In early August the city is a teeming stew of people. Coastline and latitude make for a heady mix of sea air and heavy humidity, and everyone is covered in a constant sheen of sweat. Attempting to navigate the major thoroughfares in the city center, you metamorphose into a sticky, bewildered pinball, careening into waddling tourists, aggressively welcoming maître d’s, and irritable locals. The metro is the worst: the trains are air-conditioned, but the stations, swaddled under tons of dirt and radiant city warmth, are fetid cocoons of heat. Waiting for a train feels like sitting in a pre-heated oven. Locals and tourists alike are covered in a moist film of sweat and body odor, curls of hair plastered onto their foreheads and glued to the back of their necks.
Of course I had waited to read the city guides until after arriving, figuring I would hit the ground running and sort out my itinerary as I went. I started by browsing online, looking for some expat advice: “The worst time to be here? August. All the locals empty the city and are replaced by hundreds of thousands of sweaty Italians, French, Germans, Brits and Americans wondering where all the Catalans went.” Unfortunately, early August was the only time I had free, and the idea of cutting out of Jaén when the temperature reached its late-summer zenith was appealing. “I’ll go north!” I thought excitedly, dreaming of strong sea breezes, a hint of Catalan chill to the night air, and the edgy art and culinary scene for which Barcelona is justly famous.
As soon as I boarded the train I realized that northern Spain was going to be a very different experience than the familiar, slow-paced Andalucian way of life. The northern high-speed rail has more in common with a 1950s airplane journey than it does with Renfe’s slower and more spacious Media-Distancia trains of the south. On these sleeker AVE models, slate gray seats are packed with people, all facing uniformly forward. Neckerchiefed stewardesses offer headphones to watch the American movies playing on the screens overhead, while vested attendants wheel sandwich carts through the aisles. While it took less than three hours to reach our destination, some of the modifications were more odious than others – the bathroom toilet bowls were filled with bright blue liquid that emitted an ineffably bizarre scent, the strong sweet smell of bananas not quite masking the unpleasant stench of sewage lurking underneath it.
I disembarked at the Sants Metro station and was immediately immersed in a brightly colored, multi-lingual crowd. The volume of tourists was unlike anything I’ve experienced anywhere else in Spain. Despite its magnificent cathedral and 12th century Islamic fortress, Jaén is far enough off the beaten path to deter most foreign visitors. Madrid, the other only Spanish city I’ve spent much time in, has its tourist-ridden swathes, particularly within a two-kilometer radius around Plaza del Sol, but it’s easy to strike out and dodge the crowds. Even Andalucian epicenters like Granada or Cordoba offer shaded back streets and secluded bars where you can quietly drink a restorative beer, munch on some morcilla, and get away from it all. Barcelona is a different beast. Having unwittingly arrived at the start of the high season, the city felt under attack; inundated, swamped, and overrun with tourists.
Feeling the need to see some of Gaudi’s acclaimed architecture, I struck out for the Sagrada Familia as soon as I got in, and found that every majestic landmark in Barcelona is encircled by a rank, gaudy hub of commercialism. Each cathedral, museum, and monument is fettered by a battalion of matching baseball caps and flashing cameras, hemmed in by aggressively multilingual vendors hawking everything from churros to flamenco to sangria. This experience characterized most of the first two days I spent traversing the streets of Barcelona.
Despite the sheer, stupefying volume of tourists, the monuments were impressive. The Sagrada Familia looks like it was designed by Cthulu during a particularly ambitious bout of universe upheaval. The monstrously brilliant cathedral looms incongruously in the midst of bustling restaurants and leafy, Parisian-style boulevards, appearing to have been just dredged up from some inky underwater abyss. I also paid a dutiful visit to Park Güell, the famous Gaudi-designed suburban community on Barcelona’s northwestern outskirts. However, a niggling ambivalence permeated my experience of the park’s bejeweled lizards and tortuous walkways. It’s difficult to appreciate something as innovative and playful as Gaudi’s approach to architecture when its unique character is plastered on every magnet and coffee mug, coated with an oily gloss of commercialism, and rammed down your throat. Craning my neck to gaze at up at the mosaic roof of the Seussian guard house, ambling along the earthen columns of the Pòrtic de la Bugadera, and peering over the Plaça de la Natura to soak in an unparalleled view of Barcelona, I felt somewhat cheated. The park was an anomaly. Deliberately, painstakingly designed to be lived in, the community now served as an abandoned stage-set, an empty wooden background pierced only by the constant whir and click of expensive cameras.
The Barri Gotico, Barcelona’s famous old quarter, was similarly unsettling. It was possible to get lost amongst its towering dark allies for minutes at a time, emerging every now and again to witness the erupting ramparts of gothic churches, but every few streets were punctuated with reminders that this too was just for show. English signs for youth hostels decorated doorstops, a slue of bars proudly advertised the atrocious Dutch beer they served on tap, and fluorescent souvenir shops cropped up like weeds. After perambulating all the way down to the delightfully tacky Eurotrash beach-front, I threw in the towel. Stopping in a hostel bar staffed by multilingual American-Spaniards who switched accents and languages as easily as blinking, I gave up on my storied Barcelona dreams, and ordered a Brooklyn Brown Ale, the first dark beer I’d had in two months. Heavy with alcohol, sweeter and more flavorful than any mass-marketed Spanish lager, it was delicious. This was the point at which my experience of Barcelona began to change.
Embarrassingly, I’d forgotten the cardinal rule of European travel, one that apparently has yet to be drilled into my brain after years on the ground in tourist hot spots like Prague and Paris. When you visit somewhere new, don’t do what you think you should do. Abandon the Herculean labor of ticking off every box on a Frommer’s checklist, spending tedious hours in overpriced museums and languishing in the interminable lines that snake tortuously around local landmarks. The necessary first step to fulfilling travel is shrugging off the nagging feeling that you have to do or see specific things in order to make your journey worthwhile. I’ve felt this twinge of traveler’s guilt frequently in the past, a little stab of rueful remorse that pricks me whenever I bypass an archaeology museum or spend a day wandering the streets with no set schedule. However, over time I’ve found that the more I ignore that vexing, misplaced sense of responsibility, the more rewarding my travel tends to be.
As soon as I abandoned the guidebook itinerary, Barcelona had a lot more to offer. I happily spent the next several days doing things that I would have done if I lived in the city year round. The town has a burgeoning craft beer scene, and a trip to BierCAB, a relatively new cervecería that has 30 beers on tap, was just what the doctor ordered after months of Cruzcampo. Sampling a range of home-grown Barcelona fruit ales, American Black IPAs and a deliciously sour Danish cuvée, I remembered precisely why big-city living is so addictive. I was also amused to find that the bartender, a genial bearded man with a high tolerance for foreigners mangling his language, was also from the south. When I explained that I lived in Jaén he let loose a torrent of furious and incomprehensible Spanish, from which I only managed to pluck out the phrases “only one type of beer”, “don’t know anything” and “terrible”. A visit to Fàbrica Moritz, the restaurant and micro-brewery that produces one of Barcelona’s most beloved beers, was similarly rewarding. The original Moritz was an Alsatian immigrant, and the restaurant pays homage to his heritage by melding traditional Spanish cuisine (patatas bravas, jamón Iberico), with typical northern French fare (flammenkuchen, rösti) with mouthwatering results.
Since I am nothing if not an incorrigible glutton, I was likewise captivated by the city’s food markets. Even La Boqueria, an overwhelming, overpriced assault of color and sound, was well worth the visit. In true frugal graduate student fashion I bought nothing of substance except an apple, spending an hour wandering the stalls and gaping at all the purveyors had on offer, from meticulously molded marzipan candy to whole hocks of jamón Iberico. I made up for lost opportunities later that afternoon at Mercado Santa Caterina, only a twenty minute amble from the far more crowded and bustling Boqueria, sampling llaminets and amassing a collection of morcilla, fuet and manchego baixa en sal for a balcony dinner later that night. However, even the cornucopia of Barcelona’s neighborhood mercados could not prepare me for what I stumbled upon at the summit of Parc de Montjuïc. The entire amble from the Para-lel furnicular to the top of the hill was punctuated by whiffs of a scent that smelled tantalizingly like pancakes. When I arrived at the stock medieval market outside the castle gates, I finally identified its source: a stand devoted entirely to churros, sprinkled with cinnamon, rolled in sugar, dipped in chocolate and, most decadently, stuffed with caramel.
And so, my last afternoon in Barcelona, I wandered around the grounds of Montjuïc Castle contentedly festooned with diaphanous strands of escaped caramel, taking in the blinding glare of the sun over the Balearic as I watched freighter ships and passenger planes traverse the long stretch of cerulean water. I paused for a minute before heading back down the hill towards Poble Sec. Gazing north over the spires of the Olympic Park and out across the grandiose sprawl of the city itself, I was filled with a momentary regret that it had taken me so long to settle in and appreciate the all that Barcelona had to offer. However, I took comfort in the realization that even though my first visit got off to an rocky start, my second trip to Barcelona will be even better.