A first-arrival guide to one of my favourite cities in Europe – and the start of my 6-month journey round Spain.
The bus spits me out into the station car-park, into agonising heat. I feel sweat break out all over my body.
Please. There’s air-con through these doors, yes?
A metal bench. I collapse onto it. Since I forget I’m still wearing my 60-litre rucksack, this doesn’t go so well, and I end up on the floor.
I smell of Megabus: a rich cocktail of sweat, chemical toilet and exhausted fear. Barcelona smells worse – it’s having one of its open-sewer days, thanks to a mysterious recurring stench that hugs ground level during the summer months. Barcelona is so funky that its smells have been mapped by urban researchers. Today’s smell mercifully cancels out my stink, and I reckon I can move around without fear of being arrested.
Still, I’m not comforted. I still reek in the way you imagine zombies smelling, or members of the Night’s Watch. I will not be clean this day, or perhaps ever again, but I must try.
I find a bathroom, find the hot water’s not working (pipes damaged by the smell?), scrub the grime off as best I can, and attack two days of stubble with a blunt Bic razor.
Around me, Barcelona’s Estacio Nord Bus Station quietly, pungently introduces thousands of new arrivals to the city.
Historically Famous Arrivals To Barcelona
(factual and legendary – it’s tough to draw a line between the two with a city this old)
220 BC – Hamilcar Barca, General of Carthage, who possibly founded the city and gave it the name Barcino, although, that’s probably a bit too neat to be true, and may be complete rubbish. Forget I said it.
100 BC – Romans, lots of Romans, and then more Romans. There were a lot of Romans around at this time, and boy, did they like Barcelona.
414 AD – Visigoths, in the process of sacking anything Roman they could lay their hands on.
700 AD – Arabs. Bit surprising, but ok.
800 AD – The Franks, under the Carolingians. OK. Are we done? Anyone else? Seriously.
6th July 985 AD – The armies of Almanzor, ruler of Muslim Iberia, arriving with enough enthusiasm to completely sack the city and kill or enslave most of its inhabitants.
I could go on. Almost the entire history of Barcelona is made of arrivals – some welcome, some catastrophically awful for the city’s residents, but mainly just people turning up, almost always on the way to somewhere else.
Barcelona is a natural gateway city to France, to Spain, to the Mediterranean, to southern Europe, to proper food (none of this northern European muck) and to the kind of heat that’s utterly beyond your imagination when you climb into your bus seat at London’s Victoria station, ready (yet not-ready) for a gruelling 30-hour bus journey you probably shouldn’t be attempting at your age.
How To Get To Barcelona From England
– The easiest way is to fly. I almost always use EasyJet (above) from Gatwick Airport – advance prices hovering around £35 one-way.The flight’s a couple of hours, Barcelona El-Prat Airport is really quite nice, and Gatwick’s North Terminal has a fantastic coffee shop I’ve happily spent long afternoons in.
– The nicest way is to go by train. I haven’t done it yet, but trains are always the nicest way to get round Europe. When I take them, I rely on The Man In Seat Sixty-One.
– The cheapest way used to be taking the Megabus. You could even get one from Leeds to Barcelona, a buttock-spraining 37 hour journey, for £25. I’ve done it three times, and I’ve never regretted it, not once, except for those many, many moments enroute where I just wanted death to claim me and put an end to my torment.
Anyway, you can’t do this anymore. The route has been taken over by Flixbus, and the best you’ll find is London to Barcelona for around £40 – still cheap enough to put yourself through all that misery, I think.
– The best way is to walk. Now that would be an adventure (and I’d use my bivvy bag the whole way). Google tells me it’s around 260 hours of walking. At a blistering pace of 12 hours a day, you’d get there in about 22 days, but I reckon 8 hours a day would be enough for anyone, and that would get you there in a month.
Price: a month’s lost earnings from your job.
It wouldn’t be as pleasant as taking the train, sure, but it’d be good for your health, you’d really, really see France along the way, and it’d be ideal if you’re a chronic audiobook and podcast hoarder like I am. Nearly 300 hours of catchup time? Yes please.
“Barcelona Welcomes All Nations”
If I’d wearily dragged my rucksack back on and walked five minutes up the road from the bus station, I’d find Barcelona had laid on a welcome for visitors like me.
This is the Arc de Triomf, originally constructed as the access gate for the 1888 Barcelona World Fair.
Think on this a second. Over a century ago, before the age of mass transit, of super-fast trains and enormous metal birds transporting people from all corners of the globe, this single event attracted more than 2 million visitors.
Imagine what a sight it must have been. Imagine arriving by land and sea, only by land and sea in those days, denied the top-down perspective on cities we’re now so familiar with thanks to air travel – and suddenly seeing so many people in one place, streaming through this gate in search of a good time.
Imagine your pride, if you lived here.
Across the top of the gate is an inscription:
Barcelona rep les nacions.
That’s not Spanish. It’s in a language spoken in these parts since medieval times, a language of an empire, when it was the official tongue of the Crown of Aragon across much of the Western Mediterranean. It was banned in the early 19th Century, revived a century later, and brutally suppressed under Franco’s dictatorship of 1939-1975.
Now it’s the voice of a people proud of their cultural resilience – and, for many, yet another reason they should win independence from Spain, and be allowed to wave certain flags at football matches.
Seriously, be careful of toasting Spain in the presence of Catalans. They may throw their drinks in your face. Or perhaps they’d think it, because in my experience, Catalans are wonderfully welcoming. But you’d see that urge flash across their faces. It’d be awkward. Best avoided.
As this gate shows, Barcelona is used to welcoming new arrivals – maybe because it’s fought so hard to get here as well.
(That’s inspiring to see in these unsettled times.)
A mile or so away, cruise-ship tourists stream down gang-planks in search of something tasty to eat for lunch.
Unfortunately for them, they’re herded up the seaward end of the Rambla – a depressing landscape of sun-faded restaurant signs offering overpriced dishes of such spectacular ugliness they make you wonder if HR Giger was the chef.
Most visitors will settle for a really disappointing lunch – in one of the best cities to eat it in the whole of Spain.
(If only they’d tried being weird.)
I’ve been here six times, all within the last two years. My girlfriend, a doctor from Costa Rica, lived near the weirdest church in Europe, and on clear nights we’d climb to the top of her apartment block, watching birds wheeling overhead in search of dinner, and looking out over the rooftops to where Gaudi’s masterpiece reaches for the sky. It’s a beautiful, stirring sight.
Well, apart from the cranes.
The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família (you can sound like a local by calling it the “Sagrada”) hasn’t actually arrived yet.
They’ve been building it for over a hundred years, starting in 1882, and it’s interesting to speculate what would have happened if the original architect, Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano, had kept working on it (probably we’d have a fairly conventional-looking Gothic church). He didn’t. A year after starting work, he walked away, and a young man called Antoni Gaudi stepped into his shoes.
The rest is history. Huge, pointy, weirdly organic-looking history, somewhere between architecture and bonsai, currently growing a few metres every year until it’s finally finished in 2026.
Gaudi died in 1926, when the Sagrada was only a quarter built – but he’s still there, watching as the building-work moves into its last decade, and if you circle the church until you find the entrance to the Cripta (free access, unlike the main Sagrada), you’ll find him down there in a beautiful but unassuming corner, under a flower-covered gravestone.
He’s not making a fuss. It’s like he’s saying:
All this isn’t about me. Look everywhere else. Keep moving. Thank you.
The Sagrada is where I first felt I’d truly arrived in Barcelona, Catalonia and Spain, all at once.
I took the above photo while we were waiting for my first plate of chipirones (tiny fried squid, best dipped in allioli or dripping with lemon juice). That first bite of squid, combined with the sunny afternoon heat, threw me all the way back to my childhood in Cyprus – but then I returned, looking around, noticing the differences, and feeling on the edge of a vast land I’d read about but never explored…
And now, here, sweaty and dishevelled in this bus station two years later, it’s time to explore.
I’ll be taking the bus across the vast plains of the interior to Madrid to meet Mariana, then we’ll cross the whole of Spain from north to south, hugging the coast for a few months, skipping briefly across the Straits of Gibraltar to Morocco, passing through Granada and Seville, crossing the border to northern Portugal before taking a train from Vigo through the river valleys and canyons of the top of Spain to complete our 6-month journey in the city it all started…
And it all starts in around five minutes. Oh shit.
I suck back the rest of my coffee and stagger towards my bus stop, having seen nothing of Barcelona this time except a bathroom, a bench and an automatic coffee machine – and having smelled way too much of it.
There are better ways to arrive in Barcelona.
I recommend them all to you.
Images: Mike Sowden