I used to be a regular visitor to Barcelona; for the past decade, the blessing of budget airlines and a two hour flight time made it a must-visit once or twice a year. If you haven’t been, the Catalan capital a fantastic city. Art, architecture, history, sunshine, beaches, food, drink – it’s got the lot. A city centre compact enough to traverse by foot, a good transport network for exploring further afield – what’s not to love?
How about the most popular tourist destination in the city – La Rambla.
For those that haven’t visited, La Rambla is a mile long street (actually five older streets following the path of a stream that fed rainwater from the hills into the sea) in the heart of Barcelona. From it wind alleys and roads into the neighbourhoods either side. By day, the broad boulevard is packed with street theatre, artists and stalls, lined either side by restaurants, theatres and markets. La Rambla is one of the most famous streets in the world and an instant draw to visitors old and new.
La Rambla suffers a Jekyll and Hyde personality, though. The guidebooks will warn you that pickpocketing is a concern, so caution is required. The more honest ones might mention that by night La Rambla is a haunt for prostitutes – again, once you’re aware you can choose to avoid the area. And this isn’t anything new – La Rambla has been this way since I began visiting. My friend Paul tells me that prior to the Olympics in 1992 there was a coordinated crackdown on crime in the area; before that the problem was even worse.
To me, it feels like La Rambla is reverting to those older, more dangerous ways. Last December I visited Barcelona with a friend for two nights. On both nights we were the target of gangs of muggers; one attempt was successful. The first incident was just off La Rambla in El Raval, to the West of the street – a neighbourhood notorious for prostitution and crime, although gentrification and modernisation in recent years has lifted the area’s reputation out the gutter. The second incident occurred a few yards off La Rambla in Barri Gotic – the Old Town to the East, the neighbourhood all guidebooks tell you is safe as houses.
Both times, the gangs of teenagers and twenty-something year old men performed the same routine – they’d approach us quickly, claiming they wanted to show us a football tackle, interlock their legs around ours, and pick our pockets while we fought to move away.
These things happen, right? They could have happened to anyone, but they actually seem to happen to an awful lot of people, hence the reason guidebooks feeling to need to add the same caveat year after year. But in nearly a decade, it had never happened to me before. I follow the rules, I stay safe and I’m not a small guy – in a line-up, I’m probably the last person you’d care to pick a fight with. Not anymore, it seemed – two incidents, two nights in a row, both before 9pm – and that was just the muggers. The prostitutes were a little braver too, taking to the streets earlier, unconcerned by the occasional police patrol. It felt like the seedier side of La Rambla had a little more edge, a little more swagger.
Last week I read a story on the The Times website about an article published by El País – the link to that article is here, but I’ll just say now it’s quite graphic. It shows a series of photos taken on La Rambla of tourists having sex with prostitutes – according to The Times, this all happened in full view of passing visitors. I was a little bit sick into my own mouth when I saw the photos. This isn’t airbrushed porn, it’s dirty, desperate, pathetic and real.
Read through the comments of The Times article, and the same arguments crop up in La Rambla’s defense; tourists shouldn’t go to La Rambla at night; if you don’t like it there, don’t go; only stupid people who don’t hide their valuables get mugged; crime happens wherever you go in the world; Barcelona is a big place so go elsewhere. And so on.
So is there really a problem? Without a doubt. I don’t think any of the arguments above hold water at all. This isn’t some out-of-they-way forgotten back alley that lost tourists are stumbling down, miles from civilisation; this is La Rambla – it’s full of restaurants and theatres (you know, places the public like to visit at night), the Metro has three stops on it. It’s the heart of Barcelona in every sense of the word, so why has it been allowed to become a sewer once the sun sets?
Consider for a moment, the same conditions in Oxford Street in London, or Times Square in New York; this wouldn’t be tolerated, not for a moment, not in these times. It’s not the 1970s anymore, anarchy doesn’t rule and it certainly shouldn’t have the final say on the city’s most popular and famous thoroughfare – arguably the most important to tourism and economy. When it’s the first place any and every new visitor wants to visit, a city can and will be judged by a single street.
Curiously, since the article was published by El País, there’s seems to have been a great deal of talk by the city council about how it intends to tackle prostitution, while simultaneously claiming it’s already tackled it. It feels more like a PR department in crisis management, simply because the resilience of the gangs over time suggests organised crime is at work – rather than a handful of random street workers and kids with time on their hands – and that’ll take more than good intentions to rectify.
I haven’t been back since December, and I’m not sure when I’ll return. I’d love to hear from anybody who’s had experience of Barcelona over the past twelve months – for better or worse. There are plenty of destinations in Europe to enjoy, but until I feel I don’t have to avoid swathes of the city centre for 12 hours a day, Barcelona won’t be one of them.
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