We love Barcelona. Everybody loves Barcelona.
So much so that the city is groaning under the tourist numbers and looking at ways to deflect visitors, such as building no more hotels and clamping down on Airbnb. Residents are now going on marches and talking about ‘taking back’ their city. Like the rest of Spain, Barcelona is coping with pernicious after-effects of the financial crash of 2008, including housing and employment crises. Although mass tourism brings in money, the tourist economy relies on unstable, low-paid service jobs, while simultaneously driving up the cost of living in the city to the point where its inhabitants have to move out.
Since 2015 Barcelona has had a remarkable left-wing woman mayor who is trying to do something about this situation. Many people are looking to Ada Colau to show the political way forward not just for Barcelona but perhaps also for Spain. She seems to be a breath of fresh air. (When talking about politicians it is safer to use the word ‘seems’.) Colau’s thoughts on Barcelona from 2014, before she was elected, are here. An excellent in-depth profile of Colau from 2016 (after she was elected), that places her and Barcelona in current (2016/17) political and economic context, can be found here. If you are the sort of traveller who is interested in the lived realities behind the entrancing Modernista facades, we urge you to read these articles as background.
On the other hand, we are sorry if you are a casual traveller and we are somehow compromising your experience. In our defence, we feel that we live in a compromised age, and that there may be a lot more of it to come. Possibly much more than anyone wants.
You don’t have to spend much time in the city to realize that Barcelona has a proud radical tradition. This is a place where outsiders are cherished, and it’s no surprise that the city has one of the strongest LGBTQ+ communities in the world. As G’s we felt completely at home there. We saw plenty of L’s and T’s; in such an inclusive place lots of B’s – and a lot of +’s – seem to be a given. We set aside an evening for a foray deep into gay Barcelona. We had to prepare for it because the night-time world doesn’t come naturally to us any longer: one of our favourite things to do together is breakfast, with high-grade coffee, and finishing by 9:30. People in Barcelona thought we were cray-zee for having dinner as early as 9pm. Many of the bars and clubs don’t get going until (well) after midnight. We had a long nap late in the day and then launched.
Dinner at 9pm in the Born area at a modern tapas place called Llamber, recommended to us by our hotel. It was one of the best meals we’ve ever had, and we’ll never forget it. (It didn’t seem to be in any of the guides.) It wasn’t very expensive. The menu evidently riffed on traditional tapas dishes but what came out of the kitchen blew our minds. Barcelona is a food city: even at its worst the food in its restaurants is a little wonderful. Visit the Mercado de la Boqueria, the huge central food market, to get lost in the maze of luscious produce. And then push your metabolism to the limits by trying to taste it all.
After dinner we went to several gay/mixed bars in the Eixample area, near the university. Most didn’t get going until after 11pm. We met some people who said a club off Plaça de Catalunya was the place to be that night; we weren’t really interested but went anyway, out of bloody mindedness, to check it out. They sweetly walked us over. We got there at 1am, waited in the queue for half an hour, and then made it inside, a standard cavernous space with what looked like a large dark room, a swarm of high young people, laser beams slicing through the air like a space battle. By the time we admitted defeat at 3am the club still wasn’t fully underway. It’s always good to see what young people get up to these days, but as parents (we have two young kids) we want to put warmer clothes on them, make them a cup of cocoa, and sit them down to chat about where their lives are going. These impulses are somewhat at odds with raving.
The tourist sites in Barcelona must be reasonably familiar to everyone – by now they must be a part of the global consciousness – so we’re not going to talk you through the architecture of Sagrada Familia or the collection of the Museu Picasso. For the tourist nitty-gritty we referred to the Wallpaper guide (for design geeks and rich people but it has a worldly, droll point of view that is entertaining in itself) or Time Out’s excellent online Barcelona guide (which also has a comprehensive LGBT section).
The joy, for us, of visiting Barcelona is its humanness of scale, the fact that it is a wonderful place to stroll around and absorb slowly, the kind of city Paris used to be in its more innocent days, and the very qualities that are now under pressure from tourism. There is a lot of joy in whiling away an afternoon in the Old City and coming around a corner to be confronted by the alien beauty of the Palau de la Musica – the alien beauty of everything, like a European capital in an parallel universe, where modernity has successfully embraced its human discordancies. Likewise, we like heading nowhere in particular along the graceful boulevards of Eixample, stopping occasionally at shops with beautiful objects or for coffee with overly intricate cakes. Somehow, no matter how elegant Barcelona gets, and it can get phenomenally elegant, it never seems precious or snobbish, but always welcoming and humane. This is why so many people long to be in its arms. Let’s hope we can find a way to make the relationship work.
Our lasting memories of the trip: 1) The food, obviously. 2) Getting lost in the warren of the old town, but stumbling on Satan’s Coffee Corner, very much twenty-first century. 3) Walking along the waterfront. Walking anywhere, for that matter. 4) Trying to have dinner late, trying to stay out late, trying to do everything late. Bed, and a couple of episodes of ‘Parks and Recreation’ on Cam’s laptop, always seem to beckon.