Posted by: David Stewart | November 18, 2012

Barcelona – the city that gets under your skin

“The city is a sorceress, you know, Daniel? It gets under your skin and steals your soul without you knowing it…”

– “Shadow of the Wind”, Carlos Ruiz Zafon [1]

Columbus monument, BarcelonaIf cities are like people, they need to decide how they are going to appear to the world. Older cities, like older people, need to decide how much of their past they will cling to, or whether they all act like they have no past.

Barcelona has kept treasures of its ancient and near past, while embracing an ever more modern look and uncertain future.

Soccer is a madness here, so much so that the Barcelona Futbal Club has the largest stadium in Europe which is regularly sold out and boasts of the best players in the world.

Monestary of Pedralbes, BarcelonaAnd yet only a mile away from the Barca stadium hides the ancient and serene monastery of Pedralbes. This cloistered wonder has housed nuns since the 1300s in a serene and austere setting. A monastery was often the way important widows ended their days, because their status as unmarried women was problematic in pre-modern times. In fact the founder of Pedralbes was a queen of Aragon who was widowed herself and spent the rest of her life there. The nuns would sleep in plain cells, eat their simple meals, fast and pray and bury the bones of dead sisters in a common ossuary.  Pedralbes still houses nuns today, though the major part of the monastery is open to tour and see the many exhibits dedicated to their life and history.

Barcelona gothic quarter

The relative age of Barcelona is most deeply felt in the old Gothic Quarter. Just off the Ramblas and the port, the Gothic quarter’s narrow alleys and ancient churches are spiced with fashion shops and souvenir shops, and even a marijuana shop in its seedier sections. The seat of government for Barcelona and the state of Catalan are here, with their attendant politicians, police and hangers-on. The quarter is notorious for its thieves and pickpockets, so be careful.

Also in the Gothic Quarter is a delightful cafe from the 1800s called Els Quatre Gats (in Catalan) or “The Four Cats” in English.  This was the hang-out of Picasso, Dali and others. You can go as well and commune with their ghosts as you snack on tapas. If you order their chocolate and churros, you might find yourself transported to another plain yourself.

Els Quatre Gats, Barcelona cafe
Speaking of thieves, they are pretty thick in various sections of the city. While we were in a tiny pen shop in the Gothic Quarter, a man started unzipping Deb’s purse while he thought I wasn’t looking. And our friend Koen Kooi became an unwitting participant in a sting operation, as the police were watching a suspected thief rip him off. Fortunately, the police tackled the crook, so all came out fine. If you go to Barcelona, be careful of crime.

Beach, BarceonaThe last face of Barcelona I was left with was the beach front. Like a lot of beach communities, the Barceloneta neighborhood is very laid back and tolerant. Even though it was November when we visited, the weather was nice enough for some folks to be sunning themselves. Although speaking of tolerance, you might find someone sunbathing topless there.

[1] Many thanks to Lisa Thorton who suggested this title as a great read for learning about the hidden corners of old Barcelona

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