About 50 metres out to sea from the sands of Barceloneta beach, a pile of hefty concrete slabs forms a man-made reef, clattered together like broken Lego. From there, looking back toward the city, the marina is visible behind the beach, set against the dust-grey skyline of the Old Town and, further to the south-west, the flat, green expanses of Montjiuc. Barceloneta is covered with barely clad bodies lounging in the late-afternoon Catalonian sun. After sunning myself like a lazy, rum-drunk lizard, I stroke my way back to dry land and, dodging the mobile barmen spruiking €5 mojitos, head towards the nearest chiringuito, a spindly shack, set back from the shore, that sings with the clink of beer bottles and warm chatter.
“How was it?” my guide, Carlos, asks, having set himself up in a narrow strip of shade next to the bar.
“It was perfect,” I reply, happy for the all too rare opportunity to get back in the water.
Carlos is a local – charmingly camp, somewhere in his thirties, with excellent, if heavily accented English, his head permanently covered with a jaunty flat cap. He has been showing me around Barcelona. It has been an education.
Earlier that morning, we meet near Las Ramblas, Barcelona’s teeming central boardwalk that, despite being a renowned tourist trap, retains enough of the city’s characteristically chaotic atmosphere. In the evening, it is almost unbearable for the foot traffic but, at this hour, is more sedate: café workers slowly clearing tables, human statues stretching, tarot card readers shuffling their decks, sketch artists setting up easels, early-rising tourists making idle inquiries.
“So, Tom,” Carlos begins, “Welcome so much to Barcelona – today we will hopefully show you our beautiful city and some of the things most tourists do not see.”
“That’s great, Carlos,” I reply. “Looking forward to it.”
“Is there anything, in particular, that you want to do?”
“Sure – I mean, I’m not so interested in the obvious tourist stuff. I want to see where locals live and eat and shop. And
I want to see the crazy life – La Vida Loca.”
At this, Carlos lets out a peel of laughter and claps me on the back. “My friend, it is too early in the morning for La Vida Loca,” he says. “For that, you must come back at 3am, but we shall see what we can do for you.”
And, certainly, Barcelona is a whirlwind of surprises. It is a city of narrow streets and winding passages, the most drab, innocuous alleys unfolding spectacularly into elegant squares and secluded gardens. It is, above all, a city that demands to be explored.
Carlos and I take coffee at La Boqueria, Barcelona’s epic food market, at the top end of Las Ramblas, lauded as one
of the finest in Europe. It positively overflows with produce – spices fill the air with a heady cocktail of aromas and the fruit stands give it all a technicolour undercoat. The meats, piled high and hung from wooden slats in every second stall, range far beyond the standard steaks and sausages – it’s bulls’ tails and black eels for the adventurous epicure.
From the market, we pick our way through the lascivious Barrio Chino, El Raval – where, even in early afternoon, the area’s prostitutes are working their corners – and then on towards the Old Town, with its straight, dim corridors and the dinky pinxto bars of uber-trendy Born, which recedes, finally, into the soft sands of Barceloneta.
That evening, the tour of Barcelona continues, Carlos suggesting I take in a flamenco performance at the renowned El Tablao de Carmen, a dance theatre in Poble Espanyol, an arts and entertainment precinct in the city’s north. Admittedly, I am reluctant. Dancing is for girls and there are bars to be caroused in. But Carlos insists.
Inside the rustic, two-tiered venue, waiters scuttle about, bringing tapas to and from tables, some of which are pressed square against the rectangular stage.
Flamenco is the music of Spanish Gypsies – the Romani people of Andalusia – and the dancing is an energetically frenzied, almost formless affair. A troupe of musicians sit in a ring onstage; one strikes up a guitar, while one of the women, forty-something and sun-kissed, sings in a language I don’t understand, though the sadness in her voice is no less palpable. One of the girls, who couldn’t be older than 20, begins to dance slowly in the centre and gradually, as the singer’s voice rises in a wailing crescendo, her movements accelerate, a jumble of stamping feet and outstretched palms. She throws her head back, her face twisted in a mixture of agony and ecstasy, exorting the audience to feel the same. It is impossible to look away and, as the sun sets over Barcelona, in one small corner of this old city, I can almost hear the crazy life draw breath.
Words TOM STURROCK
Not far from Barceloneta, Euskal Etxea is one of the city’s best-known pinxto bars. If you’ve never been to one, you basically help yourself to small servings of various dishes. You hang on to the skewers holding your food together and then use them to tally up your bill at the end. It’s fantastic if you just want an afternoon snack. (euskaletxea.cat)
Check out Big Fish (above) in Born. Barcelona does some great seafood and, at this exquisitely decorated restaurant, one half of the menu is sushi, while the other is cooked seafood. There’s so much sushi that it’s hard to choose, while, from the grill, the scallops and monkfish are the highlights. One of the best meals you’ll have in this city. (bigfish.cat)
To dine in style, check out Lasarte, one of the many posh restaurants owned and operated by high-profile chef Martin Berasategui. He’s known for his traditional Basque cooking and his name is attached to some of the country’s best restaurants. You’re looking at €40 (£33)-plus for mains but it’s worth it. (restaurantlasarte.com/en)
All the chiringuitos (above) along Barceloneta beach provide a similarly laidback, authentic spot for a drink, but Vai Moana is one of the best-known. You can easily sit back and put away a few Estrellas or mojitos while people-watching, but there’s also some decent tapas on offer for when you need to soak up the booze. (vaimoanabcn.com/indexing)
If you explore Barcelona’s Barrio Gothic, you’ll stumble across heaps of quirky bars but Margarita Blue (above) may be the pick of the bunch. Its vibrant, colourful atmosphere and eclectic crowd are complemented by some serious cocktails and surprisingly tasty Mexican food. A perfect spot for a late night. (margaritablue.com)
Few bars in Barcelona make better use of the city’s eclectic, old-school ambience than Marmalade (above), which was a furniture store for 50 years and, happily, appears to have kept most of the coolest pieces. It has a Fifties feel and is one of the most sought-after venues for shakers and movers hoping to impress. (marmaladebarcelona.com)
If you’re after a fun, affordable hostel that’s going to enable you to make the most of your stay, it’s worth checking out Barcelona Mar, not far from the heart of the city. The dorms vary in size but you can rent a bed for as little as £9 per night.
You can also rent a bike, which is handy for seeing the sights. (barcelonamar.com)
Within five minutes’ walk of Las Ramblas, Hotel Mimic (above) is a snazzy, convenient base for your adventures in Barcelona. You can reserve a double room for as little as £58 per night if you get in on its current offer. Downstairs, the dining room and library are an ultra-comfortable setting for your morning coffee. (hotel-mimic.com/en)
The rooms at Hotel Condes de Barcelona (above) are comfortable and airy and the high-ceiling foyer is awash with low-key opulence. But it’s the terrace, on the top floor, providing some of the best views in the city, that ensure people come back to this hotel. You’re looking at upwards of £100 per night, depending on your needs. (condesdebarcelona.com)
– Flights depart regularly to Barcelona. You can book a return flight from about £65 with easyJet (easyjet.com), depending on what day you want to travel.