THINGS rarely go to plan in Barcelona.
It’s the start of the city’s annual Mercé festival and Mayor Joan Clos is trying to make a speech. Unfortunately, as well as hundreds of local culture vultures and tourists waiting for the appearance of the neighbourhood Gigantes, Plaça de Sant Jaume is also packed with anarchists, trade unionists and community activists protesting against the Forum, police brutality, new hotel developments, Mayor Clos himself and, well, what else have you got?
The cops lining the square shrug and fold their arms as sirens, air horns, whistles and firecrackers all but drown out the mayor’s words and an enormous banner is hoisted in front of the big screen relaying his speech from the old Catalan parliament to the crowd outside.
Clos finally pronounces the three-day Festa de la Mercé well and truly underway and the sky above the square explodes with a long and impressive firework display. Assorted points made, the grinning protestors get on with enjoying the party like everyone else, as the brass band strikes up and the gigantes start their oddly formal dances.
This surreal but entirely good natured mix of history, tradition and spontaneous political protest seems to sum up this beautiful, sexy, passionate city perfectly. Every time you turn a corner something strange, interesting and unexpected grabs your attention.
The evening has only just begun. Before we stagger into the airport in the morning, we’ll have eaten under the stars by the marina and hit a couple of bars, including a welcoming local neighbourhood joint, Mariona on Ronda Sant Pere in L’Eixample, where, for some impenetrable Catalan reason, dozens of musical instruments are glued to the ceiling and walls.
We’ll visit the sweaty student dive Bar Estudantil on Plaça de l’Universitat, to see an incredible funk rock combo kick out the jams like their lives depended on it.
After a thrilling taxi ride through the buzzing neon-lit city with a driver who mutters anti-capitalist slogans when he goes past banks, we hit a pretend Spanish pueblo in the hills above the city where balaeric DJ legend Jose Padilla houses it up at the relaxed, open air ‘atmospherical fun club’ La Terrazza (Poble Espanyol, Montjuic). We make friends and dance on podiums until 7am.
And then we go back into town for one last tortilla – and a beer – before our flight home. We leave feeling we only scratched the surface of this bewildering, intoxicating city.
Bars, restaurants and nightlife
Barcelona is, at you might expect, a great place to eat and drink. There are a staggering amount of options, from free and easy tapas bars to more formal and expensive international establishments, and fans of fresh fish will find themselves particularly well catered for.
By common consent, just about the best paella in Barcelona (fact) can be found in one of the city’s most romantic restaurants (informed guesswork), Cal Pinxo in the ornate Palau de Mar overlooking the harbour. There are more viable vegetarian options in the city than you might imagine and foremost among them is Organic on Carrer Junta de Comerç, which updates that old skool Eighties veggie vibe with a decidedly internationalist outlook.
Can Paixano (Carrer Reina Cristina), a bustling Cava bar where the most expensive bottle you can buy is just under €4, is, as you might imagine, a laugh a minute, although you’d be best to visit during the afternoon before the crowds arrive. The one rule seems to be that you also have to buy two sandwiches with your first bottle. The sandwiches come in paper napkins. Discarded napkins are already ankle deep on the floor.
Picasso used to frequent Bar Marsella (Carrer de Sant Pau), an absinthe bar on the wrong side of the Ramblas. You’ll forgive me if I can’t remember too much about our time there, except to say it was the kind of nicotine-stained booze palace many of us in the north of England are all too familiar with, and exactly the kind of joint you’d expect Cubist libertines to hang out.
Tables and chairs seem to be scattered across the pavement whichever way you turn, so it’s easy to get distracted, but avoid the Ramblas itself for anything other than a leisurely (and expensive) drink or two at a pavement bar as you watch the world pass by and giggle at the strangely misanthropic pavement artistes intimidating freaked out-of-towners.
Don’t forget your plastic. Whether it’s a size 14 confirmation dress, a scale model of Godzilla, a book of Catalan poetry or an old Ashford & Simpson album, the chances are you’ll be able to find it somewhere in the broad avenues and blind alleys of Barcelona.
Barri Gòtic, the medieval heart of the city, is the home of scores of independent boutiques with fashion bargains galore, while Carrer dels Tallers in el Raval has a density of record shops comparable to Soho. I got quite giddy at one point and Carrer Petrixol, known locally as the chocolate street, really didn’t help matters.
Art and culture
A strikingly handsome place, the work of Antoni Gaudí, Barcelona’s most famous architect, dominates the city, not least in the unfinished splendour of the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Familia.
Ignore the comedy outfits and sour body odour of your fellow tourists, queue for quarter-of-an-hour and get a rickety lift halfway up the towers (you have to walk the remainder) for a leg-trembling view of the site. Even the staunchest atheist will find something to admire in the extraordinary legacy of the bloody-minded old God-botherer. It is, quite simply, a religious experience.
Casa Milà, known locally as la Pedrera, Antoni Gaudí’s strange but fabulous apartment complex (Passeig de Gràcia) is, in some ways, even better. The guy couldn’t draw a straight line if he tried, and he designed a fluid, graceful, tactile building that seems to be wilting and melting in the afternoon heat. Maybe it had something to do with all that opium he smoked.
Either way, no detail, from door handles to chimney pots, was too small for the Maestro’s pin-eyed attention and even the attic space, with its wonderfully intricate brick vaulting, takes your breath away.
There’s a cheap and cheerful cable-car from Torre de Sant Sebastià in Barceloneta across the harbour to Torre Miramar in Montjuïc, offering good views across the city; one hasn’t actually fallen into the sea for years and even then there wasn’t anyone in it.
Our best photo opportunity came at the top of Parc Güell, the model village Gaudí began building above the city before his patron ran out of money. It’s a hellishly hard slog up the hill from the Metro but worth every tendon-straining step for the sight of the city spread out below you.
Here, you can also visit the Gaudí museum, sit on the longest bench in the world (it’s comfy too – considering it seems to be lined with mosaics of shattered glass and china) and sink a contemplative beer.
And if you’ve had enough of Gaudí, you can take your chances with the breakfasting matrons of Barcelona at the cafeteria on the top floor of El Corte Inglès, the city’s foremost department store in Plaça de Catalunya, with great views towards Montjuïc – and even better tortillas.
There’s something for everyone in Barcelona, from the five-star Ritz (no relation to its London and Paris counterparts) to Meublé love motels which are hired out by the hour, and all pensions in between.
We stayed at a sweet little family-run budget hotel called Hostal Girona in L’Eixample, with a grand staircase leading to a tall central atrium and, considering the price – €55 per night – surprisingly plush double rooms with air-con and a shower.
Getting around Barcelona’s Metro underground system is a breeze. Everything is coloured-coded, clean, cheap and not remotely intimidating – though you may feel the earth move on the Ramblas; either it’s the rumble of the Metro beneath your feet, or you’ve struck lucky.
We were helped along our way by a invaluable new guide to the city, le cool changed my life: a weird and wonderful guide to Barcelona which takes you to the kind of places tourists never usually hear about (available here, for €16 plus P&P). And we only scratched the surface of this bustling, bewitching, intoxicating city. There’s a lot more of everything.
Just don’t make too many plans for next week.
[This piece first appeared in City Life magazine in September 2004]
Four years after my last visit, I‘m back in Barcelona again – and it‘s not a moment too soon. There’s a different lady on my arm and life seems very far removed from what it was, but while everything has changed for me, very little seems to have changed in Barcelona.
True, there’s a new mayor, and chatter about the city’s live music and club venues being closed down one by one, there are a lot more red and white bicycles around, and absolutely everyone under the age of 35 now seems to sport brutal nu-primitive tattoos on a single arm or shoulder – but in the main, it‘s much the same as it was.
Las Ramblas still teem with the most annoying tourists and the most stylish natives in the whole wide world. La Pedrera stills gets progressively more mind-blowing the higher up you go, Bar Marsella as blurry, the Metro as clean, unthreatening and easy to understand as ever, even for someone as dozy as me.
We rent Zenia’s lovely little flat just off Avinguda del Paral-lel, in Poble Sec, a working class, not particularly tourist-orientated suburb where the city starts to gently rise towards the hillside that ends up being Montjuïc.
We’re in the land of Zara and Mango. The shopping begins. My, it’s hot.
Early in our stay, I see a nice T-shirt and madam sees a handbag somewhere in Barri Gòtic – or was it more Casc Antic? – and so we promise each other we’ll go back to get them later. Easier said than done.
Lauren’s haul eventually includes flip-flops from some tat-shop, sunglasses and two pairs of sandals from Zara and three tops from Vero Moda (18 Carrer d’Avinyó). I buy some sandals which rip my feet to bits.
Fortified by a strategic tub of fantastic banana ice cream from Gelaaati! Di Marco (7 Carrer de la Llibreteria) near Plaça Sant Jaume, I eventually get myself the ‘I *heart* BCN’ T-shirt I saw earlier from Glint (22 Banys Nous). Result!
Carrer de Tallers gets me as giddy as last time, there are still about half a dozen shops with plenty of bulging racks to drool over, but there are no slices of Ashford & Simpson heaven, for cheap, this time around.
At Overstocks (9 Carrer de Tallers) – “Especialistes-en Hip-Hop, Progressiu, Metal, 60s, 70s, Black, R‘n’Roll ..” – after a little prevarication, I put down the Nile Rogers solo album, and go for an Aphrodite’s Child Discos de Oro compilation album (featuring one Vangelis Papathanassiou) including their big Mancuso Loft favourite, Babylon. I still don’t really get it.
I also get a copy of jazz-violinist Jen-Luc Ponty’s 1975 Aurora album, mainly because he played with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Patrice Rushen is playing keyboards and it looks like he might have gone a bit disco. There are some nice enough tunes but they inevitably get ruined by a screeching contribution from the fiddling Frenchman.
Not my best overseas shopping trip but it doesn’t matter. There are worse places to buy records you don’t really like.
We do some of that cultural stuff too. Thanks to our stupid, poxy AA Guide to Barcelona, we get the Metro to Plaça d’Espanya and then start the long climb up the steps to the Palau Nacional in the heat of the noon-day sun. Mad dogs and Englishmen, indeed. It might have been an idea to get the funicular up the hill but the AA somehow neglected to mention it.
The Joan Miró Foundation in Parc de Montjuïc, is, however, well worth it. Grouping Miró’s prolific output into clearly understandable periods, there’s also a room set aside for tributes from a veritable who’s who of Miró’s contemporaries. Our favourite Miró pieces were the big two-storey tapestry Tapis de la Fundació Joan Miró and the little robotic figure by the entrance.
It’s a lot easier going down the hill by funicular than it is going up it on foot.
We see a couple of attempted pick-pocketings on the Metro (the strategy seems to be to swipe your wallet in the confusion of boarding and then hop off just before the doors close), including one where the game old American mark turns round and knees the guy in the balls. Go grandpa!
Never a dull moment.
Make no mistake, this is the big, bad city. While I’m waiting around outside Zara, just off Plaça de Catalunya, I witness the distinctly unedifying spectacle of an old gypsy woman arguing about pitch-rights with a horrifically burned old guy. She gives up and aims a kick at his face at she leaves.
The pitfalls for the unwary tourist are many and varied. One restaurant which consistently gets rave reviews whenever it’s mentioned in the guidebooks is Attic, halfway down Rambla Sant Josep. We’re baffled by the good rep it seems to enjoy because we thought the place was a load of old shite. Dreadful service, crummy food and – when we finally persuade someone to notice we’re still alive – we get a sizeable bill at the end of it all. Piss-poor.
We’d advise you avoid Attic like the fucking plague and head to Plaça Reial instead, where you’ll find Rossini’s tucked away in the corner. Great service, truly marvellous food and the bill wasn’t half as big as you’re often given to expect in that part of the city.
On our last afternoon in the city, we head to Palau de Mar for a paella – not before time, according to at least one half of our dynamic duo. La Gavina is next door to Cal Pinxo at 1 Plaça Pau Villa and I think I prefer it. It’s a little less stuffy, just a little cheaper and the vegetarian paella just a little tastier than next door’s. Lauren’s proper paella is similarly well received.
We find ourselves shocked, bewildered and confused in equal measure by a €10, two-litre ’grande’ coke on La Rambla, crazily explicit porn on local TV on Saturday night and, most especially, the locks on the seemingly free ‘Bicing’ bikes scattered around the city. And why does everywhere seem to stink of shit? It seems to be something to do with the drains – luckily, we stop noticing it after a while.
Perhaps the most notable change on Barcelona’s streets is the city’s admirable bike-share scheme. We thought it was something like the semi-legendary free white bikes of Amsterdam, but after some mojito-fuelled fumbling with the handlebar locks in Plaça de l’Universitat one night, some kind soul tells us that you need a pre-paid swipe card.
It probably wouldn’t work everywhere – we spend 10 minutes happily speculating about what would happen if anyone tried it in Manchester – but what a fantastic example of joined-up thinking from Barcelona city council. Everyone wins. Dunno how useful it would be for tourists but you can read an excellent Treehugger piece about Bicing here.
Our stupid AA guide book works its magic once again and, taking in Casa Mila on Sunday, we find that we’ve missed both of the week’s cocktails-and-live-jazz sessions, which take place on the roof terrace on Fridays and Saturdays (between May and October, I think, though you’d be well advised to check all this stuff).
It doesn’t matter. We’re skint, exhausted, dehydrated and hungover by the time we leave and we probably couldn’t have managed to do much more than we did. Maybe next time.
In the meantime, I have just one question: Why don’t they sell olives in the Mercat de la Boqueria?