Barcelona Blog: Calling time on Barcelona’s nightlife?

No smoking signThere’s a killer on the loose in Barcelona and its name is the smoking ban. It’s coming for the city’s nightlife.

Barcelona has long had a problem with noise pollution. In the narrow cobbled streets of the Barri Gòtic, where thousands live above bars and clubs, angry residents – desperate for a good night’s sleep – bombard noisy weekend revellers with water bombs, eggs and worse. Now thanks to the smoking ban, neighbours no longer have to wait for closing time or Saturday nights to get in some target practice.

Smokers have nowhere to go but the street for a nicotine fix since the smoking ban came into force on January 2nd. All well and good you may say, if it means you can see your hand in front of your face while you enjoy a drink and your clothes don’t smell like you’ve wiped the ashtrays with them, but are the neighbours quite so happy?

In a country where a reported 29% of the population light up, groups of law-abiding smokers are now going outside for a cigarette. Walk down any street in the city and you’ll see them, puffing away and putting the world to rights while they do it, and therein lies the problem. The sociable Catalans don’t smoke in silence.

In chilly January when windows are firmly closed to keep in the heat, local residents don’t have too much to gripe about. But come the spring, when temperatures start to rise and balcony doors are flung open, the streets are likely to become a battleground between fractious egg-throwing grandmothers in their nighties and the puffing hordes below.

So what will the town hall do about it? In the past they’ve caved in to residents’ demands and closed down bars and clubs that make too much noise – the Raval’s historic dancehall La Paloma being just one example.

Long-suffering bar owners – many of whom are still out of pocket from installing air conditioning and no-smoking areas when legislation was changed in 2005 – can hardly be punished for sending smokers out to the street. But punished they will be if noise complaints close them down or if the Catalans, like the English, decide to stay at home and drink. As has been seen in the UK, bars without customers don’t stay open for long.

From the bohemian hangouts of Gràcia to the modernista masterpieces of the Eixample, where hams hang above the old men sneaking a drop of rum into their early morning coffee, Barcelona boasts a quirky bar on practically every corner. If they are lost, the city council marketing department will have a hard time promoting Barcelona as one of the nightlife capitals of Europe.

My prediction for 2011? A ban on smoking may prove to be more dangerous to the city’s health than the evil weed itself.

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Barcelona Blog: How to not get robbed in Barcelona

We want a decent neighbourhood!! A common sight in areas of Barcelona with lots of noise, pickpockets or prostitutes

Barcelona is a wonderful place to live but the downside is, it’s a den of thieves. Barcelona topped the poll as worst city in the world for pickpockets and the sad truth is, I can’t remember the last time I went out and didn’t see someone chasing after a bag thief or plaintively yelling for the police. Here’s how to avoid it happening to you:

1. Get the airport bus

If you fly to Barcelona, take a cab or the bus from the airport. On the train, thieves only have to pay once to spend the whole day rifling through people’s pockets and thefts are common both at Sants station and on the trains. The bus, which costs around 5 euros is a far safer bet.

2. Don’t carry more than you need

Savvy Barcelona residents empty their pockets before a big night out and you should too. Go to the cashpoint during the day and take only the cash you need when you go out at night. Empty your wallet of everything else – credit cards, photos of loved ones, library card, driving license, whatever – and they’ll be a whole lot less to cry about if the worst happens.

Officially, you’re supposed to carry ID at all times in Barcelona but a photocopy of your passport should suffice if you get stopped by the cops. If you’re out shopping, you’ll need ID to pay by credit card: just be sure to keep it tucked away in a money belt.

3. Pickpockets love tourists

Out in the untouristy suburbs, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a pickpocket but around La Rambla they’re ten a penny. Hot spots include: Carrer dels Escudellers (which runs down one side of Plaza Reial and is also known as ‘scally alley’) Plaza George Orwell, Carrer de la Princesa and Carrer dels Carders in the Born, Carrer de Sant Pau in the Raval and of course, La Rambla. None of these places are no-go areas by any means, but if you’re staggering down Escudellers at 6am, you won’t be short of company as you trip over the empty wallets on your way home.

4. Leave your backpack at home

If you must carry a backpack, wear it on your front where you can see it. The best way to not be a target in the first place is to carry a bag that you can wear across your body so it can’t be pulled off your shoulder. Bags that have zips and secret inner pockets are even better. Never put anything of value in outer pockets and if you really have to walk alone at night, keep your hand over the zip and the bag on an unexposed arm (facing the wall rather than the street).

5. Underground, overground

Bag-snatchers love the metro. Gangs work together in groups and are particularly active around the train doors during the evening rush hour and on the touristy green and yellow lines. One popular method known as the ‘tapon’ involves a member of the gang dropping something in front of the victim and then bending down to pick it up. As people back up behind them, accomplices get busy with everyone’s bags.

6. Be terrace smart

Watch the locals on a restaurant terrace. They don’t leave their bag on an empty chair or their phone on the table and neither should you. If you really must take your bag off your shoulder, keep your valuables on your person and the bag strap tied to your chair or between your feet.

Taxi drivers will tell you that all thieves are Moroccan but don’t be fooled: pickpockets are just as likely to be a group of young girls or a frail old lady. Be on your guard for anyone coming to your table and asking for change – there’s a good chance they’re scoping your stuff. Most of Barcelona’s genuine homeless tend to stay in one spot.

7. Cab it

If you’re drunk as a skunk, don’t even think about walking home or taking the metro: get a cab.

8. Blondes don’t have more fun

It’s not just in the bars and clubs that blondes get all the attention, the pickpockets love you too. Nothing screams tourist more than blonde locks and short of dyeing your hair, there’s not a whole lot you can do. Practise your psycho ‘don’t mess with me’ face and avoid making it worse by not jabbering on your phone in your own language, carrying an expensive camera or gawping too long at your map.

9. Lock it up

On the beach, take as little as you can and never leave your stuff unattended. If you’re travelling alone, ask the nearest friendly-looking group to keep an eye on your things if you go swimming or use the lockers at Platja de Bogatell or Barceloneta (the lockers are underneath Passeig del Maritim not far from the big fish in Barceloneta and on the beach at Bogatell).

10. If you luck out

If the worst happens and you do get robbed, check all the nearby bins. Thieves are just after your valuables and will ditch everything else quickly. It’s worth reporting the incident to the police (especially if you have travel insurance) as sometimes things do get handed in. The Guàrdia Urbana station on the Ramblas (no. 43) is open 24 hours but to save time, you can report the loss online and then nip into the police to sign the form within 72 hours.

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Barcelona streetlife: Carrer Baluard, Barceloneta (Metropolitan)

Barceloneta Market, Barcelona

Carrer del Baluard in Barceloneta is the sort of place you might once have expected to see tattooed sailors lurching out of bars, grubby-aproned fishwives gossiping as they thwacked the heads off merluza and children playing in the street under the watchful eyes of the neighbourhood matriarchs. It’s still a bit like that now.

Even today, there’s a strong feeling of community in this working-class area of fishermen and port workers, despite it having undergone a massive transformation since the city started preparing for the 1992 Olympic Games.

Running parallel to Passeig de Joan de Borbó, C/Baluard cuts through the heart of Barceloneta alongside the fancy new market building in Placa de la Font and on towards the sea.

Pilar Montolio at Can Maño (no.12) – a raucous and popular tapas bar – has seen it all. She grew up among the bubbling pots of home-made stew and frying fish in the kitchen of Can Maño, which once belonged to her grandmother. She now runs the place with husband, Francesco and dad, Bernardo. They serve a regular crowd of old-timers, office workers and tourists. “Barceloneta has changed a lot” she says. “Flats are small here and people move out to get more space. There used to be more locally-owned businesses like this one but now there are Pakistani-owned supermarkets on almost every corner.”

Down the road at Floristería Lola (no.44), Agustina Perez and Carmen Saez are happy with the changes that have been made to the area. “The square is much prettier now and there’s even a Michelin starred restaurant (Els Fogons de la Barceloneta – Placa de la Font)” says Agustina. “But to honest, she continues in a conspiratorial whisper, “I like the food in La Cova Fumada.”

Sardines, La Cova, Fumada, Barcelona

And who doesn’t. Lovers of this spit and sawdust tapas bar at no.56 want desperately to keep it a secret but can’t help enthusing about it. Even Josep María Solé, the owner of La Cova Fumada is happy to keep it hush-hush. The bar has been in the same family for 65 years but they still haven’t got round to getting a sign above the door. His mum (a good but strict boss we’re told) is responsible for churning out plate after plate of succulent sardines, freshly-caught fish and the bar’s signature dish, la bomba. Made from crushed potato and mince meat, the bombas are wrapped in breadcrumbs, deep fried and then smothered in fiery garlic and chilli sauce.

Next door is Comestibles Sant Carles (no.58). A veritable haven for foodies, the airy shop sells healthy food, wine and French and Italian cheeses. Their €6 take-out menú del dia is a big hit with beach-going gourmets.

A few doors down and the waist-expanding continues. New kid on the block, Eike Philipps from Germany owns the organic ice-cream shop, Rosa Canina (no.52). In partnership with his brother Reimar, this tiny Barceloneta shop is the little sister to their two stores in Berlin. Reimar – the Willy Wonker of the operation – makes the ice-cream in Germany and it’s really quite something. Made without milk, preservatives or artificial ingredients, flavours range from rich vanilla to mango lassi and raspberry with basil.

Barceloneta’s market has been around since 1884 although the current building and spacious remodelled Placa de la Font are new. Stall-holders however, have been serving the residents of C/ Baluard for years. Eva Vidal Lladó of the Martinez fish stall loves the new space. “It’s a local market” she says, stopping – as if to prove a point – to greet everyone who passes by name, “although we do get a lot of tourists popping in during the summer.”

Baluard bakery, Barcelona

Across the road from the market is Baluard (no.38). It’s only been open for three years yet many devotees claim it bakes the finest bread in the city. Owned by Anna Bellsola (who trained in Italy and France and has baking in the blood), the shop does a brisk trade in loaves, baguettes, croissants, pastries and cakes. “Bread should taste like bread” insists Anna. “We use good basic ingredients with proper yeast and bake it here on the premises.” It’s definitely not a job for the work-shy. Some of the seventeen strong team start baking at 1am and the shop is open from 8am to 9pm, 6 days a week.

A far cry from bread buns is Creart (no.3), a tattoo and piercing parlour that’s been inking skin for the last nine years. About 90% of the clientele are local and are charged anything from €50 upwards for a tattoo. According to owner Tony Ramallo, piercings aren’t as popular as they used to be but there are still some brave souls who pay good money to have metal put in some (ouch!) very private places.

Iris: objetes de regal esoterisme (no.11) isn’t the kind of place you’re likely to find on Passeig de Gràcia either. Run by a collection of friendly folk, the shop offers courses in tarot card reading, homeopathy, Bach flowers, Reiki, angel workshops and candle magic. Pop in for a browse or a chat and you may be told things you never expected to hear, like your future chances of finding love for example, or the fact that candles talk to you.

Stranger still is the extensive range of dog clothes on sale at Dog in Fashion (no. 68). Owner Rosario Hidalgo has been catering to pampered pooches for the last three years. Dogs of all shapes and sizes come in for a wash, trim and pedicure and while they wait, owners can browse the doggie boutique.

Turn right out of the shop and C/Baluard looks like any other narrow street in Barceloneta. Washing hangs from tiny flats, surfboards and bikes perch precariously on balconies and stern-looking elderly residents smoke in doorways. But 200 metres further on, the street suddenly stops and countless bronzing bodies and the never-ending blue of the Mediterranean are right there in front of you.

First published in Metropolitan magazine, July 2010

C Baluard, Barceloneta

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Barcelona Blog: The last man standing

Start of the race

This week, Barcelona has been playing host to the European Athletics Championships. The men’s marathon was passing right outside my window this morning and despite not knowing a jot about any of the athletes, I popped outside to cheer them on.

With the start and finish line two minutes from my door in Passeig de Picasso, the athletes had to run four 10km laps of the city, taking in Arc de Triomf, Gaudi’s Batlló and the soon to be defunct Monumental bullring along the way.

The route was clearly devised by a sadist. Not only was the race scheduled to finish at midday in 30 degree heat but as the circuit looped round Parc Ciutadella for the final time, the runners came within metres of the finish line, only for the route to whisk them off yet again along the seafront.

If sadists dreamt up the route then only masochists were running it. Catalans flee Barcelona in August. Fierce temperatures and even higher humidity make anything other than lolling in the shade very unpleasant indeed. Running 26 miles in such conditions doesn’t even bear thinking about.

I missed Viktor Röthlin romping home to victory for Switzerland and José Manuel Martínez taking silver for Spain (I somehow managed to end up behind a tree and a grandstand) but I eventually found a good spot from where I could cheer on the rest.

Barcelona had come out in force to cheer on the athletes and there were big crowds at the finish line. Everyone that made it to the end got warm applause but none more so than Andorra’s Alan Manchado Vila.

A good twenty minutes after Röthlin crossed the finishing line, a cheer came up from my left. Thousands of heads turned to see Manchado, in last place and with several kilometres still to go, run round the corner. We watched in horror as he made the fatal mistake of looking over forlornly at the finish line. It was too much for the man. He pulled up to a stop with the ambulance staff and race officials primed and ready to scoop him up. But the crowd weren’t having it. As the poor man gasped for breath, head in hands, the applause got louder and louder. There were shouts of ‘Vamos!’, ‘Allez!’ and ‘Keep Going!’ The race officials hovered and looked at their watches. Manchado looked hesitant and then started walking. The crowd went wild.

Alan Manchado Vila finishes race

As the last few stragglers crossed the finish line, we had no idea if our man from Andorra was going to make it. Some people wandered off but the vast majority stayed put. There was a man still out there on the course and he deserved to be cheered home. We waited. And waited. A full 57 minutes after Röthlin, we saw the lights of the back-up ambulance and the nodding head of Alan Manchado Vila. He was running again and a crowd of well-wishers had sneaked onto the course to run along with him. To deafening cheers, arguably louder than for those of the winners, he rounded the final corner, applauding the crowd right back as he did so. 19 men never made it to the finish but he did. It was a wonderful moment and proof that sometimes, it really isn’t the winning but the taking part that counts.

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Barcelona Blog: Barcelona, can you fix it? Yes we can!

Clothes repaired here, Barcelona

I’m the sort of person that doesn’t function too well of a morning. Ideally in my world, there should be sort of central locking device on all hot, sharp or dangerous household objects that doesn’t spring open until I’ve had at least three cups of strong coffee.

Last week I attempted to iron a delicate shirt before work and failed to notice in my befuddled state that I had the iron on the linen setting and that the shirt was literally melting before my very eyes.

Back in England I would have had a slight tantrum and thrown it in the bin. In an age of £5 supermarket toasters and clothes that cost less than a cappuccino, nobody bothers to get anything fixed, darned or fiddled about with anymore but here in Barcelona, the city is full of tiny hidden shops that do just that.

A few years ago the strap on my leather bag broke and after chatting to a helpful pensioner in the street in Gràcia, I was directed to a secret doorway I’d walked past a million times before and never noticed. From a handwritten sign on the door I learnt that it was open for a grand total of 2 hours a day (closed all day on Tuesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, throughout August and on national holidays) and even then they only opened if they really felt like it.

Once I’d squeezed myself past an army of old ladies buying buttons and oddments, I found a dusty old shop that looked as if it hadn’t changed for hundreds of years. Ikea it was not. From behind a long wooden counter, the staff delved about in row upon row of drawers, filled with buckles, fasteners and other bits and bobs. For the old-fashioned price of €2.50, my bag was returned to its former glory by a man who must have been getting on a bit when the Spanish Civil War kicked off. It was a delight.

Sant Pere, Barcelona

With this in mind, last week I scoured my new neighbourhood for someone who could resurrect my shirt. I found Teresa, a plump lady with a wicked smile who works out of the back of a dishevelled shop in Sant Pere. Without so much as a raised eyebrow at my ironing capabilities, she produced pins from a little pin cushion worn on a Velcro strap around her wrist, devised a couple of clever tucks and promised to have it back to me the next day in exchange for €3. True to her word, there it was the following day, good as new. Clearly having deduced that I was a woman prone to pre-noon calamities, she gave me a wink and told me to pop in whenever I needed her.

Call me old-fashioned but I love these quirky little shops that lurk in Barcelona’s backstreets. I like a good counter and parcels tied with string. I feel exotic wandering past the tobacconists with a bread stick tucked under my arm. I think more men should wear aprons. And if you’re interesting in learning a language, there’s really nothing better than a good morning’s haggle at the market.

We sell hats, but only for uniforms mind

Thanks to rent control, Barcelona’s property developers will have a long wait to get rid of some these antiquated old ‘ma and pa’ stores. Primark may have opened its first shop here but for now the Catalans seem quite content with fixing what they already have rather than getting their hands on mountains more stuff. Happy as I am to have somewhere to buy cheap socks, I hope Teresa and those like her stay in business for many years to come. I fear I may need them.

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Barcelona Blog: Bad hair in Barcelona

 My hair doesn’t like Barcelona. It never has. I spend a fortune getting it cut. In England it looks like a million dollars. After 5 minutes of being outside in Barcelona I look like I’ve just been locked in a cupboard for the night with a victorious rugby squad. In less humid, sweaty climes with better water, I straighten my hair and it stays straight all day. Here, the humidity turns it into a wavy mop that birds could live in. Even as I write, I’m sporting a flick with undulating side bits worthy of a photo in a hairdressing salon window cerca 1977. It gets even worse at the beach.

Oh darn it, it’s easier with pictures. So here’s how it should look on the left:

Barcelona blog: good hair day

And this is it in the middle in Barcelona. Check out my waves:

Barcelona blog: bad hair

I once yearbooked myself  for a laugh and several Catalan friends believed I really looked like this back in the day. I hung my head and semi-curly locks in shame (the perm is not real folks):

I quite clearly have English hair. It’s not suited to hot humid weather. It wants to feel the wind in it. It has the texture of baby bird feathers. I don’t think it wants to behave badly; it was just given too easy a start in life in cloudy England and is having trouble adapting.

Still. It’s not all bad. My feet are very happy to be back in flip-flops and a diet consisting entirely of bread and olives rather than Dairy Milk and Chicken Tikka Massala is doing wonders for my figure. Until the winter I shall just have to wear hats, look on enviously at others’ thick glossy locks and pray for rain.

 

For more thoughts on Barcelona hair (mullets to be precise), go here, although you’ll need to be patient, it’s an old-fashioned cut out and keep scan.

If you’re a hairdresser who can help with free product samples, sponsorship or tea and sympathy, feel free to get in touch.

If you have a body part that doesn’t suit where you live, leave your ‘clean enough for my mum to read’ comments below.

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Barcelona blog: Benvinguts!

Barcelona modernista chemist

Barcelona: It’s been a while, but I’m back. I spent 4 years in this great city before an aching heart and itchy feet took me to the big mountain ranges and red wine of Chile. After a year in the shadow of the Andes, I returned to European shores in January to be met by a gregarious Scottish customs official, heavy snow and comforting roast dinners. I dallied for a while in Windsor (living round the corner from the Queen) before fate and a temporary contract at a magazine brought me back to the Catalan capital. Barcelona sure is one hell of a magnet.

Not much has changed. The streets and houses are still being noisily drilled. Old ladies still dye their hair burgundy. Little shops that sell nothing but coat hangers, door knockers or shower curtains are holding their own against the giant shopping malls. People are still smoking like chimneys and wearing too cool for school specs. Kids eat giant croissants in the street at 6pm. Women clean the same rectangular shaped patches of pavement in front of their buildings, swivelling their mops dry between two hands as if trying to start a fire. And tourists, prostitutes and bag-snatchers still rule the roost on La Rambla, with not a Catalan in sight until the clubs chuck out at 6am.

Barcelona

Barcelona’s streets are just as filthy as they once were, despite being washed day and night by an army of cleaners who wilfully hose you down when you’re wearing flip-flops. And that’s all some people wear. I’d forgotten about the naked men. I caught a glimpse of one them taking a stroll by the marina the other day, but sadly it wasn’t the guy with the tattooed speedos.

Nothing has changed on the beach either. Women whip their tops off without a moment’s hesitation, while South American men, unused to such pleasures at home, can be easily recognised by their propensity for wearing dark glasses and lying on their fronts.

Prices have shot up while I’ve been away but the bars and restaurants are still full and somehow people seem to manage. Unlike in Chile, there’s a large middle class here. The rich aren’t as well off as the wealthiest Chileans but there’s not the grinding poverty either. No one can afford to buy a flat so the theory goes that you might as well accept it and go out and have fun.

Barceloneta beach, Barcelona

One thing I never liked about Barcelona was that people didn’t smile much. It took me ages to get this, but people here just don’t feel the need to grin like fools at strangers. It can smart when you smile at someone’s cute baby or happy dog and the owner scowls back, but that’s just the way it is here and you best get used to it if you’re going to stick around. It’s simply too darn hot to be warm and fuzzy all the time and Catalans don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves – at least not unless FC Barça are playing.

As a city, Barcelona shows you affection in the same way my dad does. It doesn’t scoop you up into a big, slightly suffocating bear hug like South America would. There’s no firm English handshake and a fight to buy a round. In Barcelona you just get the equivalent of one of my dad’s shoulder squeezes and a self-consciously mumbled “aye, yer not so bad lass”.

I’ve missed it.

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