Exhausted, I stop for hot chocolate. I've been lugging my suitcase over Barcelona's cobbled streets for what seems like a lifetime. The picturesque Gothic quarter, a labyrinth of shadowy, shabby-chic, Romanesque roads might be chock-full of atmosphere, but it's an exasperating place to be lost, especially with a Spanish vocabulary limited to ‘Noh' and ‘Si'. Eventually, after much gesturing, I finally find our hotel, the grandly titled A.A.E Rey Don Jaime.
According to the website I booked on, it's ‘centrally located' with ‘simple, bright rooms.' So here's a lesson on interpreting web-booking euphemism: Central = noisy. Simple = No AC, no safe, no WiFi. Bright = If you bring a torch.
Nevertheless, I'm determined to be upbeat. I'm meeting two friends here for a ‘girls only' two-week holiday in Spain. (For the record, we thought of it before Farhan Akthar and Co.) A dank room isn't going to stop me.
We meet at La Ramblas, a street lined with cafes, artists and performers, to wallow in glasses of sangria the size of our heads. As it gets dark, we weave between grungy backpackers, busloads of earnest sneaker-shod tourists and bachelorette parties of giggly, glamorous women in high heels. As the night wears on, the general air of craziness intensifies: a man painted green gravely cycles past, two actors dressed as Hobbits try chatting us up and a couple of people streak past wearing absolutely nothing. In the background, street artists offer to draw caricatures, bootleggers hold out beer and club representatives hand out free passes to the discos in the area.
We're headed to Los Tarantos, in Placa Reial, famous for Flamenco. The balmy, crowded room stills in awe as the performance begins, with simmering dancers and rousing music. It's so powerful we're still a little teary when we leave, walking straight into a Gaudi lamp post. Barcelona's favourite son, Antonio Gaudi was a Spanish Catalan artist-architect. We later visit his life-work: the Sagrada Familia, an unrestrained, fantastical cathedral teeming with extraordinary details. It's famously unfinished — with an anticipated completion date of 2026. After 16 years of working on the cathedral, Gaudi was hit by a tram and died in 1926. Even incomplete it's awe-inspiring, with an alluring, phantasmagorical quality.
Despite acquiring frightfully pink ear plugs we sleep fitfully through the night, buffeted by shrieks, laughs and squeals from people on the street below us. A very drunk woman wakes us at 5 a.m. by singing rousing Spanish anthems right outside our window. So, the day's spent dosing on the beach, where a Punjabi man selling mojitoes brags to us about how much money he makes by buying lemons, mint, ice and rum from the supermarket, mixing them at the beach, and selling the resulting cocktail for 6 Euros apiece. He's been here for an hour and already made 200 Euro from a bunch of high-spirited Swedish boys.
At midnight, taking advantage of our ‘central location' and anonymity, we head out for a walk — in pyjamas. In ten minutes, we're at Plaça de Catalunya, the heart of Barcelona's anti-crisis protest. Just the night before, local police had fired rubber bullets to disperse protestors. The mood is in turns languid and fiery. Every inch of space is covered with tents, mats and sleeping bags, as people debate, sing and play guitars. We join in enthusiastically, sitting cross-legged between a bunch of protesters who compliment us on our pyjamas and bring us up to date on the situation. Then above the heated political discussions, we hear “samosa, samosa” and turn to see yet another slick Indian entrepreneur.
Finally coming to terms with the fact that we're more ‘Paris Hilton' than ‘Grungy Backpacker' over a breakfast of warm bagels served with rich cream cheese at a café next door, we slide into a cab and move into a chic hotel in trendy Gracia district. Gracia's highlight is Gaudi's enchanting Park Guell, set on El Carmen Mountain. The entry alone is worth the exhausting climb: guarded by a French professional bubble blower, it's a magical mosaic of twisting paths, undulating ceramic patchwork and towering pillars. And right on top, are two Hansel and Gretel houses, which might as well be made of gingerbread with their vanilla and chocolate roofs, liberally laced with fluffy meringue.
Now that we're done with the Tourist Route, Argentinean Tango dancer Guillermo Agustín Fariña promises to show us the Barcelona of the locals. It's 10 p.m. on a Saturday night, and the city's in party mode. Guillermo takes us on a brisk walk, past walls bustling with theatrical graffiti, plazas lavish with music and bars spilling with football fans. We finally dive into an underground bar, as well concealed as Alice in Wonderland's rabbit hole. Inside it is blasé and Bohemian with warm brick walls, crammed book cases and couches scattered with bright cushions. Appropriately enough, it's called ‘Shhh...No se lo digas a Nadie,' which means ‘Shhh… Don't tell anyone.” So don't tell anyone I told you.