Twitchhiker | Paul Smith's travel tales from here and there

Venice, Spain, Petaluma – wanderlust cured!
28/06/2010, 16:10
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Forget my earlier musings about how to cure wanderlust. Seems the best way is to, well, start wandering again. A month ago my calendar was looking decidedly parochial for the remainder of the year, now it’s rammed to the gills, especially over the next month.

First, there’s Venice – I’ve never been and it’ll no doubt be spilling over with tourists, but it’s Jane’s birthday (quite a significant anniversary that I won’t reveal for fear of a death blow to the kidneys), so we’re flying to Italy in the morning. Any hints or tips on what to do beyond the obvious, I’d love to hear them. Then it’s the family holiday, for which we’ll be flying out to Barcelona then onto Salou – I’ll be spending my 35th birthday in a theme park on rollercoasters and log flumes. Aces.

Meanwhile, a friend I made during Twitchhiker, Anastasia (@accessinspirati), has invited me back to Petaluma, California to be part of SocialBizWorld – a two day social media and web conference. It’s brilliant to be asked to participate – I’ll be presenting and putting some round table discussions together for the event – but it’s also an opportunity to indulge in the fine hospitality of Petaluma and Sonoma.

Since I’m on the West coast, I may travel back via one or two other places and catch up with other Twitter uaers. Wichita, maybe. We’ll see.

And in the future I promise not to mope when I’m not travelling; when I bought my currency for Venice this morning, the shop assistant exhaled in disappointment: “I’ve always wanted to go to Venice, I wish I could go.” My reply? “Then go.” What excuse do you have not to step beyond your front door? If you want to travel, don’t make excuses – do it.


I heart Barcleona, again (but hold your horses)
04/02/2010, 18:27
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Not so long ago, I was quite rude about Barcelona. It had been a favourite haunt of mine, just a few pounds and a couple of hours away via budget airline, but a series of events seriously soured my love for the city.

Last month I returned after a year’s absence – the first time for a week to knuckle down and write, the second time to celebrate my first wedding anniversary. Had anything changed? I think so. Barcelona certainly felt more accommodating. There was a higher police presence in the city centre and along La Rambla, and despite inclement weather there were plenty of people enjoying the streets.

El Ravel, the slums of the old city that have been gentrified in the last decade, is finally enjoying a trickle of curious tourists – the redevelopment of La Rambla Del Raval is drawing people through and into the neighbourhood. That’s not to say there weren’t some characters still hanging about outside Bar Marcella. While writing I’d stopped in Sant Antoni, the neighbourhood to the west of El Ravel, very working class with few attractions for the tourists. Again, the streets were quiet and safe after dusk.

Whether the authorities have dealt with the issue of gang crime and prostitution or simply moved it along, is another story. It’s a problem that Barcelona has never seemed to solve satisfactorily, but at least now it’s not so blatantly obvious as it was when it made front page news in Spain last year. I didn’t like that Barcelona very much.

That said, you still need to stick to the rules. Leave everything you can in the hotel – if you don’t need a handbag or backpack, don’t take it. If an opportunist doesn’t try and mug you, they may slash the bottom of the bag to steal. Wallets, phones, purses – inside a jacket that’s zipped up, or front trouser pockets only. You get the idea.

I didn’t stray too far from the city centre on the second occasion, but discovered loads of new treats such as Carrer de Josep Anselm Clave in the Old Town, a narrow street away from the base of La Rambla and running parallel to the sea front. It’s chock full of restaurants and bars, including the delectable Margarita Blue, which promises live trapeze acts through the week. Nearby Carrer Ample and Carrer de la Merce have an abundance of stops, too. In fact there’s a whole night out waiting for you in just these three streets.

And this, by the way, was what happened when I asked for a reccommendation from the locals in an El Born restaurant. Ladies and gentlemen, horse pizza. I’ll try anything once. But not necessarily twice.

The good, the bad and the ugly – Barcelona’s La Rambla
22/09/2009, 21:36
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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.

Twitchhiker - Barcelona

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.