Despite riots and curfews, I loved Barcelona within days of arriving

Burning bins and global uncertainty didn't put this Irishman off Barcelona

‘There is a blend of sound and smell and colour here; laughter, smoke, meals cooking, dogs barking, laundry dancing on the breeze.’ Francis Walshe in Barcelona

‘There is a blend of sound and smell and colour here; laughter, smoke, meals cooking, dogs barking, laundry dancing on the breeze.’ Francis Walshe in Barcelona

 

Francis Walshe is a freelance writer who has lived in Barcelona since last year. Originally from Waterford and a graduate of the University of Limerick, he hopes to travel further afield before returning to Ireland

March, 2020. As world travel ground to a halt in the shadow of Covid-19, my plans to relocate to Canada were put on ice and I began to consider my next move from the comfort of my parents’ house in Waterford. Months passed, the “new normal” gradually began to take hold and I decided, once again, to up sticks. Barcelona was warm, affordable, conveniently situated within the European Union and home to a few friends from college. Perfect.

A few weeks after my arrival in mid-September 2020, the Catalan government announced a fresh round of pandemic-related movement restrictions. After a reasonably liberal summer, bars, restaurants and gyms closed once again and a 10pm curfew was put in place. As Spain’s most-visited tourist hub, Barcelona is more reliant on the service industry than other areas of the country; these restrictions led to crippling waves of unemployment here.

The jagged outline of La Sagrada Familia has pride of place on the skyline. The Gaudi cathedral is the city’s best-known attraction, despite still being under construction

Despite all this, I decided I loved Barcelona within days of arriving and my mind has yet to change. The city is a charming mix of new and old, steeped in both history and cultural modernity. In the old parts of town, sand-coloured apartment buildings press close together, leaving a maze of narrow alleyways on the ground below. There is a blend of sound and smell and colour here; laughter, smoke, meals cooking, dogs barking, laundry dancing on the breeze.

In more modern barrios, the streets widen to accommodate vehicles, and the buildings get larger and further apart. Climbing uphill out of the city centre brings you to the Carmel Bunkers, the Civil War-era anti-aircraft facility that now serves as a panoramic viewpoint. The jagged outline of La Sagrada Familia has pride of place on the skyline, towering above the neat gridwork of streets that makes up the surrounding neighbourhood. The Gaudi cathedral is the city’s best-known attraction, despite still being under construction.

I have no professional connection to Spain; as a freelance writer, most of my work comes from the US and I’m free to live wherever I choose. The nature of my workload changes intermittently, but my main job for the past few months has been writing news content for US political sites. I had subconsciously imagined politics on this side of the Atlantic to be, generally, less antagonistic than in the US, but the events that followed the arrest of rapper Pablo Hasél (for lyrics that allegedly glorified terrorism and insulted the Spanish monarchy) in Catalonia in February offered a new perspective.

As I come from Ireland, where criticism of monarchies almost seems a moral obligation, this struck me as an odd reason to throw someone in jail

As I come from Ireland, where criticism of monarchies almost seems a moral obligation, this struck me as an odd reason to throw someone in jail. The thousands of protesters who descended on Barcelona’s streets on the night of Hasél’s arrest, and for several nights thereafter, clearly appeared to agree.

Dozens of armoured police vehicles crawled the roads in tandem, accepting a battering from bricks, bottles, and other handheld missiles. Communal rubbish bins, easily manoeuvrable and highly combustible, quickly became the preferred means of disruption for rioters; they upturned the receptacles on busy crossroads and set them alight. Fires dotted the city centre, their flames licking at apartment balconies five and six floors up, thick billows of smoke pushing into the night sky. Seven months on, a badge of burnt tarmac and melted plastic still adorns the street outside my apartment building.

This was not the first time Barcelona had witnessed scenes like these in recent years; the growing push for Catalan independence (a cause Pablo Hasél supports) has seen several such outbreaks of unrest. There is something curiously invigorating about being in the midst of such real social upheaval, of a people so actively furious with their leadership.

When I began writing this, I planned to remark upon the celebrations that came with the lifting of the 10pm curfew last May. Unfortunately, the dreaded Delta variant caused a massive spike in case numbers here despite climbing vaccination rates, and Catalonia residents were once again housebound at night (though only from 1 am this time around). However, bars and restaurants remains open, and a trickle of short-hop visitors can be seen milling about in the city centre. Things are looking up for Barcelona.

Last week the Catalan government announced that it will fully revoke the curfew after a last-ditch attempt to expand the measure to Barcelona was blocked by the Catalonian high court. Social gatherings remain limited to 10 people to reduce coronavirus contagion and the capacity limit for religious and civil ceremonies will continue to be 70 per cent. The Catalan government is urging citizens to be cautious and is discouraging large get-togethers after large crowds of revellers were seen in some Barcelona neighbourhoods following the end of the curfew.

The prospect of intercontinental travel remains an attractive one for me; despite my fondness for Barcelona, I may not have much time left to spend here. However, if anyone reading this is considering sampling a Mediterranean lifestyle, I couldn’t recommend the city heartily enough.

If you live overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email abroad@irishtimes.com with a little information about you and what you do

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