Part Two – Barcelona
You can read part one here.
Whenever I travel, once I have arrived at my destination I feel like a thin layer of grime has settled on every part of me, including my soul. Maybe it’s all the climate controlled environments, or hoisting around an enormous bag. On this trip, we decided to be as minimalist as possible, so the bag isn’t that much of a problem.
This is something I am still learning to cope with. When it comes to life I don’t own a lot of “stuff”, but then I have to travel somewhere and I go into full-on panic mode. I have done my very best, and John laughs after I step out of a soul-cleansing shower and announce I have packed too many “dark t-shirts”. The weather is too good outside for skulls and tapestry florals, and we step out into a brilliantly sunny Barcelona street.
Our plan is that there is no particular plan. The only thing on our list is La Sagrada Familia church, and we have three days to get there. The rest is our time, for walking and exploring and getting a feel for the city. The one thing we feel like doing, funnily enough, is going to the cinema. Which seems like a strange thing to do, travelling to another city to sit in a darkened room, but this is our holiday and we’ve decided to do as we please.
John remembers there’s a cinema down by the Olympic harbour that plays movies in original language, so we decide to walk there. Our street is very close to Las Ramblas, a stretch of paved island flanked on both sides by roads, then more pavement. Book kiosks, flower stalls, restaurants, living statues, and above all, people. Unless you get there incredibly early in the morning, at which point everything is closed, Las Ramblas is like a clogged artery of human bodies fighting for movement.
We walk down and begin to get frustrated by the pace, where people stop in the middle of the street without warning. We are used to the brisk practicalities of London life, and it takes effort to rewire and realise we aren’t rushing to get to work, or back home. We slow down, and take it all in. The tableau of visitors, the tourist traps enticing with “I Love Spain” t-shirts and the tapas at four times what should be ethically possible to charge for tapas.
At the end of Las Ramblas you are greeted by an imposing roundabout, with Columbus standing atop a column pointing towards America. The harbour area is busy, but there is more space to move. We sit and drink coffee, watching the world go by in all its forms, from bicycles and those intolerable Segways, to those who don’t want to move at all, and sunbathe on the grass. We are both blissed out, and walk for about an hour and a half along the seafront until we arrive at the tucked away cinema.
We eat far too much popcorn, so getting home by foot is a welcome experience. It is no less alive at 9pm, even our narrow little street which seemed so asleep before is assaulting us in colour. Although most establishments are closed due to it being a Sunday, it seems like the corner shops never close. One country’s highbrow cultural import is another’s same-old wine on the shelf, and John is delighted in the fact that the wine we buy sparingly back home is only about two euros a bottle here.
Both of us are too tired to even make a sandwich, and the promise of what looks like a kebab shop with a queue spilling out of the door seems like the best idea going. More culture shifts, what is only acceptable as a drunken mistake at three on a Saturday morning in London is a perfectly acceptable meal here. After more than a few minutes of standing in the chaos of the kebab shop (this is not Britain, nobody forms an orderly queue and apologises), we triumphantly sit at the Italian glass table drinking wine and eating the best kebab, falafel and chips I have ever tasted.
Maybe it’s the balcony windows flung wide open to the heady drone of street life outside. Maybe it’s the journey, or the long walk, the sunshine or the wine or the food or the company. It doesn’t feel like life gets much better than this simple moment, and I am pretty sure I smile all the way through my sleep.
We go for a run the next morning, and decide that Barcelona is not a city for running. There are too many traffic lights and people on the street. During one of our frequent stops we see that the bullring has been turned into a shopping centre, the structure is impressive, although it seems like other parts of the city have fallen into decline. Things are almost too cheap.
Our street has awoken on this clear Monday morning, and we are charmed by the personality it presents. What passes for arrogant overpriced hipster sensibility in any London street has a more grassroots feel here. Carrer Joaquin Costa would put Brick Lane to shame, with cramped corner bars built into high dark ceilings the coolest interior designers would kill for. They share space here with the vegetable sellers (mangoes almost as large as your head for a euro), the old man bars with their flat-capped and cardiganed elderly clientele, the butchers and fishmongers that Spanish housewives makes a social event out of visiting.
The thing about these places is, there’s almost a feel of necessity birthing out the cool. The mismatched tables and chairs, the tacky wall art, the minimal space, it’s not a case of being the thing that’s in. As Miquel pointed out, people can’t afford to go out anymore, let alone run a business, so doing whatever you can with what you have and find has created a vibrant neighbourhood. There’s an edge here too, in the politically motivated graffiti asking for anarchy and splattering Spanish politicians as Nazis. Thankfully the tension seems limited to the walls.
We spend the rest of the day lazily wandering the city, from the buzzing Placa De Catalunya, all the way up Passeig De Gracia, an imposing mammoth stretch of designer shopping that would put Oxford Street to shame. In a shady side street, we have the first of many “menu del dia”, the perfect way to eat in Spain on a budget. Three courses and wine for around ten euros, with more food than we can handle.
Our laid back approach to travel means we naively run into a queue to get inside Sagrada Familia which stretches all the way down the street. We find out if you buy online you don’t have to queue, and after a bizarre wrestle with an ATM for tickets, we decide to visit early the next day instead. We spend the rest of the day leisurely walking around Barri Gotic, a labyrinthine quarter of the old town, in that sleepy time of day post-lunch where everyone seems to have retreated inside.
We greet the evening in DosTrece, another achingly cool hipster cocktail bar with Frida Kahlo painted onto the window. This one seems a little more mercenary, I refuse to pay seven euros for a tapa, no matter how beautifully it is presented. Once we get to Madrid, this rule will have an exception. Instead we have mango flavoured mojitos, and move onto a more traditional tapas bar.
“You order”, John lets me loose on the menu and soon we don’t have space on the table. The place is all exposed brickwork and bread baskets, with barely enough room to stick out your elbows. We love it. We enter into one of our tangential conversations, flying from Dolly Parton to mint juleps.
“Mint juleps! Yes!” the man in the table next to us screams at me.
I give him a polite smile, what else are you supposed to do when someone is inebriated and has been listening to everything you’ve been saying?
“I’m from Florida!” he slurs. I look at John and we both start laughing uncontrollably. The man looks a little more sheepish. He apologises in lower tones and gets back to his paella, while we wish him and his companion a good night.
With full stomachs and warm hands, we glow, all the way back to our apartment.