The gradual descent over the Pyrenees was something to behold. Still, even though I had a window seat, it turned out the other side had the best view (according to the pilot). Anyway the flight from Gatwick at just under £50 seemed like a bargain. Pressure-based earache, though, distracted me on the final descent – maybe too steep. Then the inevitable infant expressing its suffering. The kid had my sympathy!


As often, at the airport my ears had that flu bunged-up feeling, and curious popping. Then my typical mild disorientation, having to really make an effort on focusing where I’m getting. Passport control has an automated option, but curiously a fingerprint sensor, which, on reflection, is slightly concerning. My fingerprints have never been stored anywhere except my phone, and now do the Spanish authorities possess it? It was taken again at near gate. Maybe this explained why so many people opted for a human checker.

Finding the train station wasn’t really a problem (certainly nothing like the questing journey in Madrid Barajas). A relatively short journey to Bar Sants. The city centre is reasonably easy to navigate but I’ve got so much in the habit of using my phone even to find a hotel that’s a 5 minute walk. Being near and at a budget will always feel like a comprise: small single room, in darkness until I found the slot for the key card (how they stop people wasting power). Hardly bothered with the invariably no-English TV. But free wifi felt like the saviour of my sanity. Even if you don’t have BBC Sounds there’s a world radio app (on android so not quite sure of its legality) that surely covers all your radio needs.

The first day often that feeling of trepidation – that if I make a plan it will go wrong. (Well, I always make a plan for the night, but more of that later.) Estacio de Franca: the obvious tourist destination. What could be simpler? I had my train map, so hardly needed to bother with the info at the station. Nicely numbered and colour-coded. Simple? No. Somehow I’d missed the display giving the platform number and instead went with corresponding R2, dark green. But none went there, and so I had a dilemma: do I risk exiting and losing my ticket or hope I can get off at a near station. Eventually I risked, and managed to get through the correct platform barrier. I often think there’s some logic that’s obvious to the locals and that somehow I’d missed. But actually I was make an even more grievous error the following morning.


But this day I got to Estacio de Franca, and in the sun it’s a lovely district – a circuitous park, stunning architecture amid trees in blossom. Abundant art installations that don’t have to mean anything beyond their aesthetic appeal. And people soaking up the joys of spring, making me wish I could too.


Barcelona is a city steeped in culture. Or maybe many. Not one I can fully grasp. Still, the night-time was sure to offer a different understanding.


Despite the number of road crossings I was determined to get to the coast. Even in late March it seemed very tourist heavy. I began to feel self-conscious and slightly overdressed in trousers, casual, bordering on smart and long sleeve top even though the temp was no more than 18c, and most others were in long sleeves. I’m reluctant to reduce to T-shirt level unless it goes above 20c. But the sun made it feel more like UK summer. The beach was everything I could expect, soft sand bordered by palm trees and a gentle lapping white-frothed dark blue sea. But there was no way I was venturing onto it. Most of the people looked under thirty, one on his own taking a selfie; something i’d never do. (I wish the selfie camera was an optional extra rather than feeling that, because it’s there, I should use it.) Others, I guess locals, wearing clothes that seemed too warm for a Brit.


Train back to Barcelona Sants; too early, really, for the hotel. But it turned out there was a problem with my ticket: the barrier machine rejected it. I only wanted to exit; I had a valid return ticket. A staff member told me I was supposed to stamp it at the destination! Stamp it where exactly – what machine? I was so irritated I didn’t even bother to ask, though she did seem surprised I was able to exit at de Franca. I’m sure there’s no puzzle at all for the regular traveller, but given this is a popular tourist area you shouldn’t have to figure out those quirks. UK stations only use ticket/barrier systems, the occasional inspector, and only one type of automated ticket vendor. So Britain’s system is not fare-dodge proof but at least it’s less likely to leave the foreign traveller irritated, and thus more likely to return.

Finally, she told me, “So you’ll remember to stamp it next time.”
Me: “There won’t be a next time!” Which I had meant at that moment. And it gave me a mild jolt of pleasure to see her dismay – whether or not it was genuine.

Shaking off my irritation, I had to think of the shopping mission, which involved a 2km walk to Lidl for something strong to drink. OK, mission sounds hyperbolic; it should be simple, but it wasn’t quite, not helped by a misleading offline map. It takes me a while to get used to crossing roads where motorists feel that stopping at a green crossing is not mandatory. I’d fear the driver with dark obsessive thoughts just as much as the distracted. The shop is far enough away from the tourist hub that staff are never going to bother speaking English – if they were able, but normally that isn’t a problem, until they are trying to tell you to do something (such as “can you move along so I can put the barrier across”). Spirits are so much cheaper than in the UK it seems like a no-brainer. We get to pay majority sin tax, which actually feels someway absolving. Never mind that it might one day kill me. My ideal checkout cashier is someone who’s disinterested enough in their job not to care that I’m a Brit alone wanting to get through a bottle of vodka.

Back in the hotel I contemplated the night ahead…

Read more… Sin Cities (Amazon UK)