Why I needed a second date with Barcelona

Barcelona has got under my skin. I didn’t think it would, at first. At first it felt too rough and raw. I was a bit… affronted. Confronted. Back-to-fronted. All of which are, of course, the reasons we say we want to go traveling in the first place. And yet the reality of them can be very overwhelming. Disconcerting. Unpleasant, even.

When I arrived in Barcelona, it was to unseasonably cold, miserable, grisly weather. (Oh, and killer jet lag. But that is to be expected when flying from Australia!)

The city seemed so in your face. Waiters and maître d’s who are almost aggressive in their ‘invitation’ to you to look at their menu. Shopkeepers who are so persistent in their attentions that I kept purchasing things more out of wanting them to leave me alone than anything else. And males on the street who pay me far more attention than I ever receive in Australia (seriously, it’s bizarre!).

On top of this, I was openly scolded a few times. A waiter who berated me for sitting at a particular table (which, I might add, another waiter had guided me to). A taxi driver who got remarkably aggressive when I wanted to pay by card and asked for a receipt. And I unknowingly took the wrong orange from a pile in the market, and in my too-delicate jet-lagged state, nearly wanted to cry when the woman scolded me like a naughty and stupid child for a full two minutes.

And I was scared. So scared. Of everything, but mainly pick-pockets. Let me tell you, if you are a chica travelling alone to Barcelona, be warned: do not trawl through travel blogs devoted to the subject of personal safety in this enchanted city. For it will scare the bejeebers out of you. Be-JEE-bers. Endless tales of stolen wallets, handbags and luggage may have you regretting your decision to travel there on your lonesome ownsome. There’s a reason for this plethora of pick-pockets, by the way. Laws against personal theft are lenient – non-existent if the offender is under 18 – making it difficult for police to enforce. Combine this with the fact that the economy has been hit hard and unemployment is presently at 26 (twenty six!) per cent. All factors combined, pick-pocketing is not so much an act of mischief, but an accepted profession. Whilst violent crime is low, your belongings are more likely to be nicked in Barcelona than any other European city.

But slowly I figure it out. I ignore all beggars. As much as that breaks my heart. I get better at simply leaving a store (without parting with any dineros) when a shop assistant is being pushy. And I lock the zipper of my bag every time I use it.

And I get off the Ramblas, which is key.

La Ramblas in the morning

The Ramblas is the main strip of Barcelona. It’s lined with bars, restaurants and stalls; theatres, churches, museums; a market, the metro and numerous street performers… Basically, it’s a traveller’s mecca. All of my guidebooks had said it was a fun place to hang out, that the bars were great, that there were heaps of exciting things to do. And even more convincing, I had had two separate, unconnected friends tell me that La Ramblas was their favourite place, that it was likely where I’d end up every night because it was the coolest, funnest, most adjectivally-abundant part of the city to hang out in.

Heeding such exuberant advice, I booked my accommodation right next to the famed strip, an excellent central position, and proceeded to explore it, expecting wonders and marvels and a truly Catalan experience.

What I found, however, did not float my boat. Sure, there is plenty to see and do, and you should indeed visit La Ramblas during your time in the Big B. However, you should then just as quickly get off it. I spent two days trying to take in all its pleasures, as my friends had assured me this was the best Barcelona had to offer, but I found them distinctly wanting. It felt like a superficial hammed-up imprint of Catalan culture. Spanish culture, even (which is very different to Catalan).

This was not the character-filled gothic city of my imaginings. This was a highly touristic area where you could easily find yourself in a bar where more people spoke English than Catalan. Where all the menus have paella and sangria on them, neither of which are native to the region, but which are served anyway to satisfy unaware-and-insistent tourist demand. Where party-ready lads from other parts of Europe come for testosterone-fuelled bucks’ nights (Hola Niels and Lewis!)…

In hindsight, I should have realised way earlier that it was not what I was after, that it was a manufactured version, that it was not-quite-real. It was – for those of you from the land of Oz – akin to visiting the Gold Coast and spending all your time on Cavill Avenue. Sure, it’s fun for a bit, and plays an iconic role in the identity of the GC, but the real beauty of that city can only be experienced by getting away from that touristic zone and out into the more truthful places.

My enjoyment of the city skyrocketed as soon as I began exploring beyond the tourist-and-English-language-friendly borders of the Ramblas – the trendy El Born district, the upmarket Passeig de Gracias, the many sites of Montjuic…

But it was the Gothic Quarter in particular that sang to me. I experienced a moment of near-cathartic peace and pleasure inside the unexpectedly tranquil and amazing cloister of the Church of Santa Anna. I had an orgasmic cultural conniption over the impromptu guerilla opera concert I stumbled upon in a random alleyway near the Arc de Bisbe. And I re-visited the 13 geese inside the cloister of Barcelona Cathedral five times (one goose for each of St Eulalia’s torments!). (Ummm, in case you can’t tell, I love cloisters, they are my new favourite thing!)

The cloister inside Barcelona’s Cathedral

I fell in love with the dark and twisty old city. This Barcelona is one where every twisting passageway gives way to an amazing church or plaza or Roman ruin. The street corners are populated by millennia-old fountains, twisted-and-gnarled iron work and street performers of every persuasion. I stumbled into hidden courtyards and hidden tapas bars. I saw walls covered in glorious decorative tiles and walls pockmarked by civil war artillery and walls covered in urine. In short, it was everything that I had imagined, and more. I devoted a large amount of time to just wandering through its wonders, each time seeing something new, each time slowly finding my way a bit better and also getting that little bit more lost.

It was wonderful.

I also fell in love with everything Gaudi, a man who designed such beautiful and bizarre and over-the-top architecture that it gave us our English word ‘gaudy’. Yet somehow, his work manages to exist absolutely perfectly – harmoniously, even –  in the Barcelona streetscape.

Casa Batllo, Barcelona - Spain

So the message of all of this is that if you are traveling somewhere and staying within your comfort zones, then you’re not doing it right. That if you’re not enjoying a city, venture further, deeper, wider. And that Barcelona is wonderful. Just wonderful.

It wasn’t love at first sight. But sometimes a second look is well worth it.

Have you been to Barcelona?

Very happy selfie. In Park Guell, a park designed by Antoni Gaudi and filled with crazy awesome architecture…

categories: Travel

2 Responses to “Why I needed a second date with Barcelona”

  1. Miche

    Thank you for your description of Barcelona. I have a different view due to my brother becoming lost there and disappearing for 18 months, but that is another story.

    Your description of the wonderful gothic architecture makes me want to visit.

    I grew up in Melbourne, Victoria and I had not noticed, in the 25 or so years I lived there, the gothic architecture throughout the city. A couple of weeks ago on a flying visit I wandered around the city taking photos of buildings that I had not known to exist. It was a revelation.

  2. Lin

    Thank you for this post! It has been 10 years this month since I visited Barcelona. Overall, Barcelona didn’t make a great impression on me – I had similar encounters to you from shopkeepers and I found them very rude. But this experiences was definitely contrasted by my visit to the beautiful Cathedral and the cloister garden. I haven’t thought about it for years, so thank you for bringing this to life again for me!