Sunday, 20 August 2017

Travel tales: being in the right place at the right time

The recent atrocity in Barcelona reminded me of this piece I wrote several months back, which never got published. I've decided to share it now to show Barcelona - and Las Ramblas specifically - in its best light, both for those who know and love the city, and for those who've never been. Unfortunately, all photos of this particular experience were on the phone I had stolen a few months ago, so you'll have to make do of these snaps, which show the beauty of Barcelona as a whole.

One of my favourite things about travel is the serendipity of it – the being in the right place at the right time to experience a local festival or occasion. In May 2015, I experienced just that.

It was a Monday night, our last night of a long weekend in Barcelona, and to celebrate, we were heading to Arenas for dinner. Arenas, which I had discovered on my trip to Barca the previous year, is a shopping centre next to the Placa d'Espanya roundabout where several of the city's artery roads meet. The building itself is a former bull fighting ring, restored and renovated in around 2008. Its rotund shape, uniform arch windows and intricate brickwork entrance mark it out as something special against the neighbouring mundane office buildings.

The shopping centre’s decent – ideal in fact, if you’re seeking air conditioning or a free public toilet – but nothing special. What is worth a trip is the viewing gallery on the roof. Pay a Euro to the nice man sitting next to the lift by the Metro station and he’ll let you ride in his lift all the way up to the eighth floor, where a 360 degree of Barcelona awaits, courtesy of the open air viewing gallery. The centre of the roof is taken up by a plethora of bars and restaurants, each facing a different direction.

The view from the top, looking south (ish)
I genuinely believe it’s one of the best kept secrets in Barcelona – sure, locals know about it, but it just doesn’t seem to register on the tourist radar. It's rarely mentioned in tourist guides and listicles. Well, you’re hearing it now; skip the cable car and head here instead. It’s a lot cheaper and offers better views over Barcelona and up to Tibidabo beyond.

I digress. This night in May 2015 we did a lap of the viewing gallery before settling on a French brasserie for dinner. The meal passed pleasantly, without a hitch, and we managed to time our departure from the restaurant to coincide with sunset – cue another lap of the viewing gallery in different light. Standing in the southwest section of the roof, overlooking the roundabout – which is a lot sexier than it sounds, this being Barcelona not Croydon – a huge row erupted on the ground a few storeys below us.

Car and motorbike horns were tooting and bipping, even the buses were getting involved. There was no traffic jam though, and this was no angry tooting (I can’t imagine the serene Catalunans doing anything as aggressive as road rage, can you?), but rather rhythmic, celebratory tooting. My rusty Spanish and excellent earwigging allowed me to infer from the gentleman leaming over the railings next to me that it was something to do with football.

Parc de la Ciutadella, in another part of the city. 
We shrugged it off as football fan jubilance at Spain winning a match and thought no more of it as we hopped on the Metro back to the centre of town, emerging at Placa de Catalunya into what can only be described as a joyous cacophony. There were people pouring everywhere, leaving us in little doubt that something special was going on. The sea of football shirts confirmed to us that sport had something to do with it. But they weren’t Spanish national team shirts - they were Barcelona shirts.

By this time it was close to 11pm on a Monday night, and yet families kept emerging, parents with 2, 3, 4 kids in tow, all elated and all wanting to join in the celebration. It was a spectacular scene to witness anyway, but what made it all the more remarkable was the contrast to what we’re used to. In England, most parents would go out of their way to keep their children out of a crowd of football fans – even fans who were celebrating a win – for fear of the alcohol-induced violence that would undoubtedly rear its head.

Here, they were actively bringing their children into the crowd with them, putting them on their shoulders to give them a closer look, buying them flags to wave and party tooters to toot. The few police that we saw, too, were very different to what we’re used to in football crowds- not a riot shield in sight, and they were put to more use giving directions to lost tourists than they were dealing with any trouble.

For almost two hours we sat on a bench in Placa de Catalunya, Barcelona’s equivalent of Trafalgar Square, watching in awe as people poured onto Las Ramblas from all over the city. They were still arriving by the time we left – presumably word got out about the impromptu party. Every so often, the crowd would burst into a spontaneous song. People were hugging strangers. Firecrackers went off every few minutes (at this point it’s worth noting that this was before the terrorist attacks in Paris and Belgium, and that such noises may be received differently now, in light of these events).

The whole thing was quite overwhelming, and a little emotional – and that’s coming from someone who doesn’t give a hoot about football.

Our returning to the hotel was futile – we’d previously been quite smug about getting ourselves a jammy little deal in a guest house right in the centre or Barcelona just round the corner from Placa de Catalunya, but suddenly this wasn’t looking like such a bright idea.

But staying up all night did get me thinking – would it have been the same situation if we’d found ourselves in Madrid and Madrid had won this particular match? Was it just pride in Messi and co. or was it the Catalan pride shining through extra strong?

We were up early the next day to do our final bits of sightseeing before heading to the airport and were stunned at what we found. There was no hint of what had taken place just hours previously – no broken glass, no discarded beer cans, nothing. I’ve seen Camden looking worse on a regular Tuesday morning. Well played Barcelona. Well played.

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