Barcelona: first impressions

Coming to Spain in the midst of a terrible recession which featured 25% unemployment, we were prepared for scenes of economic devastation and had been warned about everything from muggings to pickpockets. So it was with a bit of trepidation that we landed in the city. Were those roughly dressed guys in the baggage area thieves waiting to pounce? Would we get ripped off by our cab driver?

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Photo gallery: Barcelona street scenes

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Instead, the thing that got our attention was how quiet it was at the airport. There was none of the hustle and bustle that one sees at airports the world over. Instead, we had plenty of time to contemplate the design of the terminal’s arrivals area, with its shiny, black marble floors that disoriented us, much like being in a canoe in the middle of an absolutely still lake.

We took a taxi into the city, partly out of concern that we’d look too much like lost tourists as we climbed out of the train station in Plaza Catalunya.

(As it turned out, I could have easily found our way thanks to Google Street View, a tool I found very useful as we made our way around the country. It can be disorienting to emerge from a subway in a strange city, but I used Google Street View to plan our directions out of metro stations, and a combination of my phone’s compass and map application to find our way from there.)

On the way into town, we both remarked on the lack of traffic on the expressway. It was a condition we were to see everywhere we went. I’m not sure if it was the recession, lower car ownership than in our own traffic-clogged cities, or high highway tolls that we heard about. Whatever the reason, it was a quick, smooth trip, which we appreciated.

The first thing that struck us was how monumental Barcelona is.

Statues and monuments seemed to be everywhere. The buildings, most of which were no more than 10-12 storeys high, were adorned with all manner of architectural detail, everything from mosaics and painted facades to elaborate reliefs and ironwork. Many of them sported cupolas, archways and other features.

Major intersections were traffic circles from which wide arteries radiated. In the middle of the traffic circles, large public spaces afforded places to rest and enjoy fountains, pools, gardens and statuary. They also afforded unobstructed views of the buildings and streets around them.

The overall effect was a very sophisticated appearance which made the city of 1.6 million seem bigger and more important.

We never saw the slightest hint of trouble from anyone in the central neighbourhood in which we stayed. We did take the advice of the tour books to avoid the tiny, dark passageways of the Barrio Gothic at night, but we did wander the alleyways of northern Ravel after dark without a problem.

In fact, the main annoyance we had to get used to was the way the natives would blithely cut in front of us while we walked, missing us by inches and not giving way under any circumstances. After a few days, we started doing this ourselves, and I found myself embarrassed on my return to Toronto when I unthinkingly repeated this behaviour.

Of the recession, the major signs we saw were the number of strikes and demonstrations. Throughout our stay in Spain, there was some kind of demonstration against the government’s austerity program just about every day. Even the people who worked on the tour buses went on a half-day strike while we were there.

Another surprise, which was repeated throughout our trip, was the cost of everything. Being used to a strong Euro and strong European economies, it was a shock to see that the cost of everything from meals to metro tickets seemed to be the same or lower than it was in Canada.

In Barcelona at least, it wasn’t too much of a challenge to find vegetarian meals for Ana. But tapas bars were pretty much out of the question, although my mouth watered when I eyed the seafood tapas which were available at the many small bars which served them.

People in the stores and restaurants were mostly friendly, but occasionally we would be served by someone who was clearly worried or depressed, which I again put down to the economy.

Among the many beautiful souvenirs around the city, the most amusing were without a doubt the plaster statuettes we saw on La Rambla of world leaders defecating. Sadly, Ana wouldn’t let me buy one of Pope Benedict squatting over a pile of excrement, bare ass exposed under his hiked-up robes. At 15 euros, they seemed a bargain to me.

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