4 Apr 2012

Las Ramblas

You wake up in Barcelona. You look out the window. The city lies expectantly before you. You think to yourself what should I do today?…Do I fancy seeing some culture? Hmm…Nah! Do I fancy exploring some hidden barrio? Hmm…Nah! Do I fancy getting jostled, ripped off and maybe even mugged? Hmm…Now you’re talking.
          There’s only one place to go....
          Las Ramblas!

Las Ramblas : A quiet night on Las Ramblas
          I’m not going to tell you how to find Las Ramblas because if you’re a visitor to Barcelona and you can’t find it, don’t worry, it will find you.
          As far as I can tell Las Ramblas is a premeditated attempt by Barcelona to make tourists stop coming. It is very crowded. It is hideously over-priced. It is lined with stalls selling tacky paella themed fridge magnets. 
          It is horrible. Obviously this being Barcelona it is stylishly horrible.
          And, of course, it gets more popular every year.
          Well, obviously partly because people are pretty much stupid. But mainly because there is nothing like it anywhere else in the world. At least, not that I’ve seen. I mean there could be a back street somewhere in Estonia filled with human statues but if there is they’re keeping it pretty quiet.
Ah, the human statues. You think you’ve seen human statues before? – you really haven’t. They line pretty much the whole street and The Ramblas is a long street. They range from the crazily brilliant to the downright appalling (and of course there is no correlation between quality of statue and quantity of audience) . From spooky skeletons riding bicycles to fat men with fruit on their head. There is no linking theme. There is no rationale. There is no explanation at all quite frankly. Which is the secret of their success. Seen together, this unmovement of human statues (OK you come up with a better collective noun) is a tribute to the outrageous bizarreness and questionable taste of the human imagination.
Questionable Taste in Action
         Apparently you need a licence from the Barcelona Institute of Actors to appear there and competition can be quite fierce to obtain one. It is one interview process I would like to witness.
           Interviewer : What do you do?
          Statue One : Nothing.
          Interviewer : And you?
          Statue Two : Nothing.
          Interviewer : Same for you, fat man with fruit on your head?
          (Statue Three nods)
          Interviewer : Congratulations! You’ve all passed.

          If you do want to take a picture then drop a little change in their tin first – all that body paint doesn’t pay for itself (and it is in keeping with this blog’s emphasis on manners). And keep an eye out for human statue cigarette breaks which are among my own personal Barcelona highlights. One minute they are stood on their plinth smiling for pictures with excited children and then, abruptly, a moment later, they are grumpily sitting with their backs to the crowd having a fag. It’s like Father Christmas just rang up your child and told them he didn’t exist. You just don’t get those kind of salutary life lessons at Disneyland
Las Ramblas 2 I wasn't making the cycling skeletons up
          Las Ramblas runs from Plaza Catalunya right down to the statue of Christopher Columbus. It is apparently really three Ramblases (Rambli?) but they are all connected and in one straight line so you’d never know it unless you were a postman. The human statues are concentrated a bit more towards the Plaza Catalunya end because as you head towards the sea there are more stalls and hence less space for them to stand idly by in.
          Halfway down there did used to be loads of stalls selling caged birds and other unfortunate animals. However, the Generalitat (Catalan council) seems to be trying to gradually phase them out as animal cruelty no longer plays quite as well with tourists as it once did (at least not in Catalonia – it’s still going strong in the rest of Spain. Sorry, obligatory reference to the fact that civilised Catalonia has banned bullfighting. Hurray. The only downside being Hemingway’s classic having to be reprinted as ‘Life in the Afternoon’ which admittedly doesn’t have quite the same ring).
          Next there are the flower and herb stalls which are all very colourful and give your nose a brief respite from the pongy drains. 
Las Ramblas 3 Breathe in here.
 Then you reach the Liceu Metro station and on your right slightly back from the road you will see Barcelona’s main market, La Boqueria which I will write about another time. Almost directly opposite is The Café De La Opera which is pretty much the one place I would recommend spending money in the whole street and ideal if you fancy a coffee –  historic (it’s in Homage to Catalonia), lively and just happens to be the scene of one of the most embarrassing experiences of my life but don’t let that stop you. Otherwise do not eat or drink anywhere on The Ramblas. Especially not outside. Really, really don’t do it.  Because not only are you 99.9999% guaranteed to get ripped off (the 0.0001% is when there’s a natural disaster which wipes out the city before the bill comes) but also you may relax and put your wallet on the table and there’s no good outcome after you’ve done that.
          Which brings me neatly to theives. There are pickpockets and petty criminals on the Ramblas (notice how well-secured the human statues money tins are). But you shouldn’t worry too much if you take a few basic precautions – keep wallets and other valuables out of sight, don’t flash large amounts of cash, carry your rucksack in front of you rather than behind you etc and be prepared to shout “Ladrones!” (thieves) at the top of your voice.
          Next, we reach the artists who sit patiently behind their easels and will happily draw a picture of you and your loved one(s) that exaggerates all your most unattractive bits in ten minutes or so and which you can then stick up on your wall when you get home to remind you of how beautiful Barcelona is and how repulsive you are. I don’t get voluntary caricatures. But then again I’m ugly enough not to need any help from strangers.
          Which brings us to the end of the Ramblas and the statue of Christopher Columbus, confidently pointing in directly the opposite direction to America. Which is a very appropriate ending to a walk down Barcelona’s busiest street.
          It is tawdry. It is nasty. It is a tourist trap.
Las Ramblas 4
But somehow it works. Why? Because it’s almost always hot and sunny. Because there are Gaudi-designed lamposts and flamboyant buildings towering above the huckstering below. Because there is the infectious excitement of lots of people who have just arrived somewhere new and foreign. Because there is the sheer, naked energy of one group of people trying to convince another group of people to give them money in any way they can think of for any kind of tat they can sell them.
Las Ramblas 5
          You can’t help but love it.

Useful Spanish words/phrases for Las Ramblas

¡No! – No!
¡Otra vez! ¡No! – One more time, No
¡Escucha hombre! ¡No!  – Listen, buster, No.

If you fancy chatting :

 ¿Cuánto cuesta el imán para la nevera? – How much does the fridge magnet cost?
¿Si te hicieria cosquillas, moverías? – If I tickled you, would you move?
¿Por qué corre ese hombre? – Why is that man running?
¿Dónde está mi cartera? – Where’s my wallet?

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