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Sweat and Cerveza

Budget Adventures in Barcelona


Thursday

I leave the house at a leisurely pace mid-morning, which feels wrong. I'm usually taking the super discount last minute flight at 10pm, or the crack-of-dawn coach. In 2010 it was a flight from London to New York via Switzerland. It seems weirdly indulgent to be able to pack in a leisurely fashion, play a little music, have a bite to eat, stroll out the door.

Loaded for four days, my backpack is satisfyingly flat. I am a little obsessed with super-light packing and the "bug-out bag"; it's an ongoing labour of love finding new, more ingenious ways to make everything lighter and slimmer while still being unnecessarily prepared for anything. A titanium spork, a mini first aid kit in a mint tin, the little microfiber towel that's been with me since I was hitch-hiking around the States, a water bottle that rolls up into a neat tube.

My wash kit (in a black packing cube slid into the front pocket) contains a flat little snap-shut container of tooth powder, which arrived from India in a tin flask, excitingly alien with its red Colgate livery and Hindi text. I lust after "travel trousers" with hidden pockets that dry in 4 hours, and have to exert my limited willpower not to spend more on travel gear than on the trip itself.

I walk to the station in my new black plimsolls, feeling the pavement through the thin rubber soles and regretting I don't have anything more foot-supporting. I'm never drawn to trainers but I know I'm going to be spending a lot of time on foot over the next few days. My default in a new place is just to walk, and see what I see. I'm conscious of conserving resources - staying out of the sun, going easy on my feet.

On the train I sit next to a German physicist called Jerry, the way he hesitates suggesting that he's translated it from something I'll have more trouble pronouncing. He's coming from a conference at my employers, the university, elegantly rumpled in a linen jacket, thin striped shirt open at the neck and plastic framed glasses he is always looking over or under. He hates shopping for clothes, and "takes consultancy" from his wife on clothing decisions. Gentle and avuncular, with that effortless Teutonic deadpan that keeps catching me nodding seriously at something he's said and then realising it was a neatly constructed joke.

Jerry designs power supplies for plasma systems, mainly for film deposition; vaporising materials to form microscopic layers, hardening tool surfaces and producing extraordinary properties. I dig out my few bits of limited physics and he blooms with smiling enthusiasm as we talk about antibacterial silver coatings and hydrolysis catalysts. "Yes, yes! And ours is the best, the best system. But nobody wants to pay for the best, they don't have the money. Always the same story".

He talks a lot about his daughter, with enormous pride even when he describes her dragging him around hated clothes shops. When she was four he could leave her in a room for five minutes and come back to find everything in such a state of destruction that he nicknamed her Entropy.

We part at the terminal and security check goes quickly and smoothly, with only a brief hitch caused by the tea infuser I've forgotten to take out of my backpack pocket. To be fair, as the Mancunian security officer holds it up between finger and thumb it does look like something designed to disperse biological weapons. Or maybe the new Oxo Good Grips stick grenade: Feels so good in the hand you won't even want to throw it.

As always I get a surge of excitement turning the corner from security and looking out at the apron, the planes standing ready, filling up with jet fuel and potential. Gleaming carriages of "the road that goes ever on and on". As it has been for weeks now in this almost-miraculous summer, the sky is as blue as any I would expect to see in the Mediterranean. On this side of the glass though, the air conditioning is cool and crisp.

The departure lounge is crammed with the usual mix of holidaymakers shot through with uniformed clusters of sports teams and stag parties. I'm still very early, and pace out what will be my confines for the next couple of hours, running into Jerry by the upper bar and having one of those brief awkward conversions you have with someone you just said goodbye to, before finding a seat in eyeline of the departure board and eating the foil-wrapped chicken wraps I packed earlier, soft and warm from my backpack pocket. Then the flight is delayed by four hours.

As the time slips and slips, those of us on the roster gradually identify each other, exchange bits of information from obsessively-watched phone browsers and text messages, raise eyebrows each time we pass each other as we pace the floor.

After two hours the airline provide food vouchers; since I've already eaten I get a mushy duck wrap for later and fill my backpack with durable snack bars for the next few days. After three hours we will be due compensation from the airline, so as the time drags on we all gradually slide from "How much longer?" to "Well, might as well at least get something out of it..."

We are finally sent to the gate where we roam around, a grumbling, pacing mass edged with an air of slight threat from the groups who have been drinking all afternoon in the airport bar and getting lairy. The tension is broken when a flight attendant at the next gate gives an extensive closing announcement in a voice so loud, piercing and shrill that she could easily be a Japanese cartoon character; she finishes to a weary cheer from the drinkers.

When we are finally channelled through a humid, ringing steel staircase onto the tarmac and into our plane, we have another 45 minutes to sit and sulk.

But despite everything, as our Airbus finally heaves itself away from the terminal and sways heavily out towards the runway, I feel the old excitement. I've loved flying since I was little, particularly takeoff, despite being terrified of roller coasters and other thrill rides. Feeling the weight of the plane shift as it turns and positions, the whine of the wing surfaces adjusting, the pause, the gentle voice of the pilot preparing the cabin crew, then that surge, weight pressed back in the seat, the huge turbines throwing an unbelievable mass of metal and people into the air, floor tilting, the clouds reaching down to us. As we gain height, banking in great sweeping turns across the countryside, I watch out of the window and dream.

Two and a half hours later we turn gently across the coast of Catalonia, the lights of the coastal towns below us and beyond them misty layers of hills, soft blue-grey in the twilight, and drop towards the orange lights of Barcelona airport.

It's getting dark when we step off the bus into Barcelona airport. As usual with a delayed flight, there is the sense of things being reconfigured in a rush to accomodate us; the near end of the long corridor to border control has only dim lighting, and the first stretch of moving floor is turned off, although one oblivious or tipsy passenger strides up onto it anyway and then has to walk the length of it with a sense of great determination while we all try not to laugh at him.

I realise I'm looking for things that are stereotypically Spanish; disorganised, flamboyant, messy, but the airport is as orderly, clean and cool and cavernous as the one in Geneva, although the posters here advertise Cocoalat chocolate milk and tourist Flamenco shows rather than watches (no really, Geneva airport is wallpapered with watch adverts). But as I work my way down through the levels towards the Metro the heat begins to rise and the long sweat begins.

I collect a prebooked "Hola! BCN" travelcard from a machine with a mildly baffling interface I finally figure out after three or four go-rounds; help is via a button that links you directly by crackly voice connection to an operator in some far-flung corner of the transport system, and two machines over a couple of American teens are shouting back and forth in increasing helplessness with a woman who sounds like they have interrupted her coffee break.

Down another few levels of black marble and strip lights, feeling like a space base from Dr Who (one which is presumably falling into the sun), to the Metro station itself, the tracks shut away behind clear perspex, dot matrix displays showing the next arrival to the second. It is almost 11pm, I am dog tired and ready for a shower and bed but I still have over an hour to travel to my hostel.

Two days ago, on the advice of my landlord, I booked one of the few remaining slots for Park Güell tomorrow - at 8.30am. That seemed like a good idea when my check-in time was four hours earlier. I eat melted high-protein peanut butter with baked hemp sticks out of a plastic tray from my stash of snacks, managing to get it everywhere.

When the train arrives it's like everything else here - clean, futuristic and timely. It's mostly deserted, and the onboard air conditioning is fighting the heat if not winning. I sit opposite a woman with a crest of spiky hair, tinted glasses in the dim light, and we "cheers" each other with our water bottles. She's off another delayed flight, hers from Israel where she's been back visiting family. She lives in New Orleans and teaches computer science. She is chatty and bubbly, I am a mumbling mess with peanut butter on.

An hour later I finally emerge from the maze of black marble tunnels at Horta station into a shocking shower of warm rain, and a street glistening with the reflected orange of street lights. The roads are lined with scooters, small narrow shopfronts now shuttered, the steel panels covered with colourful graffiti. The houses rise on the flanks of rolling hills on all sides, little lights petering out up towards a lowering sky that glows a gentle orange with the city's reflected luminescence.

Walking here carries the thousand little prods of culture shock; the little differences in the signs, the crossings, the lights, the doors. Wiping drops of rain off my phone screen I follow Google Maps in a zig zag path up the hill. The houses have that distinctive feel of warm places - boxy, flat-topped, open in all directions via balconies, tall shuttered windows and archways to catch every bit of fresh air. They feel old and settled and at peace, somehow.

As I climb the hill I become aware of music echoing down towards me from somewhere high above among a cluster of darkened apartment blocks. It takes me the first couple of verses before I realise it's "Mama Mia", being delivered at deafening amplified volume by a young women with a thick Eastern European accent and a callous disregard for Bjorn Ulvaeus's instrumentation.

Google Maps fails me at the foot of a flight of steps it fails to realise is a building site, and I take the long way round curving streets and up little flights of steps, past a cluster of local shops and finally to the hostel - a flat-topped building on a corner near the brow of the hill. The rain has eased off and as I turn the last two corners the city opens out beyond the houses in front of me, glowing and promising as it stretches to the horizon.

I let myself in through an unsecured security gate, up a short flight of stairs and onto the rooftop terrace, where the ubiquitous steel chairs and burnished tables which form almost all Barcelona street furniture glisten with rain.

The front desk man is a textbook example of his breed; laid-back, warm, with the wry sense of humour necessary to greeting and coralling the chaotic herds of backpackers who are prone to arrive at all hours, lose their keys, suddenly run out of money, conduct illicit liaisons in the showers and steal each others' beer.

I ask if the karaoke (which is still booming down the street outside and echoing off the buildings) is from here and he looks around momentarily confused. "Oh...yeah. I didn't actually notice it. No, that's something else. This is Barcelona, there's always something going on. You get used to it. Okay, I'm going to need 70 euros from you my friend. Card is fine, we just looooooove your money."

The corridors beyond reception are a cool tile burrow on two levels, following the slope of the hill. Brushing my teeth I exchange brief, half-asleep chat with an athletically muscled German youth of around 20 years old with a perfectly trimmed flat top and gentle, spacy eyes. There is at least one in every hostel I have ever been to - I suspect they come free with every set of mismatched soda glasses, an indestructible toaster and a set of humerous stencils for the bathroom doors. Sadly they always ship without a single shirt, although they seem happy enough.

The shower is cool, the bed comfortable and sturdy, with its own USB ports, a light, a curtain, a little shelf and clothes hooks. I'm transported back to the hostel in San Francisco where I lived for 9 months, moving to the basement bunk with its shelf and curtain, the luxury of being able to establish your own little territory of private space, lay out a few possessions. One of my favourite things about hostel life - how it helps you appreciate the small things.

And the room has a balcony - beyond a thin curtain (and a wall of propped-up trainers from the other residents), that amazing view down the hill over the lights. The balcony door stays open all night, a little breeze easing the heat as I lay in a sheen of sweat and slowly my buzzing head relaxes into sleep.


Friday

Despite the late finish I'm up early and surprisingly fresh, having woken several times anxiously awaiting the alarm; I desperately don't want to miss my entry slot at Park Güell, where I can only enter between 8:30 and 9am and the rest of the slots for the weekend are already booked up. This is a little pilgrimage for me - I've been captivated by the park since it appeared as the background to a virtual world in William Gibson's "Count Zero". Later, I studied Gaudí during my brief foray into Art History in university, and dreamed about visiting his "Art Deco fairyland" in person.

Trying not to crash around too much and wake my snoring roommates, I fumble kit from my backpack into my canvas daybag - water bottle, backup battery, suncream - and take a minute to step out on the balcony and feel Barcelona waking up in the sunshine below. At 7am it's already sweltering.

In the sunshine, the streets buzz gently under the perfect blue sky. I cut across the hill along a street lined with what I can't stop myself thinking of as colonial architecture (because I only know it from the Spanish-influenced houses of the US West Coast) - gorgeous, colourful glazed tiles, wrought-iron balconies, rooftop gardens, pillars and multicoloured plaster. There is that sense again of a deep, restful age; very different from the slightly anxious, closed-off history of northern Europe I'm used to.

The pavements are small, square tiles - good for grip on the vertiginous slopes - and the streets are clean and tidy although there is the recurring smell of rotting rubbish I've found in hot places everywhere. Big curved municipal bins for garden waste, glass, plastic and metal, paper and other rubbish are dropped into slots by the side of the road at regular intervals; I pass one of the trucks with a great cupped grapple dropping fresh ones into place, gripping each one like a hand holding a bowling ball and swinging it neatly in between the parked cars.

Almost nobody is out except a few dog walkers, but as I reach a more built-up area with tall flats looming over narrow roads I see grocery shops open and on every block the ubiquitous bars tucked between shops and houses; narrow, each almost identical with a couple of fruit machines, the burnished metal tables outside, the staff leaning against the doorway or pouring cafe con leche or a vermouth for a (mostly elderly) early morning clientele.

At balconies overhead a few faces peer out of dark, cool spaces. A huge, hairy, shirtless man chewing on a thick cigar looks down at me under lowered brows.

Everywhere I can see the yellow and red flags of the Catalan independence movement; the plain stripes of La Senyera, the blue triangle and white star of La Estelada. There are red and yellow ribbons in the shops and red and yellow patterns spraypainted on streetlamps and paving slabs. Political banners and flags hang from many windows, particularly those facing the tourist areas.

I'm hungry and know the thing to do is to duck into one of the bars and order something, but I'm nervous and don't feel ready to burst the bubble and try to make myself understood. I learned a little Spanish hitching in Mexico nine years ago but it's all gone now, although I have been trying to refresh it with an app and I know most people here will speak some English. Finally I compromise, going inside a long low open bakery on a little sidelong plaza of shops, and awkwardly buying a sort of baguette-style bread pizza with cheese and ham.

Following my map I descend a long narrow flight of steps through a little wild wood area, then set out on a long, winding road that curves past blocks of flats and ends at the plaza in front of Park Güell. The heat is stunning now, and where there's no shade there is no choice but to move in slow motion, try to think cool thoughts. The curve of the road brings it out to another remarkable view, all the way across the city to where the pointed spires of the Sagrada Familia church, unbelievably tall, poke up above the rooftops of the city centre, and beyond the deep blue of the Balearic.

Outside the park entrance I find a shady bench under a tree, take off shoes and socks to ease my burning feet (conscious as ever of preserving my walking capability as long as possible), slather on sunscreen and soak my hat in water in a vain attempt to cool down. The park is surrounded here by a stone wall completely overgrown with ivy. The little plaza has stalls and an ice cream stand but they're not open yet. I like the feel of places like this first thing in the morning, the sense of anticipation and the echoes of crowds who have been here before and will be here again soon.

I eat my bread pizza which is still hot, light and crispy and very good, and immediately meet a boisterous chocolate labrador who teleports immediately in front of my feet and is very, very keen to be my friend, until he is towed away by a shouting elderly woman.

As my time slot approaches I head into the park. The outer, free area is beautiful in itself, cool green gardens with winding paths between stone monuments, loomed over by heavy, roughly pillared aqueducts. Under the arches of the aqueduct a man is setting up a complicated wooden apparatus - I genuinely can't tell whether it's a musical instrument or he's going to sell parts of it, and forget to check back later and find out.

The Gaudí House Museum stands in the middle of the outer park like a fairytale house made of strawberry mousse.

I'm a little surprised to find vendors setting out blankets with souvenirs and trinkets all along the path right inside the park, erecting umbrellas covered in pairs of earrings, standing on corners with handfuls of water bottles, misty with condensation, chanting "One euro one euro one euro one euro...". It's somehow not what I expect in a European city, something I associate more with India or South America. The path curves around the inner, ticketed part of the park, the dramatically named Monumental Core, backed by cliffs carved or built up into almost-organic arches, each one housing flowering plants and the park's numerous pigeons - Gaudí's passion was for seamlessly merging nature and manmade construction.

Showing the reservation code on my phone, I'm given a map by a smiling omnilingual attendant and ushered through a checkpoint with a loose group of other visitors, mostly seeming to be American, British or Japanese, and we descend a staircase past the Nature Square (currently closed for maintenance on this side with rows of domes outlined under black plastic sheeting, the upper surface of domed vaults below), and down to the Hypostyle Hall, where great pillars supporting the Nature Square above form a cool, echoing space that was intended for the residents of this self-contained community to hold markets and festivals out of the sun.

Below it stairs descend past beautiful mosaic benches and the lizard statue which featured in the scene in "Count Zero" that I've been picturing since I was in my teens, tiled in beautiful blues and greens. There it emerged from the fog in a desolate virtual reality inhabited by a reclusive, dying millionaire and art collector. Here it basks in the sun and dribbles water as tourists take it in turns to take selfies with it, and seems generally happy with its lot either way.

I wander happily around the Monumental Core for over an hour, camp on a shaded bench in the beautifully green Austrian Garden trying to soak up a little of the moisture in the air like a lizard myself, and decamp to a bench high up in the outer gardens to read for the remainder of the morning.

At the adjacent bench two teenage California girls are discussing the intricate clockwork of their social circle, neither looking up from the screens of their phones. "You know Sean had a bird-watching party? They had like binoculars, and they just sat and watched the birds and wrote down the ones they saw?" "That is such a like grownup thing to do!" "I know, right? Anyway..."

When I get back to the hostel I am soaked with sweat, footsore and all my devices are flat. Sometimes, I will admit, I miss maps, books and cameras. I load up the power sockets and try to socialise on the terrace, but it's too hot and all the current hostel residents seem to be young French men who defy cultural stereotypes by all sitting staring off in different directions, radiating ennui, exchanging the occasional monosyllable and smoking. To be fair they may just be hung over.

Instead - since my t-shirt is already becoming uninhabitable in polite society - I shower in it, experience a blissful half hour of evaporative cooling and fall asleep in my bunk, waking up feeling like the inside of a steamed dumpling but with renewed energy which I take into the city centre via Metro to find a coffee and see the sights.


The coffee, from some kind of bakery chain, turns out to be a revolting concoction called a Latte Macchiato - about a pint of scalding frothed milk with a measly shot of the worst espresso I've ever tasted somehow suspended in the middle of it, possibly to protect the unwary drinker from encountering it without warning. But it starts to wake me up, and the sight of the Sagrada Familia does the rest - the unreal bulk of its towers and carvings dominating the city centre, like something dropped out of a fantasy world to occupy a complete city block and continuing to grow and unfurl its fantastic pinnacles year on year.

Gaudí died in 1926 having spent 43 years working on it, with only a quarter of it finished, and it's not expected to be complete until 1926 - the 172.5 meter main tower won't be in place for some time. It's gothic, futuristic, playful, full of colour and story and absolutely breathtaking.

I briefly consider taking the tour now, since I'm here, but it turns out tickets are sold out for the day so I quickly hop online and book a spot tomorrow afternoon. Instead I make a different kind of pilgrimage - a colleague at work has told me I have to visit Jamon y Vino, which is handily just round the corner from the basilica.

There, I am not disappointed in a glass of ice cold Cava, a sandwich of beautiful Spanish ham and maybe the best mango cheesecake I've ever had, ethereally light but rich with cream and fruit that linger on the tongue, flanked by sizeable piles of whipped cream and generous dots of berry and chocolate sauces. I finish with an espresso to chase the memory of the Latte Macchiato. It's equally terrible, but apparently the Spanish just aren't that into coffee you can drink.

I spend the rest of the afternoon working my way south and east from the Sagrada Familia to a monstrous shopping centre off the Avinguda Diagonal where I fail to buy chinos. Reversing my path I suddenly become aware again that every block has its little bar, that the drinks are startling cheap for a city centre (beers often just a euro), and over a cold bottle of malty local Voll-Damm I begin to realise that I have been approaching this city with the wrong pace.

Back to the the hostel via the local shop for a few bottles of the local Estrella beer, and after yet another shower while the bottles cool in the fridge, I settle in on the terrace as the sun starts to descend and engage in the best part of hostel living - making new friends. The night owls are emerging from their bunks, new arrivals are trailing in with their roll-alongs and backpacks.

First on the terrace is a French-Algerian former professional football player and coach with a kindly face that has clearly been the recipient of many boots. He speaks a tiny bit of English but some of my GCSE French still seems to be usable and we are able to carry on a halting conversation with pauses to work at our beers and poke at Google Translate for trickier concepts. Next we are joined by an Argentinian student and the conversation becomes intermittent French, halting Spanish and smatterings of English, plus a lot of gesturing.

I'm pleased to be able to carry on a bit of conversation in two languages, but also quite relieved when a sunburned Arizonan and his sweetly goofy 16 year old daughter pull up on their rented scooter from a day's exploring and join us. They've been ranging all along the coast for a few weeks, and are nearing the end of this leg of the journey before hopping a plane on Monday to pick up again in Scandinavia.

We talk US politics, his experiences in the UK (he liked London because, he says, they have a lot of Cockneys back in Phoenix and he likes hanging out with them), where we've been, the places on our bucket lists, and Batman.

A tiny blonde South African with the bottomless bouncy energy of a Staffordshire terrier joins us late in the evening; she's cabin crew off a yacht currently laid up in the port with serious storm damage, enjoying some leisure time on land until the boat is relaunched on Sunday. She's trying to readjust to solid ground after weeks at sea, and tells us she still occasionally falls over while walking.

The sun and the beers go down and it's 2am but still stifling when I drag myself into my bunk.


Saturday

Saturday dawns as hot and beautiful as ever, and I experience that unearned blessing of a morning after without a hangover, and resolve to make best use of this to approach the city at a more appropriate pace.

A bus down into the city, and as soon as I see a neighborhood that looks welcoming I hit the button and step off outside the perfect little coffee shop and bakery, filled with dark wood and marble tables where a few locals sip coffee and read the papers.

I order cafe con leche and a mini bocadillo sandwich; the latter is a delicious fresh and crunchy treat, the former tastes like they've managed by some kind of alchemy to turn espresso into freeze-dried Nescafe. I begin to ponder the possibility of smuggling a macchiato across the Balearic from Italy.

I wander up and down the narrow streets, soaking up the early morning vibe, and end up at a table in a shady plaza with a dark, sweet and cold glass of vermouth, reading and listening.

The voices around me are Spanish, English, American, but the sign at the corner marked "Tourist go home" is a reminder that there is a lot of hostility in this city to the staggering numbers of tourists who pour through every year, powerfully affecting the local culture and economy.

Many Barcelona residents believe that tourists are far more harmful and destabilising to the city than immigrants, who have integrated well and brought diversity; according to a Guardian article I read just before I flew over, 150,000 people marched in Barcelona last year to demand that the Spanish government allow more immigrants into the country.

Regardless of the cultural implications of my visit, the vermouth smoothes me out beautifully, and I drift through the shady streets, picking up a sticky turnover (full of soft baked apple slices and rich custard) in another corner bakery, and letting my feet take me wherever seems natural.

After an hour or so I hear the beach calling, and the Metro yellow line carries me dreaming south and east to Llacuna, from where I wander along the beach front, taking in the giant civic sculptures, the mad excess of the real tourist district, the billboards and pounding music, monstrous resorts looming on the horizon.

More to my taste, a couple of streets back from the seafront I find a cafe where an older woman with thickly kohl-rimmed eyes and very dark dyed red hair is just putting out the burnished steel tables and umbrellas and delicious smells are drifting from the kitchen inside.

I order another vermouth just to keep things ticking along, ask for a menu and am delighted to find that they serve chipirones; fried baby squid. The food is slightly delayed while my hostess, who seems to be the owner of the cafe, instructs me to "alto al fuego" (hold fire) and stumps across the road to buy bread, but the vermouth is cold, the sea breezes gentle and when they arrive the baby squid are crispy-tender little packages of deliciousness, their saltiness perfectly offsetting the sweet, fruity wine. And I manage to order, chit-chat very slightly, request the bill and say goodbye in Spanish, which is all very satisfying.

I move on through the tourist-riddled madness of the Barceloneta neighborhood and around the docks where yachts of every size, shape and grade of opulence form a backdrop for more vendors' blankets spread with sunglasses, selfie sticks, wooden apple bowls, little mosaic Gaudí lizards, scarves, painted fans and earrings. Among them wander the ubiquitous water guys with their misty bottles and chant of "One euro one euro one euro", like capitalist Hari Krishnas.

Past Roy Lichtenstein's "Barcelona's Head" statue and out of the sun into the blessed cool of the Gothic Quarter, where I follow the narrow streets and dim courtyards with their gleaming pavements worn smooth by hundreds of years of footsteps (or a massive restoration project in the 1920s), the ancient ornate buildings now housing hipster restaurants, tattoo shops and tourist traps, closed shutters and doors coated in the energetic graffitti of modern day Barcelona.

The Metro carries me back to the Sagrada Familia in time for my tour spot at 3.30pm. It's an experience I can't come close to fully describing - the sheer scale of the building, the way every surface is alive with forms and stories and almost-living details. It feels rooted in the Mediaeval but also modern and accessible to me in a way I've never experienced this kind of ornate architecture, a world I want to climb into, from the lizards and beetles crawling through the thickly moulded leaves on the entry doors to the way every surface seems to admit, emit or gather light in every colour.

The day ends back at the hostel with an even later night and even more beers, as the place fills up and new residents and now-familar faces trickling back in from the day's activities (or in extreme cases up from sleep and ready to party).


Sunday

It's my last proper day in Barcelona, and once again somehow without a hangover (I'm beginning to wonder if Estrella Damm has magical properties), I'm having breakfast at a table by the open doorway in the Cafe Costa Rica, at the foot of the hill below the hostel.

It's an omelette sandwich, a speciality of the city which my brother has encouraged me to try. I wasn't inspired by the idea, but I have immediately become a convert - the bread is the light, crispy baguette-like loaf which seems to be everywhere here and always freshly-baked, and the omelette is shot through with shards of salmon, salted but not smoked, perfectly balancing the sweet crumb.

The coffee tastes as though it has been strained through an ancient, rusty grate full of rotting leaves.

About an hour later I emerge from the Metro at the side of the great circle of the Plaça d'Espanya, with its vast, statued fountain like a giant's sporting trophy driven into the centre, and ringed by historic buildings of baroque magnificence, all overlooked by the towers and domes of the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya high above on Montjuïc mountain. Barcelona Pride finished here last night, and the avenue between the Plaça and the Museum is still cordoned off for cleanup, hung with rainbow banners and snowed with multicoloured confetti.

The nearby bus follows the long, switchback but functional road up the mountain, past the cable car stop, sports complex, university, and finally deposits us at the top of the mountain where Montjuïc Castle overlooks Barcelona on one side and the docks and the sapphire blue of the Balearic Sea on the other. Above, the red and yellow striped La Senyera flag of Catalonia flaps lazily in an even breeze. The boxy, well-maintained castle is completely overgrown by ivy on one side, and towers over beautifully manicured gardens, its entrance gate reached by a narrow bridge.

I circle the hilltop, then turn away from the castle and begin to work my way down the hillside via winding paths between bright flower beds which smog the air with perfume in the rising heat. Resting a little way down to let my feet cool and read in the shade, Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus" drifts up from somewhere below.

The upper reaches of the hillside are merely beautiful, lush and green. But after a few turns of paths and roads, a pair of iron gates let into the Jardines de Laribal and I'm walking through a fantasy.

White paths wind between thick, dark banks of trees and shrubs, with black cast iron lamp-posts and simple stone benches, numerous fountains, carved panels, balustrades and staircases, calm and peaceful in the hot Sunday morning sun. It's the way I've imagined Alice in Wonderland gardens or the twisting paths in dreams.

Nestled into the side of the hill in the midst of the gardens is La Font Del Gat, the 19th century house which now functions as a restaurant and bar. It's cradled in its own courtyard around which the green of the gardens wraps like a shawl, the iron gate in a flaking plaster archway topped by twin black cats painted on white glazed tiles.

It's been a while since breakfast and I stop for golden, crispy patatas braves with a dollop of mayonnaise and drizzles of spicy red sauce, washed down with an ice cold lemonade.

Inside the courtyard gentle Spanish guitar music is playing, but echoing from the distance outside is something deeper and wilder, rhythmic with throbbing bass notes and an undulating vocal; a voice from the desert. Snack done I follow the sound, louder and louder past the arched underpinnings of the La Font Del Gat.

I pass a hexagonal pool faced with gleaming terracotta and white clay fish and clam shells, and continue up a ramp of cracked red tiles. Beyond and through regimented rows of thin, gnarled trees is a dusty white courtyard, the centre occupied by a square pond with four great clusters of water lilies, edged with chalky sky-blue brick. On the far side a little cluster of people are standing in the shade of a grove of trees, some rocking, some dancing, some just watching as a band in colourful robes hammer out North African music in the midday heat.

Several songs and a bit of a dance later, I navigate geometrically trimmed hedges and follow a curving bench of decaying stone which wraps around a bend in the path. Then the way descends into a courtyard from which rise staircases flanked by artificial waterfalls of glazed blue tile, with verdigrised rams heads and flowering stone fountains relieving the dessicated air with a mist of tiny, cool droplets.

Adding a degree of surrealism are the powered escalators dotted about the landscape to convey tired visitors to the higher reaches, clattering away happily among the bushes and drifts of leaves and giving the place even more of an unreal quality.

My original destination had been the Museu Nacional, the many-winged and domed building which looks down the hill to the Plaça d'Espanya and houses the most extraordinary collection of visual art in the region. But I'm feeling visually feasted already, and I turn aside at the entrance, down the steps in front and into a shaded boulevard towards another waterfall-flanked staircase almost identical to the one before.

A skinny, bearded man with an English accent is perched on a stool playing covers on a semi-acoustic guitar, the gentle melancholy strings and soaring vocals echoing between the trees. He turns out to be from Teddington just outside London, and is busking to get the rent paid before he goes into the studio to record his first album. Nearby a doughy, shirtless man with an upswept tumble of white hair is methodically doing his laundry under a water fountain, unconcerned by the tourists passing by.

I climb barefoot onto the edge of one of the waterfalls and read there, misted with blissful little droplets and then splashed with larger ones as two extremely excited dogs galumph up the steps past me.

Finally it's time to descend the rest of the steps, through gathering swarms of tourists, past ice cream huts, souvenir stands, into the enormous space of the Plaça de Les Cascades and past the dormant bulk of the Magic Fountain, through the detritus of Pride and back to the Metro at the Plaça.

I've got a few euros left and I decide to treat myself to a something a little more lavish for my last big meal in the city - a search on my phone recommends Restaurante Santa Anna in the Gothic Quarter for seafood paella, so I take the train to Catalunya. I'm coming to really like the Metro - it's clean, easy to use, cheap via an unlimited travelcard, and the trains arrive every two and a half minutes almost without fail. The stations aren't air conditioned, but the descent into sweltering heat for each journey is relieved by a wave of blissful cold as the train doors open.

The paella at the Santa Anna is generous, bright yellow, unctuous and buttery, overflowing with savoury creatures of the sea including what is either a small lobster or a very large langoustine, and washing it down with a cold, crisp glass of white wine I feel like I've experienced some of the best Barcelona has to offer. But on the way back to the Metro through the crowds of the Rambla, I see one of the few grocery shops open on a Sunday and it occurs to me that I've missed something - a quintessential experience of visiting Spain that I came dangerously close to overlooking - and I know what I have to do.

That night in the hostel as I sit down with a multinational and eccentric crew of new friends, I produce my prize - one and a half litres of Sangria in a stylish, durable plastic bottle for the low price of three euros ninety-five (I nearly grabbed the one with a red plastic sombrero on it, but I felt it was paying for style over substance). We rinse out some mismatched soda glasses and toast the city, mourn our imminent departures, and see the sun down over the hills of Catalonia.


Postscript

On the way to the airport in the morning, with a little time to spare, I duck into a basic chain cafe on a corner to spend some of my last few Euros on a hasty breakfast of cafe con leche y tostada.

The toast is fine. The coffee is superb.

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