Thursday, May 26, 2011

Entry 68 5.18.11

Entry 68, May 18th, 2011, 1:44pm (ship time GMT +2)

Wow, I am behind in my travel writing! I didn't write much about Barcelona or Malaga, and I missed Cannes entirely yesterday. Let me catch up a little.

Barcelona is the most metropolitan place that we've been to so far, although I'm sure Rome will surpass it tomorrow. Regardless, it is a thriving, modern city of one and half million people and may be too large for me to explore fully, even though I'll be there every two weeks for the next four months (seven more visits, I think?).

Barcelona is the city that Chicago could be, given another two thousand years of continued urban development. It was originally a cluster of Phoenician (Minoan? I get them confused, my brother would know) settlements (the coastline was radically different at this point, as a pair of rivers have been depositing silt in the area) before being colonized by Rome as “Barcino,” a walled city along the Augustus road. It was known for luxury fish foods (one of the preserved ruins is a fish salting and gamum (fish sauce) workshop), grains, grapes, and olives. During the Moorish occupation of the Iberian penninsula, Barcelona existed at the crossroads of Moorish and Christian cultures (I think . . . this depends on if I read the Spanish museum displays correctly). It also was one of the centers of the industrial revolution in Spain.

The cruise ship terminal is very large, and was hosting three other ships in addition to our own. The terminal actually exists on an artificial breakwater in the harbor and is connected by a drawbridge to the city itself, allowing transit of both heavy freight trucks and the cruise ships themselves. The shuttle bus from the pier dropped me off at a huge traffic rotary near the Barcelona world trade center, where a fifth, extremely strange cruise ship was docked. It was about the same length as the Grandeur, but with perhaps half as many decks. From the decks protruded four huge masts, with triangular sails furled into rollers on each of them! A cruise ship with sails, what silliness. It had a stack, too, I might add – there's no way such a small sail area could move a ship of that tonnage at anything like an economical speed.

From this rotary it was just a short walk to the huge Columbus Monument. This is a huge pillar with a statue of someone who I can only assume is Christopher Columbus on top of it, surrounded by angels and Poseidon and all manner of fawning deities. Columbus, by the way, is written and pronounced “Colón” in Spanish, meaning that Colón, Panama is really Columbus, Panama (another way in which that wretched city is like Ohio . . . it figures, really). If you're not really into the whole Christopher Columbus hero worship thing, it may be a bit of a let down, but the monument is impressive for its size nonetheless.

From the monument I headed down La Ramba, a wide avenue with a tree-lined plaza down the center that leads into the heart of the city. It is known for being the “Most Interesting Street in the World,” as well as a slightly notorious haven for pickpockets, racketeers, and assorted miscreants. Fortunately for me I saw plenty of the former and very little of the latter. Human statues, chocolate stores, flower shops, guys selling little squeakers that you can hide in your mouth, cafes, restaurants, a woman selling fish and birds (in tanks and cages, respectively) . . . all of this was just on the plaza itself, the stores along either side only added to the mass of noise and activity.

I visited Barcelona's cathedral as well. This building, although larger and more sophisticated, did not strike me in the way that Palma's cathedral did. Perhaps this is because I was not there on a day of worship . . . however, I suspect that this is also because the cathedral in Barcelona feels more like a museum than a place of worship.

That's not to say that it wasn't stunning, because it was. Even though part of it was under construction, the cathedral itself is an architectural and engineering masterpiece so incomprehensibly old that I can't even wrap my mind around it (the Count of Barcelona and his wife are interned in boxes on the wall . . . they died in the 1000's!). The thing is, it doesn't shimmer like the building in Palma. It doesn't feel alive.

Although even in this state the cathedral still has a very powerful suggestive influence. I sat for a while, just thinking and watching the people pass by. When sitting in such a building the question is not “Is there a God?” but rather, “How can there not be a God?” The building feels like physical proof of the divine. Intellectually I know that it proves nothing except for the incredible devotion of people long dead, but emotionally it registers as truth. I was always skeptical of the power of architecture to actually influence human behavior . . . until now.

Also, there's a saint buried beneath the altar. Like, a person thought to be so in tune with the holy spirit that they could violate the laws of physics (or perform miracles; however you want to say it is okay with me, really). Whoa. Can you imagine meeting a saint today?

In fact, why don't we meet saints more often these days? The population of the world has increased massively since the time of Christ. Shouldn't that mean that saints appear more often, assuming that humanity keeps popping them out at the same rate per number of normal souls? Perhaps it's like Dostoyevsky says, and they're all locked up in insane asylums. I suppose we can blame science for this. As many good things as science has done for humanity, I am kind of sad that it has taken away the concept of super powers. We may still not know what we are, but we know what we're not, and we're not special.

Also, this means that I personally have no chance of becoming a superhero through sainthood. This was pretty unlikely anyway (let's be real here), but it is still kind of a letdown.

But I'm wwaaaaayyyyy off topic here; I'm supposed to be writing about my travels. The images of the saints and other various figures around the cathedral were fascinating to me – I wish I was able to recognize more them. Stories are everywhere (told mainly in pictures on the wall and in alcoves), and they are the stories of people trying to “figure it all out.” Sometimes they succeed, and sometimes they don't. I like to think that the questions they were trying to answer and the questions I am trying to answer are not that different from one another.

Today I'm in La Spezia (Italian soil! Woo!), our port of choice for reaching Florence and Pisa. We had a rehearsal this morning, so I didn't have time to make that happen (plus, I'm saving my pennies for Rome tomorrow!) but I did get off the ship to wander around town. Italy is green, lush, and mountainous. The city feels snug and quiet, with lots of winding roads and paths up the hills, mixed in with old stone walls and creeping greenery filling the nooks and crannies everywhere! It is the very end of spring here, and so the entire city smells of lilac and lavender. It reminds me of the gardens at MSU on the last day of spring finals . . . quite pleasant, indeed – I will try to get some good pictures.

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