My Final European Adventure

barcelona-2Do I go or do I sleep?  It was 2:00 pm in Barcelona and I had just finished seven months working on a cruise ship. I had reached my hotel and had nothing to do until my flight back to the States the next morning.  I had just enough time for one last European adventure.

My ship docked in Barcelona several times throughout my contract and I had a chance to see and do many of the “musts.”  I had shopped on La Rambla, toured Sagrada Familia, roamed Park Güell, visited the Olympic stadiums on Montjuic, and experienced local life along the beaches and in many shops and restaurants.  But one place was too far away for me to visit on a normal day in port – Montserrat.

Montserrat is a jagged mountain range (“serrat” = “serrated” and obviously “Mont” = “mountain”) that is home to a Benedictine abbey.  The ship I had been working on offered tours to Montserrat for our guests that were departing the ship in Barcelona, but again, it was too far for me to go and make it back before we sailed.  I watched the commercial for these tours taunt me for months and today was my chance to see it in person.

The concierge in the hotel offered me a guided tour for 45 euros, but he also explained how I could do it on my own.  Guided tours can be great, but I love having the freedom to see and do whatever I want.  A guide removes the element of adventure for me so I set off on my own.

Now I should probably mention that I am not much of a Spanish speaker.  I took three years of it in high school, I’ve travelled with native speakers, dabbled in Rosetta Stone, and I’ve sailed from Spain for months, yet I would say my vocabulary level is less than that of a Spanish kindergartener.  But off I went on a solo adventure in Spain.

STEP 1: Take the 65A bus to Plaça d’Espanya  

The concierge told me the bus would arrive “over there” and motioned to the edge of the roundabout.   “There is no bus stop,” he told me, “but it will come.”  Um…okay.  By the time I got outside, there was an empty bus parked “over there” and the driver was sitting outside on a bench.  I attempted to ask him if this was the bus to Plaça d’Espanya and he indicated that it was.  I boarded the bus but I did not have enough faith in my Spanish to be fully convinced that this was where I needed to be.  But I thought, “What’s the worst that can happen?  I will ride this bus around until I see a place labeled Plaça d’Espanya or I will do a full round trip and end up back at my hotel.”

And so my journey began. The bus started moving and it seemed to be taking an eternity.  I’m sure it seemed longer since I was nervous that I wasn’t even on the right one.  In about thirty minutes my bus was in a huge square and I knew this must be Plaça d’Espanya.  I jumped off the bus and was ready to take step two.

STEP 2: Take the R4 or R5 Train

Immediately after getting off the bus I saw steps headed underground.  I had taken the trains in Barcelona before and thought this had to be where I was supposed to go.  So down I went.  I went down and around, found some tracks, found some trains, but none of them were R4 or R5 or R anything.  Hm.  When did this become a scavenger hunt?  Back up the stairs and into the plaza.

I saw an information booth across the street so I worked my way over there.  When I arrived, the people inside were helping someone so I waited off to the side.  As I waited, more and more people cued up at the other side of the booth.  Where were all these people coming from and why do they all need information right now?  After I waited awhile, I was told by the informants (informers?  information professionals?) that I was on the wrong side and I had to get in line – the line that no one was in when I arrived, but that was now massive.  No thank you – I’ll discover my own information.

I crossed the street and finally saw a sign for R4 and R5.  I went down the indicated stairs, through the door, and found…a mall. A mall?  I’m looking for a train.  Why am I in a mall?  Is this like SkyMall?  Am I in TrainMall?  I went back out the door at the bottom of the stairs and saw a sign across the hall for the trains.  I went down and around again and finally found the train station.

STEP 3: Take a Rack Train or a Cable Car Up Montserrat

Abbey and Mountain in MontserratAs soon as I was in the train station, I saw a machine to buy combo tickets to Montserrat.  With one transaction you would get round trip R4 or R5 tickets plus transportation up the mountain.  Exactly what I was looking for.  I wanted to buy everything now so I could finally relax and enjoy my journey.

I had decided that I wanted to do the cable car up the mountain so I stepped up to the automated ticket machine and got started.  After I made my selection I noticed the machine only took exact change or credit cards.  No problem I thought, I’ll use my card.  I swiped my card and it asked me for my “secret code.”  Secret Code?  Abracadabra? Open Sesame? Be sure to drink your Ovaltine?  What secret code?  Did it mean pin number?  I must have pressed a wrong button.  I started over.  It still asked for my secret code.  This really was a scavenger hunt.

I eventually gave up and decided to use cash.  The machine said that it only took exact change, but all I had was a 20 euro note and a few random coins.  There was a convenience store nearby so I went in and bought some snacks and a drink trying to break my note into usable pieces.  As I walked back to the machines I realized that the one next to mine accepted cash and it didn’t have to be exact change.  REALLY?!?!  All this hassle with secret codes and mathematically planning my snack selections all because I didn’t read the specifics of the machine next to me!?!?!

Frustrated with myself I began my purchase and was just about to check out when the ticket agent nearby stopped me.  He told me that I would have more time on the mountain if I took the train instead of the cable car.  Thankful for his advice I changed my selection, but I couldn’t help but wonder where he had been 10-15 minutes earlier when I started this process.

Tickets finally in hand, I boarded my train and I was off.  The rest was easy, amazing, and worth the effort.  The train ride from Barcelona to the bottom of Montserrat is over an hour and most of it is above ground.  I was able to see portions of the city I had never visited and I was seeing the Spanish countryside for the first time.

I arrived at Monistrol Montserrat station and boarded the rack railway or, as many would call it, cog railway.  I was amazed by the view of the mountain from the station, but the view only got better as we climbed.  It feels like you are taking the train to Heaven – no wonder monks chose to live on this mountain.

I sadly did not have much time on Montserrat.  The adventures of earlier in the day had taken their toll on my timeframe.  I did take some time to explore the Benedictine abbey, roam a few of the trails, and take several pictures.  If I ever make it back to Barcelona I am setting aside a full day to explore Montserrat.  There are many hiking trails, viewing areas, and vistas of Catalonia that will never get old.

My adventure didn’t go as planned.  Adventures rarely do.  But that is why I’m addicted to traveling – exploring the unknown, discovering the facts, and learning about this amazing world keep me going.  I’ve learned a lot on my adventures, but I still don’t know my “secret code.”

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, “Bizarre travel plans are dancing lessons from God.”  I will always remember the day God and I boogied up a storm in Barcelona.


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