Falling in love with Barcelona’s charm amid the chaos

Despite more tourists than you might like, Barcelona can't help but win you over with its the boundless culture and storied architecture.

The Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of Barcelona stands on the Pla de la Seu in the centre of the old part of town, Barri Gòtic, very close to the tourist-populated Las Ramblas area. Getty Images
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You could get lost in Barcelona. A place of curves in a time of straight lines, it turns one's head and draws one deeper in. So let us be drawn in and see what the city gives us.

Part 1: An afternoon’s amble

On Carrer de Ferran in Barri Gòtic, I stop for a slice of pizza – surprisingly tangy, and a bargain at €2.90 (Dh12).

In walks a little old man, a beret on one end of him and a trolley at the other. In the trolley are two big white boxes of coffee. The pizzeria boss walks over and they negotiate the sale of the beans.

This is how life works in ­Barcelona: it works on a small scale. It is a scale and a spirit that define the city, or at least the ­idealised version of the city, which is distilled to its essence in Barri Gòtic, the old part of town, an area of jumbled side streets and tall stone buildings.

Here, small is beautiful. Shops are ridiculously specialised. I even saw one that sold circus supplies – jugglers’ pins, big masks, etc. The two words you see endlessly on storefronts are “artesanal” and “taller”. The meaning of the first is obvious; the meaning of the second is workshop. This is a craft culture, a guild district, a throwback. Candy, cold cuts, hats, bread, religious icons – each has its own store, its own craftsman.

This stops you. It makes you look. It is shopping rendered interesting. My favourite was the big glass windows of a hat shop, Sombrereria Obach (since 1924), on Carrer del Call. This sombrereria was anything but sombre, its front windows a massed array of fedoras and flapper hats, berets and captains’ caps. Maybe this was where the old man bought his beret.

That afternoon, after returning to my Airbnb room (my host was an artisanal candy maker, and had given me some delicious jellies as a welcome treat), I changed and headed off to a yoga studio.

The yoga studio was off a plaza, through an archway, within an inner courtyard and up flights of stairs. If the Before Sunrise movies had been set in Barcelona, surely the lovers would have traipsed here.

The studio’s front office sold ­incense. “Artesanal incense”, the sign said.

Let’s be honest: artisanal ­incense verges on caricature. I mean, can it really be that much better than factory incense?

A few wrong turns and I was back on Carrer de Ferran when I passed the pizzeria again. “Foccaceria Toscana”, said the big sign. “Pizza artesanal”, said a smaller one. Artisanal pizza? Well, ­obviously.

Part 2: La Sagrada Família

Travel should induce more than smiles and selfies. At its best it should make you think, maybe even challenge you.

When I was a young back­packer in Catalonia, circa 1986, I was astounded by the buildings of Antoní Gaudí, a wild architect born of four generations of rural steel makers. He broke the rules. It was all so curvy, like something out of Dr Seuss. Gaudí’s ­geometry was not orthogonal but natural. His masterpiece, the east-end church called La Sagrada Família that has become the emblem of Barcelona, was, at the time – after a scant 104 years of toil – nothing more than a shell with spires. It might never be finished, they said. The interior was an open-air work site where little seemed to be happening. Still, the two facades, one showing the passion and the other the nativity, were more or less done.

The facades mixed holy images, such as Jesus Christ on the cross, with an odd assortment of mundanities – bananas, donkeys, even a “magic number” grid that added up to 33 in all directions, including diagonally (33 being the age at which Jesus died). It spurred the imagination, the half-awakened fever dream of a hermit genius. They didn’t make churches like this in my hometown on the prairies. By the end of that first visit to Barcelona, Sagrada Família was my favourite building in the world.

But this time, somehow, not so much. Maybe it was all those silly tourists, taking all those selfies. And now, across the street, a Burger King.

Three decades ago, Sagrada Família had been off the beaten track; but in the intervening years its prominence as a backdrop during the 1992 Olympics had sealed its fame. And now, in an age of social media, it had ­become just one more thing on the travellers’ to-do list: snap, post, leave.

So I sat off on my own in a park across the street and just looked at the passion facade, which is the one Gaudí supervised most closely.

This time, Sagrada Família struck me less as playful and eccentric than as rapturous and foreboding. Its jumbled ­elements seemed like a tearing down of worldly order. The ­tapered spires felt like a big hand saying a big “no” to the outside world.

Curious, I decided to do a ­little reading. I learnt that Gaudí was deeply conservative and not much interested in other ­people’s opinions (quote: “No light is shed by argument”). His few friends were not quite sure what to make of him. Joan Maragall, a poet, wrote in 1903 after a long conversation with Gaudí: “In his work, in his struggle to make ­ideas material, he sees the law of punishment, and he ­revels in it.”

La Sagrada Família is meant to expiate, to wipe away the sins of Barcelona. Indeed its full name translates as Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family. I could see why the late art critic Robert Hughes described it as “ecstatically repressive”.

Three days later, I took a guided tour of the church. And if the ­exterior seemed like a stern hand, a hand held as warning, the interior is like a cupped palm, ready to cradle what is put in it. It is beautiful and powerful.

There is a startling passage in Colm Toibin's 1990 book, Homage to Catalonia, in which he speaks with Jordi Bonet, Gaudí's successor as chief architect of the church. At the time, many said the design had lost its way.

Toibin delivered Bonet’s retort: “He wishes that the intellectuals and artists who attack him ... he wishes they would come and see what the nave will look like. He stands in front of a plan of the nave and shows me how the columns will make it look like a forest. ‘Look how the light comes in,’ he says.”

Look at that light. Today the nave is constructed, complete, consecrated, and the pure light that falls here is an ­undeniable glory of Sagrada Família. Amid all the clutter, the bananas and the donkeys, here is the calm heart of the church. It ­silences you and draws your eyes ­upwards, up along the tree-trunk pillars and away from the mundane. In places the light is an aquatic green, in places red or blue, depending on the shade of the stained glass.

Here, many are lost in thought.

Gaudí would die on June 7, 1926. As he crossed a street, looking neither right nor left, perhaps himself lost in thought, the master of curves was rendered flat by a tram running in a straight line.

Part 3: A plaza

A day later I sit in Placa George Orwell with a photographer who is a friend of a friend, and a hotel chef who is a friend of the ­photographer. As residents of Barcelona, they acknowledge the duality of tourists: economically part of the city’s lifeblood, yet socially somehow a dilution of that blood.

But look at it from the tourists’ angle. Sitting in this plaza, sipping a beverage, listening to a busker singing opera, the weather not prone to extremes, the stores full of local crafts, history all around you ... why would ­anyone not want this for their holiday?

Why would anyone, years later and lost in memory, not wish to find oneself here?