Don’t get me wrong – I’ve only lived in the Ciudad Condal for two years, so I’m hardly a dyed in the wool, sardana dancing Catalan. Nevertheless, Barcelona is where I live, work and pay taxes and it is where my daughter was born. And all this implies certain obligations.
It was not always thus: I first visited Barcelona in the summer of 1995 as a fresh-faced (ish) youth of 17 years old and was immediately hit by the city’s air of freedom. This freedom resounded in any number of inconsequential things: you could buy beer from the bakers and drink in the street; night clubs stayed open until when they fancied; and people on the beach undressed with no regard for the fact that they were at the heart of a major European capital.
Of course, knowing a city better does reveal many of its lesser-known charms, places and experiences you are unlikely to ever experience as a tourist. Nevertheless, I have found myself lately envying the endless tourists sunning themselves on the beach or queuing for the Picasso museum. In them, I see the same feeling of freedom I experienced some 20 years ago.
Why does Barcelona, home to staggering youth unemployment and a shocking number of bank repossessions, represent such freedom? It’s hard to say. On the one hand, for visitors from Britain the laws on things like selling alcohol and opening hours are far more relaxed. You will get told off by the police and possibly fined for cycling on the streets in London. In Barcelona, no one really seems to care.
Then there’s the place itself: cities on the sea and great ports always seem to possess a great freedom, as if the sea and the transitory population it brings cannot stand to be cooped up and enslaved. Barcelona, with both beach and port, gets a double helping.
It is in the politics too: Barcelona’s fierce left-wing history and spirit of independence – much like a sunny Manchester - can be felt in the city’s streets. It seems right, somehow, that Barcelona should be one of the last bastions of the anarchist movement in Western Europe.
Then there’s the football. Like it or not, Barcelona FC is key to how millions of foreign visitors view the city (not for nothing is the Barca Museum the most visited museum in the city). For anyone raised on the English Premier League, Barcelona play with a freedom of expression and love of the beautiful game that is entirely absent when Stoke face off against Fulham.
Many residents of Barcelona hate tourists. It’s easy to see why: they get in way when you’re in a hurry, take ages to order in bars and generally seem to be having a better time that you. What’s more, it is easy to sympathise with the residents of, say, La Barceloneta who feel they are being priced out of the area by the demands of tourism.
Despite this, I think tourists should firmly be embraced. There are the economic arguments, of course, with tourism bringing millions of euros into the city every year. More importantly, though, tourists serve to remind Barcelona of what it is: they come for the freedom of the city, to escape from the drab day-to-day of London or Paris and they come to relax in body and mind.
Tourists hold a mirror up to the city – a cracked and often distorted one but a mirror nonetheless. And in Barcelona it shows freedom.