Saturday, August 20, 2005

Exhausted from a day of travel on numerous trains from Barcelona to the south of France, I slept on the platform in Narbonne, cushioned by backpacks, waiting for the night train that would take me and James into Italy. When the train pulled into the station, I awoke long enough to stow my backpack, find a seat, and show my ticket and passport to the conductor. Wrapped in my sarong from Hondarribia, I fell back into sleep. It was the best rest I ever got on a train.

When I awoke in the morning, I peeked under the curtain covering the train window and was greeted with the deepest blue skies, the stateliest palms and the whitest and grandest buildings I’d seen on our trip. My only views of the French Riviera and Monaco were from a moving train, stolen from under a heavy curtain. Markedly different from the grey salt marshes of yesterday, the scenery boosted my spirits. I was almost in Italy!

"Nude (Study), Sad Young Man on a Train", oil on cardboard by Marcel Duchamp
From the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice

We arrived in Ventimiglia early and were ushered through another passport check. (Again, James and I were waved through without ever opening our passports.) We caught a train to Genova, then another train to Genova Sampierdarena, then another train to Genova Brignole. From there, we boarded a train for Pisa, where we met another young couple who were on vacation from America. As they struggled aboard with their giant suitcases, James and I helped them to stow their luggage. The four of us stood together and chatted as we made our way through Italy. They were on vacation for two weeks, and had brought double the amount of baggage that James and I had. They were surprised that we were traveling for a month and had only one backpack apiece. Looking at her well-groomed hair and fresh, put-together appearance, I couldn’t help but mentally compare it with my unwashed hair, day-old clothing and all-around “train face.”

As we pulled into Pisa, we glimpsed the Leaning Tower from the window. The other tourists on board emitted shouts of excitement and flung their forefingers in the direction of the Tower. I thought it was small. A part of me even thought “That’s it?” I was glad we were just passing through Pisa. (Several years later, after I moved back to California, I flew to London to meet James, and then we flew on to Pisa for a week long vacation. Our hotel was right around the corner from the station, and I couldn’t help but remember my initial reaction to seeing the Tower. Turns out, the view from the top is pretty spectacular.)

From Pisa, James and I changed trains to one heading to Florence. The American couple were headed the same direction, so we again helped them with their masses of luggage. By this time, I was able to put on my giant backpack without a struggle and without tipping over, and taking an extra suitcase was no sweat. The four of us exchanged email addresses and parted ways once we got to Florence. They were off to find their hotel, we were off to find a campsite.

We chose Campeggio Michelangelo since it’s the closest campsite to town. My trusty Lonely Planet book was kind enough to include directions and bus instructions. After a short ride through the city, the bus began to climb the bowl-shaped hills that surround Florence. It wound through leafy lanes, and every once in awhile we’d catch a glimpse of the Duomo nestled in the center of town.

The Well-Worn Map - Barcelona to Florance

When we finally checked into Campeggio Michelangelo, we were exhausted. Finally, after two days of travel and eight trains through three countries, we could relax with a bottle of Spanish wine in the lingering Italian twilight. Exploration could wait – for now, all we wanted was a bit of rest on solid ground.

Campeggio Michelangelo


Friday, August 19, 2005

James and I were about halfway into our month-long European interrailing trip when we began running into train trouble. Our plan, once we left Barcelona, was to travel back into France to spend a few days in Provence. I think we were doomed from the get-go.

The Well-Worn Interrail Map

Like so many other British and Americans, James and I cannot speak another language. English is pretty much it for us. We’ll both happily try our hand at Spanish, French, Italian, etc, although I’m sure we butcher the pronunciation. (I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve asked a question in another language, only to be answered in perfect English with a slightly patronizing smile. Once, in Paris, I asked a complete stranger what time it was and was so happy to be answered in French that it didn’t occur to me I hadn’t actually understood the answer until I had walked away.) Had either of us understood Spanish, we would have never gotten kicked off the train that day.

We left Barcelona Saints Station at 8:45 in the morning on a train bound for Montpellier. From there it would just be a short jump to Aix-en-Provence, and we’d be camping among the lavender fields sipping wine and eating cheese. Yet the closer the train got to the Spanish/French border, the more crowded it got. Not only was it getting crowded, but the people who were getting on the train all seemed to have seat reservations. (James and I did not.) Backpacks in tow, we made our way up and down the carriages looking for two empty seats that didn’t have a tell-tale ticket. There were none. So we stood in the vestibule between the carriages, shouting at each other to be heard over the noise of the train.

Inevitably, the conductor hurried past us, only to do a double take and return to demand to see our tickets. This is where I first learned about supplements. Although James and I each held a valid Inter Rail ticket for travel throughout the whole of Europe and had paid close to £300 (nearly $600) for it, many train routes outside of France required that passengers pay a supplemental fee. I’m only speculating, but I think it’s because the Inter Rail company is French, so they probably receive the majority of the fare money, while the rest of Europe probably sees very little of it. So in order for them to make money as well, they charge fees, and if you haven’t paid the additional fee, you’ll run into problems.

We were asked to leave the train.

Portbou, Spain

We found ourselves in Portbou, the last stop on the Spanish side of the border. The next stop, Cerbère, was only a 15 minute train ride through a tunnel in the hills, and the next train wouldn’t be for several hours. What else could we do but explore for a little while?

Portbou felt tiny and secluded, with a population of just over 1000 people. Houses and buildings crowded down to the narrow seafront that was already heaving with sun worshipers. Portbou was important to the republicans during the Spanish Civil War because it was one of the few places they could get supplies from Europe. Today it serves as a rail freight transfer facility. The station connects to two tunnels into France, each with a different gauge of rail track. One is an Iberian gauge used in Spain and Portugal, the other is a standard gauge that serves the rest of Europe. None of this, however, seemed important once James and I caught a glimpse of the turquoise water of the Mediterranean.

Portbou Marketplace

From the station we wandered until we came to the seafront that lies inside a sheltered bay. The golden hillsides seemed to rise out of the water like they were there by accident. Small boats were pulled up out of the tides, and there were people snorkeling and sunbathing in the shallows. We found an open air market and bought a few things for our dinner that night: tomatoes, red onions, bread. For lunch we bought chorizo and fruit, enjoyed sitting on a low wall watching the shoppers. Soon it was time to catch our train into Cerbère, on the other side of the border.

Fifteen minutes later, we emerged into France and were lined up for passport checks, the first I’d had since leaving England. A bored official merely glanced at the cover of my US passport and waved me through. I waited for James, who was similarly waved through once he flashed his UK passport.

The first train for Avignon was promising. We found seats easily and were assured there was no supplement to pay. Back in France, we were adjusting our minds to say S’il vous plait instead of Por favor, Merci instead of Gracias. James and I began to watch the south of France roll past our windows. And then we pulled into the station at Perpignon and stopped. And we waited. And waited. And got off the train, stood on the platform, and waited some more.

Finally the passengers from our train were herded onto another train bound for Avignon. This train was crowded, stuffed to capacity with travelers. We stowed our backpacks with some others in a luggage rack and found places to stand near the vestibule of the train carriages. This train was also slow, as if the added weight of extra passengers were almost unbearable. Bending from my upright position to look out of the windows, I thought we must be in the most desolate place in the whole of France. The track looked like it was floating over huge salt marshes. Here and there were sunken docks and rotting wooden boats whose owners had left them behind. Everything was flat and various shades of olive grey. Once in awhile, I’d see a low band of bright pink – flamingos! Dozens of them! Imagine finding flocks of flamingos where you’d least expect it…

Interrail Ticket

Around 7:00 that night, our train pulled into Narbonne and terminated. Having realized that we’d never make it Avignon that night (we were only about halfway there after a whole day of travel), we decided to stay the night. However, with no campsite we could find and no available rooms at any of the nearby hotels and hostels, James and I decided to go with Plan B: Skipping the south of France completely and catching an overnight train into Italy. We made reservations on the 1:20AM train and went into town.

Dinner was a fluffy omelet in a small café, with lots of bread, and lots of wine. Back at the station, two old steam engines arrived to re-fill their water tanks around midnight. Whole families turned out to watch, their little boys excitedly hopping from foot to foot. There were even a few policemen watching and taking pictures of the engines with their cell phones. The noise when the engines left the station was deafening.

Exhausted after a whole day of traveling, I sat down on the platform to wait for our overnight train. With my backpack at my back and my legs flung over James’ backpack in front of me, I fell into sleep.


Thursday, August 18, 2005

You can’t go to Barcelona without seeing something Gaudi-related. It would be like going to London and not seeing Tower Bridge, or going to Los Angeles and not seeing the Hollywood sign. So on our last day in Spain, James and I went to see Gaudi’s unfinished cathedral, La Sagrada Familia, which promised to be a “once-before-you-die” experience. I had spent the past four years taking any opportunity I could to see the interiors of cathedrals, so how could I resist the chance to see one that’s been under construction for over 100 years?

Apparently James and I weren’t the only ones who wanted this “once-before-you-die” experience. Hordes of people and tour buses galore lined the streets leading to the church. We heard every language imaginable as we traipsed past vendors selling disposable cameras and holographic postcards of the pope and the Virgin Mary. And there, rising out of the crowds, were the towers of the Apostles and construction cranes overhead.

La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

We waited in a long line to enter through the large glass doors under a modern stone scene of the crucifixion. The façade looked nothing like I’d imagined. From pictures I’d always seen a building that looked as if wet sand had been dripped all over it, like the witches castles you can make on the beach. But this building was smooth, with pale, carved stones and mosaic tiles.

The Crucifixion

Inside, we visitors were roped into the perimeter of the building. The center was very much a construction site, with equipment, machinery and piles of mosaic plaques open to the elements. But oh, the rest of the cathedral. Pillars carved like tree trunks supported an arched ceiling carved with stars and leaves. Stained glass windows threw bright rainbows of light over everything. You can only imagine how magnificent it’s going to be once completed, with nature and religion all mixed up inside. Because the cathedral’s financing has always been directly from donations, construction is slow, and I doubt very much I’ll ever see the completed structure.

We exited the building through heavily carved doors opposite from where we had entered. This was obviously the older side of the building, begun first in 1882. Hard to believe that Gaudi wasn’t at the forefront of this cathedral from the beginning. He was only appointed to the position of Project Director after its previous director resigned in 1883. Gaudi redesigned the cathedral to what we see today. This older façade showed scenes of the nativity among aged, heavily textured stonework. One of the most wonderful things I noticed were statues of turtles forming the bases of the columns. This architecture literally drips with imagery, making it absolutely stunning to take in.


The Nativity

After so much visual stimulation, James and I took it easy the rest of the day. We stopped for tapas and ate outdoors in the sunlight. Mussels in sauce for James, skewered spiced meat and potatoes in hot sauce for me. We make one last venture to the Mercat de la Boqueria for chili peppers for that night’s pasta sauce before jumping back on the bus to take us to the Tres Estrellas one last time.

Whatever inner peace I may have soaked up at the cathedral that day was shattered during my evening shower at the campsite. While in my cubical enjoying the hot water, I noticed a movement at the top of the cubical wall. As I watched, a male’s dorky haircut, acne-spattered forehead and eyes that were trained upon me slowly emerged over the wall. I cupped scalding hot water in my hands and flung it at his face as hard as I could, screaming a few choice swear words at the top of my lungs. He vanished, and I toweled off in a hurry to find James. We searched out a security guard and tired explaining what had happened, but unfortunately, we were in the middle of Spain, unable to communicate in French to the guard, who couldn’t understand Spanish or English.


Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Even when you’re traveling, you still have to think about domestic things like dinner and laundry. We were ten days in, and our underwear situation was getting pretty dire. James and I needed to find ourselves a Laundromat or else we’d have to start re-using, and that’s just gross. Our campsite, the Tres Estrellas, although certainly rambling as my Lonely Planet book had promised, was not equipped with a washer or dryer. So into the city we would have to go.

On the bus into Barcelona, James and I consulted my Lonely Planet book. We found one little listing of one little Laundromat somewhere off Las Ramblas, but conveniently, no street names and no idea of scale on the map. It looked extremely close to the Barcelona Mar Youth Hostel, so we figured if we could find that, we could figure out where to do our laundry. (By the way, on the bus ride between Barcelona and the campsite, we kept seeing women at the side of the road waiting or hauling white plastic chairs to the roadside. We soon realized that these were “working women” who were awaiting clients.)

Working Girl

James and I somehow found our way to the tiny Laundromat tucked away in the back streets of Barcelona off a quiet square. We felt very far away from the bustling boulevards, although Las Ramblas was just a few streets over. We sat on small plastic chairs reading while we waited for our washing to finish. It felt so strange to be doing something as normal as laundry in Barcelona.

Walking Distance

We weren’t too far away from the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, so when we finished we took our bag of freshly laundered underwear and visited the museum. What I remember most about finding the museum was that it was in a square that was filled with light. Emerging from small streets snaking their way between tall buildings was like suddenly opening your eyes. The white stones were absolutely brilliant. The Museum of Contemporary Art was light and airy, with dark galleries and high ceilings. There was an exhibition by Francis Alÿs called “Walking Distance from the Studio.” James was familiar with the body of work and was excited to see the video installations of Mexico City. He was also particularly inspired by the building itself, and later painted two images of it.

Painting by James Keniston

Painting by James Keniston

Unable to resist the market, we explored again to find food for that night’s dinner. The sights and smells were mouthwatering, from the salty cured meat to the fresh seafood, the sweet fruits to the spice stalls. We purchased mushrooms, red wine, green beans, and steak. There’s nothing like a well-cooked steak in a garlic and red wine sauce with mushrooms and green beans cooked and eaten outdoors while the sun sets. I think most food you eat while camping tastes better because you’re outdoors and you’re hungry.

Meat Market

Fish Market

James and I discovered that while the Tres Estrellas was large and rambling, it wasn’t large and rambling enough. We had been assigned a space in the “young” section of the campsite with other teenagers and college-aged students, young 20-somethings who were on vacation to party. They drank and sang and played bongo drums and didgeridoos all night long, screaming with drunken laughter and general shenanigans. James and I, who were on vacation to see and experience as much as we could, were awarded an extremely poor night’s sleep, only being able to rest after everyone had passed out cold. In the morning we walked past mountains of beer cans and wine bottles, discarded musical instruments, and young men asleep on inflatable pool rafts with strange assortments of clothing. Fortunately, we would only have one more night at the campsite before moving on.


Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Once I read a book about a woman who travels around the US on the train with her camera, which, as a budding photographer, I found highly irresistible. She wrote about having “train face.” Years later, after an overnight train through Spain into Barcelona, I finally understood what she meant.

Looking in the mirror of the women’s bathrooms at Barcelona-Saints Station, I decided I definitely had “train face.” It’s what a night of poor sleep in a cramped, cold compartment with the conductor’s flashlight illuminating the semi-darkness every hour looks like. I needed some breakfast (ie. Coffee!) and I needed it fast.

I emerged to find James sitting on a bench, encumbered with our two huge backpacks, equally afflicted by “train face.” We found coffee and pastries at a food stall and welcomed the sugary food. We sat amid the morning commute, I with my vice-like grip on my backpack, remembering the story of theft and lies from my Lonely Planet “Rite of Passage” book that took place in the very station we were seated in. We consulted my copy of “Europe on a Shoestring” and decided to try out the Tres Estrellas campsite. The catch was that it wasn’t actually within Barcelona. It was a bus ride to the town of Castelldefels, south of the city.

We set off from Saints Station to find the Plaça Espanya and our bus. Along the way we met two backpackers from New Zealand who were looking for a place to stay in Barcelona. We swapped stories, and after everything we said, they would reply “Aw, true?” After we split up, James talked about dunnys until we found our bus.

Eight and a half miles later, we found ourselves on a stretch of highway near an airport. On the left side of the highway were campsites, including our destination. Unfortunately, we were on the right side of the highway with no overpass in sight. We got off the bus with a French couple who were also looking for accommodation. The four of us stood by the side of the highway, looking wistfully at the other side. A team of road workers took pity on us, and told us they would watch the traffic for us and tell us when it was safe to cross. Collectively taking a deep breath, the four of us took off running toward the center divider, our backpacks bouncing uncontrollably and hitting us in the heads with each step. We somehow managed to roll ourselves over the concrete divider, and then dashed across the rest of the highway to sanctuary. (We later discovered that if we stayed on the bus for just one more stop, we would be right next to a pedestrian overpass.)

On the way to Castelldefells

After pitching the tent and freshening up, James and I caught the bus back into Barcelona for the afternoon. We stopped at the Plaça del Catalunya, right at the mouth of Las Rambles, a pedestrian boulevard selling everything imaginable. From street performers to caged birds, Las Rambles had it all, including access to one of the best markets I’ve ever seen. The Mercat de la Boqueria seemed to go on forever, yielding endless stalls of fresh produce, eggs, seafood, meats and cheeses. The sheer abundance of foods took us both by surprise, and we spent ages just looking at everything.
Mercat de la Boqueria

Mercat de la Boqueria
Tearing ourselves away from the fresh goodies in the market, James and I continued down Las Rambles toward the seafront and the statue of Christopher Columbus. We wandered back through the Barri Gòtic and La Ribera, getting lost among the tiny, twisted medieval streets. We could almost feel the ghosts of Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro in the oldest section of the city. We saw the cathedral tucked among the high grey stone walls and discovered squares exploding out from the narrow streets.
La Merce Basillica


Barcelona’s older section was a visual feast and a virtual Where’s Waldo of architectural details. A stone courtyard yielded fountains, mosaics and elaborate wall plaques. Easily the largest city James and I had been to thus far on our trip, Barcelona overwhelmed me. The streets bustled with electric anticipation one moment, yet quiet repose seemed attainable just around the corner.
Candle Seller

We couldn’t resist heading back to the Mercat de la Boqueria to pick up our dinner. €2 later, we had some of the freshest vegetables we could find to make a vegetable stew back at the campsite. We made our way back to the Plaça del Catalunya to wait for our bus.


Monday, August 15, 2005

A little over a week into our trip, I was nearly used to sleeping on the ground with only a thin roll mat and sleeping bag, my balled up sweatshirt for a pillow. Terrified of having my passport and money stolen, I wore a money belt safety pinned to the inside of my jeans or skirts during the day, and slept with it pinned to the inside of my sleeping bag at night. Although this was slightly uncomfortable and made for some tricky maneuvers to pay for anything, the alternative was not something I wanted to think about. I’d already had that experience the first year I spent in England, and didn’t need a repeat in another European country. Paranoid? Yes. But did I return to England with passport and money intact? Yes.

Hondarribia, Spain
We woke early on our final day in Hondarribia. One thing about sleeping in a tent – once the sun is up and shining on it, it’s way too hot to sleep. So James and I were getting in a lot of early mornings. Relaxation called to us that day. We packed up our gigundo backpacks, rolled up the sleeping mats, and took down the tent. After checking out of the campsite we made our way into town to spend our day on the seafront.

Basking in the Sunshine

James fished from the rocks jutting out into the water. He had a small cork paddle with fishing line wrapped around it that he’d taken on a trip with his best friend years ago. I sat on the rocks reading and wandered on the sand collecting green sea glass. Although “sea glass” sounds romantic, it’s really nothing more than old, broken beer bottles that have been tumbled around in the ocean with the sand. No more than someone’s old garbage.

Sea Glass

We went to the shop on the corner for our lunch of fruit, bread and chorizo. We even found a small bottle of wine to enjoy while basking in the Spanish sunshine. As we ate our food along the seafront, we watched the feral cats. They lounged on the grass, in trees, on the rocks, under the rocks. There was a black and white cat with two kittens hiding under the rocks. We felt sorry for her and cut up small pieces of our chorizo for the little family.

Family of Feral Cats

Later that day, James and I gathered up our things and caught the bus to Irun. We were taking the overnight train to Barcelona via Pamplona and Zaragoza. Our seats were two of six in a car, and they pulled down and out to extend into small, relatively comfortable sleepers. It was absolutely freezing. I had pulled on my numerous layers to little effect. I sat shivering next to James, wishing I’d brought a blanket. Noticing my discomfort, one of our companions leaned over and said that Spanish trains were always freezing. He told us he was an actor at a theme park in Zaragoza and was returning for his fourth season. He left in the night while we slept.


Sunday, August 14, 2005

Bus Ticket
Once again in Irun (“Irun? Irun? Why would you want to go to Irun?”), James and I found ourselves communicating rather poorly to the woman behind the glass partition that we each wanted a bus ticket to Bilbao. With only one seat remaining on the early bus, our only option was the 11:00. With a few hours stretching between now and then, we set about finding a place to pass the time.

Cafe in Irun
We settled on a long, narrow café with lots of counter space and a few small tables toward the back. Happy to be rid of my gigantic backpack for the day, I relished being able to sit at a table without trying to stuff all of my possessions under it. (I think backpacking means you learn very quickly to enjoy the simple pleasures.) Several cups of coffee later we buzzed back to the bus station and rode along the coast to Bilbao.

The Guggenheim
For many, the city of Bilbao is synonymous with The Guggenheim. Certainly for me and James, two art people who take most opportunities to visit all the museums and galleries we can. The main objective of our day trip to Bilbao was to visit The Guggenheim, to marvel in its architecture, to revel in its exhibitions, to soak it all in.

Certainly, the architecture was impressive. The museum was surrounded by water, giving the illusion that it was floating. “Puppy,” a towering dog covered in flowering plants by Jeff Koons, stood at the entrance. The interior, however, I found to be a bit disappointing. It was dark and cavernous, and there wasn’t as much art as I was expecting. On the ground floor was a Richard Serra installation, and wandering among his giant monoliths was an amazing experience. Higher up in the galleries was an exhibition of artifacts from the Aztec empire, which was interesting, but not exactly my “thing.” I suppose what I really wanted to see was European art and artifacts, not items from the part of the world I hailed from.

Bilbao reminded me of San Diego, with its wide boulevards and hills in the distance, its public parks and Spanish fountains. Being a Sunday, all seemed quiet. Wandering through the Doña Casilda Iturrizar park, we noticed a lot of construction going on at the outskirts, and it seemed out of place next to a child’s playground with a colorful, ornate carousel. Inside the park, however, were peace and tranquility, no sounds but children laughing, birds calling, and the rush of water from fountains.

Nuns Enjoying Ice Cream in the Park
James and I caught a late bus back to Irun, arriving just in time to see the last bus to Hondarribia leaving the bus stop. With no taxies in sight, our only option was to walk the rest of the way to our campsite along the darkened roads and highways.