Barcelona, to me, was a sunny Mediterranean city that registered on my consciousness during the 1992 Summer Olympics. Thereafter, as the Spanish economy boomed it became the city to go to, the kind that attracts travel tips from the editors of Conde Nast Traveler.
All of which was very good until I stumbled upon a book called The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Now, I am a writer, and I love all things writerly – the smell of new books, the sound of old pages, the feel of a good pen as it waltzes over white, the strange new worlds that black ink transposes us to – and The Shadow is a very writerly novel.
At its heart is a book – rare, obscure – that falls into the hands of a boy who must protect it because someone is determinedly burning every copy of every book ever written by its author. It features a Cemetery of Forgotten Books – a capacious sanctuary where books are guarded from oblivion, a wise bookseller father, a boy who reads voraciously, and the city of Barcelona.
But the Barcelona of the book is set in the ‘50s, post the Spanish Civil War – a far cry from the sun-kissed widely-advertised Barca of today. The narrative traverses through the labyrinth of Barri Gotic (the nucleus of Old Barcelona) and down La Rambla, as mist rises from the Marina and engulfs the streets. It is a wonderful sprawling Gothic novel and I would recommend it to anybody looking for a book to lose themselves in. (If it helps, it is the highest selling Spanish novel after Don Quixote, and I reviewed its sequel here.) But best of all, it captures the spirit and skeleton of Barcelona better than any guidebook.
Because, even today, the best way to see the city is by strolling down the wide boulevard of La Rambla and careening off into the side alleys which spit you into the maze of the old quarter. Barcelona is at once ancient, medieval, Gothic and contemporary, and all of it can be discovered within a 2-mile radius!
So much so that tourist companies have come up with ‘The Shadow of The Wind Walking Tours’!
So you can imagine my excitement when we landed in Barcelona during Easter break. Especially considering my prior visa travail which I blogged about here, hubby was skeptical about the city that I had been slobbering over – not to mention that we were visiting from Pa-ree, that moveable feast!
We had deliberately chosen to stay in a hotel off La Rambla to ensure we wasted no time in cabs. La Rambla, a broad pedestrian boulevard flanked by narrow traffic lanes, runs down the length of Barcelona’s tourist hub, marks the southwest flank of the Barri Gotic, and is arguably the most famous Spanish street. It takes its name from a seasonal stream (raml in Arabic) that once ran here.
If you can withstand crowds, it is an excellent way to begin sampling Barcelona – throw yourself in and go with the flow. Start from Placa de Catalunya, named after a drinking fountain, a drink from which is rumoured to return you to Barcelona. Not a bad premise, but considering the swathe of pigeons that flock the fountain, you might just want to make a wish in your heart J Don’t get distracted by the stores all around – El Cortes Ingles, Barcelona’s Selfridges will be towering over you – there’ll be time for that later. This is also the place for celebration by fans when FC Barca wins, and the place to book and board the popular Bus Turistic for an open-top ride through the city.
Hang around, experience the place, then head southwards on La Rambla. If the UN had a bazaar it would be like this: multiple languages at once bouncing off hawker wares, flowers sellers, bird cages, fresh produce and intriguing buskers.
We saw several characters out of Pan’s Labyrinth, and … a levitating Ganesha! See it for yourself. Suffice to say he had a large audience and hubby’s mechanical engineering skills were challenged as he tried vainly to figure how the man was managing to stay afloat. I was happy to assign the mystery to the Goth character of the city.
And as we thus happily strolled down I overheard my mother tongue with all its lavish expletives – an excited Punjabi youth told another how they had beaten the Bengalis the previous night! Gulp! Even outside of India what identifies an Indian is our cantankerous interactions with our own countrymen. Now I have many Bengali friends and publishing is full of Bong editors but I have been aware of the strange Bong-Punj animosity. When I joined IIM Calcutta a Bong friend cheekily informed me of a popular expression: “Pagol na Punjabi”. Meaning, are you mad or simply Punjabi? Then he proceeded to add that ‘Punjabi’ was a euphemism for ‘Sardar’. And for an average Punjabi, a Bengali is at the dismal other end of the martial scale. So it shouldn’t surprise me to overhear that conversation a thousand miles from home. 1.2 billion of us are bound to show up through the cracks around the world and when we do, we are like this only!
Further on, we stumbled upon Miro’s mosaic. If I hadn’t been looking out for it, I’d have – like most other pedestrians – walked blithely over it, unaware that the famous painter had created a large circular tiled mosaic in the middle of La Rambla. Look for the Liceu metro and you’ll find it. One tile is signed by the artist and I was able to locate it!
What did Miro have in mind when he created the pavement mosaic? People trample over it, and every now and then someone notices it and pauses, or reaches it after scouring La Ramblas and gazes in awe … Either way, the mosaic is an integral part of the bustling boulevard.
Miro said, “Poetry and painting are done in the same way you make love; it’s an exchange of blood, a total embrace – without caution, without any thought of protecting yourself.”
Perhaps that explains why Miro put his art at the feet of the public.
I will continue this post in a series – Barca is too much of a good thing to squeeze into one blogpost. So watch out for the next one where I shall take you into the ancient heart of the city, the Barri Gotic. Meanwhile, if you figure the secret of the levitating Ganesha, do write in.