Σάββατο, 10 Οκτωβρίου 2009

Landing in alien planets

Seeing the huge queue at the Madrid-Atocha station did not surprise me at all. After all, I was expecting to get a ticket for the Altaria to Barcelona in the middle of traveller’s rush hour in Madrid. Midday. The only thing that I disliked was that the clerks in the ticket stalls seemed to handle all the traffic with the speed of a turtle. But then again, the queue was enormous and growing by the minute. Suddenly, the guy behind me felt the need to go visit the W.C., and asked me politely to look after his stuff. Later, and having a long time to spend before our turn to go for the tickets came, we started some small talk. The guy was actually travelling to Barcelona to meet up with a Mexican friend of his. He was a larger-than-life Arizona guy, who by the age of thirty had travelled through much of the world, and was spending his summer holidays in Spain, in anticipation of his new job somewhere in Silicon Valley, and, by some twisted surprise, a newborn kid. After a while we decided to travel together, and since I had not booked a room everywhere, why not share a room in the hostel where the girls where residing, provided that there existed one.

After buying out tickets we had some time to kill before boarding the train, a thing that meant coffee and tofu being served at the station’s deli. And then we proceeded to board the train. The procedures of boarding the Altaria are very similar to the ones of boarding an airplane. That means a metal detector, and handing out your ticket to some sort of hostess just before you get in and reach your seat. I did not have the SLIGHTEST IDEA if this happened after the Madrid-Atocha bombings, or if it had been standard procedure already before that incident. But even the latter could be logical, since the Altaria can run at up to 350 kilometres per hour. Any threat against it may, anyway, turn into something really nasty. As we sped through the vast fields of Aragon we were chatting happily. Then we passed by the mountains near Lleida, and slightly after dark we had arrived in Barcelona. Instantly, a feeling of arriving at another planet got to us. From the graffiti spread around the rails that lead to the Barcelona Sants station, someone can understand that there is, to a great extent, some craziness around the city. Some creative madness. I could add. We shacked up in the hostel quickly, and then the American disappeared into the Mexican’s room. I took advantage of the situation and went for a wee bite and a stroll around the Rambla. Then, I just returned, and sat with my book and some beer on the balcony, which was overlooking the Rambla. And while I was watching the crowd go by, I exchanged some small talk with other Mexican girl that was occupying the balcony next to ours, an anthropology student from Toluca. Sadly enough she was leaving the following morning, so we parted company with wishes for a pleasant trip.

I woke up the next morning at around eleven in the morning, for breakfast, and a chance to meet Mari Sol and her sister, (my companion’s friends), two unbelievably beautiful girls, that seemed to be a little bit spoiled, but not that bad altogether. Then me and the American (Scott) decided to part ways with the girls and have a look around town. Our first destination was the famous Sagrada Familia. The swansong of Antonio Gaudi, the city’s landmark architect, the church lies, still unfinished (projections estimate the end of the work by 2015). One thing that makes it difficult to complete it is that in the end the final prints where burnt by anarchists during the Spanish civil war. And the only one able to restore them, Gaudi, had died in a tragic accident years before that. A streetcar hit him, while he was on his way to meet some investors to fund the continuation of his work on the new church. Then, the civil war came, and after that Franco’s rule. Works came to a halt, only to recommence in the seventies, after the restoration of democracy in Spain, and Catalonia being granted some autonomy. And now authorities are trying to finish the church, based on older blueprints that came into existence.
But while unfinished, it is still a huge charm to the visitor’s eyes. There Gaudi mixed modernism with huge Gothic structures and innovative techniques, with unbelievable craftsmanship. Gaudi designed anything, from the massive statues in the entrance of the church, to the metal fence around it, a thing that he was probably used to doing while working on his other masterpieces. Probably he was the only one to work so close with everyone else involved in building, from the builders to the craftsmen that made the furniture and the iron craftsmen. The whole building, on the outside, resembles a cave, but in reality there is much more to it than that. Despite the fact that he was a devout Catholic, Gaudi also had a raging imagination, which he let run free while working on his buildings. He was also the first one to think of the concept of recycling, long before ecologic movements adopted the idea. So broken tiles, pieces of iron, and fencing, that normally would be considered as a pile of rubbish, where used as part of the outside decoration, an idea that originated from Gaudi’s first job, the renovation of Casa Battillo. This lead to building mind-blowing works of art. As we progressed in the interior, with me leading the pace, I started hearing clicks behind me. It was Scott, who before visiting the place was talking about the ingenuity of the people who built Ankhor Watt, the greatest building he had ever seen. His hand kept working the camera with almost no intervals, until we left the building. And while in the beginning I thought that he was turning Japanese, or something like that, in the end I came to realize that he was just dumbstruck by the magnificence of what he had seen.
The next stop was the infamous Casa Battillo. Gaudi’s first work of art is an orgy of human imagination. Both the interior and the exterior of the house have no corners whatsoever. In fact the interior is curvy, and, according to the thrill, it was inspired be Jules Verne’s 80,000 miles under the sea”. In fact some rooms resemble the interior of a whale. In fact this was the first bio-climatic house ever built. Air currents circulate around the house through a system of air vents carved through the doors and walls. This system makes the inside temperature at any given room bearable come summer or winter. Also there one can see the birth of one of Gaudi’s major techniques. Recycling. In order to build the façade and the exterior decoration of the building, Gaudi used rubble coming from the original building. A true visionary.
The visit ended with the two of us being exhausted and trying to get some sleep at the hostel. In the evening Scott disappeared with the girls again. I spent the next morning wandering around the Barri Gottic, getting a glimpse of the Gothic side of the city. One of the coolest aspects of downtown Barcelona is that modernist, modern, medieval and 18th century architecture mix and match. All styles mix giving the downtown area an exceptional flavour that is difficult to find in European cities. Adding to that are the millions of street performers giving their shows around the Rambla and the streets of Barceloneta, ranging from musicians doing street concerts, to amazing mimes and capoeira dancers. Barcelona is a city that has immersed itself in art.
For this reason, after a long night’s sleep and a morning dedicated to preparing for the next day’s trip down south, me and Scott decided to venture into the city’s art. And that meant going into one of the most modern buildings in the city. The Museum of Modern art.
The museum then hosted a huge variety of collections. From sculptures to animations and various forms of video art, including a surreal video which showed the statue of one of Napoleon’s soldiers taking a stroll around downtown Paris in the seventies. But the most important item was in the next rooms, where what was hosted was a collection of covers of albums that where painted by famous painters and where part of the pop/art movement or inspired by it. These included the famous banana from “the Velvet Underground and Nico”, Sonic Youth’s “Goo” and others that I can’t remember. The night ended in a tapas bar, just North of Plaza Catalunya. Among philosophy and other things, the prototype idea of some sort of fanzine or something like an e-magazine that had to do with alternative travelling and travel articles came to birth. I put it here because this conversation is what gave birth to the idea behind this blog. It is a shame, though, because during the trip I lost the slips containing both the emails of Mari Sol and Scott, and now probably they have no idea where this conversation led. Anyway at 2AM we returned at the hostel to catch some sleep. In the morning we caught a fast breakfast, and I left to catch my train. I was travelling South West, see another aspect of Spain. One that had more to do with tourism

Τρίτη, 6 Οκτωβρίου 2009

Exit Italy-Enter France

The mist of morning was evaporating from the surface of the earth, as I began to cross Northern Italy on my way to the port city of Marseille. I was crossing the all known plains and vineyards of Veneto, home to the infamous prossecco wine, with two bottles of it in my disposal, along with a small bottle of my beloved Limoncello liquor and some sun-dried tomatoes and slices of mortadella accompanying me on the way. Two hours later, having zipped by a lot of towns, cities and villages the pictures changed. I was seeing, again, an industrial area. I arrived at the central train station of Milan having a lot of time at my disposal, twenty minutes before my connection to Nice. Or so I thought. How wrong was I? The train was departing ten minutes early, and I found myself running across the station trying to make it there. In the end, I managed to climb aboard a non-decript train car, while the train was starting to move toward the exit of the station. It definitely felt a scene from some Hollywood action film, momentarily.
A few minutes later, I was securely seated in my compartment, next to a Chinese refugee. She was travelling to Paris, through Nice too. The background changed again, as our train was charging through the plains of Lombardy, racing towards the Italian side of the Alps. A few hours later the train was climbing the mountains, then, reaching Genoa. I managed to take a peek through the city, which looked like a nice coastal town where the old meets the modern, and tourism co-exists with industrial structures. To whatever extent this co-existence is harmonic, I am not really aware, though.
By the time I was through with those thoughts, we were passing through the borders at Ventimiglia.

At the next station, the French police entered the train for a passport inspection. While checking the Chinese refugee’s papers, they found that they where not issued by the Italian Police or the Ministry of the Interior, but by the Municipality of Milan. This meant, according to them, that they where not in order. So without further explanations they pulled her out of the train, so that they could ship her back to Italy with the next train. Huh! Some welcoming committee. They just did it without any hesitation. I can’t help but imagine what they could do if she was a youngster from any derelict metropolitan area. No wonder why the ghettos erupted the year before! As the next few minutes passed by I got to see parts of Monaco and the Cote’d’Azur, before I arrived at the station of Nice. For the next hour or so all I could do is wait for the next SNCF regional train to continue on to Marseille. To my surprise I entered an old TGV. This meant that although I was travelling on a local train (and thus, with my interrail pass, for free), I was zipping by the French countryside really fast. In this part of the journey I got a glimpse of the famed beaches of St Tropez. Then I saw a bit of Cannes, and then moved a bit further inland in Provence, only to emerge about an hour later in Marseille. The port city of France, which many lovers of French culture cherish, stood before me, ready to be explored

Proxima Parada, Madrid

“And so it begun
the fairytale of one”
Cyanna, Shine.

The first impression I got arriving in Madrid was the one of modernity. And how can somebody avoid such an impression when the first sight he sees is the taco-shaped roof of the newly built terminal 4 of Madrid’s Barajas airport. Throughout the whole trip, this impression of Madrid did not completely vanish, whether I was stuck in the middle of a neighbourhood that is dated from the 18th century, or in the middle of the most derelict aereas, or even in places that seem to be the entrance to some sort of a twilight-zone trip back in time.
Actually the bus station in Avenida America did fit the last scenario. As the bus sunk under the hot tarmac of the street, I had the feeling of entering a time capsule. As if the era of Franco came alive, back from the forgotten realms of the early seventies. Fast food and ice cream parlours mixed with travel agencies and ailing ticket booths, plus the amounts of smog coming in from all the urban busses and the interurban coaches, made the atmosphere even worse than it was at surface level. And adding up to the whole situation, I had to cut across a strong current of commuters. Morning rush hour traffic in Madrid.

The first thing of the day to be accomplished was to find a place to stay for the next two days. And that was NOT easy. For the next two days I had to be cramped in a small apartment with a Brazilian guy, watching a crack in the ceiling looming open over the double bed we were sharing. Too bad. But this was nothing comparing to the misery of the whole neighbourhood. We were somewhere between the Callao and Nuevos Ministerios train stations, not far from downtown Madrid. The apartment complex was actually situated over a titties bar, the street outside was full of junkies, and on some corner there was, at all times, a hooker trying to pick up clients. And, at some point, on the second night there was a face-off between pimps right outside our hostel, which involved broken tyles and knives coming out. That, of course, scared the shit out of both of us. But the Brazilian decided to stay there, since he had booked the room for the next few days and his girlfriend was to join him there. Wow! I wanted to get the hell out of there, and did not really mind giving a bit more money than the 25 euros a night for some safety, let alone not having to take a cab for safety whenever I wanted to return. So I moved out, and let the Brazilian and his unbelievably good looking fourty year old girlfriend enjoy the apartment, while I was being booked at some hostel a few blocks away, in the tourist aerea of La Latina.
In the meantime, during my stay at the ailing hotel, I had discovered a few of the kicks anyone can get when living in Madrid. First of all, comes the green. Enormous areas of green and a lot of trees exist on the sides of huge boulevards. When entering Retiro, I discovered that there are almost no buildings to be seen in a distance of Miles, and the same goes for most of the Metropolitan Parks in the surrounding areas. And, thanks to an extensive and very effective system of mass transport (part of which works 24/7) that includes busses, the metro, tram and the cercanias (suburban railway), and a set of streets that are used only for pedestrians or moderate traffic (that means busses and very few cars, usually the ones belonging to the people that live or work in the area), Madrid is emitting fewer greenhouse gasses than a lot of European cities.
But the most odd thing about Madrid, and maybe Spain, are its contradictions. I came across one of them in one of the vast parks, this time near the houses of Parliament. In the middle of the park, there stood some sort of a monument, bearing the inscription “Built for the enjoyment of the citizens of Madrid and all Spaniards, Arias Navarro”. Clearly a relic of the Franco era. But right in front of the massive monument, there was an anarchist slogan written on the floorboard, declaring that since there exist homeless people and unused houses, the movement of occupations of houses should move on. And in the same park, I watched in delight as a couple of gay men snogged each other without having to mind about any remarks from any passers-by. In reality nobody minded about it! Same thing had happened the night before, when I had witnessed the same act being performed by two enormous lesbos. This definitely meant one thing. That Spain has gone from being an ultra conservative country to an ultra liberal one. The government there seems to be hell-bent to challenge everything that was deemed sacred by the conservatives and the Vatican. But also, while the government charges on to the division between church and state, and has legalized same sex marriages, among other things, in the poor areas of Madrid the theology of liberation is gaining ground among parishes, especially in neighbourhoods that have a leftist background dating back to the days of the Spanish Revolution of 1936. This mix of Marxism and some sort of radical liberal view of religion, with roots in South America is more appealing to a big part of the religious people in areas such as the Vallecas (which is home to Rayo Vallecano and a lot of immigrants from South America) where exist perhaps the first multi purpose temple in Spanish history. A roman catholic church, where everybody can pray to whatever god they like, be it Jesus Christ, Allah or even the Force, if they like.
In the two remaining days I strolled around the Madrid funland called la Latina. The whole of the area has a Latin feel. From the cafés to the bars and karaoke joints, Madrid can be fun and games to just about anyone. Personally I found myself sipping mojitos and tequila in a small Cuban joint. In the last night I also went for a wee pub-crawl, myself, just sampling around bars. I ended up sampling a good part of the Spanish rumba scene, and noticing one thing. There was only two bars/clubs with bouncers/doormen inside. And these perhaps where the two uber trendy/ expensive places to go in an area inhabited by more or less 20-25 bars. This was it! I went back at the hostel, trying to get as much sleep as I could, because in the next day I was travelling back east, to Barcelona town