Summer Memories in Paradise

by Benjamin Nathan-Serio

Fantasy comes from ghosts. Fantasy is the people of the North. We are concrete. The ideal is from the Mediterranean. Orestes knows where he is going, while Hamlet wanders lost in doubt.” “La fantasia ve dels fantasmes. La fantasia és de la gent del Nord. Nosaltres som concrets. La imatge és de la Mediterrània. Orestes sap on va, mentre que Hamlet divaga perdut entre dubtes.” – Antonio Gaudí

I’m not an urban planner or an architect or even a philosopher. I can’t claim to know exactly why one city feels like an overwhelming mess and the next is as well-balanced as BARCELONA. But after 10 years here (living in 7 of her neighborhoods) I recognise that there are a few elements which I believe make her as close to perfection as a city could hope to be. Here they are in a 24 hour experience on any given Summer’s day in BARCELONA.

Dawn: On one of the beaches below Poblenou, far south from the guiri-tainted Barceloneta; the dark Mediterranean sky casts shrouds of darkness over the previous nights’ indulgences. In a time-lapse shot the sky leaps into royal blue with fiery yellow-red dashes and hot-pink explosions over the head of two bathing lovers warmed by their embrace and the pristine first rays of the new day’s sun.

Their group of companions still deep in intoxicated banter, back on the sand look up from their circled schmooze and fixate on the image of the climbing ball of fire over the silhouette of their two friends. The couple kiss as the sun clears the horizon and their group of colegas break into a chorus of hoots and hollers sending the sun even higher.

Breakfast: After a ten minute walk across the ivory sand beach (ivory, only because of the light at this time of the morning), an inspired climb to the top of one of the beaches red-rope pyramids, a naked salute to the dawn. The group moves past the McDonalds, the first reminder of the tragic reality of the new day, they march past the tweaking homeless bodies on the bridge over the litoral highway speckled with the early morning commuters, the group begins it’s morning crawl up the Rambla del Poblenou. Their numbers dwindle as some head back to their beds or the couches they surf. Others of the group set out to their jobs in schools, offices, meetings, rehearsals. The remaining few chance upon an early morning outdoor café in the sun. And by the sheer fortune of the day the café makes it’s own bolleria. They’ve arrived before the Catalan baker has had time to paint over her butter croissants with the signature Catalan sugary film. Still hot from the oven, the buttery confections are washed down with the first coffee swallows of the day.

Morning: After breakfast our pandilla continues its amble up the Rambla del Poblenou and then veers off to the left picking up a bottle or three of Vichy Catalan from the friendly Pakistani shop outside the Llacuna Metro stop, to take off the edge from last night’s indulgences. Vichy is the hangover panacea, second only to coffee and Marmite. One of the group picks up a fresh home-made samosa in case there was any question about breakfast being entirely too light.

It’s early yet and the sun is still hard at work burning away the misty vapour that sets-in nightly over this perfect Mediterranean jewel. The group of international hedonists has fully adopted this new day and now are ready for movement, action, creativity. They mount their modes of transport; bikes, Bicing, skateboards, roller skates and a scooter and they head south via Carrer Pujades, destination Ciutadella.

The dew has just begun to dissipate from the grass of Parc de la Ciutadella, once a fortress from which the Aragonese collected Catalan Tax and executed detractors of the monarchy. This morning the Catalans walk their dogs and finish their morning runs with impudence toward this historic shadow. Our group of friends enter the park via the Meridiana-Pujades entrance and pass a guiri and her sculpted instructor busy with her High Intensity Trainee readying her body for the season of sunny English-Lloret. They smell the zoo off to their left, pass the band of stray cats and approach the clearing in front of the Ciutadella fountain.

Ticky-ticky-TAC-tac-TOC, Ticky-ticky-TAC-tac-TOC, Ticky-ticky-ticky-ticky-TAC-tac-TAC-tac-TOC! The rapid rhythm of metal hitting wood in musical time reaches their ears. They round the bend and approach the park’s gazebo, just beyond the fountain where a well attended tap circle is under way. As they approach the beat enters their bones and their joints get to work moving more and more as they approach the gazebo. They are a spontaneous morning dance party, orbiting the practicing tap-dancers within the gazebo. They fuel each others energy; the tap-dancers providing the tempo. More and more people begin to gather as the sun continues to assume it’s position overhead. Newcomers join the dance whose rhythmic energy has become tribal.

After a tremendous crescendo and a 360 degree ovation, the sweaty, foot-loose celebrities are spent and they step down from the gazebo to finally formally great their new fans. The group of internationals is almost doubled now. Turns out they almost all have mutual friends, activities in common. Barcelona is a pañuelo.

There’s a thirst for more movement. An open contact dance taller at a young woman’s home is the next destination. She is known only as the Emperatriz. The twelve-odd unlikely colleagues and strangers find themselves just beyond the last homes on the outskirts of the Poble Sec barrio, nestled into Montjuïc Parc. A dazzling Catalan Bohemian dancer/sculptor/artist whose home has been designed around her creative passions. The 200+ square meters of her house are completely open and floored with sprung parquet. In one quadrant hang a pair of telas, elongated sheets on which dancer-acrobats intertwine their bodies and perform remarkable challenges to gravity incorporating their appendages into knots. Around the perimeter of the room are paintings and sculptures, some beautiful some grotesque, most a combination of the two.

An impeccably dressed Chilean friend produces a violin. The magical hostess sends one of her lovers to the piano and a raucous second round of dance ensues. As the commune of improvised dancers take turns sweeping one another across the floor, just outside the broad sliding glass doors others are gathered in a multi-lingual conversation circle. The light yellow mist of morning is replaced by a humid solar breeze. A trio in the garden begin to call attention to themselves as their disagreement becomes heated. A phone rings.

“Hay una calçotada por la casa de Ismar. Por la Carretera de les Aigües”, the bohemian empress exclaims, “és mes el gos cal passejarli”. And with a flourish the last porros are rolled, her shelter of art is boarded-up and secured and the group sets out toward Tibidabo for the hour of the comida.

Lunch: The disagreement in the garden has divided the group. Or perhaps it was that Jaume had a rehearsal in Vall D’Hebron? Or was it that Dermot, he had a show that afternoon in L’Hospitalet, no? What ever the case, menos mal, Ismar wasn’t going to feed all of BARCELONA. The remaining crew, led by a curiously zen, grey, alsacian-wolf cross-breed, nicknamed the Paraguayan jungle mutt, hike from Plaza Espanya up Calle Tarragona, Josep Taradelles and across Travessera de Gràcia, onto the FGC to Peu del Funicular, onto the Funicular and half-way up the counterweight mountain-face elevator to the Carretera de les Aigües, a cloud of isolated nature floating only 10 minutes over the biggest tourist destination in the Mediterranean.

Some 350 meters on this ‘highway of water’ and down onto a hidden staircase built into the mountainside the group diverts its course from the camino and follows the smoke coming from an oddly designed house quite literally carved into the mountain backdrop of Barcelona, Tibidabo.

The carbon is already lit and the parillas have been set over the dancing flames. The hand blender is heard finishing chopping the almonds. The Jungle Mutt lets himself into the open house.

“Isé!”, the cook identifies the panting buddha canine. The dog walkers follow their guide into the home and pass their host fresh calçots from the Mercado de San Antoni and vino del grifo poured into one and a half litre water bottle from an old musty vinateria. Ismar, El Manchego is a character preserved from the Franco era of Spain. This Albaceteño greets his guests with a flurry of salutations, introductions and exclamations about the heat, the tourists, the state of the world and finally the hunger. ¡Hay Hambre! The almonds are mixed into the romesco and the spring onions are placed on the grill.

After the gastronomic gozada passes, the last café’s are served and the conversations have less and less chispa. The culo of the second or third 1.5l bottle of vino is consumed – only because it would be silly to leave such a small amount. The pack of lunchers are spent and oppressed by their comida al-fresco bajo el sol. They take their cue from a wise curled-up canine whose already heard that ‘call of the wild’ that echoes out on Summer afternoon’s across the peninsula clear from Cadiz to San Sebastian. Siesta.

Afternoon: It’s five-thirty. Quitting time… In New York. Here on this mirador over La Ciutat Condal it’s time to emerge from an afternoon escape. The cool mountain afternoon air crosses Tibidabo carrying with it notes from a neighbor’s flamenco guitar. The guests despiden Ismar and follow the wind Northwest toward the terminus of the Carretera de les Aigües. The city unfurls to their right and passes below, at their feet. The cypreses, pinos, the green drop-off of the mountain before them are scenes from Fantasia. At Mirador Blau they begin their decent into town again, past the Chinese embassy, the stop for the Tramvia Blau, Plaza de Kennedy into Sant Gervasi, down Balmes and then across Via Augusta and finally into Gràcia.

La Vila de Gràcia, the autonomous barri of middle class Catalan families, artists, actors, writers, poets, musicians who make-up a community of genuine contemporary Catalan cosmopolitan gent del barri. Gràcia is something of a safe-haven from the tourists crawling like ants over one another in the neighboring Eixample, Passeig de Gràcia, Rambla de Catalunya, Gòtic and Raval. Here they are at least safe from the guiris de paseo, in town for 24 hours of stag-do stupidity.

But, excepcionalmente, this week a local version of jaleo is set to kick-off as well. The streets are blocked off and decorated with recycled plastic, carved styrofoam and wood, papier-mâché, balloons and literally anything else. The decorations are based on themes from books, movies or some undefinable hallucinogenic inspired universe onto itself. Only Antoni Gaudí’s designs can rival these street adornments. Our group of friends has landed here for the Festes de Gràcia.

Neighborhood bars are set up on every street with toasts and tapas for sale. Bands and singers of all genres and languages cycle through the stages set up every four or five blocks. Tallers of art and readings and theater abound. The empress followed by her trusty Isé lead the groggy friends through the labyrinth of streets and their autonomous recycled universes. The afternoon wanes on.

Dusk: Amidst the growing throngs of people the wild, wired empress and her trusty wolf are lost. The group decide to make their way toward the evening’s final destination. Following Paseo de Sant Joan all the way down past Plaza Tetuan and under Arc de Triomf and over the mall, hanging a left on Calle Buenaventura Muñoz which becomes Pallars just after Meridiana. They pass the Letona Factory and there’s a building with many stripped-out small factory units. Some of these old open spaces have been transformed into inhabitable apartments. Indeed, in a few cases, the results are worthy of architectural design magazines. One of our group calls this unassuming edifice his home. He leads them up to his flat where the evening’s drinks are mixed, is it their first? Their third? Who can keep track? They take the freight elevator to the 8th floor, climb a steel staircase so steep it may actually be a ladder, up onto the roof and step out. On the large open empty platform of a rooftop they take in their surroundings just in time to look to the east where a huge ball of fire on the horizon is just beginning to tuck-in behind the recently conquered Tibidabo. The spires of the Sagrada Família are silhouetted in the blinding light of the setting center of our universe. Behind, the streaks of clouds below a deep blue sky reflect an aura on the red scale. It’s the last warmth of the day. And below the red-yellow swirl of colors are the two towers, the MAPFRE and the Hotel Arts. Then the sea and the olympic born beaches of our dearly intimate ‘Barna’.

Night: In Poblenou, just over the rambla, there is a plaza not more then four blocks from the sea. In one of the smaller more unassuming buildings on the edge of that plaza on the top floor lives an ageless, pirate-magician from Bristol. Though he’s lived in Barcelona for almost ten years, he speaks no Spanish. All the same, he’s known across the land and in fact communicates with every living thing in it. Be it a mite-sized bicho or an overweight Javali, he’s spoken to them. It goes without saying that he regularly checks in with his Catalan, Spanish, Pakistani, Gypsy and all the rest of his neighbors. He rules his world from a faux leopard-fur lined throne in a heavily foliated “Jungle Room”. Lord Wilton as we shall call him, intersperses his hours of counsel with his subjects with visits to his roof-top garden which boasts all manners of plant life.

This magician’s foreign embassy in his homey plaza palace is the nocturnal destination for our group of hedonists. It will be their last stop before they complete their diurnal cycle. Lord Wilton has invited all the good people of the town for traditional English Roast featuring Jacket Chicken, boiled veg and his highness’s signature slow-roast potatoes, to be complemented before, during and after by green goodies directly from the good Lord Wilton’s garden. The only requisite for assistance is to have goodness in your heart and a bottle of red in your hand.

The good folk and food are washed back with goblets of wine and peels of laughter which echo across the plaza. The hours fall away easily and soon most of Lord Wilton’s subjects have retired. As the hands of the clock pass us all into a new day. The remaining merry-makers spiral down to the street to once again feel the cool breeze and familiar mystery of the vast Mediterranean upon them.

Dawn: A shroud of the Mediterranean swathes and cradles this tribe who are so mad to live. They fall into step, back toward the scene which started this perfect day in Barcelona.