I just spent a week in Barcelona with my family. In seven days of jaunting around Barcelona’s streets and underground metro, in sunny weather as well as in rain, not once did we miss a car. My kids (at ages 3 and 7) were just as comfortable walking around as the mothers (aged mid-50s and mid-60s).
On day 1, always the time of wide-eyed discovery on a trip, dipping in and out of the metro was like experiencing a roller coaster ride. By day 2, we were all in the swing of things. Udai was reading routes off the metro map effortlessly and Aadyaa knew where there would be escalators and where she would need to trudge up and down stairs. The long underground tunnel at the Passeig de Gracias station, where we changed metro lines, seemed a bit daunting at first. But by the end of the week, it had become more like a familiar friend!
Even more delightful were the streets. At one delightful extreme is La Rambla, Barcelona’s main shopping and nightlife street. A couple of hilarious American boys we met drinking at the corner bar called it “the strip”! Their first night in the city, they were probably imagining a busy strip full of hookers and neon lights. La Rambla is far from it though! A wide avenue in the centre shaded by graceful plane trees, it attracts families, hip youngsters, business tycoons, romantic couples, old shuffling folks and the wierdos in equal measure. You can see them all there, sipping sangria and eating tapas.
The ‘laamblaa’ was Aadyaa’s favourite Barcelona spot. She could run around freely, under our watchful eyes, and watch the delightful, colourful, eccentric world go by licking a limone ice-cream. The two single motorable lanes on either side of the central promenade barely break the flow of the pedestrian festival here. The pedestrian is king, crossing the road at will, lording it over the cars and scooters, confident in her status.
The same is true of the streets and by-lanes of the city. The main motorable arteries of Barcelona- the Diagonal, the Parallel and the Passeig de Gracias, for instance, have wide sidewalks on either side. Cafes spill on to these sidewalks and walking down these is as much about people-gazing as about getting somewhere! In fact, Barcelona’s fame as a fashion hub for eclectic design is evident in the way the locals dress here, their carefully conjured casual appearance and skill at layering their clothes gracefully gave us plenty of ideas to ponder over and take back home.
The smaller neighborhood streets were delightful too and the character of the city changed with each area. Personally, I enjoyed the gritty, mean and festive atmosphere of El Raval. More noise, a vibrant immigrant community that shows its presence in the signage and the variety of produce in the local shops, many more young people jesting and ribbing each other. Though the guidebooks warned us of petty crime here, it didn’t feel unsafe. We actually had both of the unpleasant pick-pocketing experiences in the Metro, where petty gangs target tourists. Rahul’s quick reflexes were handy and we learned fast to keep cash stowed away safe.
Nearly the diametric opposite of El Raval was the Barrio Gothic, an old quarter of the city. We dropped into a tiny shoe shop that had comfortable Majorca-made shoes on sale. A quaint old lady was competing with us for the shopkeepers attention ; clearly she was used to having him to herself! We greeted many perfectly dressed elderly gentlemen and ladies in this quarter, trodding around, sunning themselves in its quaint squares, sipping a beer.
Perhaps the most delightful experience though, and different from the city streets, was Parc Montjuic. We trekked up the short distance from our apartment to the green belt that is the city’s major lung. Instantly, the greenery and the height have us the special rush of being with nature. Here is where the city hosted the Olympics in 1992 and the hill is pleasingly landscaped. Both the kids found their special activities here. Aadyaa enjoyed an hour of fun in the children’s play area, mingling with a class of kindergarten local schoolkids about her age. In competing with them, pushing each other around and then finally finding friends to do mischief with, her day was made! Meanwhile, Udai was hankering for a long trek and had dragged Nani (my mom) up to the very top of the mountain from where they got the most fantastic view of the Mediterranean.
We read somewhere that Barcelona gets 14.5 million visitors annually, nearly three times the number all of India gets. For me, the tourist experience was particularly enjoyable because of how easy it was to walk through the city, access the places you wanted to, take in the sights and sounds. Though the city is well-planned, the museums are plenty and excellent, the food delectable–all of these enjoyments were really tied together by Barcelona’s essentially walkable character and how fully this is embraced by its residents.
The walkable nature of the city’s streets, its squares and avenues are even more engaging as you see the residents enjoying these spaces as much as you do. A group of friends sitting in the local square enjoying a cup of coffee, a family with three generations out in the metro on their way to a family lunch, two old men enjoying their sangria and Iberian ham, one old woman sitting on a park bench watching children play, a group of students divvying up their home-made sandwiches and lemonade as they hurried to finish a meal ahead of class–there were endless scenes to take back with me. Many instances of how these well-designed public spaces, wide sidewalks, careful attention to accessibility everywhere have significantly enhanced the quality of life for Barcelona’s residents. The ease of passage that adds to their easy-going, friendly nature. The children especially enjoyed the special attention locals gave them, patting their heads or trying to start a conversation, playing mime games at times. Always ready with a smile, walking through Barcelona among its elegant. friendly residents was a pleasure. I can’t help but imagine an equally well-planned and walkable Delhi and what a pleasure that would be!