This Barcelona Place Is Great!

And Burgess finds women friendly in Milan, too.

By Steve Burgess 22 Jun 2005 |

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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Some time ago, I was briefly famous as the Guy Who Didn't Love Barcelona. Word got around about my heretical opinion, formed during a five-day stay in a lousy hotel room during a hot, sticky, foul-smelling summer. I did the talk show Circuit - Leno, Letterman, a triumphant Bill O'Reilly - reciting my apparently unique point of view.

Well, the media moved on - Britney Spears got big, planes hit the World Trade Center - and I was forgotten. So now I'm planning my comeback as the Guy Who Changed His Mind About Barcelona. I figure I can milk this thing for another round.

I had only a day to spend getting re-acquainted while I waited for an evening train, but it was enough to realize my error. Barcelona is indeed a lovely and vibrant city. My mistake last time may have been spending too much time around the much-hyped Las Ramblas strip, a truly obnoxious place and the international headquarters of the Human Statue Act. These successors to the mime tradition are positioned all along the street, interspersed with various obnoxious buskers and, at night, the occasional hooker.

It probably helped this time around that getting to Barcelona by train had been more pleasant than expected. All the amenities I had been falsely promised on an earlier overnight train - private bathroom, shower, fancy eats - magically turned up on the Seville-Barcelona run. The Eurail Wheel of Fate had favoured me, which meant that others would have to suffer. That seems to be the nature of things here.

'Got a bit of stress'

Old-timers will remember the college-dorm mysticism of Chris De Burgh and his epic song Spanish Train, the tale of a chess match between God and the Devil that takes place on a train to Seville. The Devil wins. It's worth remembering when booking your ticket.

I was in the Seville train station, waiting for that Barcelona overnighter and reflecting on the fact that nothing good ever seems to happen in Spanish train stations, when I met Matt and Christie. Young travelers from Winnipeg, they had rushed back from Portugal a day early after being told they could only buy a Spanish train ticket in Spain (untrue, as it turned out). Now they hoped to get on the same overnight train to Barcelona and were enduring the usual hour-long wait for assistance (I had just finished waiting an hour myself in an attempt to book another train for the next day, only to be told that the time to make a future reservation expired half an hour ago). But success crowned their efforts, and Christie returned with tickets to Barcelona. We boarded the train together.

I had just finished making those pleasant discoveries in my compartment and was heading down-train for my free dinner of rabbit and greens when I encountered Matt and Christie, bags in tow, being hustled down the corridor by a conductor. "We've got a bit of stress," Matt said hurriedly. "They actually sold us a ticket for next month's train. We might get thrown off at the next stop."

In the dining car I asked the conductor about their fate. He wagged his head and clucked. "It's very bad, what they did. People try to get onto trains that are full. They are at the end of the train now, car 26."

Train or plane?

I ate my slow cooked rabbit (of course it was slow-no one ever finds out what the fast ones taste like) and pondered the ways of a Spanish train. If angels sing me to my rest with private shower and complimentary slippers, the Devil must have his way with less fortunate Canadians. That's the rule, it seems.

Happily, Matt and Christie were allowed to stay on the train although forced to pony up extra bucks for fancier digs. I spent a pleasant day apologizing to Barcelona before bracing myself for a hellish three-train, 20-hour journey to Milan.

The train-or-plane decision is a tough one. Outfits like EasyJet and RyanAir have made European air travel much cheaper, and of course you get there fast. Train travel is slow, sometimes tedious, often tiring. Set against that is the social aspect-you really do tend to meet people on trains. I have so many cards and e-mail addresses it will be hard to keep everybody straight (a recurring problem for me. Earlier this year I received a photo in the mail, taken last year in Italy. I appear in the photo with a group of women. Since I don't drink, I clearly was not drunk at the time. But I have wracked my brain and cannot recall who they are or where I was when the photo was taken.)

There are memorable experiences forced on you by railroad circumstance. I will always remember (let's hope) sitting outside an isolated train station in the French town of Cerbere with a group of fellow strandees, waiting for a connecting train and cutting up some Camembert with a plastic pen. Whether such experiences are worth feeling like a bucket of cold dog saliva after three days on the rails is a judgment call each traveler must make.

Stay with me

All's well that ends in Milan, in my books. The corollary to my once-shocking Barcelona opinion is that many people said I would dislike Italy's Middle City. But I loved Milan on the first visit and even more now. Part of it is always about circumstance-a lousy hotel room in Barcelona versus a spectacular sixth-floor apartment in Milan. My lucky break was meeting a Milanese woman named Marilu while visiting Bangkok last January. After 15 minutes' conversation and my mention that I would soon be coming to her hometown, she blithely invited me to come stay with her and her partner Isabella. Now here I am on marble floors in a city that knows very well it is among the world's greatest.

I seem to like Milan more than the Milanese, at least during an early heat wave like the one we are now in. When I raved about the city, Marilu and several other residents complained to me about the weather, the traffic, the pollution. Nonetheless, Marilu admitted that most of her journeys leave her wondering why she left home in the first place.

Milan has its tourist attractions, including the spectacular Duomo that is a match for Notre Dame de Paris in the awe-inspiration department. But Milan absorbs its tourist crowds with hardly a belch. The capital of Lombardy never adopts the phony smile of a Lonely Planet hotspot-this is a working city going about its business. Join in if you want.

And I do. In my new Armani clothes I walk the streets like a king. True, I speak virtually no Italian. But my subjects respect me for that. Love me, even.

Real estate in Milan is more expensive than in New York. I heard horror stories here about people unable to find family homes for less than two million Euros, about three and half million bucks Canadian.

But what do I care? I own this town. And I get to leave soon.

Steve Burgess is back in Vancouver, but the mails being what they are, his postcards from Europe will continue to arrive here at The Tyee for a few more weeks.  [Tyee]

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