Notes on Barcelona, Part I

Barcelona conquered my heart 12 years ago. Since then I have known no other city that enchants me so much. She keeps her memories in the Gothic Quarter and Old Town, and exquisitely dresses up in the architecture of the Eixample.

I recall the words of one taxi driver in Valencia who, with a sigh of complaint, noted that his native city turned its back on the sea, while Barcelona faces the sea flirtatiously. Those who have been there can see the driver’s point.

Indeed, Barcelona was born under a lucky star. It started its growth from the seashore and developed as a port city. The sea predetermined not only its urban development, but also the spirit of Ciudad Condal — a free city, the seat of a county unto itself. It is artistic, independent and constantly changing.

Barcelona consistently irritated Francisco Franco, who espoused centralism and linguistic unification. The burden of dictatorship that constrained Catalan cultural self-identification and sidelined their ancestors’ language amounted to a straitjacket on Catalan identity. Once free, Catalonia erupted in national pride, gained autonomy and enacted widespread use of the Catalan language. Today, picking out a book in Spanish (Castellano) in a Barcelona bookstore can become a dizzying challenge for the eyes.

If you’ve been to Barcelona, you can’t fail to notice red-and-yellow Catalan flags hanging from some balconies, or black stickers with a donkey adjusted to a car bumper. These are the signs of Catalan self-identification. A driver from Madrid, on the other hand, would festoon his car with a sticker of an Osborne bull. This is the animal that witnessed a passionate coitus between Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz in the explicit movie Jamón, Jamón.

The relationship between Madrid and Barcelona reminds me of the relationship between Moscow and St Petersburg. There is an intrinsic rivalry between the two cities, which can be compared in terms of size, grandeur and cultural imprint.

Still, in my mind’s eye there is no place for competition between Madrid and Barcelona because I tend to view them as cities of the opposite sex. Barcelona sounds like a woman’s name and its architectural lines embody femininity; whereas Madrid manifests itself as a king and has a male energy. Would it not be laughable for a man and a woman to compare assets?

However, nobody would deny that it was not Madrid, but Barcelona that in the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century was a wellspring of artistic, bohemian and eccentric lifestyle in Spain. The Catalan capital was greatly influenced by Paris. In 1989 the Parallel avenue became famous for its own Moulin Rouge, the El Molino music hall. Another Parisian-like venue was a famous café, Els Cuatre Gats at carrer Montsió 3. It was opened by Pere Romeo, who had previously worked as a waiter and an entertainer in the cabaret Le Chat Noir in Paris. He timely sensed that Barcelona was lacking a tavern with affordably priced food and sounds of a piano. This place was bound to become legendary. The upper crust of the artistic world, namely Santiago Rusiñol, Ramón Casas, Pablo Picasso and Antonio Gaudí held their vibrant round tables there.

Els Cuatre Gats is still up and running. If you are willing to travel back to the early 20th century and see a place where creative ideas were born, you should definitely pin this café on your map.

To help you understand what makes me feel enchanted by Barcelona, I would like to share some of my favourite routes and spots. In my recommendations I will deliberately skip some of the most revered tourist locations.

To start with, I must confess that I loathe La Rambla. The reason is simple. It is overcrowded and has a precarious feel. If you are up for a long straight walk, instead of going down La Rambla toward the sea, turn around and head up the Rambla de Cataluña. This long boulevard is wrongly ignored by the touristic herds, who prefer to ransack numerous shops on Paseo de Gracia rather than peacefully explore the streets inhabited by genuine Catalans. You can see the essence of Barcelona life along the Rambla de Cataluña. There are families with strollers passing by, senior gray-haired couples sitting on the benches, loud groups of friends drinking cañas or eating tapas in the street cafes.

Merging with locals doesn’t exclude the opportunity to do some shopping. Don’t miss Muji, Jo Malone or Zara Home. But the foremost highlight of this boulevard is the elegant architecture of the buildings. Be ready to have a sore neck as you will constantly feel the need to look upward. Soon enough, your long walk will be rewarded with an imposing view of Tibidabo mountain. This name comes from the Latin, meaning “I will give to you”. These were the words that the Devil said to Jesus Christ, trying to tempt Him in the desert with all the riches of the world — and what greater riches could there be, one should think, than the seducing skyline of Barcelona?

Our Savior turned down the diabolical offering. But we, trespassers and sinners, should not refrain from enjoying the breathtaking view of the city. And we should also visit the Temple of the Sacred Heart atop Tibidabo, crowned with a monumental figure of Jesus Christ.

Due to its distance from the city center, Tibidabo is not considered as a main attraction. But I would strongly recommend you to take a bus or a taxi and see the beauty of Barcelona from here, almost from Heaven. I will concede, of course, that Sagrada Familia is a masterpiece beyond human conception, where you will witness a triumph of life, but here in the Temple of the Sacred Heart you will get all that plus a unique feeling of hovering over the city.

In order to feel Barcelona’s heart beating, one should go to Diagonal. Despite its proximity to Paseo de Gracia, this long and important artery is almost free from tourists. Instead of casually dressed foreigners you will see business-like, formally dressed Catalans, who hurriedly park their Vespas along the road and rush to their offices.

As a driver, I prefer to avoid this avenue because of the traffic and frequency of traffic lights, but as a pedestrian, I value this street a lot. I love its architectural attire: the splendid façades and ascending perpendicular streets, Muntaner and Aribau, which lead to Vía Augusta. These streets shape one of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods — Sant Gervasi. Its residents are doctors, professors, lawyers and businessmen. You can see them during their morning walks with their dogs in the tiny lovely Parc Turó or in the nearby cafes enjoying a café cortado or café solo and reading El Periódico on the weekends.

If you are hungry and tempted to try traditional tapas, I know a place that you would like. Cervercería Catalana reflects the easygoing nature of Barcelona — it takes good care of its visitors, but not at the expense of the locals, so be ready to rub elbows with the white collars who come here for lunch. If you choose to munch between 13.30 and 15, you will have to wait for approx. 15 minutes to be seated. But if you come alone, don’t miss the chance to get a place at the bar. Apart from the so-much-talked-about tapas you will face an abundance of fresh seafood and seasonal vegetables on the counter. Don’t be shy, point your finger at whatever raw ingredient you find attractive and in 5–10 minutes you will have it, cooked in the Spanish way. Take advantage of the menu of the day. During the weekdays it includes rice of the day (arroz del día). If you come in good company, bear in mind the Spanish tradition of sharing food, when all the plates with different tapas are placed in the middle of the table. This custom (para compartir) is not only generous but also very useful, as you are allowed to indulge in a symphony of various flavours.

Speaking of tapas, here is an interesting fact. Nowadays it is not a common sight, but 10 years ago you could rate the quality of a bar by the quantity of crumpled napkins thrown under the bar counter. Imagine yourself drinking a glass of wine or a pint of beer, savouring morsels of tapas, wiping your fingers with napkins and throwing them down. For a passerby, a floor covered with paper would be the best advertising campaign.

In tapas bars I prefer to skip the deserts and treat myself to un carajillo con Baileys — a small glass of coffee with Bailey’s Irish Cream. Let me end Part I on that sweet note…

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