48 hours in Barcelona

I spent most of last week in Catalonia, the first few days rather wonderfully in the country near Banyoles (about which I’ll be writing very soon) and the last two in Barcelona. I don’t know how large the real city of Barcelona is, the city where people live and work and conduct their daily business, but the part of it that gets visited – the old city, the area to each side of La Rambla, the Boqueria, the Picasso museum, the port – is soon covered. Indeed, although this may seem parochial and Anglocentric, we found ourselves returning, over and over again, in what began to feel like wilful homage, to Placa de George Orwell, a neatly paved area slipped in among the streets of the old city, lined like everywhere else with bars and various other eating opportunities, from traditional three-course meals to macrobiotic platters, with the usual range of bocadillos de jamon and tapas in between. The square, which is actually a triangle, hosts at its entrance – if you’re coming from La Rambla – a large modernistic sculpture, a twist of iron rising high above the heads of passers-by, at the apex of which is threaded a massive wooden ball, a nicely dialectic interplay of what the world has to offer, as both material and form, and, unlike much modern sub-Serra sculpture, not even an eyesore. It’s a triangle that seems to attract more than its fair share of dropouts, people who, at what must be considerable cost, have turned their backs on the rest of us, with our mobiles and guidebooks, and take their comfort from the company of large, scuffed, infinitely patient dogs and, to a lesser degree, from one another until a scuffle breaks out. Orwell, if he felt at home anywhere, would surely never have felt at home here, among this colony of winos and worse, with their elaborate skin-obliterating ‘tribal’ tattoos and white-boy dreadlocks. Down and out was for Paris and London; Catalonia was, or should have been, for sterner homage-worthy stuff. In fact, much as I like the city and enjoy what it has to offer, not least the best sandwich in the world (Café Viena, La Rambla del Estudis 115), there’s something about the Barcelona that’s on show that leaves me unconvinced, in the same way that Covent Garden and parts of Trastevere do; as though the transgression that ought to stand for creativity doesn’t go much beyond the litany of living statues along the main tourist drag, which briefly startle, and then amuse, and then seem tawdry and dispiriting, part of a world in which work can be reduced to stifling immobility on the off-chance of a handful of coins in a hat. I started this year in Madrid, a city that struck me as being more or less what a city should be, busily about the infinite variety of its own affairs, absorbing the transient rest of us without much fuss. The part of Barcelona that’s available to tourists has a different feel to it, like a naughtily disrespectful child on the look-out for attention. It’s no surprise that the artists this side of the city seems most proud of – or most eager to transform into souvenirs – are Gaudi and Dali, masters of the unfinished and the showy.

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