Following the Shadow of the Wind

You read a really good book and you form a picture in your mind of the setting. What about visiting that setting in real life, experiencing the realities of the backdrop to the novel at first hand, wouldn’t that add to the richness of the story and draw you closer to a deeper appreciation?

Such a thing happened to me recently after I read the Carlos Ruiz Zafon book “Shadow of the Wind”, which is set against a backdrop of life in Barcelona in the 1930’s through to the 1950’s. Zafon creates an atmospheric picture of the old Barcelona, of the Gothic Quarter with it’s alleys, courtyards and squares in particular, but also the grandeur of the city with it’s mansions and boulevards.

It whet my appetite to walk in those footsteps and immerse myself in the setting of the novel. So on the spur of the moment I booked a flight & hotel and a couple of months later headed to Barcelona to do just that.

It’s February, but it’s mild, it’s a drizzly kind of rainy day, but that adds to the atmosphere, with the novel set initially in a similar wintry backdrop. Although this being Barcelona, this kind of winter isn’t far off an English summer!

Helpfully, Zafon’s book includes a walking route to experience some of the key locations. It’s not essential to follow it faithfully, there’s no real chronology or pattern and you could dip into any of the points during a morning or afternoon strolling around the city. But for the sake of ease I wanted to follow it the way it was mapped out.

Start point was midway up the broad boulevard that is Passeig de Gracia, the domain of upmarket retail stores and a street that contains a couple of Gaudi treats. Casa Battlo and then just across the road to La Predera — both buildings with that familiar soft, almost melting appearance that identifies the work of the great architect

Walking back down the boulevard and across Placa Catalunya with it’s impressive fountains, takes me into Puerta del Angel before turning into Calle Santa Ana, the setting for the bookshop that is at the heart of the novels, and I try to imagine where in that narrow street the shop might have been and how the facades of surrounding stores might have appeared compared to what is actually there today.

Calle Ana leads onto La Rambla, the famous street that runs down to the harbour. On La Rambla, you need to look upwards and you’ll see some of the architectural treats that create the character of this famous street.

The street is the buzzing vibrant heart of Barcelona, from it’s souvenir stalls and numerous café bars as you walk down the central pedestrianised section, to the theatre, opera house, church and La Boqueria — a narrow entrance leads onto a thriving bustling colourful market of culinary treats, myriad stalls of meats, seafood, fruit and vegetables, crowded with not just sightseers and shoppers, but those sampling the cuisine along with a drink or two at the many stalls serving the fresh fayre.

Back onto La Rambla and walking down to the old theatre, I take a peak into the the narrow slit that is Calle Arco del Teatro, the setting for the Cemetery of Lost Books, the great hidden world of the books that no-one wanted and is a central concept of the book. The alley is suitably dark enough, and non welcoming to present the perfect secret and forbidden setting.

At the end of La Rambla is the impressive stature of Columbus — looking and pointing out to sea, surrounded by palms and protected by a number of lions. It’s an evocative image of the importance of the sea and port from which Barcelona sprung.

Turning back up La Rambla it’s time for the hidden gem of the Placa Reial. The beautiful old square with it’s colonnades and central fountain, and it’s tall palm trees that spread across the open square bordered by bars and restaurants.

There are various archways that lead into or out of the square, taking you into the maze of narrow streets and alleys that is the Gothic Quarter. Here you move back in time as little has changed in the layout of streets for hundreds of years, just that the premises are now the bars, cafes, restaurants and shops of the current day, but the twisting, turning alleys are pretty much as they always have been. Now and then you will find yourself in a square facing a remarkable church such as the Iglesia Santa Maria del Mar.

Calle Moncada a treat of a street with glimpses into ancient courtyards, it’s also where the Picasso Museum sits and there you’ll find mainly the early work, which is that of a very different Picasso, where the teenage artist’s real life paintings in incredible detail precede his famed surreal output.

Heading back into the heart of the Gothic Quarter where the Cathedral of Barcelona stands out with it’s impressive facade the walk is nearly complete.

But there’s no finish without a flourish! It’s a short walk turning into the narrow Calle Montsio where the famous El Quatre Gats restaurant is my reason to visit. In the days of Picasso this was a haunt for artists and free thinkers, Picasso even designed early menus here. It’s tiled and colourful interior, impressive menu and beer served in mugs, creates an atmospheric point for journeys end. I immerse myself in a plate of Octopus and potatoes and a mug of beer and contemplate a tiring but very rewarding day, and my mission is complete!

It’s a good feeling to go back now and revisit the book Shadow of the Wind, and the other novels in the current trilogy, and conjure up those real images once again. I think it actually draws you closer to the characters and the story. You don’t need a literary context to visit Barcelona of course, but it certainly provided the right inspiration for me!

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