For many, travel is a search for authenticity.
Perhaps you spend most of your year working and living in a land of highways and strip malls, where much of the time life is just blah.
Driving to work in the mornings, you find yourself yearning for a few weeks off so that you can explore the world.
When your vacation comes, you catch a plane to a faraway city, and step out of the airport hoping to be buffeted from all sides by the stiff breeze of authentic human experience.
Maybe you even hope to have this profound, authentic experience in Barcelona, second city of Spain.
Well, if that’s the case, I’ve got some bad news for you: everything in Barcelona is fake.
The boobs on that one girl you like from the gym?
I don’t know. Maybe you should strike up a conversation and find out.
In any case, here’s a rundown of some of the lies, exaggerations and outright fakery you might enjoy in the city I call home…
Gothic Neighborhood: it’s not Gothic
You know Gótico, our quaint medieval neighborhood around the cathedral?
Well, it turns out “Gothic” is just a slogan invented to attract tourists in the 1920s.
For example, Puente del Obispo (that bridge connecting two buildings on Carrer del Bisbe, near the Cathedral) was inspired by Gothic architecture, but actually built in 1928. The architect who designed it, Joan Rubió even went on the record, saying “¡El Barrio Gótico no existe!”
A survey of buildings in Barcelona’s historical center made around that time recorded a total of 5 buildings – five – that were actually Gothic.
(The cathedral itself, it must be said, is partially Gothic. Constructed in a Gothic and Neo-Gothic style, it was actually built in bits and pieces over a period of over 600 years – finally finished in 1913.)
Now, if you’re like me, the words “Gothic Architecture” might not mean much to you. The difference between fourteenth century actual Gothic and twentieth century Neo-Gothic might not be something you’re contemplating, as you sip your gin and tonic on some quaint old plaza.
You just want to see something interesting.
Well, you’re in luck. Barcelona definitely has a lot of cool buildings. Some old churches that are worth visiting. And an old city center with narrow streets, cobblestones, and the occasional gargoyle or coat of arms carved into a facade.
But, strictly speaking, most of it’s not Gothic.
Arc de (no) Triomf (at all)
Now I don’t mean to hate on the Arc.
I live nearby, and it’s an impressive monument. The way the light hits the red bricks at various times of the day. The whole avenue full of people having fun in front of it.
But I’d like to point out the fact that the arch itself doesn’t celebrate any particular triumph.
(The fact is, Barcelona hasn’t had many military triumphs in the last few centuries. Sad but true.)
Anyway, our beloved Arc was built in the Neo-Mudejar style for the 1888 Barcelona World’s Fair – otherwise known as the Universal Exposition. And all it was meant to be was the entrance gate to the fair. So if you’re looking for triumph, it’s best to look elsewhere.
For example: the world’s highest triumphal arch is in Mexico City, and celebrates the Mexican Revolution. And the best-known, Arc de Triomphe in Paris, commemorates those who died in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.
Barcelona’s arch, then, is more decorative than triumphal, but it’s an example of how the city has changed itself throughout the years because of important international events.
The biggest example of that, of course, happened in 1992, and it’s what we’re going to talk about next.
Barcelona’s beach was imported from Egypt
There comes a point in every great “Madrid vs Barcelona: Which is better to live in?” debate when many Spaniards will just throw up their hands and say, “Yes, but Barcelona has the beach!”
That’s mostly the end of the discussion. So much so that when I moved here, I spent two years living near the beach in Barceloneta… the horror!
But my logic was simple: why move halfway across Spain only to live in Gràcia, 45 minutes away from Barcelona’s one positive attribute?
Madrid is great, but Barcelona has more sand. In hindsight, I’m ashamed I fell for it.
In any case, did you know that Barcelona’s beaches aren’t natural? In fact, they were largely constructed using Egyptian sand before the ’92 Olympics.
For a long time previously, the train tracks went right along the coast. (They still do if you head up towards Badalona and Costa Brava.) And in some neighborhoods, the area between the train track and the sea was – in the words of the official Barcelona website – basically a garbage dump.
The Barceloneta area did have its share of rowing clubs, health spas, and an institution called “La Escuela del Mar”, which was destroyed by bombs in the Civil War.
You can see some old photos online, it looks like the beach at that point consisted of about 5 meters of gravel.
But “the beach”, as we now know it, full of tourists in thongs and flip-flops, is obviously not a concept that would have worked in the ultra-Catholic Spain of yore. Baños de San Sebastián (pictured above) allegedly caused something of a scandal by allowing men and women to swim together.
But that was more than a century ago. The ’92 Olympics changed everything in Barcelona – the city brought in tens of thousands of cubic meters of sand from Egypt, extended the sea walls, and built the beaches we now know and (perhaps, even) love.
It may not last forever, though. City Hall has been complaining for years that the beaches are losing sand and shrinking at an alarming rate – especially during the massive storms that batter the city each winter.
The Spanish government has promised to do something about it, eventually, with a plan to bring the sand back from where it’s floated out to sea. El País suggests that they might start in 2024.
Anyway, is “fake” necessarily all that bad?
I don’t know.
As I said before, I like Arc de Triomf. Barrio Gótic is pretty cool.
And the beach… well, if you’re into that sort of thing, what does it matter where the sand came from?
The search for authenticity seems to be a yearning for something “traditional” – something with many generations of history behind it. If people have been doing it for a thousand years, it must “mean” something… right?
Maybe. But I suspect most traditions we see today just aren’t all that old.
The Spanish cuisine you get in a nicer restaurant today probably isn’t too close to what Don Quixote was eating. (Roast cat, anyone?) And even the oldest of traditions isn’t immune to change, or to being repackaged and commodified as a show for tourists.
My recommendation? Enjoy your life! And don’t worry too much about it.
Sometimes a beach is just a beach.
Daniel AKA Mr Chorizo.
P.S. If you want to see something that’s legitimately old, try watching a bullfight. Not in Catalonia, though. They banned bullfighting up here about ten years ago. Flamenco also seems to be at least a few centuries old, although its roots are mostly just hypothesis. In any case, many Spaniards aren’t too excited about the “Spain, land of bulls and flamenco” stereotype. I have an article about it, actually: Top 5 Spanish stereotypes: true or false?
P.P.S. I have another article about how to experience Barcelona like a local if you’re still set on having an authentic experience. No bulls or flamenco necessary, actually.
P.P.S. Questions? Comments? Hit me up, right here…