‘Don’t anyone ever tell me I’m not a good European,’ I remark to my fellow Brexiteer husband as I stand up in LolaMola of Barcelona and cheer Messi’s goal against Chelsea. We are back in our favourite European capital — and I use that word deliberately — for the first time since the events of nearly six months ago when Catalonia was a country for a few blazing days after the regional president, Carles Puigdemont, won the wayward succession referendum. It ended in violence from Madrid, the imposition of central rule and the fleeing of the Catalan government to various European countries. In a land which had apparently managed to recover by not talking about the civil war, it was a savage reminder of fascist Madrid’s historic brutalisation of democratic Catalonia. A young barman said to me last year: ‘Our parents didn’t want to talk about the civil war — but we do’ and the popularity of Puigdemont among young Catalans particularly is striking.
When we first met David Tennant’s swashbuckling incarnation of the Doctor in Doctor Who, he was on his way to Barcelona, and it’s no accident that it wasn’t Paris or Amsterdam — the sheer roistering rollick of the word suggests a moveable feast which even other hedonistic cities roll their eyes at. You can’t feel other European cities thrumming with life in the same way, and it’s obviously because of the political element added to the mandatory beauty and buzz. Since I was there last spring I’d been reading about the increasing antipathy towards tourists; Barcelona is the 20th most visited city in the world with no sign of let-up, going from 27 million tourists in 2012 to more than 34 million in 2016 — a rise of more than 25 per cent in four years. Airbnb is the chief culprit, because landlords can get up to four times as much rent that way as they would from letting to long-term local tenants, leading to a shortage of housing for actual citizens. It’s ironic that it’s the self-righteous ‘travellers’ who’ve upset the economic ecology of Barcelona rather than unashamed hotel-loving tourists like me, I muse self-adoringly as I read about graffiti such as ‘Tourists are terrorists’, in two minds about going where I wasn’t wanted.
But I can’t recall a friendlier welcome abroad except perhaps in Paris in the weeks after the 2015 Islamofascist attacks. It is so lovely that I do something I’ve never before done in my long, louche life — sack off the flight home not once but twice. From the W on the beach to the Claris in town to the Hotel Arts at the beach once more, we wander like well-heeled, juiced-up hobos; no neighbourhood-spoiling Airbnb for me, I think smugly to myself as we sign into yet another five-star stunner.
Cases stashed once more, we resume our peregrinations; in Barcelona I find this is best done by walking until you find a beautiful building — there’s literally one around every corner — then sitting down to gaze at it while taking refreshment. The hard-to-please Anthony Bourdain said: ‘For food, you’d have a hard time finding anything better than Barcelona’ and even in our sottish state this is clear. I love the way that tapas can mean anything; at the swish La Vinoteca Torres in the Passeig de Gracia it is small and perfectly formed; at Tapas 125 in the Ramblas the plates of patatas bravas, padron peppers and Russian salad are each the size of full English breakfasts. At Makamaka we eat the best burgers in the world, the menu helpfully doubling as a prompt for a childish game to see who can order the rudest-sounding combo without smirking; I think I win with a Kiss My Bun topped with Panties On Fire sauce, washed down with a Dark ’n’ Horny cocktail.
Then, strolling along the seafront, we randomly walk into the best restaurant I’ve ever knowingly entered; Barraca, on the Passeig Maritim de la Barceloneta. When we taste the tapas it’s like that bit in Pleasantville where it suddenly turns from black and white into Technicolor. The patron comes by, looks at the array, then sits down and smiles at us and says ‘I’ll stay here and help you out!’ Of course he is off in five minutes, being a pro — but when he sees us stand up to leave he darts down the stairs before us and when we step out into the street he’s waiting to shake our hands. From the look of the clientele this is a fashionable, thriving restaurant, with no need to drum up business, and to put it mildly we are somewhat scruffy by this time — but I’ve never felt less like an unwelcome tourist.
In his heartbreaking memoir Homage To Catalonia, George Orwell wrote of 1930s Barcelona as ‘startling and overwhelming — it was the first time I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle’. This is hardly the case now but, unlike London, which seems desperate to whore itself out to super-rich non-domiciles, there is the awareness here that some things, such as beauty and sovereignty, are more important than wealth.
On the Passeig de Gracia, one block is littered with the usual suspects — Chanel, Prada, Gucci, all deserted — and then on the next block, BAM!, it’s Antoni Gaudi’s Casa Batllo, and all human life gathers around for the benediction of its fairytale brutalism. A school party who can’t get tickets sit on the pavement outside, cross-legged, eating their packed lunches and gazing up at it. And against the backdrop of all this beauty, the ongoing backbeat of the rebellion; the Catalan flags on every other balcony, the casual ‘No pasaran’ (‘They shall not pass’) that friends use as a greeting in the cafés, the young chambermaid I hear singing The Reapers (the national anthem of Catalonia) as I pass a room being made up. I say to a young doorman who assists us, so young I assume he’s a native: ‘You have a beautiful city.’ He smiles. ‘Thank you, yes, I do. I have only been here a year, but already I would do anything for her.’
With my unerring instinct for missing the story, I was finally in my own bed on Sunday night when I heard on the news that following the arrest of Carles Puigdemont in Germany, facing a 25-year prison sentence for treason, thousands of people had rioted and 50 had been injured on the beautiful wide boulevards of Barcelona I’d walked that very morning. As I finish this, I’m crying as I listen to a Radio 4 programme about the excavation of mass graves in Catalonia. Spain, amazingly, has the largest number in the world, second only to Cambodia, and last year during its brief autonomy the Catalan government decreed that the 100,000 people murdered and buried there by the fascists should be found and memoralised. Old people come to find their parents, young people come to find their grandparents, all through the modern miracle of DNA, with no support from the central government, which sees it, quite rightly, as a revolt against the convenient ‘Pact Of Forgetting’ which is believed to have forged the modern Spanish state.
It’s such a sad story, but the barman who wanted to talk about the war and the doorman who would do anything for his adopted city make it an optimistic one, too. Like me, they’re spellbound by the sight of a city painfully and joyfully becoming itself, going for it time and time again, always dreaming, rarely doubting, never surrendering.