I have meant to write about Barcelona for a while now. I’ve even mentioned it from time to time, and one impatient reader went so far as to write to me to ask if I had any suggestions for her before she left. (I’m ashamed to say that I never did respond, and for this I apologize profusely. Hopefully, she’s not too upset with me and is still reading this column and can glean some small use from it. Now that she’s probably back home.)
The thing is, it had been some two or three years since last I had the opportunity to visit Barcelona, which is two or three years too many. It’s not the kind of city you want to avoid for that long. Conscious of my duty, I therefore decided to go back, accompanied for once by my wife, for a romantic long weekend. This was purely in a spirit of professional conscientiousness.
There’s a hotel near the Plaça Catalunya that will arrange things for you so that when you come back from dinner you’ll find a bottle of champagne on the mantel next to a bowl of strawberries with cream (two spoons), a hot bubble bath already drawn, little candles all over, and your bed strewn with rose petals. That sounds irremediably syrupy, but it’s not, really, and the hotel itself is very slick and modern, and, when it comes down to it, it’s just romantic. I’d tell you which hotel it is, but these things are doubly worthwhile if you track them down on your own. Anyway, it’s a good base for a romantic weekend.
Which raises the point that Barcelona is a romantic city, but in a young way (Venice being a romantic city in an old way … which reminds me that I have never written about Venice, either). Barcelona moves, it lives, it throbs, and in no place does it throb harder and faster than along Las Ramblas.
Las Ramblas is a long road, running from the Plaça Catalunya to the harbor. It’s really more of a promenade than a road, the cars being restricted to two narrow strips of asphalt on either side of a wide pedestrian walkway. It’s this central median that provides the entertainment, as it is perpetually filled with strolling people and a myriad of street entertainers.
… most of whom, in fact, don’t actually do anything. Las Ramblas, you see, is particularly well known for its human statues. You can find human statues in most major cities—in many cases, being a human statue is the last refuge of the talentless street performer: “I can’t sing or dance, but I can paint myself green and pretend to be a tree.” There are certainly plenty of this type of human statue along Las Ramblas (including one who pretends to be a tree), but you can also find those who take human-statuing to unexpected heights.
For example, there is the guy who is painted all in black with specks of gold and is wearing wings. I assume he’s some kind of ambiguous angel, but whatever he is, it’s just beautiful. Really. And then there’s the guy who has built an ornate structure out of rubbish, all painted a kind of copper color, and who paints himself the same kind of copper color, then melts into his own sculpture. My favorite, though, is a skinny guy with a little Leninesque beard and glasses, all painted gun-metal gray, sitting on the rail of a subway station. He’s very metallic.
He also doesn’t move, whereas the less artistic human statues tend to ham it up for picture-snapping tourists. While this is certainly in character for the human-statue Elvis, it seems distinctly out of place for the human-statue tree, for instance.
Besides those already noted, a brief catalogue of Las Ramblas’s human statues on a weekend in August (admittedly the height of human-statue season) includes:
A very white guy
2 Korean soldiers
A guy in an electric chair
A guy manning the wheel on a ship
… and, of course, lots of Egyptian statues and the like.
If you’re looking for performing artists who actually perform, then you’re better off checking the streets of the Bari Gotica, the section of the old town just to the east of Las Ramblas. This is a fantastic warren of tiny, winding streets that contains the nicest square in Barcelona, the Plaça Real. This is actually not as old as it looks (nor as old as the surrounding streets), but it fits right in. It consists of a large open space bordered by arcaded sidewalks. It also has palm trees planted in it. That’s nice.
Around the edges are a number of trendy cafés and restaurants, all of which have seating that extends out into the central plaza. On a summer’s evening, all manner of performing artists come to dance and prance and sing and play. Most of them, it must be said, are pretty bad.
The worst of them must be the Romanian belly dancer. I hesitate writing about her, because it’s a pretty sorry sight, but she has an act wherein she wheels her wheelchair-bound husband in front of a café, he then presses a button on a cheap boom box, and she wiggles and jiggles in a thoroughly unartistic impersonation of a belly dance while wearing the kind of belly-dancer costume the Disney Store sells to little girls who want to pretend to be the princess in Aladdin.
Nearby, though, I did see run across one of the most striking street performers I’ve ever seen. He was a remarkably tall and thin German guy on enormous stilts, wearing only a very, very long pair of black trousers, and black-and-white body paint on his chest and face. He swirled and twirled to flute music, dancing his heart out and bounding around a small square in the Bari Gotica.
All of this, though, was nothing compared to a man who calls himself Mu. As the Bari Gotica stretches toward the Plaça Catalunya, you run across the remnants of the Roman wall that used to surround the city in ancient times. (Visit this—Roman walls are always good.) Near there is an old church, and sitting next to the church was Mu, flanked by a stoned percussionist and a young guy playing the trumpet. Mu was playing a kalimba, an African instrument that’s kind of like a lyre in a tortoise shell, and singing improvised lyrics into the midnight air.
Mu’s lyrics were sung in a mix of English, French, and Brahme (an African language). Those that I understood dealt with life, love, injustice, breeze … whatever. He sang into his kalimba, or sometimes raised his face to the night, eyes closed. Four or five of us sat, mesmerized, for nearly an hour while others wandered by, hesitating but continuing on their way. A dog sat watching, head on paws.
Mu is from Guinea-Bissau, and has been in Barcelona this past year or so, making a record with a group he formed called Qbamba. The people he was playing with are not his regular musicians. “They just showed up, you know, man? They play well, though.”
And they did.
Barcelona is a magnet for singers and lovers and dreamers and poets and sculptures. I don’t know why … or rather I do know why: you can feel why, you can wander through its streets and feel it in the breeze on a summer’s evening and then it’s obvious, but what I can’t do is explain it … so I’ll just stop trying.