I had been to Spain only once before, and only for a few days, and only to one city. But what a few days and what a city? In 2002, when I was 22 years old, I traveled with a group of Italian friends in a motorhome from Rome to Pamplona for the Running of the Bulls. It took about 24 hours to get there, the Italians took turns driving, and we ran out of gas somewhere in France. Once at the event, we napped on the ground, became filthy, and I had my wallet stolen just as I was entering the arena for the bullfight, losing every credit and debit card I had, the cash I had just withdrawn, my Tennessee driver’s license, and my college ID card. But, I can say I’ve been to the Running of the Bulls.  Here is a picture from that trip:

The Running of the Bulls, Pamplona, Spain, summer 2002.

The Running of the Bulls, Pamplona, Spain, summer 2002.

Eleven years later, I am returning to Spain on another quick trip to another single city.

Usually I am more or less prepared for a trip. I’ve researched the top things to see, a few places to eat, how to get to and from the airport in the cheapest and most efficient way, and most importantly, what to pack.

I planned my four-day trip to Barcelona in the middle of my MBA final exams, the day after the last of which I was on a plane to America where I slipped into a voluntary coma for twelve days. I woke up, took a plane to Rome, dropped off my bags, threw some bikinis in a backpack, and returned to the airport to fly to Barcelona for about 100 bucks roundtrip on Ryan Air.

All of this is possible when you work remotely and are a student with actual breaks.

Cut to the end of the story, and everything worked out except for my packing choices.

Cut back to the beginning. I was going with two very dear girlfriends from my graduate program in Rome. Monique, who is from Chicago and is getting an MBA with me, and Laura, who is from Haiti-via-Miami and is getting an MA in International Relations. We waited until the last minute to book our lodging, because as I mentioned, we were all in the depths of despair final exams and then we scattered. On the day of our self-imposed deadline to find a place, after a week of agonizing over different budgets, demands (which is more important, breakfast or wifi in the room?) and location preferences, a miracle happened: I had a conference call for work with an American man who lives in Barcelona, and I mentioned that I was coming for a weekend and that we had not selected a hotel.

“I rent out my houseboat to people. It’s docked in the marina attached to downtown Barcelona. No one has rented it next weekend. You and your friends can stay there for free if you’ll just clean it up. Would you mind?”

Would I mind staying in a houseboat, docked in the marina in the middle of Barcelona, for free? What’s the restaurant with the golden arches, must be the next question.

My friends immediately agreed and then came the day that I flew from Nashville to Rome, via Charlotte (and running into my realtor from real life House Hunters International), and then leaving again the same day for Barcelona from another Roman airport.

Monique and Laura were already there. We exchanged texts. One included “how do I get to the boat from the airport?” I told you I was unprepared. Laura texted back directions. The girls met me at the metro station at Drassanes and I sneaked up behind them, pinching one of them, making everyone laugh.

It was about 11:00 PM.  Just in time for dinner in Barcelona.

But what’s this? The place we have settled into for sangria and food, isn’t serving food anymore? “Well, we can make you a mixed plate of meats and cheeses.” “Esta bien.”  Then, it came, a gorgeous plate of not only meats and cheeses but toasted bread brushed with tomato sauce, olives of all sorts, and I can’t remember what else. The reason I can’t remember what else was because I was brought a goblet of the sweetest and tangiest blood red sangria in the history of time. And full of wonderful oranges. It was hard to tell if my head was spinning from the alcohol content or the deliciousness. Or the fact that I had flown from Tennessee to Rome that morning and from Rome to Spain that night.

We went back to the boat and crashed. This was the first time I had seen the boat. A bit rustic compared to the sparkling yachts parked all around it, but lovely, with a furnished deck just begging for parties to be thrown, and inside, a glossy wood cabin with a couple of comfortable bedrooms (bunk beds and a double bed).

Cold. Oh, but we were cold. It wasn’t cold like the dead of winter, in which case I would like to think I would have had the sense to bring a freaking coat, but the wind was biting and the sun was obscured and the temperature was just plain low. And I had not even thought to check the weather. And so I was in sandals and capri pants, tank tops, and the little denim jacket I had grabbed while running out the door as an afterthought, thank the Lord.

Fortunately, we three girls were snug as bugs in rugs in our little houseboat on the water.

Much better than staying in a hotel.

Did he really just ask me if I WANTED to stay here?

Our lodging for the trip. We had to leap from the dock onto the wooden plank there, with bags and everything. I loved it!

Our lodging for the trip. We had to leap from the dock onto the wooden plank there, with bags and everything. I loved it!

The next morning: oh but it was chilly.  My savior, Laura, lent me a white turtleneck to put on over my hot pink tank top, worn with capri jeans and sandals – a ridiculous look. But at least I was warm. Fortunately my friends are also total coffee monsters, so we all agreed that the first order of business would be a large cup of strong coffee and a croissant of some sort. We succeeded.

That day we went to La Sagrada Familia, the famous church designed by Gaudi “only” just over 100 years ago (seems like yesterday by my adopted Roman standards) with its swirls and carvings and gargoyles and gnarls, which, frankly, aren’t really my style. From a distance, the thing looks like an Australian termite hill to me. But, it is… unique to Barcelona and therefore something that must be seen. Then we made it over to Park Guell to see a bunch of other Gaudi structures, including his own home which we paid 4 euros to see. Friends, save the 4 euros. I know I already said I’m not into Gaudi so maybe you’ve already given up on me and my taste, but I say it’s not worth it because the best part is simply the outside. Inside you see four small rooms and the best part is what you see when you look out the windows.

Dr. Suess stuff by Gaudi

Dr. Suess stuff by Gaudi

Back up: I like some of this Gaudi stuff. It’s whimsical and looks like maybe the gingerbread/candy house in Hansel and Gretel must have looked like. It’s pretty neat.

We then went back down to the main part of the city, and attempted to see more Gaudi buildings, which we frankly declined to visit once we got there due to the shocking price tags. We concluded that the coolest parts were probably the facades, and also we were exhausted.

And then my shoe fell apart. It was a medium-high wedge sandal with soft ropes criss-crossing over the top of my feet. Actually quite comfortable for traveling, they had been with me everywhere from China to the Virgin Islands. And one of them just disintegrated in the middle of a dirty Spanish sidewalk. Faced with walking home over cigarette butts and broken glass with one bare foot or hailing a cab and speeding home to the boat, I looked up and saw: H&M. That beacon of cheap-but-cute clothing.

My disintegrated wedge. It served me faithfully in China, Thailand, Costa Rica, the Virgin Islands, Italy, Kenya, the United States, and one day in Spain. RIP!

My disintegrated wedge. It served me faithfully in China, Thailand, Costa Rica, the Virgin Islands, Italy, Kenya, the United States, and one day in Spain. RIP!

I went in, with one shoe on, and bought a pair of flats that I actually liked (my favorite color – green!) for $9 and concluded I had made lemonade out of lemons. I thanked my friends for their patience.

That night I had one of the best dinners of my life. We went to Ciudad Condal on Rambla de Catalunya and ordered round after round of savory tapas, everything from foie gras to stuffed mushrooms to mini sliders to greek salad. We had asparagus and stuffed red peppers and mixed cheeses and bruschetta. Spanish omelets, shrimps, spicy potatoes, and just buckets of sangria. Then we ate the fruit out of the sangria. Then we had an assorted dessert platter.

My friend Leslie had recommended this place to me and I will be eternally grateful.

Sometime before the assorted dessert platter showed up, so did my friend Carlo. Carlo is Italian and from Amalfi (SWOON!) and I knew him when he was doing his post-doctoral research at Emory University in Atlanta and I was getting a little thing I sometimes forget I have called a Doctor of Jurisprudence. He’s been living in Barcelona for quite awhile now and I hadn’t seen him in years. So over dessert and sangria we caught each other up on life’s main events since leaving Atlanta, and then he walked us almost all the way home to the boat, taking off, finally, on a “shared” bicycle.

I found Barcelona to be very environmentally conscious.

The next day, I slipped the green flats back on and barely made it out of the marina when I realized that they were slicing my pinkie toes off.  Extremely apologetically, I informed my friends that I must find another pair of shoes. I limped back to H&M up the street, and realized that they do not sell flip flops. I needed flip flops because I needed my pinkie toes to have contact with nothing except for oxygen.

Desperate, I emerged from H&M and saw a souvenir stall, literally a stall, waiting for me like an oasis. It sold flip flops in assorted colors and I said I would take a pair in “comfortable.”  They were $6. I would have paid $100.

Two things: 1) This picture was taken moments before these new green shoes started making me bleed, and 2) LOOK AT THIS JACKET AND THEN LOOK AT THE JACKET IN THE PAMPLONA PICTURE, ABOVE. It's not similar; it is the same one.

Two things: 1) The new, green shoes of death; and 2) LOOK AT THIS JACKET AND THEN LOOK AT THE JACKET IN THE PAMPLONA PICTURE, ABOVE. It’s not similar; it is the same one. (Photo by Laura Cantave)

It was already late. I think we hadn’t left the boat until about 2:00 PM that day or something. So we did one thing: The Picasso Museum. It was… interesting. It was Picasso. I’m just hooked for life on the humanist Renaissance paintings that wallpaper my life in Italy. So maybe Picasso/cubism/whatever he was is not my favorite style, but as my friend Ana explained to me, “Picasso COULD paint beautiful, realistic, expressionist paintings. He knew how to do it and then chose to do something else.”  I can respect that. This museum is actually a bit of a must-see and I recommend it even if he doesn’t particularly float your boat.

We walked through the Gothic Quarter. Totally do this. This was the Barcelona I expected to see. Old and piled, with buildings that looked like they were made out of croutons, and spires and gargoyles and arches around every turn.

The Gothic Quarter

The Gothic Quarter

We kept walking, and came upon something of a parade. About 30 Spaniards were making their way slowly down a hilly road, each of them playing a different drum or brass instrument, kind of dancing in a bouncy way while they marched to the beat. In front of them were a couple of capgrossos (as Google informs me they are called) – people on stilts wearing costumes of long robes and giant heads. The only other time I had seen them was … my last time in Spain in 2002.

The Parade. Wish I could capture the sound of the drums in this photograph.

The Parade. Wish I could capture the sound of the drums in this photograph.

We found dinner. It was a much recommended place right downtown and I can’t even remember the name because it was only ok. I was still food-drunk from the tapas at Ciudad Condal the night before. I ordered paella. I’ve never been crazy about paella but I had never had it in Spain. I’m still not crazy about it. I can see how someone who loooooves rice would really enjoy it, though.

The next day, we took the gondola lift (16 euros?!?!?!) across the harbor to Mont Juic. Mont Juic is a hill overlooking Barcelona and the Mediterranean, with some great views, a castle, and the Olympic Village from 1992!!!

The Harbor as seen from the ski lift we took to Mont Juic.

The Harbor as seen from the ski lift we took to Mont Juic. Our boat is … one of these.

Who doesn’t remember the 1992 Barcelona Olympics? Don’t answer that, MBA classmates who were barely born then (ugh). That was the Olympics of the original basketball “Dream Team”!  I remember watching it in Nashville, twelve years old, and during the diving competitions you could see the Barcelona skyline in the background, including the Sagrada Familia. Lots of deja vu going on when I saw that pool and that high dive and the Sagrada Familia behind it. I wondered how it is possible that I can remember something so vividly that occurred over twenty years ago.

It’s kind of sad to see an old Olympic Village with nothing going on. It was chilly, so here’s hoping that on warmer days, these pools and fields are full of sport and fun and goings-on.

Also up on Mont Juic was a castle. I love castles, much more than museums and even many people. It also provided lovely views of the Mediterranean sea. And cold temperatures.

On Mont Juic. The bathing suit I wore under my dress all day was just in case it warmed up by about 30 degrees.

On Mont Juic. The bathing suit I wore under my dress all day was just in case it warmed up by about 30 degrees. (Photo by Laura Cantave)

Barcelona Castle

Cold, windy, but happy to be in flip flops. (Photo by Laura Cantave)

This was fun: that night, the owner of the boat where we were sleeping, Martin, organized a party on the deck. We were cold, and it was windy, but about 12 people from 12 different countries (a guy from Idaho, a girl from Hungary, an Italian, a Brazilian…) all gathered on the deck of the boat for drinks and drinks and drinks. After lots of laughter and attempts to explain what I am doing in Europe, we dispersed at about 10:00 p.m. to go have separate dinners. Monique, Laura and I headed back to Ciudad Condal for more tapas. Why not return to the scene of one of the best meals of our lives?

The next morning, Laura and Monique left to see other parts of Spain. One of them maaaaay have had a slight medical emergency when some cotton got stuck in her ear canal. But they made it to their destination in one piece and I am informed that they had a wonderful time.

Me? My flight wasn’t until 6:00 p.m. so I had a coffee with the owner of the boat, then lunch with my Italian friend Filippo, and then made my way to the airport and back to Rome.