Las Ramblas in Barcelona, Spain
Nowhere is the truism “So much to see, so little time” more true than when we arrived in Barcelona. This former Roman colony called Barcino, founded more than 2,000 years ago, had a thousand and one sights to see that my wish list running to 2 pages barely scratched the surface. However, it was near to impossible to see even a third of what I wrote down. The city’s brimming with art, culture and architecture that I wished our 3 days there could have been 3 months instead.
The moment our taxi turned left at the Columbus monument to enter the lower end of Las Ramblas where our hotel was located, excitement immediately filled the air. A man came running full speed in front of us pursued by two others. Seconds later, a wailing police motorcycle jumped the curb and joined the chase. “Por que, Senor?”, I asked the driver. Oops – big mistake! For he launched into a barrage of rhetoric which included the words caramba, cabron and hijo de puta. I got the drift. “Pardon senor, yo no habla Espanol”, I said or words to that effect in my awful, broken Spanish (how I wish I had paid closer attention to my Spanish professor in college!). In his equally-broken English, he tried to tell us to be careful since, he said, there were many thieves around the place like that guy being pursued by two undercover cops.
The Continental Hotel was located a few steps away from the tip of the Ramblas near Placa de Catalunya, the vast central square dividing the old Barcelona from the new where two landmark buildings dominate it: the Banco Espanol and the sprawling El Corte Ingles department store. After depositing our luggage inside our room, we immediately bounded outside to explore this wide boulevard that snaked 1-1/2 kilometers to the sea. It is to Barcelona what the Champs Elysees is to Paris. Plus more. For, here in the Ramblas, you will find the distilled essence of the city – from elegant cafes, grand opera houses and great shopping to street mimes, con men and prostitutes. Classy chic rubbing shoulders with unkempt seediness in equal amounts.
We started our walk from the Canaletes fountain after turning the corner from the Hard Rock Café – filled with homesick Americans – where we had a quick lunch. “Rambla” comes from the Arabic word meaning “stream”. The place used to be a dried-up riverbed that flowed out to the sea which was filled in over the centuries until it became this great, wide, tree-lined boulevard that it is today. The central pedestrian way flanked by two lanes for vehicular traffic is still a “stream” in the sense that there is an endless movement of people doing all sorts of things across its length and breadth. One could just sit on a bench the whole day and never get bored!
About a hundred meters down was the bird market filled with all sorts of feathery pets twittering in an endless cacophony of sounds. Not only were birds sold here but also fishes, turtles and other small pets. A little bit further away were flower stalls where a riot of colors could be seen and varying sweet scents could be smelled. On both sides of the way were interesting buildings with various architectural styles reflected on their facades. There was the famous neo-classical Liceu Opera House, the Gothic Iglesia del Pi and the big, plain baroque Betlem church. Many structures were Modernist in design and one of them had an Art Deco dragon guarding an umbrella shop. Close to it was the Museum of Erotica full of nudes and stuff that had to do with sex including the chance to hear phone sex in four different languages. We felt that the 7.50 Euros entrance wasn’t worth a turn on!
The best spot, I think, in the whole place was the La Boqueria. This lively market with a metallic canopy entrance adorned by leaded glass and the city’s coat of arms is a food junkie’s paradise. Fruits, vegetables, fish, chicken, shellfish, live snails, ham, all explode in a wild array of stalls. I had never seen such abundance of produce packed within a compact space. The olives alone had 25 varieties while dozens of dried fruit candies were piled one atop each other. There were also row upon row of open bars at the back of the market where one could have an espresso con leche, tortilla Espanola and freshly-squeezed juice to go with any kind of tasty meal. They were so tempting that we took time off to have a plate of seafood piled with squid, clams and bits and pieces of various fishes. Also on the menu item was bull’s testicles which we passed – none of us was that adventurous to give it a go! We couldn’t resist though having ice cream with their endless fruity concoctions. The prices were pretty cheap compared to the restaurants outside the market and finally getting out of the place was hard enough since your palate craved for more even if your stomach said enough was enough!
Cheek-by-jowl all the way down the whole stretch were magazine stalls selling not only travel brochures and postcards but also all sorts of souvenir items like hats, keychains, scarves and what-have-you. Then there were the artists who peddled their original paintings and reproductions. Want a live portrait sketching session? There were numerous aspiring Dalis and Picassos who would willingly do you that favor ranging from 10 to 50 Euros. Halfway down our walk, we came upon the mosaic on the sidewalk created by Joan Miro.
And of course, there were the mimes. Every few meters, you could see different living statues in various poses ranging from the funny to the sublime to the outrageous. A black guy with angel wings reading a book, a robot dressed-up in discarded plastic bottles, a devil painted in bright red complete with tail and trident, Robin Hood in drag and, my favorite, a car crash victim who played dead though his eyes surveyed the people passing by! If you wanted to take their pictures up close, you were obliged to drop some coins in their money trays – much so if you wanted a photo taken with them. I told the wife that in case we lost our money and credit card, I knew exactly what business we’d both get into just to raise airfare to get back home!
At the end of the promenade was the roundabout right by the seaside where a 200-foot tall column stood. On top of it was Christopher Columbus with one arm pointing out to the sea. It was here in 1493 that Ferdinand and Isabel welcomed the man who discovered America. We took the elevator to the top for a magnificent view of the city and thus ended our enjoyable afternoon stroll.
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