Photo Essay:Painted shop shutters in Barcelona, Spain
Head out into the Ravel and el Born districts of Barcelona early in the morning and most shops will be shut, protected from the world by metal roller shutters that cover the whole front of the small shops. Many are covered by ugly tag graffiti. Others are painted in a delightful variety of styles, perhaps in an effort to dissuade the taggers.
It was the roses. Seven years ago, soon after I moved in Barcelona, the only way I could tell tourist from Catalan was to look for the people carrying roses. (NB this trick only works once a year, on April 23rd, aka the Feast of St Jordi). Every street corner sold roses in buckets; every man was carrying a red flower, shamelessly and without fear. Tourists appeared oblivious or confused at the gesture, while locals proudly bought roses to celebrate the Catalan Saint George, as they have done, apparently, for generations. Expats like me hovered in between. In a single flower and a series of facial expressions, the city briefly showed its divide.
In fact, Barcelona is two places at once. There’s the busy, tourist-filled modern metropolis, where bachelor/ette parties in identical t-shirts go from pint to Gaudí to beach to pint to pint, wandering through a city where a human statue on Las Ramblas and a plate of chorizo sausage seem the height of foreign adventure.
And then there’s the parochial, old-fashioned Catalan town, where everyone knows each other, and life is shaped by the sea, the hills, the weather. The two co-exist within one map, within streets built with Roman foundations, Gothic paving and Modernist rooftops.
Sometimes, the two cities overlap, creating friction and inspiration, light and heat each time they meet; such as when you walk to the top of Montjuïc hill, your calf muscles glowing, and circle the squat castle to find a small park and an unexpected bar. Five minutes later, you’re sipping a beer and sitting in a reclining beach chair to enjoy Marc’s sunset DJ sessions.
And then there’s the huge modern projector screen unfurled every football game in the tiny old Barceloneta bar Electricitat – whenever a Barcelona player scores, the bar goes crazy and friends spill their bottles of house vermouth in giddy delight.
You might prefer the smooth calm of the small dining room at Cinc Sentits, where smell meets taste meets look meets desire, each sumptuous fusion dish introduced by the Catalan matriarch/maître’d, whose son is the chef, and daughter the interior designer.
It’s surprisingly easy to leave the tourist routes behind. Discard your map, and get yourself lost in the village plazas of Poble Sec, the back streets of the Born, the tiny alleyways of La Ribera. Take the narrow street directly in front of the Palau Musica Catalanta, and find the secret garden inside the L’Antic Teatre; walk into the bar La Granja on Banys Nous, go to the back and order a swamp-thick hot chocolate while leaning against the Roman wall; follow it up with a cava cocktail in the dark, cosy basement of Caelum, further down the same street; walk down the busy modern shopping street Portal De L’Angel then duck into an archway next to Coronel Tapioca, and go upstairs for a beer in the unkempt Hogar Extremeño, a hangout for people from western Spain. These are your starting points. The next trick is to follow your nose.
Things are more complicated than you might expect. Don’t be disturbed by frequent protests, some of them perhaps against your presence as rents continue skywards and entrepreneurs build short-lived developments to be sold in spiralling foreign currencies. Don’t be confused to see Catalans in an Irish bar, or that Americans own the city’s classic absinthe hangout. Don’t be put off by the Raval area’s latest arrival, the combined Ecuadorian and curry restaurants – the story of the city’s recent immigration told in a single menu.
Things are as simple as they seem. Sun, enjoyment, food, drink. Work is something that happens around eating and socialising, and not the other way around. Try to coincide with the major fiestas of San Joan, Merce or the Catalan national day (September 11th, that commemorates a Catalan defeat at the sword tips of a vengeful Madrid). Celebrate with everyone, follow the crowds, stay up as late as you can manage.
Barcelona is defeat and victory together. Barcelona is love and adventure, history and creativity. It’s indulgence and selfishness, excitement and laziness, happiness and melancholy, sea and mountain. Barcelona is tourists and secrets. Barcelona is two places at once.