Country Counter: 5, 6, 7 (Vatican City)
Cities Visited: Barcelona, Rome, Pisa, Vatican City
Timeframe: Feb 2016
I left for Spain and Italy immediately after I returned from Finland. I had a week off after months and didn’t want it to go waste. There are many direct routes from Lyon to Barcelona, and the airfare from Barcelona to Rome was around 27 Euros. On the way back, there was a direct route from Rome to Lyon, with a change of buses in Milan. All in all this seemed like the perfect budget trip with the perfect destinations, so I unpacked and repacked and got my tickets.
The Sagrada Familia
I reached Barcelona early morning with a piece of paper in my hand with all the places I wanted to see written on it. The Sagrada Família is one of the most well-known tourist attractions in Spain and the world, so I headed out there first. Google Maps suggested that I can reach there within fifteen minutes on foot AND my Airbnb is located right next to it. I was hoping to avoid the queues as it was still pretty early for the hordes of tourists but I still had to wait for forty five minutes to get in. I spent the time taking pictures from outside. While in queue, I met an Indian group and we had a nice chat. The inside of the still under construction basilica was as beautiful as the outside.
I reached my Airbnb, located adjacent to an Indian restaurant. That’s two signs in two hours, which I though was a bit odd, as I’ve grown accustomed to not seeing too many Indians or restaurants in Lyon. I got to know that there is a large group of Indians living in Spain, definitely much larger than France. Practically every convenience store I came across was run by an Indian or a Pakistani. This was actually the first time I heard and spoke Hindi outside India. I was starting to think I’d never be able to speak languages from my country in Europe.
I left my bag and headed out immediately towards the next locations. The public transportation system has these amazing, and really convenient, 1, 2 and 5 day passes for tourists who come for brief stays. I went through almost all the major attractions on day one and the evening was spent at Las Ramblas eating Paella.
The next morning I was off again, this time to Tibidabo hill and Montjuïc Castle. The castle provides breath-taking views of the sea and the seaport. En route, I found Plaça d’Espanya to be charming as well, with its giant columns and the central statues. I loved the fact that the city has the whole package – from beaches to the bustle of the city to the quiet hills. Taking the funicular down, I reached the beach and got another great view of the hills behind me.
Something worth mentioning. Before coming to Barcelona, I was a bit sceptical as I was traveling alone, did not speak Spanish and almost every forum I read had some mention of the ever-growing menace of pickpockets. My flight to Rome was at 6 am, which meant that I had to leave my Airbnb by at most 3 am. I reached the night-bus stop but didn’t know how long it would take me to get to the airport at this hour. So I asked the driver of the next bus that arrived if he was going towards the airport. He said get on, in Spanish, and I was quite sure this wasn’t going to end well. Along the bus lanes he drove and suddenly I saw, a bit ahead of me, the bus I was intending to take in the first place. I used all the Spanish I could muster in the middle of the night and requested him to drop me off so that I can catch the (speeding) bus in front of us. He made a calm hand gesture and said “Relax, I’ll get you to the airport.”
View from Montjuïc Castle
This wasn’t helping me as I knew this bus wasn’t going to the airport, but there wasn’t much I could do. So I waited while he drove left and right. With a sudden jolt, I realised what he was trying to do. Being mindful not to jump lanes or lights and not to break any traffic rules, he was trying to lawfully overtake the other bus and drop me off in front so that I could board it. After 30 minutes of sort of a bus chase, he finally did manage to drop me in front. I shouted muchos gracias while running towards my bus. The two buses went on the same route and parted ways at Plaça d’Espanya, where I looked back at the driver from the window, and saw him waving goodbye to me with a smile. I have rarely felt such a sense of gratitude. For one, I didn’t expect anyone to help random strangers in the middle of the night in an unknown city. And two, he didn’t break any rules, even though he had empty streets at his disposal. I think he didn’t even stop for a few of the other passengers, and they didn’t seem to mind at all. I am ashamed to say that this is not how people behave and are treated in my country (mostly!) Trust me, I’ve seen things back home.
At Barcelona airport, you are informed that the city of Rome is quite far from the airport and the ‘best’ way to reach there is to take a direct bus to the Termini station, and to avoid the queue on landing, we could buy the bus tickets here. Quite convenient I must say. However, it turned out that everyone got the tickets in Barcelona airport itself so we all ended up queuing again in Rome. Quite convenient, I must say!
The Roma Pass, equivalent to the Barcelona tourist passes, turned out to be pretty useful but a little inconvenient to access. For one thing, you needed to have the exact change in coins. First stop was the Colosseum, brilliant in the morning sun, and the adjacent Roman Forum. During the entire time, I kept hearing a bit of French from here and there. Usually when I hear the occasional English word or two from other tourists, amongst all the Spanish and Italian, I feel a bit relieved. This time, it was with the same with French. For some weird and delightful reason, I was instantly picking up on the conversations of the French tourists. I even helped translate the directions by the security guards to a French family, and felt almost like a hero.
The Roman Forum
Next were the Pantheon, the Gothic Quarters and the Spanish Steps. Almost every street you walk on has some statue or a historic site worth mentioning. The Piazza Venezia, which has a central location connecting all other streets, is especially beautiful, and within walking distance of the Colosseum. I had kept aside the next day for Vatican City. That evening, I met a really nice woman from Buenos Aires in my Airbnb. We didn’t have any language in common, but we got around and had an amazing stroll on the beautiful streets of Rome at night, courtesy some beers and Google Translate.
Our Airbnb was ideally located just fifteen minutes from the Vatican City so we decided to head out there together the next morning. Vatican City, and especially St. Peter’s Square, was exactly as I had pictured it, having watched the numerous movies shot there. You can’t help but get a grandeur sense of beauty when you walk in. We were extremely lucky to have avoided all the crowds as we decided to start really early. When I climbed up the basilica to get a view of the square (see picture), even the staircase looked so historically and aesthetically pleasing (there is an elevator as well). After that, we headed out to the Vatican Museums, which was not quite as large as the Louvre, but still very impressive.
Early next morning, I reached Pisa. The Leaning Tower was about 10 minutes from where the bus dropped me. After a quick bite at one of the traditional Italian cafes set up right outside the entrance to the grounds, I headed in. The small group of people outside, selling models of the Tower in various sizes, somehow figured out that I am Bengali and started offering me ‘their best rates’ for a model, in Bengali. To be honest, I had never expected to find a lot of Indians in Spain and Italy and was so involved in learning French and their ways that I could not imagine that major European cities could also have a sizeable Indian population. The owner of the restaurant where I had lunch (Indian, again) told me that there are around four thousand Bengalis living in Pisa alone. What came as a surprise slowly dawned into realisation. We are everywhere, second only to the Chinese!
St. Peter’s Basilica. Make sure to climb to the top (take the stairs, not the elevator) to get this amazing view below
Due to some bad planning and cheap tickets, I was forced to be out on the streets of Pisa for eight whole hours. Little did I know that there wouldn’t be much to see in Pisa. And that’s not even the worst part. On the way back to Lyon, I had a stopover in Milan for six hours. I reached Milan at 11 pm and the next bus was at 5 am. Not wanted to pay for a whole night at a hotel and spend only a few hours, I decided to stay at Lampugnano station, with all the other groups who were huddled there waiting for their buses. I didn’t feel bad at first, but as the night progressed, we were told that the station had to be closed and we should all wait outside. So there I was, outside a station in Milan, with incessant rain and temperatures of 3-4 degrees, waiting for my bus, and with nowhere to go. And while everyone was keeping warm in groups, I just had my backpack to comfort me. I’ve done some stupid things in my life, but this might be among the top ones on my list. The only redemption came when I started taking in the beautiful view of the snowy mountains on the France-Italy border. I would highly recommend the route in winter via roadways just for the views.
Lessons learnt: Planning is everything, and cheap tickets don’t turn out to be so cheap in the end!