A venues can be right up your street. The world has many celebrated ones. Oxford Street and Fifth Avenue are mandatory for tourist hordes, so is the Champs Elysees. Some beckon with the evocation of past glory. Haight Ashbury for instance; to say that it is seedy wouldn’t entirely be less than a compliment. What else could you expect from the iconic centre of flower power? Tokyo’s Ginza, Bangkok’s Patpong, Cairo’s Nile-mile. They are all there. And then there is La Rambla in Barcelona.
I’m there now, and in my limited experience as global traveller, I’ve never seen anything quite like it. For starters, and I don’t mean tapas, it’s actually one wide, long pavement, stretching from the city centre right up to the waterfront arcades of the Mar Mediterranean. The pedestrian walks with the sauntering authority of a Spanish grandee, motorists are the lowly vassals relegated, literally, to the side-lines. How very civilized.
If the word ‘gawdy’ comes from Gaudi, the flamboyant architect who is the presiding deity of Barcelona, then maybe rumbustious comes from Ramblas as it is also known. It’s a promenade, market and mela ground all in one. Which, come to think of it, any congregation of leisure crowds always is. Think Kumbh. Think Delhi Haat. Think Kala Ghoda crafts festival. Commerce is the handmaiden of pleasure, and I’m not referring to sex work, even though I’ve had AIDS pouring out of my dental cavities for the past week. I’m in Barcelona (you have to say it with a lisp) for an international conference.
Ramblas has all the votive offerings to tourist gullibility. The cliche of kitsch is crammed into the tiny shops that are backed up against the walls, like polite — or simply helpless — bystanders allowing the world to pass. Halter-neck tees so skimpy that ‘Barcelona’ barely has room to be written across the front. However, on the right frame, and there are plenty of these around, the name gets emblazoned across the truant bosom. On the other hand, there are elaborate Spanish shawls, and any American with cellulite thighs can fling one around her and immediately be metamorphosed into a Senorita clacking castanets and heels, a rose between her teeth, with no thought of the thorns digging into her gums. They (the shawls) hang in black and cream and red hanks, weighed down by embroidery and fringes. Authentic? Of course! Mine was sold by Ramesh Goyal, and he swore on all the local saints that it wasn’t rustled up in some sweat shop in Ludhiana.
If you wish to talk about the ubiquitous Indian, Senor Ramesh’s neighbour is Geeta Sports . But I’m not here to take a census. I move on, trying desperately not to dive into every boutique crammed with antiques and ‘junque’.
But the main walkabout down the centre of Ramblas is the real magnet. Like a linear carnival ground it is milestoned by street entertainers making music or a living, usually both. Stubble-chinned, shoestring budget travellers get their next meal, or fix, by turning any tricks they are good at. Or not so good at. In the spirit of this high-octane street, it hardly matters.
A jazz quartet jams to Satin Doll as girls stroll past, balancing on cork wedgies wiggling their taut behinds clamped into hipster tights. A Spanish guitar strums La Paloma. Indeed I go to bed every night (or is it the a.m. already?) to its haunting strains, since my room is right there, and the 150-year-old Hotel Oriente has no air-conditioning, forcing me to leave open the high door.
A couple has laid out a rectangular wooden board and is clinched in a torrid tango. The dance floor is ersatz, perhaps so are the dancers. They may be Spanish, they may be from Southampton; but I have it on a certain authority that they aren’t the cousins thrice-removed of Ramesh-ji and Geeta Sports. It’s a double turn, for in this camaraderie, the tango twosome collapses in a finale, steps off the ‘floor’, and a flamenco-dancer flounces on.
The more humdrum tries to get heard above the clatter of Faux Exotic. Tightrope walkers, street acrobats, the man twisting a tube of balloon into a clown to the delighted squeals of children and wannabe children. And in his staked out territory, a man sits with his wooden legs laid out neatly by the side of his begging board. Next to him an equally haunting cameo is played out. The cats of an emaciated girl rub noses with the mongrel of an impossibly old hobo in a mildewed suit.
Then there is the Rambla USP: the statues. In this surreal city, whose native Joan Miro makes Salvador Dali look like a water-colour amateur from Shantiniketan, and where the subway stations have modernism art spray-painted on their steps, you think this is one more embellishment sponsored by a slightly mad municipal corporation. A coal-black miner, a ‘plaster-of-Paris’ man sitting on a commode reading a book. You pass them by, admiring the sculptor’s imagination and attention to detail. And then the statue jiggles its eye-brows. It’s yet another entertainer of Ramblas — or an impoverished tourist trying to scrape the fare back home.
Yet, if the centre of Ramblas is serial insanity, the tiny lanes leading off it are the exact antithesis. They exude the Old World in their cobbles. Brooding stone walls cloister quiet bibliotheques, a music school is named after Beethoven. You know that this isn’t a candle to tourism.
Suddenly over the aroma of Dunkin Donuts and McDonald’s chips, you are socked in the olfactory senses with the smell of the Grant Road bazar. This is the open market, and the smell of the rich, dark local sausage fills the air. Fish comes a close competitor, as do barrels full of olives. The bell peppers are the size of a modest musk melon, blushing scarlet in their fleshy excess.
Early evening on La Rambla means 10 p.m. The locals and the tourists swarm in for tapas. The decibel level rises with the darkness which has just set in. The cafes get more and more crowded, bums spill off the bar-stools of the beer parlours, and the octopus and asparagus, the anchovy and aubergine , move swiftly from counter to gullet in the assembly line of tapas. Paella is heartier, and if you want to go really authentic, steel yourself for what is billed as ‘Pig’s feet with snails’. I had visions of the swine stepping straight off the trough on to the table. Bon Appetite. Or however you say it in Spanish.
Alec Smart said, ‘Why did they hold the International AIDS Conference in Spain? Because it’s some bull, some fights, and lots of O-lay.’