I fell in love with Barcelona during a school trip in 1999. Since then I’ve visited three more times and always keep finding fascinating new things to see and do. The first visit was a good grounding because I was shepherded around by teachers, along with thirty or forty other pupils from my college. We saw all the biggest, most familiar sights like the Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia/Parc Guell/Palau Guell, and the Museo Picasso but it took future trips to uncover some of the other gems that really make the city a part of my heart.
There is something about the atmosphere of this city that enthralls me. It’s definitely somewhere I could live because there’s so much to see and do, culture pouring from every alley and infused in every grubby brick. It’s the character of the different districts that combine to create the intoxicating whole.
A 2002 solo visit led to many hours of endless and aimless wandering through the alleys, across the squares, and around the marina. This time opened up Barcelona’s character for me as a fun-loving, artistic and vibrant centre. It has everything that other regions of Spain have only in parts. Because I was traveling alone, and only 19, I spent my time nervously shuffling between benches and supermercados. Too poor to afford hot food or much beer and too shy to strike up conversation with other travelers. I used this awkward time to discover more about what made the city tick. I think it’s the people that make the place. They straddle the line between rude and obnoxious or warm and proud. They lend an edge to the city as a melting pot of various Spanish ethnicities and numerous North Africans collide and whirl. Catalan and Castillian are heard everywhere so that sometimes you’re not quite sure whether to say ‘si us plau’ or ‘por favor’ to the shop patron. I always settle for the former and switch if I get a bemused look.
I returned in 2003, this time with friends to try and share how I felt about this magical city. I don’t think they quite got it. The vibe is not always the same if you’re trying to show that elusive feeling that swept over you in a particular place. We did mix with other travelers this time and visited all the major sights in the city again. They were I think under-awed.
The last time I visited Barcelona was in the summer of 2006 and this was perhaps my favourite one. I traveled there with my girlfriend and threw myself into showing her all the places I loved most, this time with rather more money in my pocket. It made an awesome difference. Highlights of this trip included climbing the stairs of the Sagrada Familia to the dizzying top, a sweaty and dusty climb up Tibidabo to get an incredible view of the city, a visit to the monastery of Montserrat outside the city, and various lovely restaurants. The food aspect sealed the deal for both of us. Despite our hostel having an amazing guy who puked on himself and rolled around in it all night, the trip was a great success.
We ate and drank well, nowhere better than the tiny bar called El Xampanyet near the Museo Picasso. This place sells their own cava and serves tapas endlessly. It’s rammed by early evening so you have to get there early. The reward for that is a hot (as in in-demand) table in one of Barcelona’s busiest spots from which to observe the citizens going about their nightly routines. The cava is like the nectar of the gods themselves, I am not wrong – go there! A favourable mention must go to the Cafe Delfino near the old cathedral as it provided a tense food-ordering moment. We sat down and ordered what I hoped was the set menu with white wine (about 10 Euros if I remember correctly). The place was rammed with locals and their chatter was pure Catalan. The waiters looked like they’d had few foreigners in there but they were very welcoming nonetheless. The tension revolved around whether I’d managed to order two fish dishes, which my girlfriend hates, and which would ruin her lunch. The menu didn’t seem to ally itself to any of the few Catalan or Spanish words I knew so I watched the serving hatch in anticipation. No need though, when our meal arrived I breathed easy – veal.
Because of little places like El Xampanyet and Delfino Barcelona cemented its place in my mind as well as my heart. It’s a gem of a city in almost every way. Once you forgive the summer stench of the underground rivers (La Rambla is built over one such putrid stream) you can get to grips with the place and explore somewhere heaving with art and culture, though only booming for the past seventeen years. It’s a place that reinvigorates me and sparks my artistic side to life – something I woefully and sadly neglect these days.