Ting, ting, ting goes the gas man as he bangs on the canisters in his barrow whilst negotiating the narrow lanes of El Born. Shout ‘Hola!’ and he’ll heave one up six flights for you for a couple of Euros. What a bloke. The houses here still don’t have proper services and that’s probably the only reason they’re still owned by locals. Barely a spit away is Marina Port Vell where clusters of mega-yachts, the ones with girl’s names and heli pads, gather by the harbourside restaurants. Yes, Barcelona is still a city of surprising contrasts.
Back in the eighties, when I first started coming here, El Born was the place you avoided. You’d glimpse the alleyways as you walked along the seafront and you could see that they were dark, dirty and dangerous. The massive investment for the 1992 Olympics changed all that and the results were truly dramatic. Everytime I left the airport in my little, white Seat hire car, there would be another motorway to negotiate, another new flyover to get lost on.
The investment certainly paid off because it turned Barcelona into a brand. Ask someone who has never been here (not easy) what comes to mind when you say ‘Barcelona’ and they’ll be on-brand also: sun, sea, festivals, food, wine and architecture will be the common themes. Contrast that with other ‘second’ cities like Hamburg, Geneva, Birmingham, Milan or even Madrid itself…and it’s much less clear. Barcelona is a feelgood brand and it may well be this that ultimately gets it through.
The crash of 2008 hit the city like a train. It went bust for the same reasons as the rest of us but the impact was felt deeply here. Youth unemployment is quoted as an astonishing 50% but the truth is in the suburbs that figure can be more like 80%. Alongside that there’s a long waiting list of corrupt politicians to be tried and jailed. It will clearly take a generation to recover from this.
The good news is that today the streets of El Born seem healthier than ever. There are tons of new little hole-in the-wall independent boutiques and bars, only now these nose-ringed entrepreneurs seem to have mellowed and have created some really clever brands with cool understated fascias and lots of urban, artisan cues.
The derelict but photogenic old El Born market has been transformed into a shiny new cultural hub for events, and exhibitions. It sits astride an archeological excavation dating back to 1700 but also has an impressive bar and cafe to keep it busy and alive. The area has now become a kind of Covent Garden and has attracted lots of cool restaurants and bars as well as the jugglers and fire eaters, of course. Big Fish, for example, does a great job in making Catalan cuisine contemporary and cool as well as making sure it’s all served in an upbeat, buzzy atmosphere.
Even Passeig de Gracia, Barcelona’s Fifth Avenue, is having a facelift, not that it was ever disappointing. In 2012 Apple took over the prestigious Bank of Spain at number 1 Passeig de Gracia, the building that dominates Placa de Catalunya. There are plenty of new and refurbished flagships from the likes of Longchamp, Burberry, Dolce and Gabbana and Prada but they are also pedestrianising much more of the street to cope with the vast number of visiting shoppers. Gaudi’s incredible Casa Mila is also being cleaned and spruced up a little.
Urban Barcelona has a population of almost 5 million, only 1.6 million of which live in the centre. But you need to add the 7.5 million annual tourists to that to get a truer picture. It also explains what has kept this city afloat.
The post-crash shift towards the artisan is very apparent here. There is a huge rise in the number of bakeries and patisseries, and super-trendy ones at that, with open kitchens, floor to ceiling tiling and piles of knobbly, handmade breads in the window.
Jamie Berestain’s Concept Store has a typically quirky Catalan mix with gorgeous, curated homewares on one side and a patisserie, bar and lounge on the other. It works too.
The most impressive though, has to be the Hotel Praktik Bakery which is a hotel that has given over its entire art-deco shopfront to the bakery, with an oven in the window and a completely glazed prep’ area next to the cafe. The smell and all the activity make passers by stop in their tracks. It also makes you wonder why no-one has done this before.
So, in spite of all its problems, the strikes, the occasional riot, the corruption and the impossible balance sheet, Barcelona’s brand still has that feelgood factor, perhaps even more so now. Barcelona is beautiful, broke, a little bit crazy and lazy and certainly tormented by its woes, but above all it’s an optimistic city.
I can’t wait to go back.