Monday, 14 March 2011

Revelry Rules in La Rambla


Night time mime artists
                    by Nancy Snipper

Barcelona is a mixture of so many moods. There are the quiet plaças (squares)   introduced by narrow streets within the graying Gothic section where both Roman and Medieval time warps collide.  In colourful contrast, the ventral Eixample section displays modernist architecture in a parade of dazzling pictorial facades with remarkable rooftops of spikes, decorative chimneys and turrets. Collectively, they announce Gaudí as their god.  Moving southwards towards the sea, Port Vell boasts a spectacular boardwalk that looks out onto five kilometers of beaches all the way to brisk, sparkling Park Olympic; and nearby - Barceloneta - bursting onto the scene with a zillion different seaside restaurants, canopied under an azure sky of brilliant sunshine. How fitting that in this area Roy Lichtenstein created for the 1992 Olympics a magnificent mosaic sculpture showing several faces in one. Its title:’ Barcelona Head’.   
Barcelona tells a visual story: Argonese power and religious devotion is embodied in the Medieval Plaça del Rei and its neighboring landmarks; Catalan commercialism and robustness is embodied in central areas affected by Barcelona’s 1959 expansion beyond the towers and walls.  However, one story garishly stands out above them all, and it can be found on a single street. This amazing street is called La Rambla. It’s Barcelona’s most famous venue where 1.2 kilometers displays a series of exciting landmarks before ending at the sea. La Rambla was once saddled with medieval walls that protected this street. Once narrow and run-down it has now become a wide pedestrian platform for people to unabashedly flaunt wildly eccentric behaviors. So where is this red carpet of aberrations?  It’s in the gothic Bari section in the centre of the city and begins at Plaça Catalunya – Barcelona’s main roundabout. The noise begins here as La Rambla seems to roar in a fanfare of human rowdiness, injecting the city - reputed for its Catalan work ethnic and dogmatic conservatism – with frivolity and festive fun.
The explosion of all kinds of people and goings-on is mesmerizing. It takes about 15 minutes at a fast walking clip to reach the end of the street, but best to take your time to explore the buildings and witness theatrics that would titillate any Cirque de Soleil fan. Here, Halloween is a daily celebration; suits are replaced by disguises:  Within four meters, I spotted a woman costumed as a cat meowing non-stop as she continuously peaked out from behind the door of her cardboard ‘fire hydrant’; Another female was dressed as a cow – her belly bearing an enormous utter.  Across from this hilarious sight was a red devil crouching beside a pair of blackened ‘chimney sweeps’ perched on huge motionless unicycles. Even Spain’s most famous royals made their appearance: Isabella and Ferdinand were true to form and historical accuracy brilliantly attired in their spectacular lace costumes that surely cost more than my two-weeks of tapas, vino tinto and sausages (lots of these great snacks on La Rambla).
These ‘still-life’ mime artists only move once you interact with them, but that means tossing euros. Many hold mirrors to reflect the sun so pictures cannot be taken unless you pay. They are consummate professionals, repeating their staged rituals day in and day out.
Mime artist posing as Atlas

But humans aren’t the only captivating sight here. Bumping into La Rambla’s bird market, one of the oldest in Spain, I was a given a vivid demonstration of the saying, birds of a feather flock together. At the blink of an eye, colourful canaries, huge hens, dovetails and nightingales are snatched out of their cages, put in hat boxes and carried home by happy buyers.  Minks, rodents, rabbits and other furry friends are equally coveted. Creatures become the competition for flower sellers, and crafts people hawking their wares to captivated tourists – many oblivious to the skillful pickpockets for whom La Rambla is notorious.  Wear your money belt under your shirt! Good things and bad things – that’s Barcelona’s face in profile No coincidence Picasso painted here.
But for most Catalans, one face attracts them all: La Rambla’s nationally famous Boqueria Market. Dios mio! I never saw so many kinds of food: tapas treats, hams hung high, multi-coloured currents veggies, glazes and gobs of goodies including crème caramels, pastries, chocolates, and ever-present  tomatoes (Catalan culture was created around the red things) Anything that passed for edible stood at eye level, even fried insects!  Amazing mushrooms – at least fifteen varieties were snatched up as quickly as wallets are on La Rambla (Robin Hood’s haunt was just behind 157-year-old Boqueria).
La Rambla’s buildings - some noble, others naughty -  are another feast: the dazzling opera house, palaces, including Virreina that houses paintings by Cambó, the Centre for Contemporary Art, and the Academy of Science and Art – to list a few. Right alongside, I roamed around less refined fare: the Erotic and Wax Museums, and a former brothel that now stands as a bank. Finally, at street’s end, I got the old finger – a meter-long one pointing to the sea; belonging to Columbus who stands atop his moniker monument. If you find all this enchanting, just drink from La Rambla’s famous demure fountain. Legend has it, if you do, you won’t be able to leave the action.
If you go:
Two hotels on La Rambla are recommended.
Hotel Lloret’s turn-of-the-century eating space is outstanding - big enough for a good portion of the people walking along La Rambla to pile into and do the tango (flamenco is not the dance of Catalonia). Rooms are spacious; friendly front desk. Cost is $50 U.S. room (info@hlloret.com)
Directly across from it is the charming family-run Continental Barcelona. It offers a cozy tapestry-laden tea style eating area. Beer drinks and snacks are free all day! My pretty-in-pink room was more decorative than the functional one at Lloret.  Both hotels offer balconies, for ‘front row seating’ over of La Rambla. Cost $145). U.S. (Barcelona@hotelcontinental.com)
Air Transat offers direct, non-stop flights to Barcelona, plus stays at the nearby white-washed city of Sitges – home to an international tango festival - only 30 minutes by train from the capital.   

Fabulous fish at Boqueria Market
The above article plus photos is the property of Nancy Snipper