The train out of Barcelona leaves at a quarter to noon. On the wall of the station, the iron clock reads 11:23. I turn to the line of dusty travelers in front of me. This is going to be close.
I reach the window and the attendant feigns not to speak Spanish, let alone English. He regards me instead in the lispy drawl of Catalan. I’ve been through this before. I write my destination on the back of a receipt and hand it to him, ignoring the incessant ticking of the clock behind me. He reads it and motions to his watch in disbelief. I nod voraciously and he prints the ticket in the slow, careless Spanish way that is charming when you don’t have a train to catch. I am off; dodging children, nuns, and tourists lugging baggage. I find the platform and plop down in a raggedly upholstered bench as the train lurches into motion. How do you say ‘relieved’ in Catalan?
The ride across the northern width of Spain is spectacular. Each mile contradicts the one before. Thin streams cut deep gorges through farmland. Craggy outcroppings of sandstone burst from the prairie floor. Brown savannah stretches to the horizon, only interrupted by finger-like ranges of foothills reaching down from the northern Pyrenees. Suddenly we plunge into a tunnel only to emerge moments later on a high plateau; the Spanish call them mesetas – the sun-baked red clay contrasted against sapphire blue sky.
This is the land of contradiction, of Don Quixote and La Mancha – where nothing is as quite as it seems and everything has the potential to surprise. It is mid-July and the sun reigns. The air takes on a heavy feel and by midday every living creature takes shelter for the siesta. My head bobs with the rhythm of the train and I am eased into sleep.
I am on a pilgrimage of sorts. Snoozing sedately, a ragged, dog-eared book rests against my thigh: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. The novel chronicles the story of a war-scarred writer as he comes to terms with life and love while traveling through the northern Basque hills. I first picked it up in sixth grade, rushing to finish a last minute English assignment. The book, and the author, has haunted me ever since. Hemingway epitomizes Spain; his portraits of the fiestas, the grandeur, the dust, the tragedy – it all seemed other-worldly to a boy from suburban Chicago. So, when in the midst of a summer-long trek through Europe a spare week presented itself, I jumped at the chance to follow Papa’s footsteps through the land of the bull.
I wake to the sun setting over lush green hills. Outside the air is crisp and surprisingly cold. It carries a familiar scent not present in the scorching heart of Spain: the sea.