I’m writing from a little cafe on the Plaza de la Vila in the Gràcia Barrio of Barcelona. Tomorrow, which will be Saturday #107, I have pre-booked a full-day city tour. But before I write anything about Barcelona, I should clean up a stack of “notes to self” that I made in Lisbon, Madrid and Pamplona. Here goes.
WAVING THE RED AND WHITE
I didn’t sleep well on my last night in Madrid, thanks to two college-aged boys who woke up the entire dorm when they staggered in at 3:00 and again when they got up at 7:00 and started talking loudly, turning on lights, banging locker doors, and generally being jerks. The final straw was when one of them shoved a large backpack off his top bunk rather than climb down and reach up for it. It landed on the floor less than a meter from my head.
The others in the room were too timid to say anything to the boys but I thought it had to be done and I was prepared to do it. When I went downstairs for breakfast I found the manager and asked if he had any objections to me having a little chat with the boys about being respectful in a shared dorm. The manager’s response left me smiling smugly: “Go ahead and do whatever you think is best,” he said. “You’re Canadian and Canadians always do the right thing.”
Of course that’s not true but it’s not the first time I’ve heard it. Who said stereotypes are always bad?
BOY OH BOY
An hour after my encounter with the bad-ass boys at the hostel, I ran into these two at the train station in Madrid. (To be clear, these are NOT the boys from the hostel.) Actually, I had no idea who they were but I guessed members of a boy band based on the presence of about 200 screaming girls who were being kept on the other side of a security barrier. The boys didn’t wade into the crowd of screamers and fainters but they did take quite a few selfies with the more “mature” crowd of ticket-holders who had already passed through security.
I had to post the above photos on Facebook before a friend of a friend identified them as brothers Jesús & Daniel Oviedo-Morilla. They’re known as The Gemeliers and they’re as big as it gets in Spain.
MY HEART WILL GO ON… BUT THE WATER WON’T
The showers on the second floor of my Lisbon hostel had timers that allowed you to shower for about 30 seconds before the water was reduced to a trickle. You could hit a button and it would come back on but there was a delay and a shot of cold water to start. I put up with this minor annoyance for a few days before noticing that showers on the third floor had no such timer and there was nothing preventing you from taking a half-hour long shower. (Not that I would, of course, but it does take a few minutes to shave my head each morning.)
When I was checking out of the hostel the girl at the desk handed back my Canadian passport and asked if I had enjoyed my shower. I hesitated, not knowing if I had heard her correctly, but then said that it was fine. She probably noticed the slightly confused look on my face so she explained that plumbers had mistakenly installed the third floor showers without the timers. It would be costly to change them after the tile was completed so they’ve found an even better way to promote water conservation. The speakers in the third floor bathroom play a continuous loop of Celine Dion, 24 hours a day.
“Some people are in the second floor shower for 10, 15, even 20 minutes,” she said. “But the average shower on the third floor? Under two minutes!”
——————————————————————————-PARTY ON, PAMPLONA
It’s been a while since I heard The Irish Rovers’ song ‘Wasn’t That A Party’ but it was the theme song at more than one sidewalk bar during San Fermin Festival. Tourists and locals party so hard during the eight-day festival that the city’s street washing crews must work 24-7. It’s a bit annoying when you have to clear a street to let them do a thrice-daily hose down but the daisy-fresh smell that wafts through the air once they’ve passed is admittedly quite refreshing. The water they use to clean up the piss and puke is heavily scented!
I spent three days in Pamplona while walking the Camino in April and learned that every single hostel bed in the city was booked months in advance of San Fermin Festival. Several locals told me that some suburban hotels and motels would release a few rooms closer to the date but they would likely charge “a bit of a premium.” I didn’t resume my hunt for a bed until the first week of July when Booking.com and Trip Advisor started sending me ads like this:
Yes, a 3-star goes for $286 and that’s the BEST deal they could find! That same dump of a room might be $28 after the festival and empty for weeks at a time during the winter. I did more research but eventually decided to skip the Running of the Bulls and head straight to Barcelona. Then, just four days before the festival kicked off, I found a site listing several rooms at a university residence for a mere 100 Euros a night. The rooms were tiny but they had an ensuite and the place looked quite nice. Being quite happy with little more than a bed in your average hostel, I went for it even though online reviewers uninimously warned that the university was so far out of town that you’d spend a small fortune on taxis.
I arrived in Pamplona on Thursday around noon and walked from the train station to the city centre in about 30 minutes. After lunch I walked from city centre to what was described as the “suburban” campus. Once I got there I re-read the reviews and sure enough, previous guests all mentioned that the university was way out in the sticks and you’d spend a fortune on taxis “if you can even get one to go way out there.”
I mapped the distance from university to bullring and it was 1.8 km. Heck, I could do that 15 times a day and still have walked less than many days on the Camino! The Camino has a great way of putting things in perspective.
HUMANS 5; BULLS 1
I managed to get my hands on a single ticket to the Saturday night bull fights in Pamplona. At 100 Euros the price was in-line with what you’d pay for a good seat at a second-rate concert so that wasn’t the issue. My issue was whether I wanted to witness a bull fight… period. The three-hour spectacle, after all, is basically a long, drawn out way to taunt six bulls before ramming a dagger into their brains.
According to Wikipedia, Ernest Hemingway thought of matadors as “heroic characters dancing in a bullring.” He once wrote: “The bullring is war with precise rules, in contrast to the messiness of the real war,” (which he covered as a Toronto Star correspondent).
A bullfight is spectacle, all right, but ultimately it’s three hours of animal abuse. Each bull is taunted for 20-30 minutes before collapsing in a pool of blood and then being finished off by the matador or an assistant. A band plays rousing songs and the well-lubricated crowd sings along during the fight. Everyone cheers loudly when the bull finally collapses from exhaustion and again when its lifeless body is dragged from the ring by a team of horses.
In Pamplona the score on Saturday night was Humans 6; Bulls 0.
“The humans always win,” observed the British woman who sat to my left. She wasn’t entirely correct, however. That same night, several hundred kilometres to the east in the town of Teruel, a matador was gored to death in front of a capacity crowd. It was the first (human) death in a Spanish bullring in more than 30 years.
According to one news report, “The unconscious matador, Victor Barrio, 29, was rushed to a nearby hospital, but doctors were unable to save him.” He had been tripped up by the bull who then used surgical precision to ram a horn into the matador’s heart.
Above 2 photos by AP
The last Spanish matador to be killed was Jose Sanchez in 1985. However, according to Alexander Fiske-Harrison, author of Into The Arena: The World of the Spanish Bullfight, a total of 533 bullfighters have been killed in Spain since 1700. I still think it’s a little one-sided and this will be my first and last bullfight.
I had planned to watch the Running of the Bulls on Saturday and Sunday but I hadn’t made any arrangements before arriving in Pamplona. It soon became clear that the view from the “cheap seats” was poor to non-existent so I had better develop Plan B.
A quick Google search of “balcony rentals Pamplona” turned up a Florida-registered company by the name of PamplonaBalconies.com. I took a leap of faith and bought a ticket to a balcony overlooking “Dead Man’s Curve” (AKA The Curve, Hamburger Wall, etc.)
The site didn’t explicitly state that a photo they were using had been taken from the actual balcony they were renting so I was prepared to be disappointed. Heck, I’d be happy if the whole web site didn’t turn out to be a scam and I just got to watch from any old balcony, no matter how good or bad the view.
A few hours after booking, I received the first of five very informative email from Mark, the American owner of PamplonaBalconies.com. He went to great lengths to explain the history of the event, what to watch for, and some insider information that made the morning more enjoyable.
Although the actually running of the bulls only lasts a few seconds when you’re watching from anything but a helicopter or on TV, and the price of the balcony was a steep $140 USD, I’d still highly recommend this company based on customer service alone. If you’re going to Pamplona, do yourself a favour and at least check out PamplonaBalconies.com.
(A link to my videos of the bull fights and Running of the Bulls is included with the previous post: Saturday #106: To run, or not to run.)