Travel guidebooks, no matter the publisher, are frequently filled with pages about the art, music, literary icons and food of their chosen destinations. Almost all travellers to a given city will name at least one of these three as a prime motivation for their trip. But just as there are often vast discrepancies between a guidebook’s description of a place and the way each person actually finds it there are very different things that can be learned from utilizing these culture points as the guides themselves. This is true of many parts of world, but none more so than the city of Barcelona where a brief survey of artistic representations of the city, and study of the foods created there can be a far better guide than any you’ll find in a bookstore’s travel section. This is alternative Barcelona.
The “King of Spain” Concept
For a quick glance at this art as guidebook theory I’ll stick to three main works specifically picked for a traveller/outsider preparing to visit Barcelona: one song, one novel, and one film. Though still relatively unknown the solo singer/guitarist Kristian Matsson who performs under the moniker The Tallest Man on Earth gained a devoted following from his second album, The Wild Hunt, which features a track entitled “King of Spain.” I should mention that Matsson is Swedish and the song is far about the singer/narrator than about Spain itself, but his reflections and impressions of being an outsider in Spain are a good starting place to begin thinking about your trip. The chorus of the song proclaims, “If you could reinvent my name…I want to be the King of Spain.” Matsson is really expressing two concepts that are uniquely in sync in Barcelona: a desire to transform/change and a sense of command and ownership of your time there. Barcelona is very welcoming and very insulated at the same time. Locals are proud of their Catalan identity and can be unforgiving of being referred to as “Spanish.” Yet the large sidewalks lined with quaint tables and chairs where patrons sit and dine so late into the night you could almost call it early in the morning are nothing if not inviting. Waiters and Chefs, who are without a doubt eager to please for a tip, are genuinely proud of the food and culture and happy to make you a temporary part of their lives. Feeling as though you are forced to assimilate—“reinvent my name,”—and the star of your own little story—“the King of Spain”—is an apt way to prepare yourself for your adventure here.
Beauty at Every Turn
These late night dinners and quaint outdoor settings are the main stages on which Woody Allen’s film Vicky Cristina Barcelona takes place, which adds a visual element to the guide started with Matsson’s music. The film, again centering around two outsiders spending a summer in Barcelona, may be satirical but the sometimes overblown beauty of the setting, landscapes, and architecture has some spot on advice for the beauty-seeking traveller. Only a small amount of time in the film shows the more “standard” aesthetic stops (the Sagrada Familia, Parc Güell, etc) and they are far from the most visually striking scenes.
The concept here is clear and accurate: much as you may want to see the landmarks, and well you should, Barcelona is a city with visuals to take in on nearly every block that should not be overlooked just because you are en route to get in a two-hour line at Guadí’s church. The “King of Spain” mindset runs deep with locals for who beauty is something to create for themselves not merely let happen around them and giving yourself plenty of time to simply take in your surroundings will be just as rewarding as the more planned out attractions.
A Different Kind of Travel Book
Though still keeping away from traditional guidebooks, the abstract feelings about Barcelona found in Matsson’s music and visual appetite wetting of Vicky Cristina…all come together with real, meaningful insights into a traveller’s experience of the city in Colm Toibin’s novel The South. The story follows an Irish artist who moves to Barcelona and the writing is as alive as the city itself with depictions of the people, places, food, and culture you’ll encounter today despite being set in the 1950s. I wouldn’t want to spoil your experience of reading the novel with too many details but do take this novel into consideration as you map out your time in Barcelona. Another book you may find even more informative is Barcelona by cultural critic Robert Hughes, which despite being nonfiction still carries a great story and beautiful writing to its detailing of the city and mirrors many of the points we’ve seen and heard from the music and movie—“It is possible, some days, to see the whole of Barcelona with your feet on the ground,” the book begins. Guidebooks are so quick to mention the artistic highlights in informative but often dry descriptions. Use more of your planning time to find cheap flights to let yourself get lost in a great read during rather than plot every moment of your time on the ground. Do not discredit what music, film, and literature have to say about a city where art is a main attraction.
Guidebooks will always offer great advice on the best places to savor the local flavors of any city, but in Barcelona doing some of your own “homework” with regards to food can go a long way. Food is an integral part of Catalan identity, so much so that the first ever cookbook written in any of the Romance languages was in Catalan. While you may not find yourself doing a large amount of cooking while travelling it can still be beneficial to study up and even try making some Barcelona favorites at home to get a feel for food culture. A large staple of the cuisine is centered on the concept of Mar i Muntanya—sea and mountains—frequently featuring combinations of chicken and shrimp or related land and sea delights. Mixing the sweet and savory is also very common in stews, pasta sauces, and soups. Additionally, presentation will go a long way in your understanding of Catalan cuisine, of which the most well known practice is tapas.
Tapas is more than just a fun way to try many different dishes and learning to eat in the manner of a local can be as important as eating the foods themselves. As we’ve seen in Toibin’s novel and Woody Allen’s film meals are large and late affairs but the days starts no later in Barcelona than anywhere else. While American and British culture may have adapted tapas into appetizers right before a meal, the tapas portion of the day in Barcelona (generally around noon between lunch at 2-4pm and dinner at 9-11pm) is an important social aspect to Catalan culture. Work, politics, and preparations for the rest of the day/evening are all integral discussion topics during tapas dining. Getting used to the kinds of food and ways of eating common in Barcelona can give you a leg up on what to seek out, how to identify authentic cuisines from microwaved tourist traps (as I unfortunately found myself on my first day in the city), and how to map out your day to integrate yourself with the local crowd, conversation, and culture. Follow the food, not the restaurant.
In truth there is so much to see and do in Barcelona that you can choose any of a hundred different ways to research and spend your time there and the artistic and edible route is by no means an all-encompassing view of the city. But some universally applicable food for thought (pun intended) is that travel guidebooks are meant to do just that, guide your travel, not dictate it step by step. So long as you don’t stray to unwelcoming or unsafe parts of town, Barcelona is a city with so much beauty to see, hear, and eat as well as a place where getting lost can offer a special kind of beauty to the traveller seeking line-less sightseeing and a slice of local life.