After three weeks wandering around the south of Spain I was ready for Barcelona. More than ready. This city celebrated in Freddie Mercury’s great anthem, this city famed for its sons, Gaudi, Picasso, Joan Miro, this city that makes the news so often, not always for the best of reasons, didn’t live up to my expectations.
The let down was a slow slide that began during an upwards escalator ride at the railway station.
There was a little too much jostling, a little too much rush for comfort—not so uncommon in these situations. However, when I saw an older woman push past a Mum with a crying baby who was having trouble getting her buggy through the turnstile, I was concerned. Until then, during our time in Spain, I’d only seen deference and care from others to children and young mothers, and to the elderly and the disabled.
There’s a problem with pickpocketing in Barcelona and that’s not so uncommon in large cities, either. But we weren’t allowed to forget it. After our hotel receptionist warned us at check-in, and later when we set off to explore, and then when a local person at a cafe cautioned us—all this in addition to plenty of signs about the place alerting you to the problem—we started to wonder where all these scammers and thieves were.
We weren’t pickpocketed, we didn’t see anyone pickpocketed. And we weren’t scammed either. What we did see were large numbers of beggars and people sleeping on the streets. They weren’t in any way threatening or intimidating, miserable though their situations must be. What is going on in Barcelona that there are so very many people in this situation? Afterall, Catalonia’s economy is said to be doing well.
This guy was making the best of a bad deal, he raised quite a few laughs. His sign says: “This is my plane, I need money for oil.”
Those working in the tourism industry seem to have seen a few thousand too many tourists pass through. We were processed according to our accents, directed towards English menus and English food, our attempts at Spanish were ridiculed (that may have been different if we’d swotted up on Catalan), blamed rather than helped when we encountered problems. Classic example: our hotel room was excessively noisy. John complained, first time ever for us, only to be told: You’re from, New Zealand, it’s quiet there, you’re not used to noise. (To be fair, they did change our room for us, eventually).
Barcelona as a destination is a victim of its own success. It has more visitors than it can cope with. Tolerance is down. Victimisation is up. There have been many reports of protests against tourism and intimidation of tourists. Only a few months ago protestors surged on to the Barcelona beaches, purportedly reclaiming them from the tourists who flock to the city for sun, sand, and surf in the Northern summer.
It’s the off-season at the moment and we didn’t see any of that. The beaches were empty of tourists and locals.
If you follow the news you will know that Barcelona suffered a horrendous terror attack on Las Ramblas in August. There’s little sign of that now—other than a heavy police presence. Tourists still promenade. Clutching their bags in front of them few seemed relaxed, most were watchful.
It wasn’t long before we returned to our preferred strategy and sought out cafes a little off the beaten track. In these local places the wait staff were generally happy to helps us decipher the menu, and the food, though not fancy, was nutritious. But even here on the side streets there was little in the way of laughter. Those wandering past were glum, as if pre-occupied.
When we visited the Sagrada Familia I found myself wondering how this city had managed to generate such a magnificent and joyous celebration of culture and faith. Gaudi was a man of deep faith and that shows in this building. Perhaps times were different then, perhaps not.
I left my souvenir shopping for our trip to here. I wish I hadn’t. If what the souvenir shops are selling is anything to go by, Barcelona, is well down the path to secession. I saw souvenirs for only Barcelona and Catalonia – none for Spain.
About the future, the sentiment on the street seems clear.
The banner reads: “Spanish Government killed our democracy but will never shut Catalans mouth”.
With only a few weeks until the next election, the image which will stay with me is the tight rope walker I saw practicing near the Parliament buildings. When the rope is too taught, it’s impossible to maintain balance.
In December Catalonia goes to the polls. Whatever the outcome it’s likely we’ll be seeing a bit of this building on the news – at least for a while.
I loved our time in Spain and would welcome the chance to return. Perhaps by then things will have improved for this beautiful city.