Sunday, December 13, 2009


I love Barcelona. My love affair now stretches back over thirty-five years. I first went to the city in the 1970s. After a long train journey from London, traveling through the night across France, changing trains at the border between Spain and France, I arrived at the Barcelona Station. At the foot of the Ramblas, this station was the gateway to a vibrant metropolis, so charged with energy and difference it was scary and exciting, overwhelming and stimulating. Compared to the sedate British towns of my youth, it was wondrously excessive. Neither Spanish—too much Catalan for that—nor Southern European—there was too much of a hard commercial sense for that—the city was unique, old and modern combined in a complex urban fabric. The old Gothic Quarter, the softened-edge grid of the nineteenth-century extension and the legacy of Gaudi and Catalan modernism all combined to give Barcelona an architectural dazzle. I stayed in a cheap hotel in the old quarter where if you came back after 10 pm you clapped your hands in the street, and someone threw down a key. That Barcelona was hot and humid and pungent. And I loved it.

(Photos: John Rennie Short)

I have visited Barcelona regularly but infrequently since then, and between those intervals, both the city and I have changed. I became more traveled, more used to big, strange cities. And Barcelona changed in turn: it became the capital of a more autonomous Catalan in a more democratic Spain. It hosted the Olympics; it became ‘cool’, a fashionable destination for tourists from across Europe and around the world, now a pilgrimage destination for Japanese lovers of Gaudi. And in this process, the locals again rediscovered the wonders of their city, which is a welcome yet unexpected artifact of Barcelona’s globalization.

The city is now more cosmopolitan, more used to the foreign other and the international tourist. While the tourist crowds overwhelm parts of the city, the city is still too big, too complex, too much still in the process of becoming, and the vibrant street life and commercial vitality too exuberant for it to become a place at rest, the mere end point of tourist pilgrimages. Including my own.