Barcelona: Not “Barthelona”


“What are all those flags I keep seeing?” you may ask yourself upon arriving in Barcelona – if, like me, you didn’t read much about it before you arrived. They hang straight down off of balconies all over the city. Yellow with red stripes, a blue pennant at the top end, a white star in the center of the blue. For a day or two, I just looked at them and thought, ‘must have been a parade or something.’

I arrived late at night after a pretty spectacular ride from Toulouse, through or close to Andorra, we weren’t sure. We were in the Pyrenees we just didn’t know which part, a fun tidbit for you, both fun and informative. 

We did know that we had reached the Spanish border. We knew that because there was a car on fire at the crossing and all 10 lanes entering Spain were closed for three full hours. Luckily, it was only 175-degrees outside and I had a hot can of Diet Coke. Perhaps the one time on the entire trip I didn’t have some sort of liquor-booze on me. 

When we arrived, the Barcelona train station was closed. The Metro stop to the station was also closed and the surrounding neighborhood, as most station neighborhoods are, was uninviting. The Uber driver spoke just enough English to get me all the way across town to Camp Nou for about 6€, not too shabby. There’s a young Argentine named Lionel Andrés Messi Cuccittini, “Messi” for short – he plays for FC Barcelona. In this portion of Spain, which might as well not be in Spain, this is like saying Jesus plays for God. 

My AirBnB was directly across the street from Camp Nou, a 99,000-seat cathedral dedicated to worshiping FC Barcelona. 100-foot banners of each popular player surround the structure but you get the sense of which one is the favorite son, Messi may as well be on the Euro coin. I checked out the stadium and its grounds for a few minutes then made my way up to the room. Once the bag was on the bed, the door was locked and I headed back down to the street – where the bar was. This is my routine.

Bar Marino is a sliver of a place with a couple of tables out on the sidewalk. Jose opens around 11am then closes around 4pm then opens again around 7pm then closes again around 1am. Every single day. He smiles and laughs a lot and means it. The reason I said “might as well not be in Spain” is, Barcelona is the capital of the Catalan movement. Catalan is the flag I was seeing everywhere, it’s also the language and trust me – it ain’t Spanish. For years before setting foot on Spanish soil, I’d heard people call it “Barthelona.” Perhaps you have as well. 

It’s “Barthelona” in the rest of Spain, where they speak Castellano, the original Castilian Spanish we’ve all had the great pleasure of hearing Penelope Cruz whisper for many years. She and her husband, Javier Bardem, are from Madrid, where they pronounce “c” with a lithp. But in Barcelona, where they speak Catalan, its own language, “c” is pronounced as an “s.” There are many more rules for Catalan and the pronunciation of “c” but I’ll let you handle that independently. 

Speaking of, Catalonia would very much like to pull an Andorra and be its own country. Seems the Spanish management team in Madrid is misspending government funds and Barcelona is one of the largest contributors of those funds. It’s a highly contentious issue and one we’ll face in the U.S. when we decide to actually ask how our tax money is being spent.

I learned all of this from a well-read man named Juan, he’s a leader of the Les Corts district Catalan movement. It’s a big deal and there are court cases and activism and hunger strikes and bumper stickers. If that kind of thing interests you, there’s plenty of material out there covering the Catalonia vs. Spain subject. Juan was with his dog, Aretha Franklin. That’s her full name, that’s what you call her. Aretha Franklin drinks beer. Every time Juan got a beer, Aretha Franklin got a beer. She’s a beautiful brindle boxer who loves people. 

Jose would come out to the sidewalk with fresh rounds of beer and he and Juan would banter about what Juan and I were discussing. Jose didn’t speak a lot of English and my Catalan is limited to 4-5 words. Juan and Jose spoke Catalan at approximately 1,000mph as did most people in Barça. (That’s “Barsa” which is usually a designation given to the Football Club but I heard it used interchangeably). Juan became my translator for Jose, who wanted to know as much as humanly possible about Mr. Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen. 

Jose’s from Chile and made his way to Barcelona around 2007 to open a business with his friends; that business turned out to be a bar and that man busts his ass all day and all night. Save the 2-3 hours allotted for siesta. Siestas, in case you haven’t frequented certain regions, are serious business. Once you’re indoctrinated, they become a way of life. Walking, exploring or working from 8am to 1 or 2pm makes napping a welcome interruption during the hottest part of the day. Some folks wake up after an hour or two and get back to work, some don’t. 

Jose gets up and opens for the second half of the day and seems to be a new man, constantly moving, constantly cleaning, motivated by a desire to serve well and by a little boy who now lives in Moscow with Jose’s ex. He showed me a picture of the boy seeing snow for the first time, I’m not sure where they lived before but Jose assured me the kid had never seen this form of precipitation. The look on the young man’s face while he played in the snow was to be cherished.

It was the first night in Bar Marino where I mapped out the “must see” stuff. I’d heard and read about so much and I only had four days in which to do some of it. La Rambla? Sure. The Gaudi stuff? Most definitely. The Magic Fountain? Absolutely not. I’d get up the next morning, explore the football stadium properly then see what was happening in the city center. 

Never before had I seen tours of an empty stadium – and it was a Tuesday morning at 9am. No fewer than ten coaches were lined up in the massive parking lot; I’d walked through an unmarked, unlocked gate and followed a bus group that seemed to be in from Seville, if I read the sign on the dashboard correctly. I may have followed a bit too closely and joined their actual tour, avoiding a 30€ admission fee. Unintentionally, of course, I had no idea where we were going.

I feel the need to describe myself a bit. Average height, built heavier than my frame should support, brown hair, greenish eyes, sometimes a salt and pepper beard. My expression is usually one of tension or contemplation. I try to smile with my eyes when I greet people but my mouth is sometimes a few seconds behind, often reluctant to expose a discolored front tooth – victim of a botched root canal. I can be abrasive but to curtail this trait I often come across as perhaps too quiet. Anyone who knows me well would tell you I can be either the life of the party or someone you’d ask to leave – sometimes separated by a matter of minutes – but my intentions are good.

I’m telling you this because, physically I can pass for any nationality in Europe and I would continue to prove this over the course of three months. While purchasing gifts for my Godsons within the compound I pretty openly snuck into, a learned woman in her mature years approached me and asked me a question. A long one. What that question is, I’ll never know but it was shot at me like a super soaker filled with confusion for upwards of twenty seconds. Her daughter quickly joined her and told her what was going on and they both looked at me with disgust. How dare I act Spanish or Catalonian or whatever it was I was up to. It was pre-coffee and I just didn’t have time to get out, “Lo siento, no habla.” She snuck up on me.

This happened a lot. Everywhere. I look like I know what I’m doing, I’m usually very calm and I’m almost always reading something – whether it’s a plaque, a pamphlet, a book I’ve taken along or my journal. This tells people that I’m a man about whatever town I’m in, officially sanctioned to dole out advice, the time or directions. In all actuality, I’m a miracle of a person who somehow found his way to the spot you found me in and didn’t bother to learn your language thoroughly. Most Europeans, if not overly tacky Europeans, dress quite smartly or in an overly tacky European style that’s just as easy to identify. If people bothered to look at my clothing or shoes, we wouldn’t get into these messes. I’m not what some would call “fashionable.” In fact, it looks like a widowed truck driver dresses me most days.

El Artful Dodger

It’s only a two-mile walk to town but the subway was clean and friendly. Oh, except for the hundreds of young men between 12 and 40 looking to pick you clean – like a possum on the side of the road when the buzzards spot it. They’re everywhere and you’d better have whatever you want to keep zipped up in something that can’t easily be yanked off your body. A lot of men in Europe wear a small satchel around their neck with cards and cash in it and there’s a reason for that. Purses go over the opposite shoulder for the ladies, and some men. Hell, some women carry a wallet and no purse, there’s no time for this p.c. nonsense.

Even I was prey to a couple innocuous looking young men on the Metro. I’d made the mistake of not bringing my bag and was wearing shorts without pockets that button. I heard a thud, it was my phone, the doors opened, I grabbed it off the floor and noticed a guy sitting behind me pointing at the kids running out the door. Standing in the center of the train, holding the pole, I didn’t feel a damn thing. I wasn’t mad, I was impressed. But I sure as hell learned my lesson. 

After that, it was easy to spot them, they’re the guys not doing anything and trying way too hard to look innocent. They’re the guys scanning their surroundings without appearing to scan. They’re pros and they want your smartphone.

They REALLY Like Ham

The Metro will spit you out at Liceu, right in the middle of La Rambla – just about the most touristic place in all of Barcelona. It wasn’t the Rambla I wanted to see, it’s just a bunch of over-priced shops and crap lining the sidewalks I’d see everywhere else in Europe. Flower seeds that are supposed to bloom in the shape of a penis or a vulva or whatever, magnets, postcards, cheap “leather” goods, phone accessories, etc. What I wanted to see was the market, La Boqueria – which is Catalan for The Boqueria.

[“Boqueria” actually means “place where you buy goats or goat parts” in Catalan, but who has time to look that sort of stuff up?]

The first of my many Paellas would be at the Boqueria with an inexpensive and delicious glass of wine. Though I’d had many delicate and subtle glasses in France, the robust fruit of a Spanish red is among my favorites.  Most guides will tell you that Shrimp dishes, especially paella, are to be enjoyed with a light white, perhaps a Sauvignon Blanc or Albariño. And I’m here to tell you that it’s just fine with 3€ glass of red table wine. Don’t order Sangria in Barcelona, it’s bad red wine mixed with Sprite. By “bad,” I mean there’s a genuine possibility the wine was left in a carafe on someone else’s table the night before. Instead they have a “Summer” drink that’s decent table wine and soda on ice. As I stated and will continue to state, I’m not a connoisseur but I’m also not a neanderthal. 

After the paella was gone, it was time to dig deeper into the market where things get good. Fresh fruits of all exotic shapes and colors from Spain, Europe and Africa were stacked carefully and creatively in several spots throughout. Ham. Turns out, Spanish/Catalonian people love ham. A lot. There’s ham everywhere and in everything and the Boqueria has it in spades. Whole hams hung by their hooves from stalls in all directions, glistening in reflected light and sporting hefty price tags. For 110€ you could get a kilo of Paleta Cebo Campo, for 235€ a nice Jamón Bellota Ibérico. I want to know where the party is if you’re coming in for 2lbs/$260-worth of ham. 

I grabbed a paper pouch of fresh sea urchin, squid, cheese and olives and strolled some more. Everything is meant to draw your eye into a purchase. Bins of nuts, fresh fruit juices from exotic plants, candies, pastries, shucked oysters, all manner of Mediterranean seafood. Should you actually find yourself in this heavenly market, hit up a place called Quim and shell out $22 for eggs and squid fried in garlic by someone who loves what they do for a living. 

[La Boqueria is an EXCELLENT place, on a busy day, to have the wallet taken from your unzipped purse or the phone taken from just about anyplace on your person. Be on the lookout for men with jackets draped over one shoulder.]

I was full and headed back out to La Rambla. I’d zigzag through the Gothic section of town, which is truly beautiful – and out toward the beach – Barceloneta.  I’ll say this, the beaches in Barcelona are clothing optional but not officially. I’d been sipping on a beer and gazing out at the (ahem) tranquil, blue waters for long enough and decided to head back for some of Jose’s cold Alhambras (beer). 

Jose really likes Bruce Springsteen and a lot of club-type music I can only describe as 20 renditions of “Despacito.” Just take that overplayed song and put any lyrics over it and you’ve got a chart-topping song in Spain. It’s another fascinating insight into the human condition. The Spanish will make fun of and belittle their former territories but if one of them makes it big, they celebrate them and fold them into the heritage. Colombia, for instance, has several artists on the Spanish charts. Same in the UK, they make fun of us and we give them every right to, but if you’re Cher, they’ll start mapping your tree back to Stoke-on-Trent.

Bar Marino’s speakers are hooked up to Jose’s laptop and he plays Shakira and Springsteen on a loop via YouTube. Everyone else in the city was playing Maluma, a tattooed cheesemonger from Colombia who knows how to make a damn music video. The music’s okay around town and in the bars and clubs if you don’t mind everything having the exact same beat.

I mind. 

After speaking to more locals back at the bar, I really wanted to meet and speak with who I now call the toughest son of a bitch on the planet, Mr. Juan José Padilla, Matador. In 2011, Padilla was gored through the skull during a fight in Zaragoza. He lost his left eye and hearing in his right ear. Now calling himself “The Pirate,” he returned to fight five months later and won or at least wasn’t gored to death – and the bull lost. In 2017, he was jacked up by another bull in Valencia, gored again, puncturing a lung. At this point in the conversation the names of bulls were debated for long enough to have to interrupt and re-steer. 

Exact dates were vital to this group and half of them don’t speak English and my lack of Catalan wasn’t helpful. It dawned on me that this is as important to them as getting baseball stats exactly right is to my friends and I – or college football game dates and highlights. They seemed to have worked out bull names and dates to a moderate level of satisfaction and we moved on. Juan José Padilla then fought a bull in Arévalo that kicked his ass real good and literally scalped him. THREE DAYS later, he fought in Pamplona and won. His final bout was in Zaragoza, home of the missing eye. He fought multiple bulls that day and won, carried from the stadium on the crowd’s shoulders. 

I asked where I could see one and was told, “Not here.” Bullfighting was banned in Catalonia in 2011, no doubt after the skull goring. Was it possible to meet Padilla? No, I was told, he lives on the other side of the country near Cádiz. 

The main bull arena in Barcelona is now a shopping mall. Progress…

Confidence is Very Sexy, Don’t You Think?

Day Three was spent getting some work done in a, don’t judge, Starbucks. The kid spoke English and they had good Wi-Fi. Once work was done for the day, it was definitely time for a decent cup of coffee. In 2018, in Europe, the “cheesecake craze” was in full regalia. You wanted something cheesecake flavored, like a latte, cupcake, soda or cookie, Europe was your spot. And Starbucks was leading the charge. For only 7.50€, you could have your very own Cheesecake Latte in one of three cheesecake flavors. If I remember correctly, the Venti had somewhere around seven million calories. 

But it was Pablo Picasso Museum day and this was celebrated with a proper tallat at a place called Satan’s in the Gothic Quarter. A tallat is a Catalan Cortado. A Cortado is espresso with some steamed milk. This is basically a Macchiato everywhere else. We really are a bunch of assholes, aren’t we? But Satan’s had a damn fine coffee and the interior was a trip, sort of a Punk Rock, Japanese vibe set in a pastel-colored laptop commercial. 

Spanish people are just plain cool. I’m not sure, I’m no psychologist, but they don’t seem to experience self doubt or insecurity of any kind. They just speak their mind and it sounds beautiful when they do, they wear cool clothing and they all look great, they enter a room like that one guy did on one of the Star Trek shows . Not Shatner or Patrick Stewart, the other one. As if they’re saying, “I heard some shit was going down, how can I be of service in the most suave way possible?” 

Good-looking people, full of ham. 

I read an article once about how attractive people are more likely to think that life is fair. I can attest to that, as I see it as extremely unfair. And the fact that there’s a country where attractive people seem to swim through life without a care is perhaps proof. Though judging by some of the television reports and newspaper articles over there, attractive people don’t seem to be very good with money. 

The Picasso Museum was mind-blowing. He was truly a genius who understood form and function to their very core. Not unlike his semi-contemporary Antoni Gaudi, whom Picasso hated. Which isn’t very nice considering Gaudi paved the way for Picasso to do some of his neoclassic and surrealist stuff. I’m not an art historian so I’ll stop before getting into trouble. 

Gaudi is Barcelona’s favorite son, dead one, Messi’s technically Barcelona’s favorite son, though he’s from Argentina. It’s really not as complicated as I’m making it out to be, it’s easier than us trying to explain the Kardashians to people. Gaudi’s masterpiece is of course La Sagrada Familia, the unfinished “Church of the Holy Family.” Everything from the Bible is represented somewhere on this passion-filled, vaulting, dripping beauty. Gaudi and his crew took over construction in 1883, they say there are still about seven or eight years to go. The inside is supposed to be glorious but my fear of lines forbade such an endeavor. 

Gaudi’s work is everywhere in Barcelona, it’s got a beach vibe mixed with a swirl and wave reminiscent of Frank Gehry’s stuff with a hint of that obnoxious Kokopelli thing that’s everywhere in New Mexico. I would call Gaudi the Gehry of Concrete, but in reality Gehry’s the Gaudi of Steel. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a synonym for flamboyant, garish or ostentatious is “gaudy.” It’s genius work and gives the city a look all its own.

Anyway, cool church.

Using the MacDonald’s wifi, I mapped the trip back toward the Boobs Beach for a cold beer. The Metro spat me out near the Museu d’Història de Catalunya, but I’d museumed enough for one day and was drawn, instead, to the yachts parked just beyond. It was a place called the National Boathouse and the yachts were world class. Absolutely breathtaking. I sat on a patio across from these behemoths in the Aquarium building.

I like to make up stories for people I have no ability to understand. For a person that owns a boat worth – more than likely tens of millions of dollars – I was easily imagining one of those Saudi princes who has a home in 15 different countries and three of every half-million-dollar sports car in different colors. He’d popped up to Barcelona for their famous Sangria, because all rich people have good taste and are smart.

I cracked myself up and walked over the foot/drawbridge back into town. As I admired the crystal-clear water and the jellyfish just beyond the surface, the bells rang and the bridge began to raise. Here, creeping toward the exit from the harbor was a 100-foot schooner, a handsome, charismatic, athletic Spaniard of indeterminable age at the helm. The deck, covered in half-nude models, mostly women. I wanted to go to there.

While I watched the boat make it’s way to probably the greatest place on the planet to have more fun than I’ve ever heard of, the Spaniard yelled at a boat approaching from the sea. “Sir!” the American flag flying from the incoming boat gave it away, “Captain! Sir! You must read de roolz of de international harbors! I have the right of way!” He continued yelling this as we all watched from the bridge.

The rule-breaker was the Jimmy Buffett-looking Captain of the “Madame Geneva – Charleston” I counted a boy, a girl, a very tired-looking wife and the Captain who was yelling back, “Yeah, sorry! We were out there all night. Sorry!” That was it, the two men knew exactly how to operate large boats and calmly missed one another by about five feet as the schooner departed the harbor and Madame Geneva found her berth.

When I saw “Charleston,” I knew I had to learn more about these folks, who were working frantically to secure the boat and likely wanted some shuteye. Turns out, they have a blog and they’ve been everywhere I haven’t and they are amazing and inspiring. And on a big-ass boat, lucky bastards. Looking back through some photos, he looks nothing like Jimmy Buffett.

Check out their blog, though they haven’t updated it since Croatia, 2019. When you search “Madame Geneva,” you’ll also figure out someone must have been a Mark Knoplfer fan.

On the way back, I had to stop by La Boqueria again, had to. After another paella, I wormed through the tiny Gothic Quarter streets with the worldly crowd one more time, it’s like a labyrinth in places and the old facades often hide glorious courtyards where drinks are served and music is played for no discernible reason, not that I ever need one for drinks and music. Near a small, definitely gothic basilica, the sign out front told passersby that we were hearing a renowned Spanish guitarist. 

A group had gathered outside to enjoy it, the sound was fitting to the surroundings and told a simple story. One of those rare occurrences that captures a city and country if only for a brief moment. It was nearly impossible to get inside but I did catch a glimpse of the well-dressed man playing a smallish acoustic guitar underneath a statue of Joseph carrying a baby. No one inside made a peep, which allowed the notes to carry into the openings and into our hearts and ears. That’s what it felt like anyway.

Heading back to Bar Marino, I made the hasty decision to check out the Magic Fountain. The streets were thick with restless tourists and the men and women of North Africa selling just about anything you could want for your fountain viewing. Table clothes, Bob Marley pullovers, fake swords, bottled water, bootlegged Nikes, name something, it was on a sheet in the middle of the sidewalk. Funny part was, when law enforcement would ride down the sidewalk on a Segway or golf cart, the sheets would be rolled up and whisked away in a matter of seconds. 

It poured rain for exactly two-minutes, scaring away some folks as more and more made their way from the Metro up the massive sidewalks lined with smaller fountains that began to light up. Several people sitting on the edges of these ancillary fountains were genuinely surprised when they began shooting water toward the sky, despite every indication that was exactly what was about to happen. Spanish mothers with “I’d like to speak to the manager” hair and “I’m gonna sue!” expressions on their faces gasped their way to their feet and toward the magic. 

A big fountain on the hilltop, engorged with people from everywhere, began to shoot its water into the air and it lit up in various colors and patterns. If that’s the type of thing you’re into, you’ll love it if you haven’t already. It’s not the type of thing I’m into so I worked my way through Pickpocket Central and onward to refreshment.

[Anywhere large groups of tourists congregate in Barcelona is Pickpocket Central, watch for dudes who look unemployed and, like I said, inexplicably carry jackets draped over one arm or slick little bastards who just look like they need a nice smack upside the head. If you’ve always wanted to go to Barcelona but fear the pickpocketing, don’t sweat it, just don’t be careless and you’ll be fine. It’s an absolutely amazing city.]  

By now, I would walk into Bar Marino and grab my own “vaso frio” and hand it over to Jose who’d pour me a cold one. I usually walked down the stairs, made a left and grabbed one of the glasses neatly placed in the freezer at the front of the bar, beyond Jose’s reach and shout, “Vaso frio!” to which Jose would echo the sentiment. And we’d laugh, every damn time. “Toad,” no one in Spain, Italy or Greece can pronounce “Todd.” Jose would continue, “Would you like to hear Born to Run again?” “Sure, Jose,” whatever you want. “Toad, how about a bowl of olives?”

“Yes, please.” 

If you’re drinking in Spain, you’re getting chips or olives or something to snack on whether you like it or not. If you do say, “no thanks,” they assume you’re misunderstanding them. I caved on the olive thing on my second visit and never looked back. Tapas as far as the eye can see, no matter where you are and let it flow. Just let it happen, enjoy it. Take the tapas. The life-giving tapas. God help you if you don’t like ham. 

I said goodnight to Jose one final time and climbed the stairs to the AirBnB, made my way to the computer and ordered a one-way ticket from Barcelona to Rome, via boat. It had been decided an hour earlier that Rome/Italy was the rational next step. Plus, $70 for a massive ferry/cruise ship type thing that stops in Sardinia was a pretty good deal.

Barcelona is gorgeous, full of tourists and – just like any fantasy destination – overrun with the trappings that brings. However, it’s also one of the easier cities in Europe to find out-of-the-way real restaurants, bars, parks, stores – just act like you belong there – and speak perfect Catalan – and you’ll be fine. Barcelona gets bonus points for their creative spirit, macho confidence, stunning women and nude beaches. They’re laid back without a care in the world for the most part – aside from hating the Spanish government. The main goal of each and every citizen of Barcelona is for you to hear their opinions on most subjects while having a good time. Hell, even the pickpockets are good natured and well intentioned.

5 out of 5.

They have porn on basic cable.