About Julie Sheridan
GuiriGirlinBarca is written by native Scot Julie Sheridan, who left Edinburgh’s haar-stricken hills for the slightly sunnier shores of Barcelona in April 2011. Armed with a big red emigrating suitcase (called La Roja) she arrived in the Catalan capital without knowing a soul, or indeed any Catalan. Her blog is an honest account of the ups and downs of life abroad as a single woman, including now not to get stalked by men and how to avoid unfortunate incidents with hamsters on bank holidays.
Latest Posts by Julie Sheridan
Of all the reasons behind my move to Barcelona, being close to the coast was perhaps the most pressing. Having the sea on your doorstep is something I’d grown used to, having spent most of my life on one Scottish shore or the other. Like conches, many of the poems I write invoke the sea, and I suspect it will always be a legacy.
But somehow, having lived in Barcelona for the best part of two years, I have yet to really make friends with the Mediterranean. To be honest, at times the slick, spruced-up seafront – overhauled in the run-up to the ’92 Olympics – leaves me a little cold.
Plus, if you don’t happen to live close to the beach in Barcelona (and I don’t), it’s entirely possible to spend months without going anywhere near it. Which is a huge pity, really, when you think about it.
So when I was offered the opportunity to take part in a press trip around the Costa Brava, with a particular focus on the importance of the coastline to the Catalan sense of identity, I jumped at it.
From Barcelona to Girona and east to L’Estartit
Straddling the flood plain of the Ter estuary, L’Estartit is a small, seafaring town. A privileged wee place, its long beach and beautiful bay scintillate in the Catalan sunshine. The ace up its sleeve, though, is the enigmatic archipelago that sits about a kilometre off shore – the uninhabited Medes Islands.
Once patrolled by pirates, these seven little islets are something special.
Twenty years of protection have made the Medes Islands one of the most important marine flora and fauna reserves in western Europe. A mecca for divers from all around the world, the area boasts the largest red coral reef in the Mediterranean. I am not a diver, but listening to tales of tame rays, barracudas, groupers and scorpion fish (but no sharks – always a bonus) made me want to load up on Nitrox and delve the depths of the seabed.
As the schooner skulked around the periphery of the seven moody monoliths, I was reminded of Ailsa Craig, that hulking heft of rock that rises up out of the Ayrshire seabed. It, too, was plagued by pirates. Seeing the islands up close felt a bit like reading the region’s palm. Not for the first time, I reflected on the connections between Catalonia and Scotland…Caledonia.
If scuba and snorkelling are not your thing, there are other ways to explore these compelling crags. Companies in L’Estartit offer boat trips in glass-bottomed boats around the islands and right along the Montgrí coast.
The port of Palamós
My head still conniving with cunning plans to jump ship from Barcelona and move lock, stock and barrel to L’Estartit, it was time to head south, to the less pretty, more gritty, port of Palamós.
The Catalan coastline is 580km long and fish is a hugely important part of the local diet. Surprisingly, though, fewer than 100 of the 532 species found in the western Mediterranean are of interest to fishermen, and only 12 constitute the basis of the fishing sector (anchovies, sardines, blue fin tuna, tuna, hake, blue whiting, angler fish, sea bream, red mullet, octopus, Norway lobster and, of course, prawns).
In Palamós, the seafaring traditions of Catalonia turn into a spectacle in front of your eyes. Palamós smelled of my childhood. Watching the guys at the docks sort and unload the day’s catch, the stench of salt and nostalgia was in my nostrils.
Monday through Friday, by mid afternoon the fishermen start to arrive back at the port, and the unloading of the day’s catch begins. Shanties and shindigs don’t come into it – this is big business. Years ago anyone and their dog could fish from the coast, whereas today you have to be a professional fisherman with a bona fide licence.
For fish to carry the prestigious ‘Palamós’ label, strict criteria must be met. Staff check to make sure the fish aren’t from polluted waters before the produce can take its place on the conveyor belt, bound for the daily auction.
The auction itself, conducted in a building closed off to the general public, is a sight to behold.
The first auction kicks off at 7am (for ‘blue’ or oily fish, like sardines, mackerel and anchovies), while the second takes place late afternoon. The small auction room has a terse, no-nonsense atmosphere, with buyers (mostly restaurant and market stall owners) sitting glued to their handsets. Old sea dogs and their wifeys pack the pews.
Up until fairly recently, the prices were sung out, but modern technology means that things have moved on. Buyers are part of a sophisticated network, with their own Facebook groups and everything. Simultaneously, auctions are going on in Girona, L’Escala, Roses and Sant Feliu, and it’s all about getting the best price. Just to complicate matters (or facilitate them, depending on your point of view), prices are shown in pesetas as well as euros.
Although it’s an auction, there are no actual bids for the boxes of fish. The person who pushes the button first gets the lot. The price varies from day to day, with Friday being the most expensive. To give you an idea, a kilo of Palamós prawns will sell for 90€ in the market in the summer, but the fishermen only take home 27€ of this. Most of the time, all of the fish is sold by the end of the day – only flotsam and jetsam remain.
The Fishing Museum (Museu de la Pesca) in Palamós
Aside from the excitement of seeing the whole process up close – the smell, the a(u)ction, and yes, if I’m honest, the burly fisherman in yellow overalls – I think the highlight for me of the whole tour was the Fishing Museum in Palamós. This is a seriously well thought-out space, rivalling the best of the museums you will find in Barcelona.
Visitors are greeted by a suitably stirring 10-minute-long audiovisual presentation before being ushered through to the permanent exhibition itself.
In laying bare the relationship between humans and the sea, the Museum takes a modern, hands-on approach. I was struck most of all by the stories behind some of the characters whose voices echoed down throughout the centuries.
“I think if I was to be born anew, I’d choose again to be a fisherman. You do the the same thing every day but it’s never the same.” – Josep Mateu, Fisherman (1923)
“When I started, there were 50 women…We mended the nets on the beach. Ouch, the sand was burning! We sat on the ground all day.” – Joaquima Brull Vila, Net mender (1912)
If you’re planning a trip to Palamós and intend to take in the Museum, my advice would be to allow yourself plenty of time. In addition to the permanent exhibition, it offers guided tours, workshops, excursions and itineraries, and you’ll want time to enjoy it all.
I especially enjoyed the cooking workshop at the end of the tour. “A country’s cuisine is its landscape in a cooking pot,” said the Catalan writer Joseph Pla (1897-1981), and this seemed particularly apt as we chomped on fresh-caught tuna fillets. If there’s a recurrent theme throughout the various exhibits, it’s that of sustainability – and I certainly left with a new-found interest in the fish I consume and the way that it’s caught.
All in all, this taster tour of the Costa Brava left me desperately devising ways to spend more time there. If I can pluck up the guts to hire – and drive – a car in 2013 (the wrong side of the car, the wrong side of the road, the wrong side, no doubt, of the law) I will be hotfooting it north from Barcelona the first chance I get. See you there.
January in Barcelona has the ability to sidle its way innocuously into your life. There’s none of the wailing and gnashing of teeth that accompanies the new year’s investiture in Scotland, largely thanks to the absence of egregious cold that tends to dominate day-to-day existence back home.
Here, the three wise men disembark at the docks and gift the city its second Christmas, at the very point when most people in the UK are packing away their tinsel and baubles. The troop of colour and chaos is a welcome, uplifting start to the year, defying grey Catalan skies.
Procrastination thy name is January
But apart from that, and the Sant Antoni district’s Tres Tombs festival (where Inca got rather unceremoniously baptised this year, along with some pet chickens), January sees the city in subdued, hunkered-down mode. There’s a prevailing sense of inertia about the place, mirrored in my own inability to get my finger out. God forbid I write a blog post, while poems are just getting started before they skite to a stuttering halt.
“This is the city where fickle folk flock.
Which suited me fine – it was time
to up-end the tenable.”
Right, and then what happened?!
I’m not a fan of new year’s resolutions (if you really want to do something, shouldn’t you have done it already?), and as for ‘bucket list’, that seemingly mandatory feature of any blogger’s online arsenal, the least said the better. But I admit there is something about the disconcerting shoosh of January that lends itself to reflection.
It has occurred to me that in almost two years of living in Barcelona, I have never:
- Climbed Mount Tibidabo (never mind hiked in its foothills)
- Ridden a motorbike, moped, vespa, scooter or anything else with two wheels and an engine
- Attended a concert at the whimsically Modernista Palau de la Música Catalana
- Gone swimming (I did try, but got booted out for not owning a shower cap)
- Heard opera sung at the world-famous Liceu Theatre (or indeed anywhere, for that matter)
- Scoffed supper at any one of Barcelona’s 20 Michelin-starred restaurants.
And fair deuce, these are some wrongs I intend to put right in 2013. I’m also looking forward to cantering around the Costa Brava and the reopening of the long-shut-for-renovation Maritime Museum (Feb 16th, it’s free – get it in your diaries).
Dodging through doorways
Then again, a creepy incident recently left me appreciating humdrum monotony as an underrated circumstance.
I’d been round at a friend’s flat for dinner, and seeing that it was quarter to two in the morning, decided to call a taxi to get home. The taxi duly dropped me off just one block from my flat, and I unlocked my building’s main door, no headphones on and to all intents and purposes pretty sober.
I got in the lift and punched in the code that would take me to the back door of my flat. Just at that moment, the lift door was wrenched open, and a tall (non-Spanish) guy jumped in beside me. I was taken off guard (I was sure he didn’t live in the building) and remember exclaiming mindlessly “¡qué susto!”
Frightful it turned out to be. In what felt like an eternity, but was doubtless only a matter of 30 seconds, he proceeded to try it on, hands everywhere and probing questions in pidgin Spanish…“Do you have a husband? Do you live alone? Qué guapa eres…”
Still fending him off, I stepped out onto the balcony of my flat, and as I exited the lift he made moves to follow me out.
Pure instinct kicks in at these moments. You know there will be time for hindsight, instants, days and weeks later, but at the vital interstice itself, you react. Or don’t. I learned that my voice falters when under threat. But by god I can kick like a mule.
Thankfully he retreated, apparently thinking better of the whole thing, and I was left shaking on my balcony, fumbling around for keys. The pup greeted me in a dervish-like dance, and I clasped her tight for the next X amount of hours it took me to get to sleep.
The flip side
But Barcelona is not a city so easily dismissed. Or pigeon-holed. Doorways work both ways.
As I was reeling, and swapping the tale Monday morning with a colleague whose visiting mother had been robbed the same day in broad daylight outside her rental apartment, resolve of a more gritty kind was making itself felt.
Do not give up so easily. Remember the bigger picture.
And half an hour later, I had an out-of-the-blue invite to a Barcelona Burns’ Supper. That Friday, reeling around for real to plangent bagpipes, haggi-a-plenty and with Fergus calling me out in the middle of Tam O’Shanter (just at the line that goes “Auld Ayr, wham ne’er a town surpassses/for honest men and bonnie lasses“), the breathtaking spontaneity of my life here was brought home to me.
It might have been the eye-watering effect of the whisky, but stripping the willow in the middle of the Ramblas, acompanied by bagpipe wails that wouldn’t have been out of place on the Royal Mile, everything settled back into place again.
‘To flit’ in Scotland means to move house.
I like the winsomeness of the word.
Its sound, its capriciousness, its way of conveying so many things at once.
It invokes a butterfly in full flight mode, flaking out in transit, a fledging fleeing, flailing, flotsam flouncing, flamenco-flaunting for a fleeting moment, full-on flux, failing outright to finally sit still. To flit is to flux, to toowit-toowoo, to flex your muscles, test your tether, flunk out and come up flippant.
It is to flock Elsewhere.
Moving on up
I have spent the last six weeks in the most protracted flat flit known to humanity. (Even the above description refused to get to the point in under 100 words.)
After a year and a half living in Poble Sec, it was time to crawl out from the protective underbelly of Montjuïc and venture forth…Elsewhere.
I cut a beleaguered figure every evening for those six weeks, dragging an outsized suitcase behind me in my right hand, bags stuffed with books, budgie feed, the odd porrón, incense sticks and toilet roll strapped over my shoulders, while out in front pranced Inca, enthralled with her new self-appointed mission as husky-esk guide to the official flitting process from one barrio to the next.
I doubt she knew its full significance. No longer would we be able to claim status as Poble Sec-ers…that downtrodden neighbourhood that most Barcelonans love to diss, not quite the Raval but precariously close to being the next pretender.
We had lost Rosa the pet shop owner, the one who hugged me (and Inca) when I finally got out of hospital, the one who spoke not a word of English but who went out and bought a Spanish/English dictionary with the specific purpose of being able to communicate with my poor mother when she came in to point plaintively at dog food and ask which brand, how much, please help.
We had lost a good friend and neighbour Eva, a Poble Sec-er de toda la vida, who was always on hand to help and offer insights into barrio life, including what the hell that noise was that sounded like metal being browbeaten into life every Saturday afternoon (the butanista banging on his metal drum, announcing the arrival of butane gas cylinders in much the same way as an ice cream van prowls the periphery of the poorest neighbourhoods in Glasgow).
God dammit, we had lost hard-won local knowledge.
Of where to buy the only edible gluten-free bread, the best place to get Canary Island salt-wrinkled potatoes, where to catch a sneak peek at the human castle volunteers limbering up before they took centre stage in their skyward corporal prayer.
Or whisper it, the secret spots, the ones that don’t feature in any published travel guides, where locals leave clandestine messages that give voice to community sentiment. The in-jokes you have to have earned the right to laugh at.
Settling in Sants
But we were moving on.
Poble Sec had played its part, had called itself home for longer than anyone had ever given it credit for. One rented flat had given way to another rented flat, prompting a glut of those well-intentioned questions that only ‘expats’ are ever subjected to: “How long do you plan to stay here for? Wouldn’t you rather buy somewhere? Have you thought what you’ll do if you have kids? When are you intending to move Home?”
Traipsing northwards to the beckoning barrio of Sants, where the new flat gleamed in all its new-year promise, I was ill-disposed to bother answering. There will be time for all of that.
For now, fluctuating between Here and There and and contemplating the flocks that fickle overhead was as much as we both could muster. Home is where you say it is. That will do for now.
It might be nearly Christmas Day, but in a balmy Barcelona with temperatures in the sun at 19°C, tis apparently the season to pack up a picnic and head for the hills. If that sounds like fun, you might like my most recent article for the Spain Scoop, on the stand-out spots to get away from it all on the mountain of Montjuïc.
Here’s my take on the best green retreats for when you need some nature/nurture.
“Pining for greenery
…it has to be said, if there’s one thing that’s at a premium in this city, it’s grass. Having grown up in Glasgow (aka “dear green place” – you see the predicament) I have come to expect a certain amount of turf and topiary in my life. Throughout most of the city, there’s isn’t a blade of the green stuff in sight (Ciutadella Park is the notable exception, but the grass there is like week-old stubble, sprawled on by sunbathers and to top it all off, jaggy).
If you too are craving a little bit of nature, without doing anything as extreme as hiking Barcelona’s surrounding hills, the parks and gardens of Montjuïc are your best bet. Most of them were designed back in the 1920s for the International Exposition that was to take place, and then overhauled again in the run-up to the Olympics in 1992.
Don’t be fooled by Montjuïc, though. Its size is deceptively doable on the map, but it’s a very large area which has some brutal slopes for added calf kick. Here are some of the gardens I think are worth seeing if you’re tackling this Olympic mountain.”
Pines in Barcelona
Pining for greenery
Because it has to be said, if there’s one thing that’s at a premium in this city, it’s grass. Having grown up in Glasgow (aka “dear green place” – you see the predicament) I have come to expect a certain amount of turf and topiary in my life. Throughout most of the city, there’s isn’t a blade of the green stuff in sight (Ciutadella Park is the notable exception, but the grass there is like week-old stubble, sprawled on by sunbathers and to top it all off, jaggy).
If you too are craving a little bit of nature, without doing anything as extreme as hiking Barcelona’s surrounding hills, the parks and gardens of Montjuïc are your best bet. Most of them were designed back in the 1920s for the International Exposition that was to take place, and then overhauled again in the run-up to the Olympics in 1992.
Don’t be fooled by Montjuïc, though. Its size is deceptively doable on the map, but it’s a very large area which has some brutal slopes for added calf kick. Here are some of the gardens I think are worth seeing if you’re tackling this Olympic mountain.
Bringing out the big guns – the Botanical Gardens
Languishing across the area between Montjuïc Castle and the Olympic Stadium, this garden has an interesting history. In a past life the area was a landfill site, and before that, a straggling shanty town known as Can Valero.
On my first visit, I have to admit I was slightly disappointed. This version of the city’s botanics only opened in 1999, and in fact, the official literature cautions visitors to have “patience and understanding” while the garden gets established.
It’s not that the 14-hectare site doesn’t have its fill of flora and fauna (it has over 2000 different types of plants) but, visiting in summer, everything had that desiccated, parched look about it. No surprise, when you consider that the garden’s main focus is Mediterranean – plants from Australia, Chile, California, South Africa and the actual Mediterranean region itself are all represented here.
Reaching for the Mediterranean sun
Visiting for a second time, though, I saw the place through new eyes. In spring, I decided to ignore the main signposted route, and just took my time sauntering around the network of criss-crossing paths. I even took a picnic. There was much more colour, this time round, and most of all, utter peace and quiet.
If you decide to give Barcelona’s botanics a chance, I think you’ll enjoy it. Be aware that the site sits on a steep slope, but it is wheelchair-friendly. Feel free to hug a tree while you’re there, too. They’ll appreciate the love.
Opening times: daily from 10am to 6pm in the winter (October to March), till 7pm in April, May and September, and till 8pm in June, July and August. Closed Christmas and New Year’s Day (just when you want to walk off the hangover).
Cost: 3.50€ (but free every first Sunday of the month).
Spectacular views over Barcelona’s harbour
The ‘cactus gardens’ – aka Jardins de Mossèn Costa i Llobera
Trust me, you’ve never seen anything like this. A thorn in the side of Montjuïc, these amazing gardens are tucked away on the edge of the mountain, overlooking the harbour. They’re considered to be one of the best cactus gardens in Europe, with an array of tropical and desert plant specimens that occasionally make you think you’ve walked onto the set of Alien.
The gardens were created back in the ‘60s by a Catalan cactologist (I know – try searching for that on Linkedin). Sheltered from the nippy north wind on the south-eastern side of Montjuïc, they possess a unique microclimate that plays home to some seriously spiky residents that wouldn’t survive elsewhere in the city.
I insist on taking friends and family to see the cacti whenever they’re over staying with me. The views over the Mediterranean sea are gorgeous, and there are plenty of benches where you can sit and take it all in. Just try to resist touching any of the cacti – you’ll be biting that splinter for weeks. Believe me.
Opening times: from 10am till dusk.
How to get there: you could catch the funicular from Parallel metro station, then walk along, or if you’re near the beach, jump on a cable car from Barceloneta to Miramar, on the edge of Montjuïc. Or on the buses: 50 and 193.
The enchanting Laribal Gardens
The Jardins de Laribal – smell the roses
Not many tourists make it here, but this might just be the best chill-out zone in Barcelona. Tucked behind the Joan Miró museum, these gardens are a series of interlinked glades and glens, punctuated by pergolas, terraces and the odd Moorish design feature reminiscent of the famous Alhambra in Granada. Think babbling brooks framed by bright ceramic stairways, classical statues amid manicured rose beds, and best of all, much-needed shade in the heat of the summer.
Looking across from the gardens of the Grec Theatre
It’s a serene spot that I find myself automatically heading towards whenever the city heat becomes oppressive. Take a book and you can easily while away a few hours. Afterwards, make sure you check out the gardens of the Grec Theatre, beside its open-air amphitheatre, or call in for a drink at the Modernista-styled restaurant La Font de Gat.
Opening times: opens at 10am all year round and shuts at 6pm in the winter (December, January & February), 7pm in March & November, 8pm in April & October and 9pm May to September.
Spend any amount of time in Barcelona and the chances are that beneath the Mediterranean façade of frolics and frippery, you will pick up on a much darker side of its history. This is, quite literally, under the surface – in the over 1,800 air raid shelters built underground during the Spanish Civil War.
Barcelona Under the Bombs
The war, which lasted from 1936 to 1939, had a particularly cataclysmic effect on the Catalan capital. In fact, Barcelona has the dubious accolade of being the first city in Europe to have had its civilian population systematically bombed. Both a front and a rear-guard at the same time, the city presented the perfect guinea-pig scenario for the aggressors.
The aerial attacks lasted two years and killed more than 2,000 of Barcelona’s civilians in that time. The bombings were in many ways a training exercise for the subsequent bombing tactics of the Second World War, which started in the same year the Spanish Civil War came to an end.
This experimentation in the techniques of warfare even earned its own chilling neologism – ‘urbicide’.
I had heard of the underground safety network in passing, and was even more interested when I heard that one of few shelters open to the public is in my own Barcelona neighbourhood, Poble Sec. On a scorching August morning I accompanied my friend and neighbour Eva to Refugio 307, on Nou de la Rambla, for a guided tour of this large subterranean labyrinth.
What is immediately apparent is that no. 307 was a shelter far from the norm. Most of the 1,800 shelters, our guide tells us, had to be dug out of the ground – downwards. There were some city townhouses with air raid shelters in their basement, but mostly, it was a case of grab your shovel. And people did, partly organised by the Generalitat (Catalan government) but largely left to build the shelters of their own accord with whatever resources they could muster.
This particular refuge was built thanks to the charity of a Poble Sec local, who has remained anonymous. Not because the records are lacking, but because his family fear reprisals to this day.
This is one of the first facts we’re hit with before we enter the stone passageways, and it takes me a minute to fully assimilate the significance of the statement.
Here we are in a democratic country in western Europe, in the 21st century. But names have to remain secret in case…what? All of a sudden I feel that in my naiveté, I have spent the last 15 months living here in the mistaken notion that the city’s past is negligible. We bow our heads to enter the labyrinth and I feel a flush of shame.
The shame quickly turns to awe and admiration. Battle-axed into the bedrock of Montjuïc hill lie 400 metres of vaulted tunnels, with crudely smoothed walls painted white in a deliberate attempt to combat claustrophobia. Initially, near the entrance, all bends are curved, to make it easier for the injured to be ferried in on stretchers.
Refugio 307, we learn, was a bit of a privileged spot, as air raid shelters go. Rather than digging down, Poble Sec locals were able to dig in – straight into the heart of Montjuïc mountain. The mountain has long been thought of as a spiritual source, and obligingly produced a source of running water that allowed the residents to install a plumbing system (of sorts).
Lit inside by oil lamps, the shelter had capacity for 2,000 people sat on wooden benches. But there was no ventilation (people feared chemical warfare) and consequently, you only had around two hours at a time inside before the air began to run out. Usually, this was adequate…until March of 1938, which saw the most protracted bombardment yet. For almost three days straight, Mussolini’s planes flew back and forth from their refuelling station on Mallorca, dropping 44 tons of bombs at random over Barcelona’s population.
Every two hours, the attack would begin again, meaning that locals were confined to the shelters for the duration. Normally when the air raid siren sounded you had, on average, less than two minutes to gather up your family and run to the nearest shelter. (Our guide tells us that people used to take their cue from dogs and chickens, which would start to become agitated long before humans picked up on the looming threat.) On this occasion, though, the sirens were useless – no-one could tell if they signalled the beginning or end of yet another attack.
“And I heard you scream/from the other side of the mountain…”
Despite the venue’s attempts to recreate something of the conditions of the time, with a sound track of sirens and bombs playing faintly in the background, it is of course impossible to imagine what Poble Sec residents must have felt. This district was particularly devastated by the aerial attacks, and plenty people emerged from the shelter time after time to find that their home had been razed to the ground in the meantime.
The personal and communal catastrophe is something our guide doesn’t gloss over.
She leads us through to the belly of the mountain, where, hacked into the rock is the ‘infirmary’. In reality, it’s a cave, with the remnants of a shelf chiselled into the stone. Touchingly, or perhaps practically, people here had made an attempt to pave the ground rather than leave it as the normal mud. Many residents suffered panic attacks during the course of the bombings – hardly surprising, when you imagine a dark, dank environment with fighter planes screaming overhead and both children and adults screaming in the vicinity. Since all the doctors were off at the front, ‘nurses’ volunteered to staff the infirmary – essentially local teenage girls off the streets.
There are touches of farce, of course, as well.
Our guide points out a plaque on the wall that spells out the topics that were off-limits inside the sanctuary.
- No politics (most folk taking shelter were on the side of the Republicans – but not all)
- No religion (probably goes without saying)
- No sleeping (wastes oxygen)
- No animals (leave your chicken at home – the guy next to you might not have eaten meat for six months)
- No furniture (looters used to raid houses while people were sheltering)
- No football (!)
And as the tour ends, our small party emerges blinking back into the sunlight, looking a little dazed in more ways than one. It’s been a sobering start to the weekend, and it leaves me wanting to find out more about the lives of the locals of my neighbourhood over the last century.
Without seeming to put any effort into it whatsoever, Barcelona is a city of babes. I mean, the people here are basically beautiful. Walk down the street even first thing in the morning and you’ll see characters who look like they’re heading out to shoot a commercial where one of them is contractually bound to be named Nicole or Papá. Mocha-limbed, long-haired girls in sundresses and espadrilles, business women in stylish suits and stilettoes who pull off poise even perched on a motorbike, 20-something-year-old guys on skateboards with the torsos of bronzed Adonises…god it gets sickening.
The cult of the body beautiful is alive and recruiting in Barcelona. (If you haven’t guessed by now, clearly I am writing from the stance of a bright-blue-skinned and totally un-toned foreigner. Whose attire of choice is normally leggings and a sack.)
When it comes to working out and looking good, Spain leaves Scotland standing. I’ve never seen such a high concentration of gyms, beauty salons and hairdressers in my life as there are here in Barcelona – and the cult of personal grooming doesn’t stop with humans. Canines are in on the act too. There may be a Crisis on with a capital C, but don’t think that’s going to stop Mimi the Caniche from her weekly appointment to get buffed and bouffed.
And nowhere is the obsession with appearance more painfully apparent than down on the beach. Cyclists, roller bladers, dog walkers, skate boarders, surfers, volleyball players, footballers, folk on Segways (do they count?) and even old people making full use of free exercise equipment – they’re all at it. Me? I only came for some Sangria and some sleep.
Beach bound? First fight the fuzz.
OK, enough of the anti-exercise proselytising. But quite genuinely, I do wonder how much the Spanish obsession with keeping fit has to do with health benefits, and how much is to satisfy the social imperative of a flawless physique. Bear in mind, this is a society that thinks nothing of a camera panning down to show a woman’s naked breasts in a TV advert for throat-bound cough syrup.
But the focus on living life semi-clad and outdoors for most of the year has produced another, much weirder phenomenon. Naturally hirsute Spanish men shaving their legs. Or not shaving, exactly, but heading to beauty salons in their droves to get every unfortunate follicle, wherever it may sprout, yanked forcefully from its birth place. Leaving their naked, shiny shins resembling the gleaming smooth tusk of a newly bathed elephant.
At this point, there’s only one admission to make: Barcelona is VAIN.
It’s like the über-cool friend you meet for dinner, who spends the whole time looking over your left shoulder at her own reflection in the window. When the men are taking more care over personal grooming than I am, it’s no wonder I’m getting a complex.
Keeping up/keeping fit?
Nope, I’m doing neither. I have tried, honestly. In my newbie naivete last year, I ventured out to go running. Little anticipating a) the curse of clam or b) the lecherous men. Fail.
Getting desperate (Cava’s quite calorific, you know), I took out a trial membership with a gym. Here the men were less bold, no doubt sensing that egregious perving has its limits, even in Spain. Thanking the gods for air conditioning, I trundled my way through treadmill sessions, with one and only incentive in mind – the sauna and spa at the end of it.
Sadly, the whimsical laws of cultural differences were having none of it. I had barely eased my groaning body into the jacuzzi when all eyes, literally, turned to stare in horror (never great when you’re in your swimsuit). A lifeguard, who looked about 12, was bellowing something indecipherable in Catalan while pointing at me and manically slapping the top of his skull. Utterly bewildered, I instinctively slunk lower down into the bubbles and hoped he would simply get bored or perhaps find someone to rescue.
It transpired that to enter the pool or the jacuzzi, “it’s the law” in Spain that you have to be wearing a swim cap. Feeling the bubbles slipping away from me, I protested that this was a ridiculous law and anyway, why don’t they tell people that before they sign up? “Everyone knows it” he said, “now get out of the jacuzzi”.
Thus thwarted in my attempts to move my backside, I am currently awaiting the arrival of my first ever dog. I have visions of us going for swims in the sea together. Long red hair everywhere and not a cap or razor in sight.
If you’ve had enough of Barcelona Spain (and in clammy July, who hasn’t?), here’s a snippet about Sitges:
“Every time I’ve been to Sitges, it’s been sunny, even when Barcelona’s skies are a skulking laundered grey. In fact, it’s said that this vivacious town, situated on the Costa Dorada just 35km to the south of Barcelona, enjoys 300 days of sunshine a year.
By day it’s a somnolent seaside resort, with a chilled vibe that attracts tourists and locals alike to its white stucco streets and stretches of pristine beaches. By night, a rambunctious party mood takes over, dominated by the town’s (in)famous and thriving gay scene. Look out in particular for ‘Sin Street’ (Carrer del Pecat), for all sorts of debauched shenanigans.”
It’s fair to say that the church of Sant Pau del Camp (Saint Paul of the Countryside) ranks pretty far down most visitors’ ‘to see in Barcelona’ lists, if it features at all. Sitting smack-bang in the middle of the long-beleagured Raval district, it struggles to hold its own in guide books that swoon over the beauty of Santa María del Mar and go weak at the knees over Gaudí’s magnum opus.
Which is a shame, because this little church, the oldest one in Barcelona, is something special.
I first discovered it one Sunday last year, arriving just as they were locking up. Despite the fact he was headed home for his Sunday lunch, Jordi greeted me with a huge smile and insisted on giving me a full guided tour that included him singing in Gregorian chant to illustrate the nave’s amazing acoustics. (I’ve since found out that Jordi is a former monk of the mountain-top monastery of Montserrat, which runs a prestigious school for choirboys.)
Emerging out into the rambunctiousness of the Raval and the harsh July sunlight, I kept trying to figure out why I felt so fascinated with the place. Sure, it’s a compelling mix of history, politics, religion and architecture – but aren’t loads of buildings in Barcelona?
Jordi remarks that some visitors come with divining rods, convinced there are mystical undercurrents at work, and points out that the building’s orientation to the east, land of sun and paradise lost, is slightly off-kilter. Were the monks into feng shui, he grins?
‘Ora y labora’ – pray and work
Although the official story is that the church was set up in the 10th century, according to Jordi the site had been the favoured spot of a monastic community since way back in the fourth. What is definite is that the Catalan count Guifré II set up a Benedictine order here at the end of the 9th century.
If you know your Catalan history, you’ll recognise this name. This Guifré is the son of Guifré el Pilós (Wilfred the Hairy to you and me), who’s something of a legend in these parts. He’s credited with being the founding father of Catalonia and the four-striped Catalan flag is said to have come about when a fellow fighter dipped his fingers in the dying Guifré’s blood. Look out for the tombstone of Guifré junior just off the cloister, dated AD 911.
Meanwhile, in the dusky garden to the side of the church you can just make out the remnants of stone foundations that were part of the original Benedictine monastery, destroyed by Muslim armies first in 985 and later again in 1114. (We also found a human bone under the palm trees, but we won’t dwell on that part.)
Into the 12th century, monastic life gets into the swing of things again, and Jordi tells me that there would have typically been around five to eight monks living and working within the convent. The narrow slit windows inside the main chapel, in trusty Romanesque style, barely let in any of the Barcelona sunlight, and Jordi says that in the Middle Ages these would have been made of translucent alabaster. Enough to illuminate the chapel slightly, but without admitting piercing solar rays that might have disturbed the monks at prayer.
Solar rays or not, I find myself getting easily distracted imagining the little community who lived in secret behind the thick stone walls. Seven times a day they came together to pray inside the church. I imagine the place must have been even more of a haven in those times than it is today, surrounded by the original fields and orchards that lend it its name. Nowadays, a cypress, olive and palm tree are the only sentinels left to stand guard around it.
A poem in stone
But even more captivating than picturing the lives of the monastery’s former inhabitants is the small, intimate cloister inside. The lobed arches support carved motifs that read like a who’s who from the worlds of nature and mythology – a Templar labyrinth of symbols that seem to taunt you with their ability to sit just beyond your understanding.
Adam and Eve clutch their throats, choking on an apple pip as a particularly bulbous serpent sniggers up a tree. Two toads gorge themselves on a woman’s breasts. A daisy, a wheel, a griffin and a school of sirens all take their place in the pantheon.
And it seems I’m not the only one to have been fascinated. A young man once stood here, recounts Jordi, transfixed by the Lombardian arches and sketching the shadows beyond. His name – Jordi pauses for effect – was Pablo Ruiz Picasso.
As we make our way back outside I ask after the rabbit I seem to remember seeing in the church’s little kitchen garden last year. Jordi leads me round the side, past the grave of a lady who spent her whole life tending the place and whose love of sweeping is immortalised in the broom still propped up faithfully next to her tombstone. Since I was last here the rabbit has apparently been joined by a chicken and four wayward puppies, who emerge as one giant tangle of tails and whose apparent mission in life is to torment chickens and rabbits.
It’s an exuberant expression of life in a place that’s ancient, stark and still, and I leave feeling like I’m stepping over some serious past-life ley lines.