Ahhh, Barcelona (said in the SpongeBob narrator’s voice) – a city known for its lovely Mediterranean climate, Picasso, Gaudi’s architectural masterpieces (i.e., the Sagrada Familia), and stuffing one’s face with chocolate and churros for breakfast. What’s not to love about sugar and more sugar for the most consequential meal of the day?
While there is plenty to do in Barcelona, this guide will cover a few essential things that a person with an inclination for all things literary would want to see when they stop by.
The neighborhood of Gràcia is worth visiting alone. It’s beautiful, small cobblestone streets with foliage hanging out of every windowsill, and plazas hidden throughout give it a very peaceful and fairy tale-ish vibe. There are plenty or restaurants and bars, but one place in particular is a destination for lovers of Catalan literature. This destination is also the title of Mercè Rodoreda’s the famous Catalonian author’s most well-known novel La Plaça del Diamant.
The plaza is relatively large and regardless of how google-maps-literate you are, you get the sense you happened upon the enchanting place. Honestly, after walking around gorgeous Gràcia for a few hours, though still beautiful, all plazas begin to look the same. However, this one in particular is worth stopping by for in honor of the inimitable Catalan legend, Mercè Rodoreda. There is even a nice plaque mentioning her and the book!
La Plaça del Diamant (English title: The Time of the Doves) chronicles a young woman’s journey for independence and intellectual development in—you guessed it—Barcelona before, during, and after the Spanish Civil War. Obviously, despite making some important strides, mid-20th century Spain was not the easiest time to be a free-thinking individual as a woman. In addition to La Plaça del Diamant being a great story, this novel’s historical context makes it an even more impressive piece of Catalan literature.
Another plaza worth voyaging to is Plaça de George Orwell, a quiet, tucked-away plaza that was named in honor of Orwell after he published Homage to Catalonia. It is in the Gothic quarter and is surrounded by many vegan/vegetarian restaurants, so for those who are keen on famous English writers and veg, this might be the place for you.
Speaking of Orwell, the Hotel Continental is worth a stop as it was where Orwell lodged during his time in Barcelona during his time fighting against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. But more on that below.
On a less serious note, in the beginning of Whit Stillman’s Barcelona, there is a gorgeous opening shot of the main character walking down Plaça España, a plaza where many of Barcelona’s main avenues connect. There is a largeness to the area, and if you want to check out some unique Catalan art, the Palau Nacional Art de Catalunya, (MNAC) is right there. Fun fact, Plaça España is also home to Barcelona’s old bullfighting ring. However, as bullfighting is no longer allowed in Barcelona, it has been converted into a commercial center.
Many of the best bars are in El Ravel, which is the neighborhood bordering La Rambla. Here, on Carrer de Sant Pau, one will find Bar Marsella, a centuries old bar (1820) that was frequented by the likes of such luminaries as Picasso, Dali, Hemingway, and Antonio Gaudi himself. Upon stepping foot in the establishment, patrons are transported back in time to the early 20th century where in a table in the back corner, Picasso is drinking with Carles Casagemas and company after a long day of painting masterpieces, fervently discussing anarchism, reciting poetry, and creating havoc. The place is charmingly dilapidated: the paint on the ceiling is peeling off and the smoke-stained wood is yellowed. The menu is delightfully simple – you can drink absenta (absinthe) or vermouth, beer, and a few tapas options. Despite Barcelona (and Spain in general) being a big Vermouth town, absinthe is the marquee drink at Bar Marsella. (For instructions on how to drink absinthe like a baller, see the paragraph below.) In the early 20th century, it was produced in mass and so it ended up being the cheapest go-to alcoholic drink for most starving artists. Eventually, it became Bar Marsella’s thing, and tourists and locals alike flock from all over to travel back in time to this old and charming bohemian watering hole.
A few notes on how to drink absinthe like a boss: If you’re served absinthe properly, it’ll likely seem a bit odd if it’s your first time. The customer is brought a Pontarlier glass with a small absinthe spoon (or a small fork), sugar cubes, and a bottle of water. (Why might you need an absinthe spoon/fork for this unique libation, you ask? Well, according to the bartender at Bar Marsella, it aids in the process to slowly dissolve the sugar cube without making a mess.) Step one is to put the spoon/fork over the glass and balance the sugar cube (or two) on the fork. Slowly pour water (note: 3 parts water to 1 part absinthe) over the sugar cube until it has dissolved into the absinthe, stir, and enjoy!
Another bar worth frequenting for those literary inclined travelers is London Bar, which recently reopened for business in 2018 after having been closed for some time. The bar first opened in 1910. According to the bartender, during the Civil War it was apparently used as a rehearsal space for circus artists, among all things, and as a tribute to that history, a trapeze swing hangs over the bar! Hemingway, Picasso, and Joan Miro frequented this one, too, as did countless other artists.
Restaurants and Cafes
Upon walking in El Quatre Gats in the Gothic quarter, one feels as if they’re stepping foot into a medieval castle. While one is indeed NOT stepping into a medieval castle, this cabaret does offer another bohemian, modernist establishment whose famous patrons include Picasso and Ramon Casas i Carbó; it’s even where young Picasso’s first solo exhibition was held. The cuisine is your typical excellent Catalan tapas fare.
Opened in 1873, Cafè del Centre is still run by the same family that opened the place. This café is a modernist marvel that would fit in just as well in Montparnasse as it does in Barcelona. Notably, it quenched the thirst of acclaimed Catalan novelists Montserrat Roig and Victor Mora over the years. It serves delicious Catalan cuisine; one feels cultured merely looking at the joint.
Orwell in Catalonia
If you are a big George Orwell fan, or interested in Spanish history, Homage to Catalonia is an essential read. This classic memoir chronicles Orwell’s observations on his time in Barcelona and in the trenches on the fronts in Aragon fighting fascism as a lieutenant for the anti-Stalinist communist party, the Worker’s Party of Marxist Unification (POUM). This book is where Orwell fully came into his voice as a writer, and much of what he saw and experienced further developed the views he would later expound in such classics as Animal Farm and 1984. As mentioned before, he stayed at Hotel Continental for a week before being deployed to Aragon. Orwell fought for the Republic for six months.
For those looking for the full Orwell in BCN experience, there is even a tour! I’ll link the tour here:
Movies and reads and more to get you excited before your trip:
– Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
– The Sun also Rises by Earnest Hemingway
– La plaça del diamant by Mercè Rodoreda (Catalonia’s own)
– Vicky Cristy Barcelona (2008) dir. Woody Allen
– Barcelona (1994) dir. Whit Stillman (can’t recommend this one enough)
– The Spanish Apartment (2002) dir. Cédric Klapisch
– Biutiful (2010) dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu
– Orwell Experience Tour