce looks fantastically fresh. The skinned rabbits, I don’t particularly care for.

We skim through the parts of the cathedral that can be toured for free. Supposedly, Barcelona’s barely cracks Spain’s top twenty cathedrals list. But, we’ve yet to see the inside of one, and this will be our last opportunity. And, though not religious types, we’re momentarily impressed. We also enjoy the thirteen resident geese swimming around in the courtyard fountain.

Later, we rent bikes and pedal up along to where the beach ends at the CaixaForum, a Modernista brick factory that’s been turned into a cultural center. Later, still, we walk back through Placa de Catalunya and on to the Block of Discord, the string of three houses designed by different Modernista architects, Gaudi being one of them. We keep walking, on to the Gaudi designed Casa Batilo where we have no intention of paying the ridiculously high price to go inside though we do pause to study the meringue stalactites hanging from the rooms’ ceilings that we can see for free from the sidewalk.

Returning to Las Ramblas, the hot chocolate we order at Dunkin’ Coffee is so thick it’s undrinkable. I dip my chocolate chip cookie in it, but what’s not absorbed in that process gets tossed.

Day 18, Barcelona
We take the metro to Sagrada Familia (Spain’s #1 on many tourist lists). The basic entrance fee is 45 euros per person, plus a few extra to go up into one of the towers, plus a few more for the audio guide. It’s a construction zone as they’re using tourist money to help finance finishing the thing by 2026, the 100 year anniversary of Gaudi’s death. And, they still have a lot of stained glass to put in plus erect the 400 foot Mary tower and the 560 foot Jesus one which is supposed to be only slightly lower than the summit of Montjuic so as not to one-up God’s creation. Outside, cranes are flying around carrying building materials overhead as we’re looking at the church’s facades and listening to the audio guide. And, inside, though several signs request silence, a boisterous school group or two are running around and an entire labor crew is up on scaffolding installing stained glass with their power tools. With all the statues, gargoyles, and numerological references, my mind settles on Ghostbusters from which it refuses to budge till I spend a minute focused on the main altar’s crucifix beneath an overhanging awning of golden lights that transports my thoughts immediately to New Orleans and Mardi Gras. I do admire the reference to tree branches in the design of the interior columns and that connection to nature it’s said Gaudi was always trying to achieve.

We return to Placa de Catalunya and eat lunch at the Corte Ingles 8th floor café. The view is nice but the salmon in orange sauce is only so-so. We shop for a bit, buying a few souvenirs, nothing substantial. My husband picks up a shirt from a table and three sales clerks immediately respond by hovering about, ready to refold it just right.

We revisit Dunkin’ Coffee, this time ordering coffee with our treats. The hot chocolate’s still there swirling about in its warmer and, now that I really look, bearing a significant resemblance to dirty motor oil.

The trash truck comes again, parking beneath our window around 1:30 a.m. Two coverall-clad dames haul lumber scraps from somewhere nearby and hurl them into the truck at approximately two minute intervals for fifteen or twenty minutes before they’re done.

Day 19, Barcelona
We walk to Montjuic in the cold and wind, wandering about until we find the tour buses at the ruins of the summit’s castle. The views are exceptional, the city, the Mediterean, Mount Tibidabo across the way. We walk down from here thinking we might run across the 1992 Olympic Stadium, but, we never do. We do pass the Olympic diving pool before stopping at the Juan Miro Foundation where we eat tuna sandwiches with chips before perusing the art. We also spend several dollars in the gift shop.

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