Sunday, 10 March 2019

Hola Barcelona!

The need to write has been niggling at me for a while now, but try as I might, every time I’ve attempted to put pen to paper, nothing has flowed. It’s hard to know what to write about when life is a constant cycle of wake-work-eat-sleep-repeat. I’ve been back in stationary, fund-replenishment mode for quite a while now - a couple of weeks shy of a year to be exact - and the longest I’ve been back home for many years. These last couple of months though I’ve started to feel like I’m waking from a long hibernation, I’m feeling the stirrings of new adventures ahead. So let’s give this a go…

2018 wasn’t a great year, and to be quite honest, I was very happy to see the back of it as the clock ticked past midnight on 31st December. It was a year of largely unfulfilling travels, rifts, heartache, medical issues and restlessness. A lot of my year was spent attending hospital appointments, trying to mend things that were broken and wondering what to do next. As always, I should have been more patient and better at just sitting back, allowing things to align and for a new path to become clear. Because, after all, I already know it always does.

Towards the end of the year, I began to get restless as migration time approached, the nights drew in and the temperature dropped. It’s been a long time since I’ve worked through a winter and my flight instinct was kicking in. A week spent in Cornwall for my birthday was a much needed break, and even more beautiful given that it was off season and sans the tourist crowds of summer, but back at work the longing to be away again quickly returned.

As so many times before, I realised that the best way to deal with this was to change my perspective, to put myself in a different place. A quick search came up with very cheap flights to Barcelona for Christmas and New Year and a couple of hours later I had a hostel booked too. I can’t say that I’ve ever particularly had any desire to go to Barcelona, but immediately I felt that familiar rush of excitement that only comes from the thought of spending time with people who are on the move. Of course, on this occasion I wouldn’t really be, but it was better than nothing and as Barcelona is somewhere I'd never been before, it would be a new place to explore. I had a plan and immediately things started to look up.

The flight out was uneventful, save for the usual, tedious Ryanair delays. Arriving in Barcelona late in the evening, the first thing that hit me was the heat. By no means tropical, but in the high teens, it was a welcome change from the single figures I had left in the UK. Immediately back into budget mode, I made my way to the hostel via the most convoluted route available so I didn’t have to pay €10 for the dedicated airport bus. As soon as I walked through the door I knew I’d chosen wisely. I was warmly welcomed by the guy on the desk before being immediately scooped up by a couple of other residents to join them on an evening stroll down La Rambla.

Barcelona is without a doubt a beautiful city. With its wide, tree-lined boulevards and impeccably efficient public transport systems, it struck me both as very much like so many places I’ve been before, whilst also feeling completely new. It brought back memories of Havana, Mexico City and Merida, of Morocco and San Francisco. As I spent several days wandering its streets, I realised that as well as the visual assault of Modernist architecture, the city has its own unique smells. Walking down one long street I noted the smell of fresh bread baking, chocolate, dog mess, oranges and clean sheets.

As I had limited time and wanted to see as much as I could, I splashed out on an unlimited travel card that I could use on the metro, buses, trains and funiculars, but still my main mode of transport was my own two feet. I walked for miles every day, taking in the sights and sounds and smells, enjoying every second. Now I’m not a huge fan of cities - give me wild, open countryside any day of the week - but Barcelona has a definite charm, something that drew me in and supressed my usual urge to flee after a couple of days. Locals were friendly, helpful and never in a hurry. Despite many a warning to hold tight to my belongings, I never encountered the pickpockets that Barcelona is so famous for. It’s is a very multicultural city, more so than pretty much anywhere I’ve ever been and it was a breath of fresh air in such crazy times.

Having never been good at, and never had any desire to plan trips in advance, I had hardly even looked at what there was to see in the city before I arrived, and so I took my cue from the people I met. I spent a very pleasant afternoon hiking up to the old Battery just north of the city and then wandering through Parc Guell, stunning palm gardens interspersed with Gaudi sculptures and quirky buildings commissioned by Eusebi Guell, with small green parakeets screeching at each other from the treetops in the warm afternoon sun. It reminded me a lot of the craziness of Edward James’ surrealist vision ‘Las Pozas’, in the jungle in Mexico, but finished and polished and pretty.

On Christmas Day, I was lucky enough to be able to snag a last minute ticket to get into Gaudi’s masterpiece, La Sagrada Famila. Tickets are strictly time allocated and are often sold out many weeks in advance. Sadly, I could not find a ticket that allowed me to climb the towers, but even just to enter and spend time inside was worth every cent. After a morning spent climbing around old derelict buildings in search of Barcelona’s street artists, I sat quietly for several hours in awe, watching the light change from within the Basilica, trying and failing to take in the sheer scale of what Gaudi, and now people working from his plans, are building. With a current budget of €25million a year (raised entirely from donations and entrance fees) and a completion date estimated of 2026, it’s fair to say everything about the place is mind-blowing.

One of my favourite places in the city, and one that I happened upon quite by chance, was Ciutadella Park at the end of the beautiful boulevard leading down from the Arc de Triomphe. It’s hard to describe the feelings I had wandering around there, but I found myself several times quite literally overcome with emotion at the beauty of the place. The fountains, the lakes, the Umbracle del Parc de la Ciutadella, a large ornate glasshouse full of palms. The scent from the citrus trees was overwhelming in the late afternoon sun. I found myself returning to the park several times, usually in the early evening; even now I’m not entirely sure what it was that kept drawing me back.

Later in the week I joined a friendly Argentinian, Paulo, from the hostel, on a trip up to Monjuic Castle, a 17th century hilltop fortress and former prison. There’s something about historic sites in this city, all so beautifully maintained and presented, yet without feeling 'overdone'. Another day I did something I rarely do and joined a free walking tour led by a Welsh guide and spent a fascinating couple of hours learning more about Gaudi’s use of symbolism and the development of his ideas over the course of his life.

With only a day left I decided to scratch an itch that had been taunting me the entire time I had been in Barcelona. From almost everywhere I had been all week, from every vantage point with yet another stunning view over the city, I'd often noticed from different angles a tall, Disneyesque silhouette of a church on a hill. It seemed a little higher up than everything else, and I found myself constantly drawn towards it. A brief consultation with Google Maps told me it was the Temple of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and next to it, sat Tibidabo, a late 19th century funfair, one of the oldest in Europe. I was sold and the following day made my way via a slew of buses, trains and funiculars north through the city and slowly up the mountainside.

Reminiscent of the Prater in Vienna, the theme park with its brightly coloured ferris wheel and other vintage rides is like something from a bygone age. Small children screamed with delight as they were spun through the air on a vintage aeroplane ride and swung from a great height on a giant swing. The church too was worth the trip, dominating the skyline and with breath-taking views from its roof. I took a while to take in the atmosphere and recap on the last few days. Barcelona had turned out to be the perfect choice for an escape and I felt like my reset switch had been flicked.

As is so often the case with my plans, after an impulsive last minute change, I found myself back in the UK after all for New Year, where I was fortunate enough to be able to spend a fantastic few days with a friend eating good food, drinking good wine, watching old films, wandering around some of the beautiful local countryside and pausing to warm up in waterside pubs. I’ve spent so much of my time away these last few years that I forget sometimes how beautiful this country is and how nice it is to be able to spend quality time here with people I care about, so I couldn't have asked for a better end to the holiday season.

It wasn’t until a couple of weekends ago that I’ve really felt motivated to write again though, and that’s thanks to spending a few days in the company of motorcycle people again at the Overland Event’s Winter Warmer in Oxfordshire. Back in the summer, after stumbling across it on social media, I bought myself a ticket on impulse whilst in the moindset that I 'needed stuff to look forward to next year'. To be honest, I wasn’t really sure when I bought the ticket that I’d actually go, but as it turned out in the week prior to the event the temperature soared and my yearning to be outside, sleeping in a tent surrounded by people who understand the urge to be moving got the better of me. I’m glad it did.

I have never been a huge fan of large bike rallies or gatherings, mostly due to the tiring dick-measuring contests that, sadly, so often take place at them, but this particular event was totally different and I came away feeling energised, my head overflowing with ideas and content having spent a few days in the company of my kind of people. I’m not sure I can advocate camping in February though. As beautiful as the weather was during the day, temperatures plummeted at night leaving it barely above freezing. Ice on the tent and a heavy frost on the ground in the morning reminded us that it was still very much winter despite appearances.

So, what does 2019 hold? Well, it's been a funny year already, truth be told. Only two short months in, I’ve lost track of the number of different plans that have come and gone already. I’ll be working and saving until at least June so I don’t have to make any decisions yet, but I’m certainly not short of ideas. Some will no doubt fall by the wayside, some sadly already have, some I still have hope may be resurrected in time. I think one thing I’m quite clear about, is that whatever I do, it will involve a motorbike.

When I first decided to get my licence, I thought of my bike very much as a means of getting from A to B, avoiding the need for hours on a packed bus or train and being restricted by schedules. I realised very quickly though that it’s a way of life, more than just a form of transport. I never feel quite as content as I do while riding, there is no better place to think (or to not think, as the case may be) than when alone on a road, on two wheels, with only your thoughts. Bike people are also by far the most generous, friendly and welcoming people you’re ever likely to meet.

So I’m thinking about riding up through Norway and Sweden or down through Europe and then Africa. I want to hike across the Scottish Highlands. I want to ride from Eastern Canada across the north to Alaska. Then there are old bucket list staples – a trip to New Zealand or hiking a long distance trail in Japan that I’ve had my eye on for a while. I want to ride in the Himalayas in Northern India and Nepal, and return to Indonesia. As ever, time will tell and I’m sure the path I’m supposed to take will make itself clear in good time.

Quite where it’ll lead, I don’t yet know, but I’m feeling positive and I’m ready for a new adventure.

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