While Marina and I are away for the week, we’ve turned over the blog to veteran Notes from Spain contributor and guest blogger Gary Child, who was recently let loose for a fortnight in Barcelona. In this final instalment, how to survive in Barcelona…
Mr. Sinatra’s most famous offering begins with the lyric, “And now, the end is near…”, and so it is for me. I have just finished my last intercambio of the fortnight and there is one grammar session and two conversation classes between me and the flight home.
The fortnight has flown by and “…regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again too few to mention…”.
But I will anyway. I booked the course which included a fiesta and so lost a day’s tuition. No biggy. The thing I did that I won’t do when I repeat the experience is to book so many intercambios. Two a day is wa-a-a-ay too many when added to three ninety minute classes. No, next time, the standard course of two sessions in the morning and probably three intercambios in each week will be enough. You get all Spanished out.
But “…I did what I had to do, and saw it through without exemption…”, thank God I had two cancellations.
Of the seven people that I have met there are two with whom I have an arrangement to meet for a drink and a chat at New Year when I’m back in town with my beloved. Strictly social though, no classes and no formal intercambio.
I love Barcelona and I have been here often enough now that I feel no compunction to traipse round all the usual tourist gaffs unless there is someone with me that necessitates ‘tour guide’ mode. I have always tried to do something on every visit that I haven’t done before. This time it was to be a visit to Tibidabo, but with all the intercambios I just couldn’t face the hassle. Maybe next time, maybe not.
I stay in a shared flat with a charming English lady to whom I was introduced via the language school. I have also stayed with her on weekend breaks with my son, and though student accommodation may not be appropriate when traveling with Mrs C, we will make a point of calling in when we are in town. It has become a home from home, a pied-a-terre in BCN, and it is sufficient for me that I come and live in the community for a couple of weeks, learn a bit and relax a lot.
I suppose it must fall upon me to write a little about the city at the end of this series.
If you’ve never been then do make the effort. It has taken me the best part of five years of visiting a couple of times or more a year to get round all there is to see and, as no series of articles on the web would be complete without a list of dos and don’ts here’s mine:
DO make use of the public transport system. Frankly, I cant imagine anywhere that is better organised. The Metro is awesome and runs like clockwork, added to this is a comprehensive network of buses and local trains to the Costa Brava and Costa Dorada. There are funicular railways, chair lifts and a cable car and with the exception of the latter two, within the city limits, one ticket fits all.
I usually buy a T10 – 10 rides for just under €7 – that’s 50p a ride to you – Boris take note. Further, the price is per journey so if you get off the Metro and catch a bus to continue your journey the system knows and only charges you once. Fantastic, If transport was like this in my home town I’d sell the cars.
For those that can remember the old white bicycle thing in the 60’s whereby if you came upon a white bike in the street you could purloin it, ride it and leave it for somebody else to use when you’d done, there’s Bicing (pronounced Bee-thing).
Not really for tourists, this – you set up an account on the internet and you get a card. You swipe the card at the Bicing station and take a bike for which you are charged a pittance until you drop it off at any other Bicing station. More and more of these are cropping up and they seem very popular. Barcelona is a city built on a hill and on a sunny day many bikes are ridden downhill to the beach but folk prefer to take the metro home. No matter, good for the planet. (sigh!)
I reckon for a tourist to take one of these bikes out on Barcelona’s streets would be on a par with crocodile wrestling and free fall parachuting – check your travel insurance carefully.
DO make a point of seeing the Magic Fountains. For those that can remember the TV series the Persuaders – this is the fountain in the title sequence with Tony Christie singing “Avenues and Alleyways”. It never fails to entertain and its not often you get the chance to see a crowd of thousands applauding coloured water. Strange but true.
DO extend your vocabulary by trying things on the menu about which you have no idea – nothing is poisonous and some things are remarkably good. I discovered the Catalan word for sea snails in this way. Yes, I ate them all. I was dining with an Austrian bloke I’d met at the language school and didn’t want to let the side down, maybe it’ll be a while before I have them again.
DO remember that no one goes out much before 10pm to eat or for a drink. This can be hard to get the hang of, but try to have a light snack about 5pm to put you on. Once you get into the habit of eating so late it’s a dog to break once you get back to the UK.
DO make a point of finding Plaça San Felipe Nuri. Amongst all the bustle of Barcelona this tiny square is a haven of peace and tranquility. Round the church door great chunks of masonry have been removed either by bullets or shrapnel, it depends which version of the story you believe. The politically correct story is that a bomb dropped in the square during the civil war, the other story is that locals were taken into the square and executed with machine guns. The concentration of the zone of fire seems to me to support the latter but who am I to say, CSI I ain’t. The atmosphere in the square is very intense. Beware, the coffee shop belongs to the 4 star hotel and is un poco caro.
DO try to find Los Quatre Gatos. Walk down Portal del Angels from El Corte Inglés in Plaça Catalunya. There’s an alley on the left before the Bicing station somewhere. It is well worth a visit, like stepping back in time. I recommend the menu del día. Dress reasonably well and don’t take any truck when the Maitre D’ tries to sit you in the bar area. Gently insist that you would like to sit in the main sala. This is as close as you’re ever likely to get to Picasso – it was one of his favourite haunts.
DO explore the back streets of Barceloneta. The front drag next to Port Vell is set up to take the money from tourists. Real people live real lives in Barceloneta and the multitude of bars and restaurants is a testimony to this. La marcha is good here. My particular favourite is Maians on Carrer Carles.
DO enjoy la marcha but remember that nobody loves a borrach@ – especially the Mossos. These are the local, Catalan police. They are a youthful, particularly good looking squad of enthusiastic young officers. By and large they are helpful and charming but if you find yourself on the wrong side of them back off sharpish as their youthful exuberance is likely to lead you to biting off more than you can chew, and chewing may be difficult without your front teeth…
Do visit the Boquería – the market half way up Las Ramblas. Marvel at how bright and shiny the fruit is and the breadth of varieties there are. Hover around the sweet stall looking hesitant and they will ask you if you want to try some. Tour the fish market – no need to ask if is fresh, most of it is still wriggling, snapping and gawping like a silent choir.
DO take pot luck and explore one of the barrios away from the tourist traps, Eixample is a safe, well heeled area with many cafes and bars and a stroll up Avenida De Gaudi from La Sagrada Familia to Hospital de San Pau passes a pleasant hour, Gracia is good too.
DON’T wear your “Mug me, I’m a guiri” uniform. I have never had any trouble but better safe than sorry. First, when you reclaim your baggage take off the baggage handling label that was put on at check-in, it says “I have just arrived and may be a little less than orientated”. Wearing the classic guiri attire of beanie, shirt and shorts complete with sunburn, socks and sandals does mark one out somewhat. Ask yourself, if you went to London, who dresses like that? The Americans used to when they could afford to come and it marked them out for the unscrupulous as easy to over charge and rip off. Decide for yourself…
DON’T carry your wallet in your back jeans pocket. If you don’t know why, go to the Video Shop, rent a copy of Oliver and fast forward to the scene where Dodger takes Oliver back to Fagin’s den. Not quite as prevalent as Madrid but they’re there, looking for the easy mark. Beware, ladies, of slinging your bags over the backs of chairs and ten cuidado if anyone approaches you in a group with a map looking for directions…
DON’T be tempted to walk home if you’re out after the Metro and the buses are shut down. Like any other big city there are small areas in which you might feel uncomfortable. For me these are few and far between – coming from one of the less salubrious barrios of Leeds, I have never felt particularly threatened – but I have been with friends that were a little jumpy on occasions There are tons of taxi’s in Barcelona and I have never paid more than €6 for any ride, ever – so get one, its almost as cheap as the Metro if there are four of you and, of course, they run door to door.
DON’T cross the eight lane roads anywhere except at the crossings, the locals don’t and they have loads of time to practice. This is good advice even on the piddly side streets. Remember that traffic turning into the road you are crossing can go if no one is using the crossing, there is a flashing amber light to tell them this, and it can be confusing at first for pedestrians. But, when the green man is lit, walk and they will wait for you. Continually tell yourself to look the other way for the traffic – especially after a few drinks.
DON’T walk anywhere uphill in the heat and humidity, get the bus or Metro. By all means stroll down the hill back. Parc Guell is very nice…
DON’T get duped when buying a beer on Las Ramblas. You say, “Una cerveza.” He says “¿Grande?” and you nod. The bloody thing will be a three litre stein like a bucket when it comes and cost the best part of £20. Buyer beware. Best order a caña, and if you want more order another – at least it wont get warm that way.
DON’T dally watching the blokes playing the game with three shells and a pea, or any other variation of same, and certainly don’t make a bet. This is usually a blind for pickpockets. Beware, also, when watching the street entertainers, they are making a living but the pickpockets aren’t fussy.
DON’T buy the cardboard cutouts of the Simpsons that dance to the music… it’s a con, come on, wise-up…
DON’T pay over a tenner to go inside the Sagrada Familia and up the lift for the view. There are building sites all over Barcelona you can see for free and if you want a view of the city go on the funicular railway from Paral-lel up to Monjuic, the price of the ride is included in your ten run ticket. Better to walk round the back of the church (the newer bit) sit and have a beer and look at the building from there. It really is remarkable.
DON’T go to Starbucks unless you have a very good reason, the coffee is better and cheaper almost everywhere else. Mind, the Starbucks on Muntanner/Tevasseria de Gracia is permitted. Not for the coffee – for an intercambio – its quiet, empty, and has aircon.
To continue the Sinatra theme “…and so I face the final curtain…”.
Here’s hoping you’ve enjoyed my letters from BCN. I’ve had a great fortnight, met some lovely people and learnt a great deal. What was hard this time last year seems easy-peasy now, but there are more challenges.
I would encourage you to have a go if you are tempted but I have deliberately refrained from recommending a school or giving details in case anyone follows in my footsteps and is disappointed. You need to do the lot from scratch, do the research, book the flights and the accommodation to get the the most out of the experience.
I did, but then (I can’t resist)…
“…I did it my wa-a-a-y”
(Mr Sinatra has left the building)
When not living it up in Barcelona, Gary Child works on great Free educational resources for the Primary classroom.