By Suzanna Keith
It was mid-August, and our first family trip to Europe was coming to a close. After an exciting Disney cruise with our three children that took the four of us to Naples, Florence, and Rome, we had gone on to Madrid and Barcelona and then enjoyed several delightful beach days at Sitges, a quaint resort town about 30 minutes northwest of Barcelona. I decided we should spend our last afternoon in Spain in Barcelona, where we planned to visit the Picasso Museum and do some shopping.
So after a fun morning at Sausalito Beach, one of the nicest beaches in Sitges, my two youngest and I drove down to Barcelona in our rental car, leaving my oldest son behind so that he could begin to do some things to get ready to return to college at the end of the summer.
The drive on the B-10 Motorway was quick and very easy, and we found a good parking spot not far from the Picasso Museum in La Ribera, an older section of the city. First, we decided to hit a few shoe stores in the Gothic Quarter that had been recommended by friends before we made our way over to the museum. As we neared the museum, though, we could see that the ticket line was around the block. We were told that some of the museum workers were striking that day, so everyone was forced to wait, and the clerk at the ticket window urged us to come back another time.
Not surprisingly, my 14-year-old and 12-year-old were only slightly disappointed. They really wanted to visit Las Ramblas again, their favorite shopping area in the heart of Barcelona that is anchored by a nearly mile-long pedestrian mall jammed with shops and sidewalk cafes. Since it was already late afternoon, my thought was that we could grab a snack along the way before hitting the streets and shops and then heading back to Sitges to pack for our flight home the following day.
We strolled toward La Ramblas, window-shopping on the way, and on the spur of the moment decided to pop into a Desigual outlet on the Plaça de Sant Jaume, a square in the center of the old city, to buy flip-flops for our daughter.
After that, our search for green tea matcha and a clean and free bathroom took us to a Starbucks on Carrer de Ferran, around the corner from La Ramblas. While we waited in line for our food, I struck up a conversation with another American woman and her teenaged daughter. They turned out to be from Michigan, and when I found out that the daughter was about to begin her first year at the University of Michigan, I was able to give her the names of some friends from Rye who were also going there. The three of us continued to talk, but then my children started to get very antsy, so I ended our chat and we exchanged phone numbers. In a short moment I would realize how fortuitous these slight delays would prove to be.
As the three of us continued on down Carrer de Ferran toward La Rambla, we began to hear screaming and yelling and then saw that the police had barricaded the street ahead of us. Several government helicopters flew right over our heads. I can’t quite remember the exact time, but now I guess that it must have been only about ten minutes after the terrorist deliberately drove his van into the throngs of both tourists and locals who normally crowd La Rambla in the summer, killing 13 people and injuring over a hundred.
But at that moment, we didn’t know any of that and had no idea what had happened. I immediately sensed, though, that something was very wrong. We turned to go back to our car and then began running, swept up with the other pedestrians, who all seemed to be fleeing La Rambla.
My shoes were giving me a bad blister, and I was forced to stop for a minute in front of Aguelo013, a café on Carrer d’Avinyo in the Gothic Quarter. Suddenly a burly man grabbed my arm and shepherded us into the back of the restaurant, away from the large windows facing the street. The television was on, and we could see footage of what had happened as the white van zigzagged through the crowd, mowing down pedestrians and cyclists. I didn’t want the children to keep watching that, so instead I had them help me contact their father and brother on WhatsApp to let them know that we were safe. We also wanted to find out from my husband what the American news outlets were reporting, as there were rumors everywhere. My rescuer whispered to me that there were reports of hostages being taken and that the police had instructed people to hide since the terrorist had not yet been caught. We tried to stay calm as people speculated that there might be a bomb somewhere and additional attacks planned.
After we waited for over 30 minutes, this kind man, whose name appropriately enough turned out to be Angel, said it was safe for us to go to our car. As we hurried back to where we had parked what seemed like a lifetime ago, we ran into our Michigan friend from Starbucks and her daughter. They could not get back to their hotel on La Rambla, and the police had asked them to wait until things were declared safe. We hugged each other and exchanged well wishes.
As we made our way back to the car, we stepped into Artisan Espartero El Born, a coffee bar where earlier in the afternoon they had let us use their bathroom. There, the manager told us that all public transportation was closed and that the internet was spotty.
Without the internet, Google Maps wasn’t working, and getting onto the highway to Sitges was proving to be difficult, but we remembered the B-10. What we didn’t realize, however, was that we were trying to get on right before the hospital exit, where they were transporting all of the wounded. As a result, we became stuck in a massive jam.
Meanwhile, policemen carrying machine guns and accompanied by dogs were making their way through the stalled traffic, peering into every car. As we sat there, not sure what might happen next, I realized to my dismay that we only had a quarter tank of gas left. With no internet, we were forced to alternate between calling my husband and American Express Global Assist, who tried to help us formulate a plan in case our car ran out of gas on the highway. Thank goodness for our Platinum card!
It didn’t seem like a good idea to get off the motorway in an unfamiliar seaside town, especially without Google Maps, since it appeared that the terrorists were still at large. As we crawled along in the bumper-to-bumper traffic, eating our only dinner of Oreos and Fanta, the police started yelling and pointing machine guns at a van across from us. We all took cover on the floor of our car. I truly thought that we might end up in the middle of a gunfight, and although the children were frightened, they remained calm. Luckily no shots were fired, and the police quickly made multiple arrests. This experience was even more intense than being near Las Ramblas, but still we felt safer knowing that the police were taking such aggressive action.
Given the utter chaos on the highway, and the fact that we might run out of gas and be forced to abandon our car, we stayed in frequent touch with American Express Global Assist, who also notified the consulate in Madrid and kept them updated on exactly where we were. Someone from the consulate even called, advising us to stay calm and reassuring us that our flight home the next day had not been cancelled.
After a series of checkpoints, where we had machine guns pointed at us each time, we finally made it back to Sitges. What should have been a 30-minute drive had taken four hours. Needless to say, we all found it difficult to sleep that night.
Fortunately, we boarded our flight the next day without incident. The American Airlines staff went out of their way to make the trip home pleasant.
We were so impressed by the bravery and kindness of the people of Barcelona. We were also impressed by the bravery of their law enforcement, who acted courageously and decisively to ensure that more lives were not lost.
Saying prayers for #Barcelonastrong!
Based on our experience in Barcelona, I’ve made a short list of tips that can help keep your family safe and enable you to navigate an emergency situation abroad.
Be sure to notify your credit card companies and your cell phone provider before traveling abroad. If you can afford the fees, American Express Platinum is worth it, as it offers travelers helpful services such as Global Assist, which proved to be a lifesaver for us.
Don’t forget to download WhatsApp at www.whatsapp.com or Viber at www.viber.com for free calling and texting apps.
Although there was no State Department travel advisory for Spain, one should always check the State Department website (www.travel.state.gov) shortly before a trip abroad.
Also, be sure to enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program at step.state.gov. Doing this enables you to receive travel alerts from the U.S. Embassy in your destination country and helps them contact you in the event of an emergency.
The author and her children in front of Sagrada Família, Gaudi’s masterpiece
Jamón Experience museum and eatery in Las Ramblas