Living in Barcelona
Where I wax rhapsodic about the city and how it feels, especially from an American perspective.
MEDITERRANEAN VIBE. The beachfront lifestyle expresses itself in a laid-back attitude that doesn't work too hard, speak too much for rules, or worry about the clock. Check your Type A personality at the door. Life in Barcelona starts late in the morning, takes frequent breaks and is liberally seasoned with moments stolen for relaxing and enjoying life. Workaholic American tourists beware: what life in Barcelona is frequently not is efficient, ordered or prompt. Don’t expect it to be. “Tranquilo,” they’ll say, if you get worked up. “Relax.”
GAUDI ART AND ARCHITECTURE. Barcelona is home to the weird and wonderful works of Gaudi, including Parc Guell with the world’s longest serpentine bench covered in what must be millions of mosaic tiles – the most amazing work of art you can sit on.
Stylish people from all over
the world are ripe for some worldclass people-watching.
COSMOPOLITAN YET FRIENDLY. Barcelona is Spain's 2nd largest city. There’s a vibrant, multi-cultural feeling here, due to its Catalan, Spanish, French, Italian, Arab, African and even American (like it or not) influences. The arts, food, fashion, metro, shopping and accommodations are worldclass. 14 million people visit annually. Cruise ships dock here. Movie stars and rock groups vacation here. Yet Barcelona is mostly dominated by low rise buildings, making it feel neighborly and approachable. Streets are filled with the buzz of whizzing motos, but there are no super highways downtown. The plethora of trees, greenery and casual dress makes it feel almost too easy to be a city this big.
EASY TO GET HIGH. Sagrada Familia reaching for the sky. Incredible panoramic views at Tibidabo and "picture taking spots" at Montjuic reached by cable car. Everywhere you look there are heights and sights.
IT'S AN EVERYDAY LIFE CITY, the kind of place you might like so much you decide to stay and live there. It has been voted Europe's #1 several times for quality of life. The weather is beautiful and warm – average temperatures of 50ºF in the winter and 75ºF in the summer, and very few days of rain – allowing endless walking, bike-riding, relaxing and time on the beach.
IT'S A CATALONION CITY. Surprise! Barcelona is in Spain, but it's not exactly Spanish. When I first arrived, I was confused for days because street signs and menus are in Catalan. Like Quebec in Canada, Catalonia is practically its own country within Spain. It has its own government, of which Barcelona is the capitol, as well as its own history and language. Catalonians are fiercely proud and protective of their heritage. They also have their own sense of identity distinct from and sometimes at odds with their Castilian countrymen. In centuries past this meant revolt. Today there's mainly a robust soccer rivalry between Barcelona and Madrid.
IT'S A MULTI-LINGUAL CITY. Since everyone in Barcelona also speaks Spanish, and Spanish and Catalan words look similar, sorting it out can be damn confusing. Sometimes menu boards are in one language or the other, and you have to figure out which is which. If you're trying to learn Spanish, as I was, Catalan will utterly confuse you. I ate a lot of meals where I had no idea what I was getting until the plate showed up on the table. But the flip side is, Catalan breaks the ice. Outside tourist areas, especially with older Barcelonans, try making an effort to speak their language. Say "Bon dia!" instead of "Buenos dias!" for instance, or "Si us plaus" instead of "Por favor." You will be greeted with a broad smile and treated like a king.
IT'S AN OPEN AIR CITY. Even in the city center, much of life is enjoyed outdoors in the cafes, plazas and promenades. Whole families including children and the elderly can be seen strolling the streets late in the evening. Doors and windows are thrown open – no screens, no barriers, just a communal connection to the city and its people, its sounds, its smells, its breezes.
IT’S A CITY OF ART. Barcelona is home to the visually stunning works of Gaudi, which though bizarre, have a real power to stir something inside. Here is where you start to get a sense of the real Barcelona. The expression of something primal, archetypal. Like the works of the many artists who lived and worked in and around the city – Gaudi, Miro, Dali, Picasso – Barcelona speaks through irrational channels, and affects you over time with its colors, symbols, concepts, shapes and passion. It communicates a message, a meaning, but not a judgement. It revels in the contradictory, the absurd, the unrestrained.
Barcelona’s art is not relegated to the halls of museums. It's right in the plazas, parks and public spaces. The elements of ordinary life are art.
The food is art.
The bank is art.
Storefronts are art.
There's art in the restaurants.
There's art at the beach.
The sidewalks are art. (This design is by Gaudi)
Half the patterns on the sidewalks are unintentional – the result of replacing various sections at various times, and not matching them up. Inconsistency doesn't seem to be a problem.
Is this graffiti or art?
Perhaps the commentary
of another "artist"
IT'S AN ANCIENT CITY. Modern Barcelona has long since grown up around the old city, but you can still see vestiges of fortified walls, medieval gargoyles and Roman aqueducts in the city’s ancient origins at its core, in the Barri Gotic.
The sheer age of the Barri Gotic, the ponderous presence of its walls, the air of antiquity, is a unique attraction in itself. Inside the cloister of the 14th century Cathedral is a tranquility that's almost eerie. The city is shut out and all you can hear is the soft gurgle of fountains. A flock of geese have also taken up residence.
Wander back into a narrow, empty street and take a moment to absorb the vibe. You can almost feel the breathing of a thousand years.
IT'S A PORT CITY, which means it has a gritty side to its character, appealing to baser instincts. Contraband of most types is readily available. Pickpocketing is a problem. But you needn't be afraid. Barcelona is a safe city overall. Just keep a hand or close eye on your valuables and you’ll be fine.
IT'S AN UNINHIBITED CITY. As in many cosmopolitan cities in Europe and around the world, tops are optional at the beach. Which may make you want to shed your inhibitions. What are you afraid of, the city seems to ask.
Is this an invitation? Or some kind
of (unfortunate) mistranslation.
PDA'S (PUBLIC DISPLAYS OF AFFECTION). Barcelona feels to me like the impetuous little brother of Paris. Just as romantic, but lustier. Paris is more grown up. More elegant. Paris is impeccably dressed. Barcelona is stylish, but more approachable. When Paris gets into trouble, it knows what it's doing. When Barcelona gets into trouble, it hardly gives it a second thought. If Paris is dinner and candlelight, Barcelona is skinny-dipping: running laughing into the surf, flinging off clothes, embracing, kissing.
MUSIC IS EVERYWHERE. Music is spontaneous everywhere you go, from marimba bands on plaza corners to spanish guitar chords wafting through the parks to roving bands of teens on the metro, running from car to car, playing music for tips. Beyond that, Barcelona is famous for its party-til-you-drop night life, cutting edge clubs, discos and ubercool bars. I had my first (and best yet) Mojito in a funky bar in El Born. I can still remember the crunchy sugar and fragrant mint in the rum – the perfect blend of sweet and intoxicating.
In summer and fall, endless themed festivals make it feel like an oversized block party.
The streets often look like a massive party took place last night (which it did). But who worries about a little mess? Street cleaners come through and make everything new again. If you’re out late at night, you'll see them hosing off the sidewalks.
IT'S A CITY OF MISCHIEF – irreverent and free-wheeling but also with trust in the public life. Barcelonans seem wise about when to react – and when not to – keeping things safe yet loose. Minor infractions are laughed off or ignored. In the Metro in Barcelona, I saw a kid jump the turnstyle – hurdle it like a track star – right in front of a policeman. The kid ran off and jumped on the train. The policeman didn't move. His expression didn't even change.
No-no's are okay.
IT'S A MOSAIC. Like its trademark Trencadis artwork, which breaks up multi-colored tiles and puts them back together in unlikely yet moving patterns, Barcelona puts myriad cultural influences, contrasts and contradictions side by side. It finds beauty in the clash of Catalan and Spanish, ancient yet modern, sophisticated yet edgy, traditional yet avant garde. It unites the rigid grid-like new city with the winding unpredictable passages of the old. It blends the sacred and the devil-may-care. It harmonizes ebullient youth with elegance and unhurried wisdom with carnival-like streets. A feeling you quickly get here is “live and let live.” No matter your color, design or pattern, you can fit in in Barcelona.
Best of Barcelona