a fresh perspective
Novelist Françoise-Marie Santucci explores a Barcelona in metamorphosis. As radiant and rakish as ever, this city that never sleeps has carved out an oasis of serenity: Poble Sec, a former working-class area at the foot of Montjuïc hill.
Write about Barcelona? The city everyone’s seen, or thinks they’ve seen, or wants to see. It’s like when a film critic has to write about the latest Star Wars. Everyone has an opinion on the movie, even those who haven’t seen it. But what exactly have you seen of Barcelona when you’ve been to Barcelona?
The first time I went, over 20 years ago, I discovered the geometric grid layout of the elegant Eixample district, where hotels abound, sidewalks are broad, almost as wide as the avenues, the air is cool and the atmosphere genteel. From there, it’s easy to visit Park Güell and the Sagrada Família, two major draws in this city that seemed bold and quirky at the time. Because of Gaudí and his childlike eccentricities, no doubt. Barcelona cultivated a friendly, open atmosphere. I’ve been back several times. Things have changed, the lightheartedness has gone—or maybe it’s just me getting older—although you still catch glimpses of the Barcelona of old: a dilapidated shop front, washing strung out the windows, old ladies sitting on a bench. It was seaward-looking, fun-loving to the core, working class and racy as can be, celebrated by writers and artists who hung out in the taverns on Avenue del Paral·lel. The Barcelona of Jean Genet in the early 1930s springs to mind, and his description of the Barrio Chino:1 “The Barrio Chino was, at the time, a kind of haunt thronged less with Spaniards than with foreigners, all of them down-and-out bums. We were sometimes dressed in almond-green or jonquil-yellow silk shirts and shabby espadrilles.”
A balcony o’er the city
No almond-green silk or shabby espadrilles on this rainy April day (it often rains in spring in Barcelona), as I wander around the streets of Raval and the Barri Gòtic in the city’s pedestrian center. No reveries or melancholy—quite the opposite: the shivers, because of the never-ending drizzling rain and the hordes of tourists with their guides, sporting “Madonna headsets,” so many of them that they block the needle-narrow streets—Carrer de la Llibreteria, Carrer de n’Arai, Baixada de Sant Miquel, Carrer dels Tres Llits. The shivers, the rain, the crowds, and the rest send me swiftly back to my new base camp, Poble Sec.
It was a late discovery. Just a few years ago, in Barcelona guidebooks and even on a map in the tourist office, there was no Poble Sec. There seemed to be no point in mentioning those few streets wedged between Avenue del Paral·lel, still one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares, and Montjuïc hill. And a good thing, too. Because up there (I like to say “up there” even though it’s barely on the hillside), you feel you’re in a different world. A sense of peace pervades those who embrace it; a feeling of nonchalance, even torpor, slows your pace as you stroll around the small streets shaded by ash trees stretching up toward the light, their branches forming a green canopy over the Carrer de Margarit, de Tapioles, del Poeta Cabanyes, de Blasco de Garay, and others.
Too poor, too steep, the Poble Sec neighborhood was not included in Barcelona’s urban plan, laid out in the mid-19th century by a revolutionary architect, Ildefons Cerdà. He envisioned the city as a future megalopolis, expansive, airy and ideal for its inhabitants, despite its many factories. There is no other city in the Old World as geometric as this one; only the New World, on the other side of the Atlantic, where cities sprawl over vast swaths of land, has had the space, time and luxury to trace blocks and straight lines, and to hone its taste for an absence of curves—no doubt the spirit of the Industrial Revolution.
Curiously enough, even though it was not part of Cerdá’s plan, Poble Sec adopted a strict grid layout. This linearity, along with the well-worn appearance of the buildings and facades and the people, has deprived Poble Sec, “the dry village,” of any visible charm. No matter—so much the better! The “village” has all the time in the world. It doesn’t need us. It hasn’t yet been overrun by the boho boutiques selling ersatz design objects that are popping up everywhere else. Instead, it offers up its smells, pungent ones, even in springtime. Mingled whiffs of detergent, sewers, fried food, hot tarmac and pollen. You catch them on Carrer Blai, which has been pedestrian for ten years or so. It is this street and its many bars, where you can eat standing up, casual style, that have started to draw locals and tourists. Tapas cost practically nothing here, the same goes for the wine. The check for two: less than €20, even in the legendary Quimet & Quimet, where plates are prepared to order. Of course, there are some chic eateries setting up shop in the area, too. Their wait staffs are as handsome and rugged as the concrete floor, mismatched furniture is de rigueur, and the menus boast some exceptional offerings of fish and jamón.
Miró’s myriad suns
To get a panoramic view of the city, and of Poble Sec, you have to first go down to the sea. Which doesn’t mean much in Barcelona, unless you’re heading to the beaches to the north, toward Poblenou. The seashore near the “dry village” is the huge commercial port, behind Montjuïc, or, at most, the discreet shimmer of blue beyond the expressway, which runs between the city and what’s left of the coastline. I head down past the cars roaring by and join a narrow track for bikes and walkers. The thought of climbing the hill under the leaden sky (the rain has gone away at last) is not particularly tempting; luckily for me, a small-wheeled device whizzing along at high speed is a lifesaver: hooray for the electric bike! Montjuïc here I come!
The cactus garden seems to have been planted there by mistake. From the hillside carpeted with hundreds of species of palm, euphorbia, aloe vera, Barbary fig, cactus and succulents, I can see the port and its its huge container ships from Asia, and the ocean liners setting sail for the Balearic Islands. These plants from all over the world seem to be lapping up the urban spectacle, looking like so many strangely shaped giant marionettes—prickly ones and hairy ones, colorful, funny, ridiculous or cute—getting ready for the show. A bit higher up is a fabulous viewpoint: the cable car looms into sight, sliding gently on its cable, the suburbs to the north dissolving in a haze of heat, young Japanese tourists clustering around their selfie stick. I pedal on; and when my bike is speeding along the empty sidewalks in Montjuïc, what a thrill it is to fly with the wind!
The cable car looms into sight, sliding gently on its cable, the suburbs to the north dissolving in a haze of heat.
I arrive at the Fundació Joan Miró, one of the only museums in the world designed with input from the artist himself. He came up with the idea of creating a few windows that provide splashes of light, and rooms displaying in-situ works, like the monumental Tapestry of the Fundació: a cat-woman several meters high, visible from two levels so as to miss none of her strange, brightly colored charm. There’s greenery everywhere, and the city below is almost invisible. The rooftop terrace, all angles and curves, open to the sky, is drenched in sol and not a lot of sombra. Miró loved the contemplation, meditation and silence before returning to the city crowds.
The road winds in broad curves to Plaça del Sortidor, now packed at the day’s end. Locals, youngsters kicking a ball around, elderly ladies putting the world to rights in Catalan. Time for a café con leche, I think, as I find myself somewhere to sit nearby. I wouldn’t mind staying put in Poble Sec.
1 The Thief’s Journal Jean Genet, Grove Press, 1965, Genet describes the Barrio Chino, an ill-reputed neighborhood that no longer exists, located more or less in present-day Raval.
A place to write It was on Montjuïc hill, on the edge of the Greek Theater (which is in no way ancient since it dates from 1929 and was modeled after Epidaurus’s design), that I found one of the most peaceful sites, along a walkway lined with trees and benches in the shade. Is this miraculous retreat so rarely frequented because the only way to get here is on foot and when you do get here you’re slightly stunned by the heat and the countless stairs you have to go up or down (depending on where you start)? It’s a gem! It’s easy to find a little private corner in a Paris, London or Berlin park. But there’ll be other people around, beach towels, half-empty packets of chips strewn about. Here, nothing of the sort. Only silence, a light breeze wafting down from Montjuïc, the muffled din of the streets below, if that. I sit down in the shade of the trees, notebook in my lap. To write about this, and so many other things.
Grand Hotel central
This luxury haven is nestled behind the austere 1920s facade of a former office building. Carriages once entered where the lounge is now located, and the rooftop infinity pool is one of the world’s most eye-catching. Escape the urban stress in one of the 146 discreetly elegant rooms and suites. There’s a library, yoga, spa and City Restaurant, where Alberto Vicente dreams up a new Mediterranean menu every three months, a tribute to the city’s history—all the iconic sites of which are minutes away by foot.
Text Violaine Gérard
GRAND HOTEL CENTRAL
Vía Laietana, 30. Tél. +34 93 295 79 00.www.grandhotelcentral.com
Opened in 2015, the Brummell is a boutique hotel amid unassuming residential buildings. Christian Schallert, an artsy Austrian who’s been living in Barcelona for 15 years, opted for a tropical modernist style in his conversion of this former squat, with Scandinavian furniture, old floor tiles and Asian tools on the walls. The chic minimalist rooms are soundproofed, with some offering access to an outdoor staircase. Pool and mini-boutique (Arrels espadrilles and Bicoca lights).
Carrer Nou de la Rambla, 174. Tél. +34 931 258 622.www.hotelbrummell.com
© Josep Lluís Sert
© Roy Lichtenstein/ADAGP, Paris 2018
© Josep Clarà
KLM has up to 8 daily flights to Barcelona from Amsterdam.
Aéroport international de Barcelone-El Prat.
À 12 km de la ville.
AIR FRANCE KLM offices
— Depuis la France : Tél. 3654.
— Depuis l’étranger :
Tél. +33 (0)892 70 26 54.
Hertz, à l’aéroport.
Tél. +34 902 011 959.
Après deux biographies Kate Moss (Flammarion, 2008) et Monroerama (Stock, 2012),
Françoise-Marie Santucci vient de publier son premier roman Ton monde vaut mieux que le mien aux éditions Flammarion.
Barcelone. Histoire, promenades, anthologie et dictionnaire,
Robert Laffont, coll. Bouquins.
Gallimard, coll. Cartoville.
Gallimard, coll. GEOGuide et GEOGuide Coups de coeur.
Lonely Planet, coll. En quelques jours.
Lonely Planet, coll. Partir en famille.
Éditions Tana, coll. CITIX60.
© Antoine Corbineau / Talkie Walkie. Map for illustration, purpose only.