Nearly everyone I spoke with said Barcelona was one of the best places they visited in Europe, but I didn’t fall in love with it right away. I just couldn’t quite figure it out.
The architecture was beautiful and interesting. The food delicious and rich. The sangria flowed freely. And still, I found it difficult to lose myself completely in the city the way I have in some other places I’ve visited.
The search for a clear-cut understanding of who Barcelona is and what it stands for was certainly sparked by the political unrest. Since I’d arrived in Spain, news and talk have centered on Catalunya’s desire to be independent. I found myself looking up and down the streets in Barcelona, trying to identify what was so different here that the people would want to cut ties.
An over-simplified history lesson:
From what I learned on a tour my first day in Barcelona, it goes back to Europe’s feudal system and alignments. Catalunya (essentially) married into the kingdom that became Spain, but hasn’t been happy with the arrangement for hundreds of years since. Madrid started calling in war favors, and Barcelona was punished heavily when it didn’t comply. And much later, Franco harshly oppressed its people, making it illegal to speak Catalan and gather in groups larger than seven.
Would Barcelona be the same without Spain? Would Spain be the same without Barcelona?
The pot thickens when you consider just how much money Barcelona brings in through tourism – cash Catalunya doesn’t want to pass along the chain of command anymore, and that Spain obviously doesn’t want to see dry up. Understandable, but would Barcelona be the same without Spain? Would Spain be the same without Barcelona? I guess I can’t help but think of it as a California or Texas. Those big, hunkering states that like to throw their weight around to impress upon the country their importance. They’re iconic, yes. Valuable, of course. But like – get over yourself, guys. The rest of us are all over here, working together. It’s not always about you.
So there I was in his beautiful city on the Mediterranean, with it’s famous nightlife and funky architecture, looking around and attempting to piece together what it meant to be Catalunyian.
Turning to Gaudi for answers
Antoni Gaudi is one of the most obvious places to start. Barcelona has adopted him as an unofficial city spokesman. His renowned buildings are some of the city’s best tourist gems, and as such, draw lines so long it’s nearly impossible to get same-day tickets.
But when I looked to the Gaudi masterpieces for answers, I was only confronted with more questions:
- Did he rip off Dr. Suess, or if it was the other way around?
- Do the balconies look like skulls, or is that just me?
- Is it supposed to be pretty or grotesque?
- How did he come up with this shit?
Usually, I get off on good architecture – which this clearly was. But it made me realize my appreciation deals more in clean lines or romantic details. I couldn’t help but prefer the traditional structures with their curling wrought iron balconies and rooftop statues to the Gaudis, which were clearly works of art, but looked like wax facades being melted away by a blow dryer.
Adding to the complication is the fact that Gaudi would probably be turning in his grave knowing his life’s works were being pedaled for profit. He died a devout man in poverty after pouring every penny he had into the Sagrada Familia. The dream was to build a FREE church for the people. Now you pay 20 euro just to get in and have a look around. Surely the money is going to support the ongoing construction (which started in 1882 and only now has a loose end date), but still, it’s the same as the Massachusetts Parks Department charging admission to visit Walden Pond. What’s up with that?
Seeking a distinct flavor
Food and drink is another route to discovering identity. You can’t go to Texas without trying the brisket. You wouldn’t want to leave Chicago without throwing back a loaded dog. You shouldn’t visit Boston without sampling some of its famous clam chowder.
But as far as I can tell, that food in Barcelona is … toast. Yes, that’s right: Toast. Toast rubbed with garlic and tomatoes, then drizzled with olive oil. So simple, but also quite tasty. And I’ve never seen it offered anywhere else I’ve visited in Spain.
But as far as I can tell, that food in Barcelona is … toast.
Throughout the rest of Barcelona’s downtown, we dined on chorizo bocadillos and jamón bikinis at cafes, pinchos of tuna stuffed peppers at a Basque bar. We had tapas of olives stuffed with anchovies and cured mushrooms, grilled artichokes and croquettes.
But all of these things, you can find in other regions. They didn’t feel distinctly Catalonian at all. They’re just Spanish. It would be like going to Chicago and sampling everything typical of U.S. cuisine – the BBQ, the chowder, the Tex-Mex – then saying you had an authentic Windy City meal.
I would have been further confused by this region’s gastronomic identity if we hadn’t quit the tourist-thronged city center for the barrio del Gracia. There, we found El Glop, a neighborhood brasserie, where we ordered seafood paella, cuts of iberico secreto, roasted vegetables with goat cheese and creme catalan for dessert. It was rich in flavor without being complicated or fancy. It. was. so. good.
I can only hope this neighborhood fare is typical to Barcelona. The restaurant never identified itself as Catalonian, and I didn’t see the same items at any other eateries. Except for paella, but almost every restaurant in Spain serves paella. And I’ve been warned most of it’s garbage outside of Valencia. Don’t shoot the messenger.
If go back for a meal in Barcelona, I would skip most of the downtown eateries and tapas joints. I would go here to have something authentic, where the servers will only speak to you in Spanish, and other diners linger over meals well past midnight.
Not stopping until I get answers
There’s a lot to do in Barcelona. We saw the Arc de Triomf (No, I don’t mean the one in Paris. I mean the one in Barcelona. It exists.) and the Parc de la Ciutadella – both impressive feats of design and construct, both built in preparation for the 1888 World’s Fair to demonstrate the city’s strength.
I got a bus-eye view of some of the most important attractions that stretch beyond the Barrio Gotic, including Park Guell – another example of Gaudi’s strange yet magical vision – and Montjuic, which holds the Olympic torch and training center from the 1992 games. I walked the steps of the National Catalan Museum, past its four massive columns and the Font de Magic. We strolled the Barcelonetta neighborhood that sidles right up to the city’s sandy beach. And from the narrow alleys, you get views of both the Mediterranean ocean and residents’ clean laundry hanging from the lines. We posed for pictures at the Mirador de Colom. Walked the shops at Passeig de Gracia. Paid homage in the city’s oldest churches.
And still, I couldn’t make sense of it. What is Barcelona? What did it stand for?
“Madrid is a man and Barcelona is a woman. And it’s a woman who’s extremely vain.” – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Walking down La Rambla at sunset behind a couple skateboarding hand in hand over the bricked walkway, I felt like things finally clicked for me.
It’s everything all at once – modern, traditional, artistic, athletic, touristy, local, big, small, grand and gritty.
I had a moment of clarity and could understand why everyone loves it. It just IS. It isn’t any one thing in particular. It’s everything all at once – modern, traditional, artistic, athletic, touristy, local, big, small, grand and gritty. My mistake was trying to make sense of it, trying to pin it down under my thumb and say – this is exactly what you are.
Part of the challenge in travel writing is the need to tell a compact story about each destination. There’s got to be a heart of the experience that you can nail down and communicate. If you visit this place, you will feel this. If you do this in this city, you will have an authentic experience.
I don’t think I could say what kind of a time you will have in Barcelona. You could go to all the ‘must-see’ destinations like the Sagrada Familia and Park Guell, paying for exclusive access to snap beautiful pictures of the city. Or you can drink sangria seaside, and eat tapas until your heart’s content. If nightlife and the undergrad crowd are more your calling, there are plenty of clubs and kitschy bars to sample (like Chupitos and the Dow Jones Bar). A history buff has almost too many churches to visit and monuments to see. Meanwhile, the art lover can check out a Picasso Museum or just wander the city, scanning for installations hidden on metal shop doors and above street signs, the mark of up-and-coming artists. Barcelona has no shortage of shops or statues. You can even enjoy a free water and light show at the Font Magic after dark, and buy a can of San Miguel off a street vendor to sip while you watch.
For me, there appeared to be no rhyme or reason. It reminded me both of the staunch elegance I saw in Madrid and the showy nature of Las Vegas. I couldn’t separate them from one or another, and felt I missed out on the magic by attempting to do so at all.
If I were to make a recommendation, I would say to stray from the beaten path. There was perhaps SO MUCH going on, and competing for your attention, that it’s easy to miss some of the most charming neighborhoods that are tucked safely away from the tourist buses and crowded venues. The barrio de Gracia barrio, where we stayed, had a quiet bustle and small bars that only lifted their gates for a few hours each night. That’s where the magic happens, I think.