Groups of girls tittered and huddled together whispering. Middle-aged couples strolling arm in arm glanced then looked away. The agitation and flurry of interest seemed to be growing as someone in the ambulating crowd neared our table. Munching on paella and sipping sangria I glanced up to see what all the fuss was about. Down La Rambla came a tanned man in his 60s, slim, with coiffured hair. A brown leather bag was slung across his body and he was wearing sandals. And that was all. Nothing else. Unless you count the silver ring piercing a vital part of his anatomy. My children joined in the tittering and I suppressed a smile.
It was the last evening of our stay in Barcelona, a city I’d visited some years before. My first visit to Spain I’d found travelling around difficult and the people unfriendly. I’d wondered if I wanted to return but this time had been very different and made me appreciate all Barcelona had to offer. I was glad we’d decided to come.
Our hotel was near La Rambla so we walked there every day. The Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca said La Rambla was the only street in the world he wished would never end. He had a point. From the Placa de Catalunya, in the centre of the city, to the statue of Christopher Columbus near the sea, La Rambla is a delightful place to stroll, shop, eat and, as we discovered, be entertained.
Popular with locals and tourists alike La Rambla daily revealed something new. One day our path was full of cameramen, extras and hangers-on, we were obviously in a film set. A spectator told us they were shooting a Woody Allen film starring Scarlett Johansson. We watched for a while peering into nearby alleys and doorways hoping to see someone we recognised but with no luck. A year later ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’ was released.
Of course we ventured further afield, visiting many of the city’s tourist attractions. I loved the architectural whimsies created by Antoni Gaudi for which Barcelona is famous. My favourite, the basilica La Sagrada Familia, is still unfinished after 130 years. As we wandered around its interior stone masons and builders worked regardless of the tourists. The whirr of their electric saws and banging of their hammers was definitely not the music of angels. The dust from the stonework danced in the coloured light from the stained glass windows. Everyone and everything seemed busy. There was not the solemnity usually associated with grand ecclesiastical buildings, which added to its charm. The detailed decoration of the basilica was entrancing, inside and out, everywhere you looked there was something new to enjoy. I don’t know when the estimated finish date is but I’m going back in a few years to see progress.
One day we caught the train to the foot of Montserrat and then the cable car up into the mountains, to the Benedictine abbey, Santa Maria de Montserrat. The cooler air added to the tranquillity despite the hordes of people visiting with us. The abbey was substantial with a lovely courtyard in the centre. We shuffled along in the queue to see the statue of the Black Madonna, which the abbey is built around and which thousands come to see each year. The serenity which the Abbey enjoys today conceals a tumultuous past. Several monks were killed during the Spanish Civil War and during Franco’s dictatorship the Abbey became a refuge for many who were seen as enemies of his regime.
But most of our time was spent enjoying Barcelona itself, its food, crowds, architecture and vitality. The sea at one end of La Rambla was the perfect backdrop for the city and we spent time wandering by the harbour looking at the boats anchored there. Always it was back to La Rambla, it seemed to be the heart of Barcelona. Which is why we found ourselves eating our final meal at a restaurant there one balmy evening, watching the people of Barcelona go by.
About the Author: Clare Gleeson is a New Zealand historian, librarian and travel writer who enjoys exploring her own country as well as those further afield. Read more on her travel blog, The Wandering Historian.
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