Barcelona breaks: the Catalan capital is a stunning city in many ways. But how many tourists is too many and what to do?
This article first appeared in the Financial Times of April 29 2006 under the title “When tourist reinvention spins out of control”, with the subtext: “Barcelona’s success in turning itself from a little-known industrial port to an international mecca is beginning to backfire, writes Leigh Turner”
To begin: near-perfection
The narrow alleyways of the Gothic quarter lie at the heart of Barcelona’s old city. As the afternoon sun begins to sink, shutters rise, noise levels pick up and enticing smells waft between the ancient buildings.
Not so Catalan
But not everyone is here to soak up Catalan culture. Outside a brace of Irish pubs in the Carrer de Ferran, signs advertise “Live Premier League Action”. Round the corner in the picturesque Carrer de la Boqueria, boards outside the Travel Bar promise “More drunken adventures at 9.30: 4 Bars & one club” and “Tonight: 2 pints or 2 cocktails €6, extra sexy bar staff”.
The Sacrada Familia – a world-class reason to visit Barcelona – Photo LT
The trouble with Barcelona is that it offers too much for too many people. In the 1980s, the city was synonymous with sophisticated urban living and Mediterranean flair. The 1992 Olympics brought a rash of mixed-quality regeneration and a PR bonanza. Now the budget airlines boom has made Barcelona accessible to a global pool of potential visitors. The question is how many tourists a city of 1.5m can absorb before the culture that people come for is diluted beyond recognition.
A city of vistas
One reason the Olympics made Barcelona look so good is that this is a city of vistas. The landscape is rich in literal and figurative high-points, from the old fort and cable-car of Monjuïc in the south to the 548-metre peak of Tibidabo in the west. But the most dizzying spectacle is from the summit of the unfinished mountain of stone which is the Sagrada Familia cathedral.
Gaudi, Gaudi & Gaudi
The Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi designed his warped-Gothic masterpiece in 1884 on a colossal scale and the Sagrada Familia copes admirably with tourist hordes. Many of the world citizens who swarm across the site are young and labelled: T-shirts read “Slipknot”, “Borelli”, “BvB Dortmund”. Some are on the phone (“We’re at the Sagrada Familia”). But they’re here for good reason. The Nativity Façade is a cliff of stone moulded into a mass of sumptuous, sensuous detail. Everywhere mosaics glisten, creatures crawl and tantalising balconies peep out of the rock face. Round the corner from a Shrek-style donkey peering at the infant in the manger, a legionary with a sword dashes babies to the ground.
Inside the cathedral, hundreds of visitors jostle through the building yard that is the nave. All around, workers are welding steel, pouring concrete and carving stone. Above soar the mosaic-clad towers, honeycombed with staircases that offer some of the most vertiginous views imaginable.
Tourism as a force for good
This is tourism as a force for good. A sign outside the entrance says admission money will be used to build the cathedral. It’s hard to imagine a more worthwhile architectural cause. People who revisit the Sagrada Familia after a five or 10-year absence are astonished by the rate of progress.
Across the city at Park Güell, construction stopped in 1914. A century after the city commissioned Gaudi to build an English garden city on a hillside on the edge of town, the place still feels like an unfinished housing estate. They only completed three of 60 planned houses. What remains is a shady park sprinkled with architectural gems.
At the main entrance, flanked by pavilions straight out of Dr Seuss, tourists pose with the brightly coloured dragon that guards the path up the hill. Above, the Banc de Trencadis, a bench in the shape of a sea-serpent, is a sinuous riot of ceramic fragments offering views across the city to the sea.
The 13th-century Cathedral of Barcelona, in the centre of the Gothic quarter, is less dramatic than Gaudi’s work. The side chapels of the gloomy interior do not display to best advantage relics such as the Christ of Lepanto, whose curious posture is said to be the result of his moving to dodge a cannon ball while affixed to the Spanish flagship at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. But the cloisters are a place of refuge. Fountains drip water on to mossy stones, palm trees rustle and goldfish dart through ponds of milky green water. The stone passageway that skirts the courtyard is deserted.
A few hundred metres away, Las Ramblas is full to bursting point. Yet it’s empty of atmosphere. There’s nothing wrong with this tree-lined street with traffic either side, its centre a fluctuating mass of pedestrians. If you like balloon-twisters, portrait-sketchers and living statues (a hooded monk; Christopher Columbus; a painter falling off his ladder) it’s a good place to come. But nothing unique or special has survived the tourist invasion.
Nearby, the Placa Reial seems in danger of going the same way. It’s an elegant square, surrounded by restaurants and bars: Les Quinze Nits, Ambos Mundos, Cerveceria Colon. Students sit round the central fountain, drinking beer and enjoying the warm evening. Diners spill on to the pavements. The atmosphere is still just the right side of charming. But the pressure’s on. A busker argues with a restaurant guest over a tip. Empty cans and bottles litter the ground. The boundary between restaurant guests and square is alive with guitarists, jugglers and drunks. A police car lurks in the shadows. In a world of global travel, local charm dies fast.
Barcelona Breaks: the new stuff
There are places in Barcelona where local charm never arrived. Such as the Maremagnum shopping centre on the sea-front. Thrown up in 1995 next to an Imax cinema, a multiplex and an aquarium, its fast food court boasts the Texas Steak Co, Bruno’s Pizza, the Pita Inn, Frankfurt Court and Fish and Chips: a mini-Europe of bad calories. The old city is more symptomatic of the problems of Barcelona, with its proliferation of foreign bars and shop names. It may be that filling the alleyways of the Gothic quarter with branches of Dunkin’ Donuts, Foot Locker and the Hard Rock Café is the easiest way to separate visitors from their money. But the day these come to predominate over older shops and restaurants with names such as El Ingenio, Gran Cuchilleria and La Fuente Xarcuteria, Barcelona will come another step closer to being like everywhere else.
I hope you enjoyed this look at Barcelona breaks – a city I love, but which has issues.
If you enjoy fresh, original writing, please subscribe to my weekly newsletter (you can unsubscribe anytime you wish).