Part One – London > Barcelona
“I am not going, leave me in bed”, a freshly woken voice protests in bass from under the covers. I have already jumped out of bed at 4am, sung in the shower and gathered up everything we need for our trip. My boyfriend, however, is still literally sticking a toe out of the duvet and professing it too cold, too dark and too early to be going anywhere.
I have excellent discipline when it comes to road trips, born out of my father pulling my sister and me out from bed at 4am during our family holidays and practically dragging us to the car while we clutched at our pillows. By evening we’d be on the other side of Europe. I am also always petrified I will miss my bus or flight, and need to be there hours before departure time. I wish I had the same body clock for work and waking up early to go the gym. It only seems to work for travel and Christmas morning.
You want a round trip from London to Barcelona and Madrid for 70 pounds? Timing is everything, and although mid-October is an excellent and overlooked time to be visiting Spain, the sacrifice is in catching an 8am flight from the slightly less warm Stansted airport. Similarly, the perk of an early bus is getting extra leg room. The negative being the tiresome stops that National Express makes on the way to the airport. We later find out other bus companies have non-stop rides and for cheaper, something to look out for.
After a 90 minute bus ride from Victoria to Stansted for an excellent 18 pounds open return, I am being felt up by a portly security guard and having my toiletries fingered by someone called Sally. Apparently I have too many cosmetics. I’d like to tell Sally that she looks like she doesn’t have enough cosmetics. By the time she’s done eyeing up our unmentionables and telling us to “have fun”, it’s John’s turn to be the voice of reason and suggest some breakfast.
Stansted looks like it was abandoned after the zombie plague of 1992 but nobody needs duty free at 6am, or quite frankly, ever. So I am pleased by the spacious pub with incredibly friendly staff (seriously, who is that perky and helpful at that time of the morning? Well done.) offering a full English at lightning speed.
After coffee, we’re both a little bit more human and excited as we pore through our Lonely Planet guide to Barcelona and point out all the things we want to do. The last time I was there, I was taken by the charm of Las Ramblas but not completely impressed by the nightlife. In other words, I was chased down by a prostitute who clearly had the worst case of gaydar going. I also never got to see the sights, and Sagrada Familia has been on my bucket list since. John visited a few years ago with some family members and is interested to see how much the city has changed. We’re also both in need of some time away from our jobs and the London bustle.
The flight is pleasant and one of the smoothest I’ve ever been on, which considering we were flying Ryanair is a small miracle. John reminds me, in infinite wisdom, that you get what you pay for. However, other than the migraine inducing colour scheme (or as John puts it “how else can we aggravate our customers once they’ve boarded?”) it really is a good flight.
We are greeted with brilliant sunshine and the most cliched beautiful expanse of blue sky. If I was excited before, this is a very lovely icing on the cake. The bus ride from Barcelona airport to the city centre (Aerobus) is only twenty minutes long, stopping at a variety of convenient places and ten euros each for a return trip you can use within ten days. We stop at Plaza De Universidad, which is only a two minute walk from our apartment. We have already received a warm message from our hosts, who are waiting for us there. We decided to use AirBnB, which facilitates people renting out their homes for a fraction of the price of a hotel room. It also allows for a greater deal of autonomy. You can cook for yourself and not have to stare at each from across the bed while stuck in one room. There’s also the chance to really experience the city like less of a tourist.
I’d like to think I am excellent with directions, and now that I feel like I have central London tattooed onto the back of my hand even more so. However, I am rubbish at GPS, which tends to go something like adding an address, having a generally good feeling I am going in the right direction then realising halfway through I am going the completely opposite way. So I make the sensible decision to leave this John, who skilfully gets us to our destination in no time.
It’s a little hard to get an idea of our street, it’s a Sunday and everything is shut save for a supermarket and fruit stall. There’s a charm bursting through the silence though, with a narrowness punctuated the rows of box balconies on either side. Even the dilapidation adds to the flavour. This is Spain right on the wall, a curious mix of protest graffiti and band posters, crumbling walls and caricatures fascinated with American culture sprayed right on to the old traditional buildings. We’ll end up discovering the extent of this re-appropriation once the street comes to life.
Through a discreet gated door into a cool marble hallway rife with the smell of bleach, up a tiny lift to the fourth floor, which John stumbles out of to greet Miquel, one of our hosts. With the front door somewhat Hobbit-sized, Miquel resembles an excitable Spanish version of the literary creature. His partner is in the hallway, with a warm but quiet smile. Not speaking English, he lets Miquel do all the talking, and reinforces every high speed sentence with an urgent nod.
Miquel practically dances across the apartment, he is infinitely house proud and with good reason. We are led through each room of a gorgeous home, impeccably furnished and containing everything we could possibly need. Every time I make an attempt to speak Spanish, a language I am fluent in, it’s almost as if they don’t hear me, so I am happy to play the role of British traveller.
The highlight of the house is the living room, with two small balconies looking out at the rooftops and the street below. The sun is shining onto the potted geraniums, bursting through to what Miquel proudly refers to as his very expensive Italian leather sofa. He guides us through what museums are free, outraged at the fact you should have to pay (“This is Spain!” he shrugs) and what the Barcelona gay scene looks like (“it used to be good, and then the crisis came”).
Down to the finest detail, everything is presented to make us feel at home. Even the shower gel and shampoo in the bathroom are labelled in English. Oh, the bathroom. Miquel summons us to peer inside. “The shower, there is room for two. Or three, or four”. He laughs and hands us the keys to the place as they cheerily leave.
John looks at me and grins. “This is Spain!”