I mention a planned Spain vacation to the college student who cashiers at Old Nelson, our morning coffee spot. Her eyes light up. “Barcelona!” she exclaims. That was my first clue the Catalan capital had become a bigger tourist magnet than it was when my wife, Patricia, and I first visited 10 years ago.
Our next hint came in reports of a growing anti-tourism movement among Barcelonans who fear their city is becoming “another Venice.” “Spain is quite FULL — Tourists urged to travel elsewhere,” headlined a London newspaper. It seems the economic benefits of the tourist boom had come at a cost: congestion, youthful rowdiness and rising prices, especially the impact of apartment rental services like Airbnb on the housing market. Barcelona’s city council has responded by banning new hotels in the central area.
We too are appalled by many aspects of mass tourism. But we had fallen in love with Barcelona during our earlier visit and longed to return. In the end, the pull of architect Antoni Gaudi and the city’s other charms proved irresistible.
Barcelonans certainly seemed as welcoming and helpful as before, although some were obviously preoccupied with the referendum on Catalan independence which occurred during our visit. Rallies and marches urging a “yes” vote were boisterous but gave no cause for alarm as we roamed the city’s streets.
So what had changed in the past decade? The city was obviously more crowded with tourists — groups, families and individuals. La Rambla, the main tourist drag, was thronged morning to night despite a recent terrorist van attack that killed 13 and injured 130, mostly visitors. The pedestrian street offered as many schlocky souvenirs as before and even more international chain stores. But I searched in vain for the street musicians and artful mimes, who seemed to have been banished from La Rambla.
The adjacent La Boqueria Market, where 200 stalls sell every food imaginable, though more congested, was as delightful as ever. Finding a table at a market restaurant for lunch proved futile. But hunger was not a concern. Grab-and-go stands offering €2 cups of juice and cut fruit had proliferated.
The impact of increased tourism was most evident at Barcelona’s “bucket list” attractions. Chief among these, of course, is Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s breathtaking tribute to the Holy Family begun in 1882. The basilica’s 18-spired exterior remains a work in progress. But the interior where 10 years ago we dodged workmen and watched stone cutters at work is nearing completion.
During our earlier visit we rode the metro to the Sagrada, purchased tickets and shortly were admitted to the edifice. Trying this again was a big mistake. A sea of humanity, cellphones upraised, engulfed the basilica. Fortunately, we were able to order internet tickets for two days later. The timed-admission policy seemed an effective form of crowd control. Inside, we wandered relatively unimpeded as the afternoon sunlight flooded its modernist stained glass.
Reserve in advance was the rule at other Gaudi masterpieces – La Pedrera, Casa Batllo and Park Guell. The latter, though accessible, is being renovated. Climbing the steep street to the fairy-tale residential complex, we were reminded that our welcome to the city was not universal. “Why call it tourist season if we can’t shoot them?” asked a hand-lettered sign posted in a local’s window.
Impromptu visits to two other architectural marvels were more productive. The Guell Palace, an early Gaudi commission on a narrow street in working-class Barcelona, had been closed for repairs 10 years ago. This time after a short wait we were able to explore the outwardly austere mansion’s ornate interior and ingenious basement stables.
We also gained prompt entry to Palau de la Musica Catalana, designed by Gaudi contemporary Lluis Domènech i Montaner in 1905. Somehow we had missed this spectacular sculpted stone and stained-glass concert hall on our previous visit. Sitting in its plush balcony seats and listening to a test of its splendid acoustics erased any remaining doubts about the wisdom of revisiting Barcelona.