“Its rare that it rains for more than a few minutes in Barcelona,” we were told when we first arrived. Yet for the last couple of few weeks, it felt like we were practically underwater.
I would think we’d been lied to but it’s clear that the city is not used to having water fall from the sky. In the old town the rain seems to stay wherever it lands and I can’t tell if there is actually any drainage system, instead we go around mopping it up with our jeans.
The Barcelonese walk around tentatively brandishing their umbrellas as if they’re not quite sure that they’re doing it right and when the rain stops they carry them awkwardly, like beginner skiers who don’t know where to put their poles. You have to be fast on your feet if you want to avoid getting an umbrella spike embedded in your shin.
Then, just as I thought we may have missed out on the beach weather, today dawned sunny and clear and as the mercury topped 21C (70F) it was hard to believe it’s November and that yesterday the city was a swimming pool. Indeed, the only evidence that it ever happened is Stacker’s sodden canvas shoes quietly drying off in the corner of our laundry room.
It may have been a meteorological blip but for some reason the grey skies seemed to complement the city’s – for lack of a better word – ‘grungy’ character. I’ve never been to a city that feels quite like Barcelona does – it’s an indescribable mix of clean and dirty, elegant yet edgy.
The streets are cleaned daily, the trash neatly packed into bins on the street and separated into every possible recycling category. It’s clearly a city that is cared for. Yet barely one door, wall or metal blind is un-graffitied – some with ugly scribblings, others with what can only be called works of art.
Some shops have even painted their own metal blinds with the names of their businesses in colourful murals, which I assume is some sort of pre-emptive action. Stacker jokes that perhaps there is a street artist mafia going around demanding protection money. If you pay, you get a cool, artistic creation. If you don’t you risk ending up with a giant spray-painted phallus.
Even in the rain it’s easy to see there is beauty everywhere – beauty of the battered kind in the old, uneven streets of the gothic quarter; of the insane kind in Gaudi’s contributions to the city and always of the unexpected kind.
You can blindly walk down Via Laietana, a busy, polluted, 4-laned thoroughfare every day then one day chance to look up at what looks like an ordinary bank at street level and see the sculpted, Lord-of-the-Rings-esque stone towers of the Caixa de Pensions building soar above you.
Everywhere you go, the young folks are dressed casually and there’s none of the ‘effortless chic’ you see in Parisian girls. I guess you could say it’s more like ‘effortless hip’ with quirky piercings and loose, layered clothing that seems always to be falling off a shoulder.At the same time, there are also a lot of kids who clearly have very little to do except linger in the streets. As you go deeper into the Raval area, the groups of youths start looking more sinister, for no other reason I guess than that people have told us the Raval can be dangerous at night.
It’s worth taking the (perceived) risk though to hit a few of the Raval’s gems – bars that love to embrace a sort of grungy, spit-and-plasterboard cool.
Wallpapered with carefully distressed pages from alternative newspapers and furnished with broken chairs, kitsch lamps and old mason jars, they’ve somehow managed to achieve an ambience where anybody can feel comfortable. In the hastily-constructed plasterboard DJ booth, a petite female with scruffed-up hair plays eclectic hip-hop mixes and no-one stops us as we take up half the bar in a spontaneous game of musical chairs while we wait out the rain. We’ve yet to see a bouncer doing anything close to bouncing and I find it’s a nice change to some of the too-cool-for-school bars back in NY.
After revelling in the Raval, braving the rain for some brunch is a must. Barcelona’s premier brunch institution is Milk but its also a great spot for cocktails at night so – as it can be hard to revisit the scene of a crime so soon – this week we headed over to for hangover recovery at Jezebel’s pop-up brunch, which was a tasty brunch cooked for us by a travelling american chef making good use of someone else’s kitchen. I’m just glad I can finally say I’ve been to something that “popped-up”.
After brunch, if it’s still raining my recommendation for a rainy day in Barca would be to head to Carrer del Banys Nous, a narrow steet near the gothic cathedral that has probably taken off a few wing-mirrors in its time. The street is lined with tiny antique shops and if I was the guy from Midnight in Paris I might say there’s something romantic about pondering bygone eras while rain streams down the window. In fact the antiquing is just a cover for the street’s true treasures – The Xurreria (the churros shop – all good things start with ‘x’, a ‘ch’ sound, in catalan) and La Granja.
Churros are what you get if you put donut mix through a Playdoh factory and into a deep fryer. At the Xurreria, you buy them by the euro’s worth and then cart them over to La Granja for the accompanying ‘Xocolate’ – a hot chocolate so thick you can stand a churros upright in it and, should you desire, spiked with a flavour like mint or coffee. If you sit in the back you can admire the exposed section of roman wall and pretend that you’re getting a dose of history too.
For more history (read chocolate), head a few doors down to the Caelum, a pretty tea-shop where you can hide from the rain in a basement that used to be Jewish baths sometime back in the 1400s. Here you can buy liquors and treats made by nuns and monks around Spain or warm up with a “blessed” xocolate – the same thick chocolate drink but with a wee kick of brandy.
And if it’s still raining after all that then I say just get out and enjoy it while it lasts – after all, it never rains for more than a few minutes in Barcelona!