I’ll start with a confession: before this trip, I had never visited Barcelona before, and in fact the entirety of my Spanish experience was limited to a visit to Madrid almost 20 years ago. Plan A was Dubai, cancelled on account of intolerably hot weather this time of year, but despite everybody I talked to urging me to visit Barcelona my impression prior to visiting had, somehow, been largely negative: dirty, crumbling, expensive, full of scams and ripoffs, and above all filled with ravenous pickpockets. A friend of mine had originally been so taken with the city than he moved there for a year, only to come back halfway through cursing at perfidious locals who robbed him and his apartment on countless occasions. What terrors awaited this blond boy?
Touchdown at the delightfully named El Prat was uneventful, with the plane rolling past the ghostly construction site of the enormous new south wing before parking at a bus bay next to lots of other bizarro low-cost carriers. Bags took over half an hour to show up, but there was still half an hour to midnight left when they did and I grabbed the Aerobus to the city.
Barcelona’s hotels seemed packed the week I was there (only much later did I realize that it was the week before the F1 race) and the place I picked after extensive deliberation, Hotel del Comte, seemed to get top marks for everything except one: everybody who had 3rd-party booking there had problems. Alas, their own website was saying full, so I secured some cheap rooms at lastminute.com… and arrived at the lobby just after midnight to find that they had no record of my reservation. Fortunately, they did had a room available after all, and when I got in my jaw dropped. I’d paid barely 70 euros a night, which got me a just-renovated room with flat panel LCD, spotless glass and marble bathroom, free wifi and views out onto a trendy bit of L’Eixample, 50 meters from the Metro stop and a 10-minute stroll to Placa Catalunya.
The next morning was a perfect day, around 25 deg C and sunny, and as I went out on a stroll I fell in love. A bocadillo de tortilla de patatas (potato omelette sandwich: sounds weird, tastes great) for breakfast, some juice from the absurdly cheap grocery to wash it down and then a ramble down La Rambla, which is quite possibly the prettiest pedestrian boulevard I’ve ever seen anywhere. The architecture in Barcelona is gorgeous, but it’s not pompously overboard in parts or incredibly grimy in parts like Paris, and the whole Modernist Gaudi-Miro aesthetic gives it all a delightfully whimsical feel. Add in some fresh sea breezes, the crazy array of street performers and that carefree Hispanic spirit where everybody jaywalks when there are no cars coming, and you’ve got a city that’s a pleasure to explore.
I spent my first day on the Gaudi trail, starting with the mildly anticlimactic Sagrada Familia, which is surely the world’s most popular and expensive construction site. It’s been going on for 125 years now and projections are saying it’ll take another 20 years at least, which just seems kind of ridiculous: it’s big, but it’s not that big, and Vegas casinos ten times the size are thrown up every few years. Then again, Vegas casinos aren’t working based on the reconstructed scribbles of a famously loopy architect who died 80 years ago and whose drawings were more visions than architecturally tested computer models…
More to my liking was Casa Batllo, which would surely be one of the world’s more interesting apartments to live in, but the 16.50e they wanted for a peek inside was a bit too steep for my taste. La Pedrera (aka Casa Mila), on the other hand, was hosting a free exhibition on music in the Third Reich, which made a good excuse to take a quick look inside and confirm that Gaudi knew how to design interiors as well. And finally, the next morning, I made a sweaty hike up to Parc Guell, which I shared with half the tourists in Barcelona. This theme seemed to continue at the Miro museum, where over half the visitors seemed to be elementary school kids running around — enough to ruin a better museum, and Miro, never one of my favorite artists, wasn’t much improved by it.
One of the more depressing findings of the Spanish-speaking portions of this trip is that my command of the language is far rustier than I’d thought. Written Spanish I’m more or less OK with, although reading Cervantes in the original like I used to would be pushing it, but understanding spoken Spanish is more of a challenge, especially when lisped with a Castellano accent, and speaking it back an even tougher proposition.
In Barcelona, of course, things are made a bit more interesting yet by the local language being not Spanish, but Catalan, a mutant offshoot that sounds very much like Spanish and French mixed together. For example, “departure” is Salida in Spanish and Sortie in French, but Sortida in Catalan. The obvious Romance-ness of Catalan does make it fairly comprehensible (“processant nova informacio”, announced the Metro when trains were delayed by a few minutes), especially once you work out the weird Esperanto-ey spelling where x is “sh” and tg is “kh”, and ad slogans like “sempre fais el que sento” are perfectly comprehensible when you pretend it’s mostly mispelled Spanish (sempre = siempre = always, el que = lo que = that which, sento = siento = feels) with the odd French word thrown in (fais = does). And there are great place names too: Prat! Dot! Gorg!
Being the linguistics nut I am, I find the present European trend to promote previously suppressed dialects in official contexts an endless fount of amusement, but from a more practical point of view it all seems like a terrible waste of time and energy. As you can easily verify by consulting the usage instructions or disclaimers for any pan-European product, Europe’s already got more than enough languages, without people attempting to revive ones like Gaelic and Breton that already had one foot in the grave. Speak whatever kind of gobbledegook you like at home, but learn English, mmmkay?
Idle bitching aside, English worked pretty well most of the time (usually better than my attempts at Spanish, which were taken in good humor), and the food was great, at least if you can deal with Iberian scheduling (good luck finding a restaurant open for dinner before 9 PM). I steered well clear of tourist haunts and instead fed myself at the markets and the daily under-10-euro sets of cheap little neighborhood restaurants, which netted me sublime jamon serrano (air-dried ham) sandwiches, big boxes of macedonia (fruit salad) for a few euros a throw, some mighty good cheap paella, stupendous freshly grilled anchovies and a couple of mediocre gazpachos. At La Perinaca, purveyor of stupendous anchovies right across the street from my hotel, the 9-euro dinner menu even included half a liter of rather drinkable Catalan wine. Leave the tapas for the tourists!