It was bound to happen.
With 21 flights in the space of a few weeks, the inevitable… “They”… lost my luggage. You know the feeling. You’re waiting at the luggage carousel, seeing everyone gleefully leaving with their luggage, piled high. “I’m SURE it’s coming”, you say to yourself. “It’ll be in the next batch”. But all you see is the same sad shrink-wrapped bag go around and around yet again, the thwack thwack of the belt as it passes by – the loneliest sound in the world. You hold your breath, desperately hoping more luggage will come out of the chute. You’re the last passenger there, or maybe there’s another forlorn passenger teetering between hope and resignation to share your misery. Then – the sound you never want to hear. Silence. The carousel has shut down. The final confirmation that you’re there but your luggage isn’t. You’re in a strange city with no change of underwear. Will your luggage be on the next flight and arrive in the next few hours? The next day? Maybe never? It’s a sickening feeling. (Although, according to the Department of Transportation, only 0.005% of all checked baggage is permanently lost…)
You think about everything in your suitcase. Those pants that fit just right. Your most comfortable t-shirts. Your favorite jacket. After all, don’t you normally take all your favorite things on holiday? Those tried-and-true items? Now they’re gone. Swiped? Lost? Forever destined to some massive nameless warehouse somewhere, waiting to be discarded or auctioned off?
With airlines now enforcing the rules about carry-ons, it’s hard to fit everything you need into one bag – cash, camera, laptop, electronics, cords, medication, the recommended one outfit change, etc. As I was wandering through the streets of Barcelona, wearing clothes that I had worn the day before, feeling homeless and downtrodden, casting envious looks at everyone else who had the freedom to wake up that morning and actually choose what they wanted to wear, I couldn’t help but think about everything in my luggage. I had all my electronics with me, but the cords were in my luggage. Rookie mistake. After all, electronics aren’t very useful if you can’t charge them, right? Questions were running through my mind. When should I start buying clothes? Toiletries? Thinking of how far the maximum compensation (€350 = just under USD 500) would get me and coming to the conclusion, “not very far”. My suitcase alone was more than USD 300. And I had two more months of traveling. And it’s not like I can just find my way to the Spanish equivalent of Walmart to stretch my dollar. That’s what I get, though, for being greedy. For this leg of my trip, I deviated from my standard plan of spending 5-6 days in one city, enough time to get the flavor of the place and have the option for a day trip or two if I wanted. But no. I had to get greedy in Spain, aiming to divide my time between Barcelona and Madrid. I mean, talk about Sophie’s choice! Wallowing in self-pity, I suddenly caught myself. I’m in gorgeous Barcelona, one of the most vivacious cities in the world! What’s happened is now out of my hands. I just have to be mentally ready to accept that I’ll never see my luggage again and move on. So, with spicy taco in one hand and a box of fresh raspberries in the other, that’s just what I did.
Here are my random generalizations on Barcelona, Madrid and everything Spanish.
1. The Spanish have perfected the art of doing nothing. Sometimes literally. Doing nothing. At least that was the case for the many street performers along La Rambla in Barcelona and in the many Madrid squares, dressed up as knights, Roman senators, cowboys, all involving some type of metallic body paint, sitting, standing perfectly still until someone dropped in a coin. It takes talent to sit still, no? Then there were the packed crowds at the Barcelona city beaches – on a Wednesday afternoon. The Spanish love to be outdoors, hence the many squares that are filled with people, day or night, a great place for relaxing with friends, watching street performers ranging from human statues to Fat Spiderman to cartoon characters (Bob Esponja!) to seriously talented artists like the five piece swing band with dancers performing a mix of swing and break dancing. Most famous of all strips is La Rambla in Barcelona, a pedestrian walk lined with markets, restaurants and shops dividing the old and new Barcelona. Here you’ll find street performers, couples in love, and an overall international vibe. My favorite? The Africans hawking knock off designer bags, ingeniously laying down their wares on a large cloth, with a rope tied to every corner. At the first sight of police, they simply gather the rope, forming a make-shift sac to be slung over the shoulder, and they’re off and running in 2 seconds flat. Most of the time, these squares and walks are just a great place to people watch, which leads to my observation that…
2. Spanish people are very good-looking! Modelesqe, tanned skin with blue/green eyes? What’s not to like? The Spanish have that carefree, natural look, coming from a love of being outdoors and it shows in their easy-going approach to life whether walking their dogs or just hanging out in the many open air squares built in to almost every neighborhood.
3. The Spanish take their food very seriously. Madrid boasts the world’s oldest existing restaurant. Then there are whole restaurants and shops dedicated to the Spanish obsession with ham. Literally every type of ham you can think of, sliced paper thin, aged to perfection. Or how about the Madrid version of Willy Wonka’s factory, also known as a chocolateria serving everything chocolate? One morning I couldn’t resist walking to Valor’s Chocolateria, proudly serving up fine chocolate since 1881, for the ultimate chocolate breakfast that is every kid’s fantasy (and every diabetic’s nightmare): churros con chocolate, a delicious, guilty marriage of long fried doughnuts dipped in thick, dark, hot chocolate.
4. There’s always room for tapas. You may know tapas as small, appetizer-sized dishes, but the word tapas is actually derived from the Spanish word tapar, meaning “to cover”. Tradition has it that sherry drinkers in Andalusian taverns used to use a slice of ham to cover their drinks against flies. The ham would be salty, leading to more drinking, and from then on, restaurant owners began to serve snacks along with their drinks. The Spanish have elevated the tapas to an art form, with endless variations from fancy oysters with champagne to the freshest salmon and dill over toast to gourmet olive brioche and everything in between. Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid is an excellent place to walk around and sample to your heart’s delight with some tapas starting at only €1.
5. Barcelona has great city beaches. It’s balmy weather, even in mid-October, and half the city is dressed for a day at the beach. The metro is almost evenly split between businessmen in suits and twenty-somethings in flip-flops and shorts. So, when in Barcelona, do as the Barcelonians and head for the beach! Surprisingly, Barcelona has pretty decent city beaches. Along the beaches in an area called La Barceloneta, streets are lined with seafood restaurants where a lunch of mussels in saffron sauce, made to order seafood paella, flan and a glass of sangria will set you back just €12. But it’s not even the food that’s the great part. It’s the people watching. Rowdy Barca fans, street performers lugging their keyboards and castanets, modelesque beach-goers all vie for your attention.
6. La Boquiera is now my newest favorite market. Bar none. Anywhere. Right in the middle of La Rambla at the Liceu metro stop, La Boquiera is all your favorite gourmet delis packed into a tight venue. An equal mix of tourists off cruise ships and locals dragging along their shopping carts, La Boquiera is foodie heaven. The most beautiful selection of raw, slightly exotic produce including mushrooms, fruit, emu and ostrich eggs and delectable hams clamor for your attention alongside tapas made to order, gorgeous fresh pasta and everything else you could think of, all housed under the same roof. I was literally drooling as I walked up and down the aisles, planning my course of attack. In the end, I settled for a spicy taco with a side of paella and a mixed salad with a curry dressing and a carton of fresh raspberries. Total price: €6. My only wish? That I could be forever hungry!
7. Transportation in Barcelona and Madrid is excellent. The metro in both cities is expansive and never did I have to wait more than 2 minutes for a train. Downtown Madrid in particular is very compact. Even though I bought a 10-trip ticket, I only used half of them, as it was inevitably faster and closer to simply walk. The only place I’d consider taking a metro might possibly be the Prado Museum, slightly outside downtown by perhaps 10 minutes.
8. If Barcelona is the wild, attention-seeking younger sibling, Madrid is the conservative, regal older sister. The vibe I got was that Barcelona is very much a fun, hip, party city, while the history and architecture is to be found in Madrid, epitomized by the Prado Museum, a gorgeous collection of European art through the centuries, including works by Goya, Picasso and others. I could’ve spent days wandering around the old parts of Madrid, the ubiquitous squares and fountains and green spaces just begging to be enjoyed. A wander around La Latina, the oldest neighborhood in Madrid, known for its many tapas restaurants, with a church or monastery seemingly on every other corner, was a joy. Just don’t make a wrong turn and end up in Chinatown… (After three weeks of no Asian food, I admittedly had to fight off the urge to have a springroll of some kind!)
9. Gaudi – madman or genius? It’s unbelievable what a huge imprint Gaudi had on the face of Barcelona – everything from municipal buildings to parks and of course, the cathedral known as Sagrada Familia. Under construction for the past hundred years, it “may” be finished in 2020-2025, depending on what guidebook you’re reading. Outside, it looks like a melted sandcastle. Remember when you were a kid at the beach and you’d dribble wet sand into misshapen piles? Now imagine 100m high sandpiles. Twelve of them, one for each apostle. After paying a steep entrance fee (€12.50, proceeds go towards ongoing construction), the cathedral interior seems to break all the rules. Cathedrals are supposed to be old, but this one isn’t. There aren’t supposed to be words (at least not readable ones) as part of the decor, but there are. Mosaics are supposed to picture Biblical scenes, not be abstract. Columns are supposed to be straight and graceful, not look like trees reaching up to the sky. Yes, Gaudi breaks all the rules, but the Sagrada Familia is at once utterly bewildering, like a slightly demented Dr. Seuss-scape, yet incredibly intriguing. Even the organ music played at the top of every hour is macabre and unsettling, but I think that’s the genius of it all – a sense sensation.
10. The Spanish do everything with passion. Whether it’s couples kissing on the metro, in the squares or just in random places or the whirling limbs and lightning feet of flamenco dancing with serious attitude and world class staredowns, the Spanish seem to do everything with passion. Sleep late, party late, it was pretty much impossible to find breakfast at 7am. From the bleary-eyed looks of the people I saw in the squares and on the metro at that early hour, I think it’s safe to say that most of them were just getting home rather than getting up.
Happily, my luggage arrived the next evening. You can bet I now make room for all my electrical cords and chargers and a change of underwear in my carry-on…
Travel tips: (1) Both Barcelona and Madrid airports are well connected to the city by metro. When I started this trip, I was queasy about schlepping luggage through the metro, but there’s really not all that much to fear. As long as you’re comfortable handling your luggage up and down stairs and sometimes being mashed during rush hour traffic, it’s a fast, inexpensive choice. Both cities offer discounted 10-trip metro cards. For Madrid, there is an unlimited 2-day tourist metro card that is roughly the same price. However, note that trips to / from the airport will require a €1 supplement. In Barcelona, I actually opted for a pre-arranged shuttle to my hotel. My threshold for door-to-door transport was €10 for the luxury of being met by a driver and being dropped off right at the hotel. Shared shuttles aren’t available at every airport, so you’ll need to do your research. In this case, I was the only passenger in the minivan so got a private transfer for one third the cost of a taxi. (2) It’s worth checking on-line to see what events are on during your visit. You may be surprised to learn of the many free things available. For instance, I lined up with the other (cheap… er, budget conscious) artlovers at the Prado Museum. Usual entry is €10 but the museum is free from 6-8pm. The line moved quickly and within 10 minutes, we were in. Invest €3.50 of the money you saved on an audioguide, an excellent resource for giving the history and interesting backstories of the many Biblical and mythological-themed works. Another valuable freebie are Sandeman’s city tours. Done by excellent passionate freelance guides, there are free walking city tours (guides work on tips only) as well as reasonably priced paid tours in 14 cities across Europe. (FYI, the guide must pay the tour company €2.50 per passenger, so remember to factor that into your tip). The 3 hour walking tour I did was an excellent orientation to the city. (3) There are several venues around Madrid for flamenco dancing, usually at restaurants (and very occasionally at theaters). Obviously, no matter where you go, the crowds will mainly be tourists and students. However, it’s a worthwhile way to spend an evening enjoying soulful Spanish guitars and passionate, feet stomping flamenco. Shows usually cost €30 including a drink, but when in Madrid, remember to pick up a €10 voucher at the end of your Sandeman’s Free Tours. I caught an excellent show at Las Carboneras, conveniently located just around the corner from the Mercado de San Miguel so you can get your fill of tapas before you go…