After my Barcelona sight-seeing day, Thursday was my country-hopping day. I was up for my early start and jogged a little to make sure I was at the meeting point on time. It wasn't long before the five of us waiting around were in a van heading out of the city. Heading off on our task of being in three countries in one day.
First stop was the little medieval village of Baga, Spain. It was very chilly but the blue sky and shining sun made it a beautiful morning in this picturesque little town. We really just wandered the streets for a while before we bundled back in the van and were on the road again.
We certainly were spending most of the day travelling as I expected but the scenery along the way was very nice. Being the person I am, I honestly don't mind travelling--sitting back, quietly amusing myself, observing the world as it passes by. Our guide was informative too and told us lots of various things and was happy to answer questions. He and the tourist in the front seat would start up a conversation in Spanish and then he'd go and explain in English what they had been talking about.
By mid morning we'd crossed the border into France by a mention of it by the guide as we crossed a little village bridge. We stopped in the walled town of Mont-Louis and walked around some of the wall of the fortified citadel that is still used by the French army. Here I particularly felt the cold as I only had ballet slip-on shoes. Though the temperature was about 10 degrees it was lovely and warm sitting in the sunshine when our guide bought us coffee and something from the bakery. I had a pain au chocolat. Mmmm.
Our next border crossing was more of a deal. Not only did we leave France and travel briefly in no-man's land between the police patrol lines, but we also entered Andorra. Another country to mark off as 'visited'. It's a tiny place squished in between France and Spain and pretty much surrounded by mountains. It was quite strange to be in the capital, Andorra la Vella, and see mountains just behind the buildings. In fact surrounding the city. We had a few hours here and I wandered down to the old town, spied a melting clock sculpture by Salvador Dali, snapped some photos, tried to find a suitable tourist keepsake to add to my collection and wandered back up the street and into the newer city area still searching. I stopped briefly to order some lunch and headed back down toward the old town deciding I should just get the first one I saw. Only I forgot about the Spanish culture which is obviously carried out in Andorra as well of closing shop between 1pm-ish and 4pm. Damn! It was now in that time period and we were leaving before it was over. Well, thankfully, ceasing all sentimental drama, I found a tourist shop still open that ended up having just what I was looking for. I spent the last half hour sitting in the sunshine writing my parents a postcard and eating chocolate and taking in the city scene and mountains beyond.
Exiting Andorra is a bit slower than coming in. Vehicles are police checked for tax-free goods. In Andorra, so our guide informed us, wine and smokes are cheaper and tax-free and thus there's a limit on how much you can leave with. Apparently it's also worth coming for petrol and electrical goods if you live close enough. So leaving Andorra behind, we re-entered Spain and took the scenic route back to Barcelona. Arriving after dark I went straight to my hotel and checked my email. I then went out to meet up with Natália again and some other girls she'd met at the hostel. We had some great pizza for tea and roamed the tourist shops before I headed back to my hotel to prepare for another early start.
So in Spain, just north of Barcelona, the hot air balloon was rolled out and I and the other rider held the mouth of the balloon open while the big fan filled it with air. When it was looking quite balloon-like, the pilot set up the gas burners and gave a few squirts of flame. Within seconds the air was warming enough to start the rise and before much longer the basket was upright with the balloon floating above. I was buzzing with each stage, my excitement sneaking out in smiles and soft shrills. The three of us climbed into the basket and with a few long blasts of flame were gently lifting off the ground and watching it shrink away.
It was a splendid experience. I heard of what it's like from friends so none of it surprised me--except perhaps the first filling of the balloon with just a fan blowing air, which makes total sense really. It was wonderfully peaceful. Floating quietly through the air high above the ground with only the occasionally blast of the burners. Wonderful! The scenery was truly splendid and it was a fantastic sunlit morning to view it. I made sure I soaked it in while I was up there. Paddocks, crops, housetops, animals; various shades of green in patches outlined with an autumn tinged spread of trees, the design and layout of towns, the scene spanning out to the base of the surrounding Pyrenees mountains. In the distance, when we were up high, we could see Barcelona and Montserrat (the most well known mountain nearby).
It was also a little thrilling as the temperature changes caused us to drop in altitude. We went up and down a number of times during the flight which lasted about one hour. Sometimes we seemed to be going down fairly fast and the pilot would give a blast or two and then pause but we'd continue dropping. He'd give another blast or two but the response was slow. It took a while for the hot air to shift our direction but we gradually would and then the lift would increase in speed. It must take a bit of practice to not overdo the delayed response. A few times we got pretty darn close to the tree tops. As we were skirt over a patch to where we would land we even skimmed some before popping down in a turned over field. The chaser (the guy who picked us up from Barcelona who followed the balloon flight with ute and trailer) managed to get nearby but we had to jump out and pull the balloon along while the pilot kept it floating just above the ground. Once in position, he re-landed it, switched it all off, opened the balloon top and the pack up began. We helped pack the balloon back into the bag once it was deflated--part of this required sitting on the bundle to expel the final trappings of air. By now the sky had completely clouded over and as they were hauling it all back on the trailer drops of rain began to fall. Perfect timing. Back at the launch site we were presented with flight certificates (written in Spanish but I can basically read it) and the gave us some breakfast. The pilot toasted ham and cheese sandwiches over the balloon burner. He he. Then they dropped us happy chappies back in Barcelona. A wonderful birthday treat and something I glad I got round to doing. Splendid!
In the afternoon I managed to find some stamps and post some postcards, saw the Arc de Triomf which in Barcelona is red bricked, and then found my way to where I was heading: Museu Picasso. It's apparently the largest collection of Picasso artwork and was initiated by Picasso himself who spent quite a chunk of time in Barcelona. Picasso firstly makes me think of cubism. Those whacky portraits with facial features all askew. But this collection was like a Picasso lifeline and was mostly pre-cubism days. There actually wasn't much cubism in the museum. It was interesting to look through the various stages he went through with his artwork and his phases of different medium usage. There were some I liked the look of, a fair bit that didn't capture my attention and a lot of seemingly rough sketches. Couldn't take photos of course.
When I'd had enough of that I wandered the streets some more until I sat down in a little restaurant and ate paella for tea. I decided before I came that I had to have this dish while here but I wasn't that thrilled with it. I don't think it was the best restaurant but it satisfied my hunger. I then scurried off to the train to go see Font Mágica de Montjuïc before it stopped it's show for the night. It was quite a sight walking up the street toward it. The street was lined with little fountains lit up leading up to Font Mágica, the main fountain lit up in red. Behind it the National Museum of Catalan Art was lit up and beaming. I must have only caught the end or perhaps it's the time of year. I only saw it in red but it apparently has a variety of colours. It dances it's display to music and I was there for maybe 15mins before it finished for the night. Still, it was nice to see it in action. After that I headed back to my hotel for my last night in Spain.
Saturday I walked into town and found that little take away place again and successfully ordered a cup of tea in Spanish. No English used. I was a tad chuffed with myself though it was pretty basic phrases. He he. I then wandered toward the sea deciding I should visit the beach here. Unfortunately by the time I got to beach I was completely distracted by mentally repeatedly practising the phrase "¿Hay un baño por aquí?" and utterly busting by the time I finally found one. Much relieved I took a short stroll along the dark sandy beach smiling at the fact I was walking by the Mediterranean Sea.
After roaming shops again for a little too long I hurried myself back to my hotel to collect my luggage and jump trains to Barcelona Sants Station. It took me longer to get there than I'd anticipated however and the next train to the airport was 20mins away. I was feeling pushed for time so I ditched the train idea and went back to the street, searched and found an ATM to gather some cash and went to catch a taxi. Even that took a while as I knew and had seen the Spanish word "Libre" displayed in some taxis meant "free". I had assumed--wrongly so--that the other word I saw meant the opposite and so hailing a taxi took a while. It wasn't until I half hailed and the taxi noticed and pulled over that I realised it was probably the Catalan word for free. So I took the taxi to the airport which got me right to the exact terminal and company I required on time. Phew. First time I've caught and paid for a taxi for myself. Now relaxed I settled in for my flight and farewelled Barcelona and thanked Spain for a lovely holiday.