October 8, 2006
Footloose in Spain's Capital of Style, Barcelona By MATT GROSS
HOSTEL, a fellow tourist once warned me, is Dutch for "Bring your
Actually, she used stronger language, and her hostility was so raw
began to squirm. Her comment came to mind last May, when I began planning a
cheap weekend trip to
capital of sophisticated style and consumption. Visions of design hotels
danced in my head, alongside images of the fantastical science-lab cuisine
and ultrafashionable footwear that I imagined were every Barcelonan's
But a weekend at, say, Casa Camper, the boutique hotel (215 euros a
about $280 at $1.30 to the euro) run by the shoemaker of the same name,
would have gutted my entire weekend budget of $500. And I had to banish any
thought of eating at El Bulli, where the 20-course tasting menu of
black-olive waffles and rose foam (165 euros) has earned its owner, Ferran
Adrià, a reputation as the world's greatest chef (or at least its most
Worse, every hotel I could afford was booked. Desperate, I posted a
a "hip but cheap" place on Superfuture.com , an
online forum for style hounds. The reply came back quickly: the 24-room
Hostal Gat Raval. I shuddered. A hostel? No, a design hostel. Skeptical, but
enchanted by the price (42 euros a night) and location (right behind the
Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona), I gave it a shot. I would have to
share a bathroom, but that bathroom might very well have Philippe Starck
fixtures — and I wouldn't even have to bring my own towel.
So one Friday last May, I found myself hauling my suitcase down a
Barcelona street, into a dim foyer and up two flights of stairs. An
inauspicious start, but Gat Raval turned out to be quite nice: the lobby was
bright (white and Kermit the Frog green), and my room was cheery, with a
sink, full-length mirror and petite balcony facing the sunlit street. After
relaxing for 15 minutes, I left to explore the Raval neighborhood, but not
before examining the hallway bathrooms — no Starck, but functional and
clean. It would do.
Raval had been described to me as the equivalent of
East Village, a bohemian area where young artists, musicians and designers
congregated. And indeed, the people I saw on the streets were all trendily
attractive, with vintage sneakers, designer boots or flip-flops on their
feet. Mesmerized, I spent a good hour observing them on the plaza in front
of the museum, where they sunned themselves on the warm slate while
skateboarders kick-flipped around them.
All that people-watching made me hungry, so I popped into Mamacafé,
the corner on Carrer Doctor Dou. In a sleek dining room painted in sunset
colors, I devoured tart and garlicky gazpacho, a fried egg over patatas
bravas (the spicy Catalan home fries) and lemon sorbet — all made with
ingredients from La Boqueria, the famous marketplace that dates back to the
13th century. A glass of red wine, included in the set menu, and an espresso
brought the bill to 10.55 euros — far less than I'd expected for such a
fresh, filling meal.
I waddled back to the Museu d'Art Contemporani, where 6 euros opened
doors to both the permanent collection (ho-hum Cy Twomblys and Philip
Gustons) and a special exhibition of pop music albums, from Patti Smith's
"Horses" by Robert Mapplethorpe to Raymond Pettibon's covers for Black Flag.
As I stood at a listening station, I realized this was just what I'd hoped
to find — the coolest of pop culture treated as high art.
With culture under my belt, I made my obligatory visit to La Rambla,
parklike pedestrian thoroughfare that leads to the harbor. This was once the
epicenter of Barcelona street life, a place for performers, protestors and,
in the 1970's and 80's, prostitutes and drug addicts. But since the 1992
Summer Olympics, the area has been cleaned up — or, to some, Disneyfied à la
Times Square. People in overly elaborate costumes (witches and knights
figured heavily that day) strolled next to gawking tourists while boisterous
groups of perpetually tipsy bachelorettes who routinely wing in from
easyJet and Ryanair snapped up sombreros from street vendors.
Luckily, I was soon rescued by George, an American expatriate I'd met
through a friend. We hurried over to Irati, a narrow tapas bar far enough
from the Rambla to discourage most tourists. The bartender poured us glasses
of Txakoli (pronounced cha-ko-LEE), a dry white wine from the Basque region,
as we sampled the toothpick-skewered tapas piled before us: bread slathered
with goat cheese, anchovy crostini and olives (1.50 euros each).
I told George about my frugal mission. He laughed. I was in the wrong
he said — the Catalans drive a hard bargain. "Look," he added, as the
bartender counted our used toothpicks to compute the bill (14.10 euros),
"you'll never see that in
As night fell, George led me through El Barri Gòtic, a knotty old
neighborhood of brick alleys and squares fronting medieval churches. Miró
had lived here, as had a teenage
whose second-floor window remains. No sooner was I completely lost than
George announced he had to leave; his wife expected him home for dinner. I
stumbled my way to a main road and caught a taxi to meet Alex, another
friend of a friend.
Our plan was to feed off of El Bulli's glamour by eating at Inopia, a
much-cheaper tapas bar run by Mr. Adrià's brother, Albert. But Alex, a
Catalan-speaking local, wanted to make sure I also saw Barcelona's darker
He lured me into L'Ovella Negra, a cavernous bar full of foreign
all immeasurably drunk on 1.20-euro draft beers (or, as
www.ovellanegra.computs it, "beeeeeeeeer"). Alex explained that, back
in his university days,
this had been his primary haunt. We stayed for a couple of rounds, quietly
mourning our passing youth, when a blotto Irish girl mistook us for
Frenchmen and introduced us to her friends as Pierre and François. It was
our cue to leave.
Too bad it hadn't come sooner. By the time we arrived at Inopia, at
civilized hour of 11:30 p.m., the kitchen was inexplicably and disturbingly
closed. We went across the street to the utterly empty Rossell and ate
uninspiring cheese-and-mushroom fondue (16 euros each). I was back at the
Gat by 1 a.m. and drifted off, pondering the meaning of inopia: clueless.
Less than four hours later, my alarm clock screamed. I had a mission:
watch La Boqueria wake up. Anyone can browse the market's jam-packed stalls
in the day, but I wanted to go behind the scenes to get a vendor's-eye view
of the action. When I arrived at 5, butchers were slicing whole pigs into
pork chops, fishmongers were arraying glistening sheets of crushed ice and
greengrocers were erecting rainbow ziggurats of apples, oranges, tomatoes,
cherries, peppers and pears. Best of all, I was the only tourist.
La Boqueria is also a great place to grab a cheap breakfast. After
million photos, I ordered a cortado (a small strong coffee with a small
amount of milk) and croissant (2 euros) at Pinotxo, one of the handful of
tapas bars. By 6, serious shoppers were starting to crowd in, and I was
So I returned to the hostel for a nap; I'd need more sleep and a
shower if I
wanted to keep up with late-night Barcelona. But I'd forgotten that
unwritten rule of hostels: last one into the shower is a rotten egg. The
drain was clogged, and the stall was so tiny that I burned my forearm on a
hot water pipe. I emerged feeling dirtier than I did going in.
Still, I was glad for the rest. The weather was perfect and the hostel
clerk insisted I visit Parc Güell, up in the hills overlooking the city. The
park was designed by Antoni Gaudí, whose avant-garde architecture is evident
everywhere, from the animal-themed fountains to the cracked-tile benches
undulating around the Plaça del Teatre Grec.
The park also contains Gaudí's house, now a museum of his designs
is 4 euros). But the greatest work of Barcelona's most famous architect lies
down the hill at La Sagrada Familia, the über-ambitious church he spent 43
years building — without ever finishing. (Other architects have carried on
the work, now projected to be completed in 2022.) Admission was 8 euros, but
by showing my Gaudí museum ticket, I got in for 5. I gaped at the
bifurcating columns, which imitate the natural structure of tree trunks, and
marveled at the postmodern grid of the surrounding scaffolding. The contrast
made my heart soar, but not in the way that Gaudí, a devout and conservative
Catholic, probably intended.
For a moment, I considered climbing the stairs to get a view from the
spires, but after walking around all day, my feet hurt. It was time to
replace my beat-up Merrells. A 5-euro taxi ride brought me to El Born, the
SoHo to Raval's East Village, full of chichi boutiques and trendy
restaurants. None, however, carried the shoes I wanted, at least nothing
under 150 euros.
By now, the sun was setting, and I wondered where the day had gone.
I'd spent so little, but I had seen so little, too — I wished I could buy an
extra half day with my remaining wad. So I splurged on a cab and headed back
I arrived to find George, his wife, Lucie, and their friend David
at Inopia's sidewalk counter. Inside, the fluorescent-lighted space looked
more like an industrial kitchen than the restaurant of a semifamous chef.
But that's Inopia's point: straightforward tapas, without foams, airs or
mummified mackerels. Over glasses of Sierra Cantabria and bottles of Moritz
pilsner, we nibbled textbook-perfect patatas bravas, a plate of olives that
spanned the flavor spectrum from bitter to sweet to spicy, and a torta
cañarejal — a block of cheese so liquid and rich you could drink it like
But better than this food, better even than the price (somehow, my
came only to 25 euros), was the clubby atmosphere. Throughout the night,
friends of George and Lucie would swing by and gossip in English, Spanish or
Catalan, and I began to appreciate Barcelona's true attraction. It isn't
necessarily the museums or restaurants, but its cosmopolitan people, vibrant
street life and
that makes the city exciting. The sophistication I'd been
seeking wasn't something I needed to spend a lot of money to find.
I awoke the next morning to twin unpleasantries: once again, I was not
first to the shower, but worse, it was Sunday and all the stores were closed
— no chance to drop my extra euros on a pair of awesome kicks. Instead, I
ate lunch at Origen 99.9%, a minichain of bistros devoted to traditional
Catalan recipes like baby octopus in chocolate sauce and Monserrat tomatoes
stuffed with cheese and anchovies. Lunch was delicious and, at 15.57 euros,
affordable. But despite my epiphany the previous night, I couldn't get past
my failure to find new shoes.
Disappointed, I shuffled down to the beach, possibly Barcelona's most
picturesque feature. Right there, at the edge of Barceloneta, a dense urban
neighborhood, was a golden field of sand whose beauty was matched only by
that of the young people sprawled across it. I dropped my bag and towel near
a trio of topless women (I couldn't help it, there were so many), kicked off
my worn-out shoes and walked into the Mediterranean, my pockets full and my
TOTAL 341.10 euros, including taxis; two 1.20-euro subway rides; the
"Gaudí's Barcelona" and Robert Hughes's definitive "Barcelona"; and a
70-euro pair of super-cool Castañer espadrilles, which, alas, I bought in
not at the company's shop in Barcelona.