Editor’s Note: Today we feature experienced travel writer, Duncan Rhodes, who is the Editor of Barcelona-life.com who has kindly offered to shared some ideas on how to spend a day (and night) in the company of The Great Enchantress.
Chances are, if you’re a regular reader of this blog and you’re on your way to Catalonia, there’s only one thing on your mind. You’re on a pilgrimage to the fertile plains of the Penedès and the Holy Grail looks suspiciously like a large wine glass full to the brim with the seductive effervescence of the region’s famous sparkling wine. But even if you’re a single-minded devotee of Dionysus it’s well worth taking a break from the vineyards and cellars which litter the Catalonian countryside to discover the urban charms of the capital, Barcelona, dubbed ‘The Great Enchantress’ by art critic and author Robert Hughes, just one of many men (and women) who has fallen under her spell.
Like most cities whose allure is perhaps too well-documented, Barcelona is constantly in danger of becoming a full-scale tourist circus, and those who arrive with expectations fuelled by Vicki Cristina Barcelona (where crowds, thieves, squatters and impoverished immigrants have been successfully edited out of the picture for one reason or another), and guidebooks brimming with superlatives may find the hype hard to justify. More than most cities it’s a place that can infuriate almost as much as stimulate, but thankfully the sizeable ‘cons’ (petty crime, terrible service, disinterested locals, filthy streets, more petty crime) are still outweighed by the dazzling ‘pros’ (grand geography, sensational architecture, fantastic climate, endless supply of fiestas and festivals, great food and drink, liberal atmosphere).
One of the best things going for Barcelona right now, from a visitor’s perspective, is the creativity and diversity of entertainment that such a competitive tourist market provides. 2010 has been the year when tour providers cottoned on to the fact that many tourists don’t want to be labeled as such, and so these days, as well as the usual glut of Gaudi coach tours and historical walks, you’ll find companies specializing in bespoke shopping excursions, strolls through sketchier parts of towns and bike rides out into the old industrial zone of the city (where your guide is sure to challenge you to a game of ping pong).
Antiques and Boutiques was set up by two English girls and fashion addicts who both fell in love with the design-conscious Catalan capital. Their tours will get you away from the ubiquitous Zaras and H&Ms that line every high street of the world (curse ye globalization!) and deliver you into the folds of independent fashion designers, old school arts and crafts workshops and the lavish vintage stores where Hollywood costume designers go shopping. The girls, Lisa and Niki, are also walking directories of all the best places for eating and drinking and they always send their customers packing with plenty of top tips on the best tapas, seafood, ethnic joints for the rest of their trip, so a meeting with them is often the perfect way to begin any trip to BCN. Walking Planets meanwhile was set up by a local Catalan guide, under the strapline ‘atypical city walks’. They offer jaunts around El Borne and Gotico but the most authentic tour – and the owner’s favourite – is Planet Raval. You’ll be led through the medieval streets of one of Barcelona’s most colourful – and it has to be said, sleazy – districts, where you’ll discover unlikely treasures like the burial place of Guifre the Hairy (the semi-legendary father of Catalonia) and the beautiful Gothic hospital where Gaudi died and Alexander Fleming experimented on the corpses of beggars (penicillin didn’t invent itself you know). Along the way you’ll learn how this ethnically diverse district has been lifted from red light no-go zone into arguably the hippest area in town by an ambitious programme of urban renovation (cynics would say the job is completely done yet!).
Bike tours are a great way to see a side of the city that most tourists simply won’t see. Your handsome and charming guide will do more than point out a couple of Modernista buildings, but take you to out to the tranquil and spacious district of Poblenou: where he’ll introduce you to bustling flea markets , show you around the workshop of recycled fashion gurus Demano, where beautiful bags are made from PVC posters (otherwise doomed to pollute the environment) and help you perfect your topspin backhand on one of Barcelona’s many outdoor table tennis tables. (I should probably come clean now and admit that this glowing review owes more than a small amount to the fact that Steel Donkeys is a side project of my own; although I’m now being given a helping hand by my trusty sidekick, Caroline, who specializes in revealing the secrets of the charming district of Gracia).
Another tour/activities company well worth checking out is Lifestyle Barcelona. They have a whole section on their website dedicated to ‘something different’ so if you fancy belly dancing classes, sightjogging (like sightseeing but more calories burnt!) or swimming with sharks in Barcelona’s aquarium then they’re the guys who can make it happen. Moreover they have a number of food and drink experiences for epicureans, such as a gastronomic treasure hunt around the city, wine making classes (available during Sept and October only) or – bizarrely – an underwater wine dive. Following a practice which started in Chile, just off the Costa Brava you’ll find Europe’s only underwater wine cellar where extreme temperatures and pressure are said to create unique vintages and new taste sensations. The idea is that you don your tank and flippers for some coral spotting and, whilst you’re down there on the ocean floor, pick yourself up a bottle! Perfect for wine-lovers who always fancied themselves as secret agent material.
When the sun finally dips below Tibidabo mountain, glazing the city’s Modernista facades with a patina of orange light, there’s still plenty of life in the old port yet. If surrounded by the vines and fertile soils of the Catalan countryside is one way to sample the best vintages of the region, then the opposite experience – in the cramped environs of one of the city’s xampanyerias (Champagne bars) – is equally unmissable. The most authentic xampanyeria is undoubtedly Can Paixano, hidden away on a nondescript street in between Barceloneta and El Born. Everyone from suited gents and senoritas in cocktail dresses to bronzed hunks in flip flops with a towel slung casually over their shoulder, pop by for the bocadillos and Cava. The quality of both, not to mention the dirt cheap prices, goes some way to explaining the crush that ensues here daily from around 7pm, so don’t expect to find a place to sit. You’ll have to sharpen your elbows and find a place on the counter just to rest your glass, but at least you can take pride in eating out in true local style. El Xampanyet (C/Montcada 22) is the other famous Cava bar in town and you can find it on the same street as the Picasso Museum.
I believe it was Shakespeare who observed ironically that wine heightens one’s desire, whilst reducing one’s capacity, which is why Barcelona’s poetry brothel might be the best port of call for those feeling a bit fruity after one too many glasses. After all at the Prostibulo Poetico only the poets perform, whilst the client only need pull up a pew and allow their ears to be stroked by the erotic verses on offer. All good clean(ish) fun, although such events are rare (once a month) so you’ll need a slice of luck if you don’t want to leave Barcelona textually frustrated. Check their website for dates: www.prostibulopoetico.com
If you’ve survived your trials by Cava and cantations, then Barcelona offers no shortage of amusing places to finish yourself off in (bars are open until 2:30 during the week, 3am at weekends). For somewhere vaguely civilized tried Miramelindo (Passeig del Born, 15) in El Born, where homemade cocktails (including Cava concoctions of course!) sit in fish bowls on the bar waiting to be imbibed, or let anarchy rule the night with a trip to Bar Marsella (C/Sant Pau 65) back in El Raval. Unlike Javier Bardem in VCB you won’t stand a chance of snagging a table, and moreover you’ll have to dodge plenty of pickpockets and prostitutes outside, but this bar is deservedly part of Barcelona’s nightlife folklore. Opened way back in 1820, cobwebs and grime coat every corner, chandelier and decorative bottle, but the atmosphere is fantastic – as is the famous absinth. Just be careful, the misanthropic owner will chuck you out at the first sign of either singing or dancing. Drinking however is highly encouraged.
Duncan Rhodes is a freelance travel writer based in Barcelona and editor of Barcelona-life.com, Urbantravelblog.com – plus occasional Steel Donkey bike tour guide. (You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Barcelona_life).