Barfelona - Dispatches from Europe

Back in eighth grade, I read a book about a girl who went on exchange to Barcelona. She stayed with a Spanish family, learned Spanish, and ate a lot of tapas. I don’t remember much about the plot or even the protagonist’s first name anymore, but one part of the book stayed in my mind for years after. The tapas bar. The description of tapas was vague but tantalizing; specific foods were not mentioned as much as the system, where one came to the bar, served themselves, and paid at the end. It was all about the honor system, the book said.

I was finally on my dream trip to Spain. It had far exceeded any expectations I’d had – I spent the weekend traipsing down wide streets dotted with palm trees and narrow cobblestoned alleys, neck craning in order to see the sprawling facades we passed. I’d marveled at Gaudi’s creations and kissed strangers in beachside clubs. I’d closed my eyes to take in the fresh air and warm sun brought on by spring, enjoyed sunset sangria by the ocean.

But it was my last day in Spain, and I still hadn’t been to a tapas bar. Of course, the tapas bars described in the book I’d read so long ago were nowhere to be found; tapas were 5-7 euros instead of 1-2, and most of the windows I passed advertising tapas were sit-down-and-order-from-a-menu-type spots. The honor system I’d read about was either long gone or hidden away from untrustworthy foreigners.

After an early morning visit to La Pedrera, Gaudi’s final masterpiece, I headed to La Rambla. The street was long, wide, and bustling, and its two main functions were food and souvenirs: a tourist’s paradise. I walked along the section in the middle which separated the two sides of the street and held booths selling flowers, gelato, and keepsakes. Motorcycles lined the sides, making it difficult to cross the street.

I licked my chocolate-mango cone and scanned the storefronts, walking slowly and hunting for the perfect place to find gifts for my cousins and my best friend. That’s when I saw it. “Buffet – all you can eat. 13.95.” The restaurant was called Itapas.

Finally! I’d found a real tapas bar. Okay, maybe not a real tapas bar, but the serving yourself aspect of a buffet made it the closest thing I’d come across yet. I marked it in my mind and decided to return – I needed time to digest the gelato.

After 45 minutes of strolling into souvenir shops, being closely followed by salesmen, and mostly exiting empty handed, I decided I was ready for my big splurge. My budget would be satisfied, I decided, because I’d have a very light dinner or none at all. I could fill myself on tapas.

The restaurant’s interior was clean and colorful, with ceilings, sideboards, and cushioned booth seats all covered in vibrant patterns of pink and green, blue and brown. Food was placed in hot pans perched on large barrels or on elevated wooden platters, behind which a chef filled customers’ plates. The walls were wood and stone. Patrons seemed to be a good mix of tourists and locals. The waiter greeted and seated me almost immediately, and after telling him I wouldn’t be ordering a drink I rose from my high chair and inspected my options.

Sliced bread with various toppings, paella, bean and rice cakes wrapped like sushi…I could go on. I tried everything, went back for seconds. And thirds. And fourths. I was not about to waste fourteen euros on a tiny meal. I’d woken up a bit sick that morning, so I had to keep stopping to cough or blow my nose, and my eating became progressively slower as my belly became fuller, but I was determined. Eventually I could not handle another bite and was satisfied I’d gotten my money’s worth. I certainly wouldn’t need dinner now, I thought as I paid the bill and exited.

I would, however, need a walk, and my next destination, Montjuic Castle, was a convenient 40 minutes away on foot. It was a 1600s military fortress-turned-castle that promised a 360 degree view encompassing the city and its port, as well as much of the Mediterranean coastline. I started off, following the directions of my usual navigational savior, Google Maps. Though it normally had no problem tracking my location without wi-fi, I was for the first time led astray. I followed the turns carefully, but the dot that represented my location moved back and fourth. The route was nowhere to be found. And my phone battery was dangerously low.

I’ll just walk in the direction I need to go, I decided, sure that I would find a route. At first this plan was effective – my dot moved closer and close to the red pin. This was an even better route, I told myself – the sidewalk was expansive and decorated with palm trees, and I was immediately next to the ocean, boats docked in the water and the occasional family enjoying the sunny day. On my other side were layered highways, a high speed route to Montjuic and beyond.

I was sweating and thirsty. Maybe the no drink idea had been a bad one. My feet began to drag on the sparkling pavement. I felt like a pregnant slug. And then it happened. I reached a gate and a sign that marked the entrance as “only for authorized persons.” Oh.

I considered my options. I could risk my life running across the busy highways. I could retrace my steps and try to find the route I’d been on. Or I could hail one of the black and yellow cabs that rushed past, seeming to beckon me to sit and get some rest.

My cab driver was kind – he explained to me the different ways to enter the castle, and said he’d drop me off at the closest point, a short ride and a five euro fare. He explained that I needed to take a cable car and it would take me directly to the castle.

It was an uphill climb to reach the cable car station, and my thirst increased with every step. I’d finished off my last drops of water in the cab. The mountain was wooded and beautiful, and I stopped off of the winding path to rest in a cleared out, peaceful little park with a dusty ground and a lot of benches. A girl sat reading. I sat panting. I tried hard to appreciate the fresh air and greenery, but my body was displeased with me – my stomach turned and I couldn’t stop coughing.

After a long hike and another wrong turn, leading me to a café where I chugged a cold bottle of water before continuing to another long hike and a second cable car, I finally arrived at the castle. It was grey and massive – I could easily see that it had begun as a fortress. I crossed the moat to find heavy wooden doors recently shut; the museum portion was closed for the day. I didn’t mind. The surroundings were enough for me. Stacked stone walls lined the wide, dusty walking paths. The castle towered over me even from its sunken position – the walls rose out of a sort of man-made valley. Cacti grew from crevices, and trees nearly obstructed my view of the vibrant sunset.

My nausea was becoming unbearable. I scolded myself, wondering why I couldn’t just stop feeling this way, wishing I’d eaten a few less tapas or maybe not sipped on tap water from the sink. Tapas. The thought of tapas made me want to-

I stopped. My mouth began to water uncontrollably. No. Absolutely not, I thought. I refuse. I will not throw up at a-

I ran for the trees. My lunch exploded out of me. I somehow avoided soiling my clothes.

I gargled the tap water, afraid to swallow lest it was the cause of my debacle. I gargled, spit, gargled, spit. I inspected myself and my surroundings. Had anyone seen? Two children. Not bad. I used a leaf to blow my nose.

I turned back and found a good spot to sit and watch the sunset. The mammoth castle next to me darkened in the twilight, and as visitors began to clear out, my mind did the same. I breathed in. I’d just thrown up at a historic castle. Out. The clouds painted the sky deeper shades of pink and purple and blue. I felt cleansed.

All things considered, it had been a wonderful day.

LivingKatja Vujic