After attending the Barcelona football (soccer) derby between FC Barcelona and FC Espanyol on a Saturday night, I found myself in search of a midnight snack in Las Ramblas area of the city, not far from our hotel. Las Ramblas is a wide, pedestrian-oriented street that turns a little edgy in the evening hours. The “beer men” of Barcelona—guys who attempt to sell you cans of beer as you walk the streets in the evening—are prevalent, as are a few ‘ladies of the night’. As I strolled with purpose in search of a café or sandwich bar of some kind I was offered (in the span of 60 seconds) beer, cocaine and sex.
“Hey, baby, how you doing?” the prostitute said, putting her hand on my arm as I walked by. Conscious of the pickpocket reputation of Las Rablas (and because I don’t make a habit of paying for sex), I kept moving with a curt, but not mean-spirited reply.
“Please don’t touch me,” I said.
“F—k you!” she snapped back.
“Huh? What? Well, f—ck you, too,” I replied for reasons I can’t adequately justify in hindsight. “I thought that was YOUR job.”
She didn’t get the joke, but I must say: cocaine, sex and beer go well with a sandwich. I joke.
Like a number of Americans in my age range, the first real look I got of Barcelona was on television during the 1992 Summer Olympics. Those Games are remembered largely for the appearance of the original U.S. “Dream Team” of NBA basketball stars. It was the first time the U.S. sent professional players. So between rounds of golf and high-stakes poker games, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley and a bunch of other future Hall of Famers turned up and promptly demolished every star-struck Angolan, Croatian or Lithuanian in their path, then stuck around and signed autographs for them when each game ended.
The 1992 Barcelona Olympics are credited with changing the appearance and perception of the capital of Catalunya region of Spain as a world-class city you simply must visit. If you’ve been, you understand why that perception is rightly deserved. If you’ve not, I’m glad I could help.
For starters, the food is mostly starters (“tapas” here), and it’s fantastic. If you like appetizers and small plates that cost only a few Euros, and if you like it when they keep coming at you until you run out of stomach space or money, Barcelona is your place. Oh, and if you’re fond of the occasional potato-based menu item, which I have been known to sometimes sample, get yourself some patatas bravas, probably the most common of the tapas dishes you find in restaurants and cafes. A dish of those will go with anything. A second portion will, too…so I’m told.
And if you’re stomach is averse to spicy items, don’t fret. There are plenty of Spanish plates that are not so zesty. You’re reading the words of a guy who sweats while eating seasoned French fries and who traveled through Asia forfour weeks despite being allergic to seafood. Trust me, food in Spain is not a problem.
Now for the educational section of the story: I was told, by people in Barcelona, that the people of Barcelona would prefer that you not call them “Spanish”. They are Catalans. Catalunya is an autonomous region of Spain. The official co-languages are Catalan (different than Spanish) and Spanish, and many of the inhabitants would be happy if the region was an independent state.
Now doesn’t seem like the right time to get into that—and it goes back centuries—but part of the reason is because the more wealthy Barcelona region is viewed as propping up the rest of Spain, where the economy is far less strong.
The relative strength of the Barcelona economy is obvious when you stroll the streets, and tourism plays a large roll. Barcelona’s streets and laneways have a distinct energy to them. The climate is quite agreeable most of the year, and you can reach beaches and mountains in not much time at all. The buildings are cool, too. I’m (VERY) far from an expert on this topic, but the architecture, which is heavily influenced by the legendary architect Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926), seems a cool blend of modern originality and classics like cathedrals. The modern and more dated buildings of the city seem to compliment each other perfectly.
And the people are fun. I mean they are welcoming. They joke with you. They explain a menu item. They tell you where to go, what to see, how to get there. Sometimes they even offer you beer and sex. Occasionally they even smile as you pass them on the street. You may find this to be completely expected, but when you live in France…never mind.
The sporting highlight of the trip was the soccer match between the two Barcelona clubs—the famed FC Barcelona and the more blue-collar crowd from Espanyol, whose stadium is about 10 kms outside of town. We took a subway about 20 minutes and exited to a sea of spectators marching up the road toward the stadium, the stench of lit flairs and the sound of M80 firecrackers adding to the ambience. FC Barcelona dominated the match, 3-0, with superstar Lionel Messi playing a role in every goal. The home fans departed early, but they had given their best effort. They sang, clapped and chanted for 70 of the 90 minutes. They grumbled about poor defense for the other 20.
THINGS I LIKED:
We played the role of full-on tourist and did the hop-on, hop-off bus tour on a cloudy day and found these attractions to be worth the time:
The Sagrada Familia Cathedral is an unreal architectural effort that has been under construction for a century. Seriously, one hundred years. Go for a stroll near the National Museum of Art with its gorgeous fountains and stroll the Jardins de Joan Maragall above it. The Olympic stadium area is just a short walk away. Near the Hotel Miramar is the Bar del mirador de montjuic. Pop in for a quick drink with a panoramic view of the harbor and city. It’s touristy, but why not? Take a morning stroll through La Boqueria Market in El Raval near Las Ramblas for fresh fruit, meats, sweets and whatever else you can think of…even patatas bravas. The St. Moritz Brewery has good beer and there’s a cool layout to the place. But mostly beer.