I feel compelled to mention that I was only graced with my experience in Barcelona thanks to an apparent misfortune that, at the time, caused me considerable suffering and inconvenience. My original plan for the trip was to visit the city with two friends I shared a small beach house with in the typically Spanish fishing village of El Palo in the outskirts of the Andalusian city of Málaga.
Soon after our flight reservations were made, however, I suffered a severe ankle sprain that put me into a hard cast for fifteen days. As the appointed date drew closer, it became increasingly obvious I would either have to cancel my traveling plans or be stubborn enough to drag myself around Barcelona on my impractical muletas (crutches), which made terrestrial motion a very slow, painful, patience-testing ordeal.
Unbeknownst to me, the injury was all part of a larger plan. Its real purpose would begin to crystallize when my friend and then-colleague Jasper suggested I postpone the trip and travel to Barcelona with him in June. Jasper had been there several years before and liked the idea of visiting again. Now that I had a traveling partner (and a guide), I had a plan; by June my ankle would be healed and nothing would hold me back from enjoying Barcelona's fabled charm.
From Andalucía to Cataluña
After an easy day at work I pedal home along Málaga's sunny paseo marítimo (seafront promenade), guiding my bike through joggers, dog-walkers and families out for a pleasant walk alongside the Mediterranean. I have my earphones in, and the relaxing grooves along with the warm glow of the sun on my shoulders (I've taken off my shirt as plenty of men do in Málaga when it's hot out) makes for a profoundly satisfying ride.
As I near my small one-story house in the suburb of El Palo, the enticing aroma of fresh sardines makes my mouth water; they're cooking in boat-shaped wood burning barbecues sitting in the beach sand. Old men who expertly maintain their fires at exactly the right intensity tend the barbecues and shout out enticing descriptions of the food they're cooking to would-be customers. It's a beautiful day and the sidewalk cafés are packed with people eating, drinking, and, most importantly, socializing. Spaniards love to talk, and they do it well – preferably over a glass of wine and numerous tapas (small portions of food). Standing on my pedals, I sneak a few envious glances at plates of serrano ham and boquerones fritos (fried European anchovy; Málaga's favorite dish).
At home, I throw a few last items into my travel bag, shower, and hop on the bus for the short ride to Jasper's place in the bordering neighborhood of Pedregalejo. This part of the city, notoriously painstaking to pronounce for foreigners and locals alike and more often referred to as Pedrega, was once a quaint fishing village much like El Palo but has since reinvented itself as the center of all that is cool and progressive in Málaga. Its own paseo marítimo, nothing like its larger counterpart downtown, attracts people from young and old to those sporting dreadlocks and those in pale pink polo's. Lined with trendy restaurants and cafés that host lively gatherings late into the night, the Pedregalejo boardwalk is one of the best places to hang out in Málaga, whether it be for relaxation or fun.
Jasper's apartment is a couple blocks from the boardwalk; a student flat he's managed to bundle into a great deal for a Spanish course at a nearby language school (Pedregalejo and El Palo are crawling with them). It's got the impersonal and carefree feel of a rental property near the beach, but not too much emphasis on décor is called for in a place where all the action takes place outside. My friend and I relax and drift into lighthearted conversation as we watch life take place outside the window in simple, happy Málaga.
An hour later we're downtown in the city's bustling historic district, standing in front of a hole in the wall enjoying delicious Turkish kebabs. The kebab phenomenon has become enormously popular in Spain lately; kebab joints can basically be found on every corner. But you have to develop a discriminating eye for the original Turkish kebab – and that's not nearly as easy to come by (I'm only aware of two places in Málaga where you can get one). Most often what you run across is a Moroccan version, which may seem decent until you try the real thing.
My friend and I finish our meal and zigzag, our large backpacks bobbing behind us, through the afternoon crowd on Larios street; Málaga's busiest pedestrian boulevard perpetually buzzing with activity. The train station is only a ten-minute walk away and in no time we've caught the appropriate line, arrived at our stop and are strolling across the bridge over the A-7 highway into the airport to catch our flight.
It's dark out when we land in Barcelona, and we head straight for a bus to take us to the city's most famous street: Las Ramblas. The ride over is pleasant; wide avenues, a smooth and steady flow of traffic, glowing fountains and monuments here and there… my first impression of Barcelona is of a large city with a surprising sense of calm and grace. Being June, the nighttime temperature is perfect and the large bus windows are cracked open, letting in a pleasant summer breeze that hints at the nearby sea.
Already, the change from unpresumptuous, unrefined Málaga to cosmopolitan, subdued Barcelona is refreshing. Málaga's often-messy appearance, loud and bustling atmosphere, and take-nothing-seriously attitude contrasts strikingly with Barcelona's elegance, harmony, and good manners. I don't consider either one to be better (despite its imperfections – or perhaps partly because of them – Málaga is infinitely lovable), but they're certainly different and I enjoy the change of scenery.
By the time we're navigating Las Ramblas on the way to our hostel it's past eleven and Jasper and I debate whether to go out for drinks or just a take sightseeing walk after checking in. All around us are street performers made up as statues and outlandish characters that come to life when you drop a coin into their tip jar. It's Thursday and plenty of people are out tonight. I like crowds but what really appeals to me about this crowd is that the more I look, the more variety I see. People of different races, cultures, languages… everyone sharing this experience together. It's exciting and stimulating to form part of such a diverse atmosphere and I begin to understand what makes Barcelona so special.
As we make our way to our destination, I'm offered at least five different kinds of drugs. That's not surprising; as a young American tourist (a label that doesn't quite describe me but fits my immediate appearance) I'm a prime target for drug dealers. Having lived in Madrid I'm not taken aback either by the number of prostitutes who quite openly offer sex on the boardwalk. But my time in Málaga – where they've been relegated to an industrial complex outside of town – has made me forgetful of some basic rules, and I've committed the mistake of sustaining eye contact with one of them.
The beautiful girl, who looks African and is probably in her early twenties, approaches me with a knowing smile. Under normal circumstances – that is, if money and mafia weren't involved – I would be all ears. But she won't accept my polite declines, and her insistence goes conspicuously unnoticed by two policemen who walk by looking the other way. That's how prostitution is here in Spain; technically illegal but highly tolerated in practice. When I tell her she's a real woman – something I know she doesn't want to hear but is heartfelt – she stares at me indignantly for a moment and then walks away.
What does catch me off guard about the vices on offer here tonight are the four or five times I'm pitched black market beer in bright red cans I've never seen before. I understand why they sell it; you can't buy alcohol past ten here unless you're at a bar or club. But still – a black market for alcohol in Spain? It seems strange. You can tell we're in Barcelona; perhaps the country's most un-Spanish city, unique unto its own.
Though it may be hard to believe, Las Ramblas doesn't emanate seediness despite the ample offerings of alcohol, drugs and sex. These elements simply blend into the dynamic and multifaceted environment of the famous boardwalk. Gawking tourists such as myself, natives out for a walk, flamboyant street performers, kiosk owners, drug dealers, police, prostitutes… they're all just pieces in a larger mosaic. And they all seem to be getting along surprisingly well.
Our hostel is just off the iconic street in Plaça Reial. It seems more like a social club than anything else with its large, crowded lobby full of music, laughter, and loud conversation. As I wait in line to check in Jasper orders a beer at the bar and strikes up a conversation with the bartender, whose tip jar announces she's saving up for a Brazilian Bikini Wax. Upstairs, we share a room with eighteen other beds, but everything is clean, modern, and spacious.
While we change out of our shorts and flip-flops into something more fit for going out and stash our bags in two sturdy electronic safes, I take in the view out of the room's imposing French doors. People are gathered on a small balcony enjoying the sights while they talk, drink, and smoke. The Gothic square stretches out below them, a beautiful nighttime sight with its Gaudí lampposts and illuminated palm trees. Jasper's stayed here before, and I remember him mentioning back when we made our reservations that the hostel is located in Barcelona's Barri Gótic, or Gothic Quarter.
A certain magic in the air I've been noticing since the bus ride from the airport begins to gain momentum. I don't know if it's just my imagination or if everyone else is feeling it too, but I'm suddenly overcome by the feeling that I'm in exactly at the right place at exactly the right time in exactly the right circumstances. For the first time in a long time, I'm neither remembering nor expecting anything; everything is perfect just how it is. Nothing needs to be different. Jasper suggests we just head out for a walk instead of getting into any nightlife, and in my present state I couldn't agree more. Loud music and flashing lights just don't fit the mood tonight.
As my friend and I stroll out into the illuminated streets of Barcelona, something tells me this trip is going to be special. We don't know it yet, but we'll both look back on the weekend ahead as one of the most unforgettable trips of our lives. And despite its calm beginning, what's in store for us is a totally unexpected and amusing blend of experiences one can only describe as completely disconnected, chaotic, and yet somehow, perfect.
An unknown lesson… learned
It's hard to describe the positive effect this trip had on Jasper and me. It's as if our ability to take things seriously gradually eroded through a series of events so exaggeratedly ridiculous that our normal mode of perception was suspended altogether; at which point everything became a comic book-like parody of life with no need for meaning and thus no real stakes at play. Nothing could go wrong because we had the overwhelming sensation that everything was part of some kind of comical, unfolding circus production with us as the unwitting and dumbfounded protagonists.
We survived an elevator breakdown with a bunch of jumping, drunk partiers who wouldn't even calm down as two fire trucks came screaming down the street to rescue us, making a huge scene. Jasper found himself chasing down a purse-snatcher on the beach at three in the morning with his pants around his ankles after a romantic encounter with a beautiful Canadian girl gone wrong. And to top it all off, on our last day we were kindly escorted out of our hostel by a raging employee who literally kicked us down the stairs and out into the street (think twice before saying "Go with God" in Dutch to a Moroccan; the sound of it must closely resemble a terrible insult in Darija).
But it's not the experiences in and of themselves that really mattered in the end. It's what we learned from them, though I could probably never completely explain what that is. Nevertheless, I think I speak truly when I say that, as Jasper and I buckled up for our flight back to beloved Málaga, we both felt some change had come over us. While our eventual return to daily life would in many ways pull us back into our customary ways of experiencing life, we wouldn't forget the powerful lesson that things need not always be taken so seriously – that the ability to relate to life playfully is an important aspect of a happy existence. This is certainly a lesson Spaniards have learned well, and I think their willingness to hold relationships and the enjoyment of life as almost sacred is at the center of their warm, inviting culture.
By Patrick Collins from UniSpain
UniSpain is a language course booking agency based in Málaga, Spain that offers discounted rates on Spanish courses at universities and language schools as well as accommodation throughout Spain.