Viva España! (2) But this STILL is not España?

‘Once through the Picos, we headed east to Zaragosa as a sleepover before hitting the sights, sounds, sun, siestas and soccer of Barcelona. But that’s another story.’

And this now is that other story.

If you’re visiting Barcelona for the first time, and you’re worried because you don’t speak Spanish, relax, neither does Barcelona. Barça is the main city of Cataluña and as is the case with the Basque country, conflict between Catalan independence seekers and Spain has been going on for many years. Of the 5.7 million Catalans, some 80% are Catalan speakers.

The Arena once was for bull fighting, now its for shopping

So not Spanish are the people of Cataluña that they abolished steer fighting and changed the Barcelona bullring to a Mall, causing a political stir due to the ‘un-Spanish’ sentiment this signified.

Barcelona, with ‘such a beautiful horizon,’ was our destination for the second week where we had a small (read small) apartment booked in the most ideal location in La Barcelonetta. La Barcelonetta is that triangular piece of Barcelona bordered by the harbor, the city and the Mediterranean. The apartment was a mere 50m walk from the ‘playa’ La Barcelonetta, the beach which gained prestige as ‘the best urban beach in the world’ and overall ‘third best beach in the world’ according to the 2005 Travel Channel show World’s Best Beaches. Thus, Heleen secured a prime location, which in a sense proved disadvantageous as well. So good was the ‘beach holiday’ that we did miss out on some other ‘must do’ sights in this magnificent city. Blasé-ly I suppose, I can say that since we have been to Barça previously, it was OK to afford ourselves a more relaxed pace in coping with the humid and high in the 30° days.

Nowadays in our home, FC Barcelona is probably the biggest attraction when you talk anything Spanish, and thus we were fortunate enough to be able to fit in two Camp Nou matches into our relaxed schedule, one of which was a sell-out ‘el Clasico’ versus Real Madrid. Utilizing the well-known reference books such as Eyewitness, Lonely Planet and others, I realized how hugely underestimated attending games in a venue such as Camp Nou is in terms of tourism value. A visit to the Estadio Camp Nou, including attending a ‘big match’ such as a la liga encounter must rate as one of the highlights available to any tourist visiting Barcelona. My advice is to add this to your bucket list immediately.

Camp Nou fever

Antonio Gaudi is the name, when visiting Barcelona that simply pop’s up time and time again and for good reason too. Gaudi was the genius architect of so many landmark architectural creations in Barcelona, of which the ‘Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Familia’ is probably the most well known of them all. I visited the Sagrada de la Familia for the first time in 2007 and was slightly disappointed then. At that time, the entire inside was still scattered with scaffolding and I could not appreciate the architecture and grandiose of this church in full.

This is truly stunning architecture

Thus, with the five years’ earlier experience as reference, it was with slight hesitation that we took the trouble to actually take the kids to the most famous of Barcelona’s sights. And am I glad that we went? The interior is now finished, with no scaffolding and workman around, and wow!, it is magnificent. Some areas on the outside are, although stunning, grotesque in design and in traditional cathedral frame of mind not what you would expect. But sit down, stare, scan and take it in, and then it makes sense and it awes you. The finished inside is just simply beautiful and my limited writing ability and words can never do justice to it. Of course it’s not traditional. Its Gaudi, for Pete’s sake!  Nothing Gaudi is traditional and he did spend about 16 years as a semi recluse in the cathedral while working on it. But it is incredible, huge, beautiful and awe inspiring. Marietha, you should visit it again.

The first stone was laid as far back as 19 March 1882. And the current project plan states that it will only be completed in 2026. It is always unfortunate though, that these monumental places of worship are such tourist attractions with the common tourist behavior and masses spoiling the dedicated atmosphere, which should reign.

Among Gaudi’s many architectural relics is also the Parc Güell. Industrialist and friend of Gaudi, Eusebi Güell had the idea of building an estate (let’s say Midstream like) with 60 stands amongst a natural park environment. He entrusted the design of the park to Gaudi and though the estate never realized and only three plots sold, the park and the Gaudi relics are something from out of this world. Due to the topography of the land, he designed a system of viaducts, all supported by interesting incline columns as to preserve the natural land, but still provide roads, to service the entire park. The location of the park in the mountain overlooking Barcelona makes it a favorite late afternoon destination where people flock to enjoy the views and lazily sit around while people watching.

People watching, needless to say, goes down very well with sipping something, soaking the sun, sometimes even staring and a bit of swimming or splashing, but in this sea never surfing and then siesta. Since we arrived in Europe in October 2011 we never sat still (refer this blog upwards) as we were so keen on simply utilizing the availability of travel in the Europe. This summer week in Barcelona turned out to provide a few good hours of actually relaxing at a slight slower pace, sort of to catch our breath and as the Kalahari Bushmen says ‘to allow your soul to catch-up with you’. It was necessary and hugely rewarding as the Barcelonetta ‘playa’ is scattered with cafès with a good view across the beach.

Sipping something while enjoying the sights and sounds of the beach

Man’s nature when traveling is to squeeze as much as possible into the time available and I often think of how much enjoyment you sacrifice this way. There is a huge trade-off between photos taken in front of things/places and then being ticked as visited versus experiencing things and places by spending time and absorbing sights and sounds. We used the Barcelona leg of the Spain trip successfully to slow down the pace and experience and enjoy more rather then rush and pursue more. So often less is more.

And this, I believe contributed hugely to this Spanish holiday to be one of the highlights of our past 12 months in Europe. And maybe, it will set the (lack of) pace for many more trips like this to come.

The road to Gdansk

For someone who grew up in the southern parts of Africa in those dark global political days of the sixties, seventies and eighties, places such as Gdansk, Poznan, Donestk and Warschau were so far out of reach that I never thought that I may one day visit them, let alone see some brilliant soccer (football to the uneducated rest of the world) in one of them.

‘The road is long
with many a winding turn’

Furthermore, who would have thought that it will be to watch soccer that I will travel many many kilometres to watch as I grew up in South Africa where real men played rugby. We did not dive onto the grass pitch in agony if someone came within half a meter of you, clutching your ankle while looking to see if the referee actually believed your near Oscar winning performance!

And then you have kids and your whole world changes forever. We attended two Confed cup games in South Africa in 2008 as the pre-run for the Soccer World Cup 2010 and were hooked on this soccer thing. Both kids simply embraced the soccer and started to become real enthusiastic supporters and followers. In 2010 we watched 11 games in total and by this time the family was clearly divided between Spain and Germany, with me fighting for my rightful place in the rugby seats every now and then. Obviously we were Bafana supporters too, but they were sort of in the B-league. I mean, its due to the treatment Bafana received from officials and Suarez that still has me completely put off from this brilliant Uruguayan striker. Against the calibre of i.e. Torres, Piqué, Puyol, Xavi, Müller, Podolski, Schweinsteiger, Heuer (to name a few) even the likes of Matfield, Habana, Steyn (Frans), Bismarck and Hoeha (Hougaard according the Stuart Barnes on Sky) seemed to fade away.

So now Euro 2012 arrived and Cara obtained two tickets for Spain versus Ireland to be played in Gdansk.

Two tickets, great experience

The GPS is a wonderful little device and it’s hard to think back to those old days of travel, where I was driving and Heleen instructing from a Road Atlas. I can boast that I have driven the streets of Paris before the days of GPS and survived to boast about it!

With the GPS, you never get lost, though you still don’t always know where you are!

With our Gdansk trip, it was a little bit of that. We entered Poland and suddenly we were on this magnificent brand new piece of highway (tolled at 31 zloti for the 200km odd to Poznan – 3.4 zlotis buys you 1 euro) with a speed limit of 140km/h. ‘Easy peazy’ I thought, we’ll be in Gdansk soon. However, when the highway ends, you are thrown onto anyone of a few small roads where you have to do the next 200 plus kilometres at 50km/h, then 70km/h and sometimes the luxury of 90km/h but hardly ever for more than 8 to 10 km stretches though. It was late at night by then, I already had the better part of eight hours’ driving under the belt and this was not fun anymore. We did fortunately twice see foxes on these small stretches and seeing wildlife is always a huge delight to me, thus looking back; it was still an enjoyable drive.

It was 00:30 when we reached our campsite at Sopot and lights out an hour later after pitching the tent and relaxing with a hot shower.

Gdansk is a lovely port city on the shore of the southern Baltic Sea with the little spa beach resort town Sopot bordering its western flank.

Free city of Danzig

When Poland regained its independence after World War 1, Poland hoped that Gdansk would again be a mayor port harbour for them. However, according to the stipulation of the Treaty of Versailles, and since the majority of the Gdansk population were actually German natives, Gdansk did not fall back to Poland, but instead became a sort of quasi state called ‘The Free city of Danzig’ with its own constitution, anthem and even postal service, which, though the Poles had free use of the port, it caused tension between the neighbours.

My good old buddy, Henk back in the eighties and its share of political turmoil often used the phrase that its sport and music that makes the world turn!

‘Boere Spanjaarde’

And this proved so true in Gdansk last week. With all political tension of the past simply forgotten and all attention festively focused on singing, drumming, probably small amounts of beer and soccer the ‘Dlugi Targ’ (Long Market) were filled with fans enjoying themselves and the diversity amongst the crowd.

The local brew

Spaniards and Irish with plenty of Poles and three South Africans (we did notice one other Saffa trying his best to blend in with the Irish supporters wearing his similarly-than-the-Irish-attire green coloured Proteas cricket shirt) in-between them, simply absorbing the atmosphere in great anticipation of what lies ahead in the PGE Gdansk Arena later that evening.

Irish support in Long Market

And then it was stadium time!

Cara at the PGE Gdansk Arena

Before I say anything more I need to say to all those out there who is so quick to criticise the Spanish players for not singing along with their national anthem, ‘their national anthem has no words! You can’t sing along to the Spanish anthem, you can at best hum!’

There were probably three times more Irish supporters than the Spanish and nothing ever silences them! Not even a first goal in less than 4 minutes for Torres, who at long last again had an excellent game. Though he personally only had ball possession for 38 seconds during the match, he had 5 shots at goal of which 2 were successful. Welcome back El Nino!

No uncertainty who is supported

The Irish were brave and though the score-line was hugely in favour of Spain at 4:0 in the end, it was a great game of football with the Irish always competitive and threatening when they obtained possession. And on the stands they were the ones never stopping to sing and chant their support to their ‘men in green’. However, the sheer class of ‘la Roja’ was too much and in the end it was an emphatic win for the current Europe and World ‘campeón’.

The atmosphere with the traditional drumming of the Spanish support and singing of the Irish made me realise just how much that droning of vuvuzelas took away from the great traditional supporting singing and drumming at the World Cup in South Africa 2 years ago. In hindsight, they should definitely have been banned from the stadiums.

Sopot camp site

The alarm clocks were set for 07:00 the next morning to start the 1300km journey back home, but due to the very short nights in this part of the world in summer, the cold sleeping in our little two-man tent and the continuous stream of singing and shouting Irish supporters returning from their ‘nights on the town’ we were up at just after 04:00 and started to pack-up.

 ‘The road was long

With many a winding turn

That leads us who knows where, …’

 It was a short and intensely packed visit to Gdansk, driving through stunning Poland rural areas with grain fields and forests as far the eyes could see. We had just one day to look around and see the Sopot beaches and the stunning old part of the city of Gdansk, which included a magnificently preserved medieval port crane. I did however see enough to realise this is a stunning destination to spend more time in if the opportunity arises again. It will make for great summer vacation. Though there is simply no way you can understand any Polish with just English or Afrikaans as background, there seems to be more young people able to speak English, even than in Germany?

The Sopot beach, where the daily catch is sold and where you can leisure in the sun, with plenty cafes and bars at hand

And one should never underestimate the good for a country, especially the not so wealthy countries, which comes with hosting events such as a World Cup or the UEFA EURO 2012. It’s evident in infrastructure and hospitability of people all around you. And if managed correctly after the event is gone and dusted, it can lift a country to that needed next level to sustain and grow on what was achieved due to the event. I sincerely hope both Poland and the Ukraine will experience that.

Thanx Cara, I had a great trip.