Great history, incredible food and vibrant people, why don’t people obsess over Barcelona like they do Paris or Rome?
The root of my fascination with Barcelona stems from the 2008 Woody Allen film ‘Vicky Christina Barcelona’. The eccentric characters, ambient music and panning camera shots of Gaudi’s buildings were more than enough to carve a romanticized Barcelona firmly in my mind. Any mention of the film within my circle of friends almost instantly leads to ‘Isn’t that the film with a threesome?’. However, what my good friends fail to acknowledge, is in accompaniment to Penelope Cruz’s alluring accent and charm, the film showcased the city in a way which I had not seen or thought about before. Barcelona was portrayed as an amorous beacon of culture, composed of streets exuding life and character. Much like the way many people view Paris, but Barcelona drenched in the Mediterranean sun appeared far more enticing in my eyes.
I had been invited to Barcelona courtesy of my good German friend Lola, who had spent the previous year studying something related to finance within the city. Lola seemed the perfect match for Barcelona, motivated and positive, yet very easy-going. Always appearing in control of whatever situation she would find herself in. My first ever encounter with her was during university in Singapore, I was invited to tag along with a trip to Cambodia via a mutual friend. I had been invited to this trip regardless of Lola’s opinion. Showing up to her flat one night, having never even being properly introduced, she smiled at me as if she had known me for years, offered me a beer and handed over their flight details. I approved.
Lola was caught up in a job interview at the time of my arrival but I had previously assured her that I would be capable of temporarily surviving in a foreign city despite her absence, and would locate a bite to eat until she finished her tasks. The coach from the airport dropped me off in the city centre and within two minutes of strolling the side streets off La Rambla I was in love.
Bustling with people, much like any other city, it was busy but somehow in a different way. Unlike the people back home, the crowds here did not seem to be in a particular rush to be anywhere. The usual composition of suits and ties were almost completely absent from sight. Youngsters whizzed past on skateboards and scooters unsupervised, something unheard of back in London. Shockingly even the tourists blended in to some degree, due perhaps to the large mix of people and my good mood.
Whilst weaving in and out of side streets, I discovered a little side door to a 365 café. “Great, a distinctive name that Lola will easily be able to find,” I thought to myself. A ping from my phone’s speaker alerted me that Lola was headed to the café now. Unfortunately however, a good deal of time had passed since I had finished the remaining crumbs of my baguette, and there was still no sign of Lola. The café was much nicer than the chains we had at home so I had presumed it was an independent store. I was wrong. 365 cafés can be found almost everywhere in Barcelona.
When Lola did eventually manage to hunt me down, it was glorious to see her again. Suddenly all the imagery from the previous times we had spent together was vivid once again. In true Lola style I was not surprised in the slightest when her first suggestion was “I have some friends who are at the beach right now, they’re playing volleyball, we can join them if you want.” Once again, I approved.
The evening was spent drinking beer and failing at playing volleyball near Port Olympic de Barcelona. The easy-going atmosphere of the city was echoed by the beach and refreshing compared to the drab weather back home, I felt ever so happy and relaxed to be there. I was treated to some German ‘Spätzle’, and watermelon for dinner, before heading to the bus terminal to meet the others. Approaching us at full velocity in the darkness, Kate and Lisa let us know they had arrived.
Lola’s flat despite lacking much space was incredibly charming. Room and corridor floors were blanketed by colourful tiles, adding to its Spanish charm. The miniature balcony overlooked a labyrinth of rooftops and gardens, which housed various plant pots and odd furniture. One even became an extension of a nearby bar at night. A breakfast of muesli and local fruit on Lola’s miniature balcony kick-started our day of exploration of the gothic quarter of the city. Many of the buildings here date back to Medieval times and some go as far back as the Roman era.
Although it was difficult to divert my attention from the movement on the streets and the stonework surrounding us, glancing above at the residents in their balconies was my favourite component of the morning. A young couple played cards together on a small table, while sipping beer. A woman stepped outside for a quick cigarette, herself checking out the entertainment the street traffic below had to offer. An older couple dined together whilst sharing conversation. The neighbourhood was brought to life simply by these people stepping onto their balconies, sharing small personal moments of their lives with the outside world. They gave the neighbourhood a personality. Suddenly ‘knowing’ the people who lived there made the buildings so much more intriguing. Seeing short glimpses of their lives left me curious to find out more, how long had they been there? What profession do they have? When did they first buy the plants on their balconies?
We proceeded to gather the required picnic materials from a grocery store nearby, later reconvening with some of Lola’s friends from the previous day at Parc de la Ciutadella. After we finished deliberating where to sit down in the shade, a man took his place at the foot of the tree adjacent to us and began to play his guitar. Talk about hitting the jackpot. He was not a busker, there was no hat or guitar case in sight, he had just come to the park with the sole intention to play music, as a Londoner, this again was an idea I found difficult to comprehend.
Where to get your groove on: El Bombón is a lively salsa bar set in the gothic quarter which offers the perfect getaway from the typical Top 40 clubbing scene. Incredibly affordable €2 Mojitos and an exciting Latin atmosphere should make this place a must on your to do list.
Table tennis in the afternoon sun was a satisfying (and free) way to spend a couple of hours. Food combined with a bit of friendly competition had left me in a content mood. However, this calm feeling was cut short upon our return to the flat as Lola commanded us to put on our running shoes and depart before sunset. Running is such a brilliant way to see a new city. By the time you get the chance to blink, your surroundings change and you find yourself on a completely different street. Lola being familiar with the layout of the streets led us from the heart of the town to the seafront.
The transition of the whole city from day to night was clearly visible from our viewpoint at the base of the W hotel building. The lights initially emerged like distant stars scattered on the peaks behind the city, increasing in frequency as you followed the slope towards the shore. The combination of the rugged terrain’s natural beauty and the electric influence of the cityscape brought the picture to life. Saddened at the fact I was without my camera, a quick plunge into the seawater made me feel much better, despite the fact we were now soaking wet and had nothing to dry ourselves with before commencing the run back home.
- Sample the local cuisine at: Bitacora With mouth-watering food, drinks and dessert for roughly €20 per person, Bitacora was undoubtedly the best food we had during the trip. Options include tantalisingly spiced potatoes, fresh mussels and tangy green peppers. The restaurant offers a great casual setting with outdoor seating available during the summer.
- Gotta be a tourist: Learning about Gaudi’s visions of having the scenes of the bible illustrated on the façades of the Sagrada Família through the audio guide was fascinating. Subtle elements which were not obvious at first became illuminated through the explanations. For example the glass at the top of the building behind the alter was left unstained so as to symbolise the pure light from heaven, and the columns and ceiling were crafted in an attempt to recreate the scenery of a forest (pictures below).
- Gotta be a tourist again: Despite the swarms of people Park Guel is still worth a visit. It was essentially Gaudi’s idea of the ideal housing complex, complete with a central market for residents to be encouraged to interact. Financial instability prevented the project from completion, leaving only the first two buildings constructed (top picture).