Whisky and pocket pickers on Barceloneta Beach
It was around two in the morning when we approached the shoreline of Barceloneta beach. The black sea lapped at the rocks as we hunkered down to relax and take in the scene. We had been drinking heavily from a bottle of Johnnie Walker, after a night in the bars of the Barri Gòtic.
Brad lit up a smoke. “Busy for a wednesday night, eh?”
The floodlit promenade revealed small groups of revellers dotted along the entire length of the beach.
“This is just the beginning. Imagine this place at the weekend.” I said, taking a swig of whisky. “There’s a lot to see. I want to visit Mount Tibidabo while we’re here, for one.”
We three had visited Barcelona a couple of years previously. We had strolled the Ramblas and marveled at the architecture of Gaudi. We had made a nice scratch in the surface of the notorious nightlife, which had given me a hunger to return to the city and delve deeper.
I passed the bottle to Si, who had been taking photographs of the bay.
He finished off the last of the whisky. “I say we take it easy tonight. Do some reconnaissance.”
I nodded. “Either way we’ll need some more beers for the journey back.”
We strolled over to a section of concrete sunloungers populated by a group of girls and a couple of Indian street sellers.
One of the sellers stirred from his seat and approached us. “Beer? Water? Cerveza?
“Six cans of beer.” Brad said.
“How much?” I said.
“One euro each.”
I tapped my pockets. “I only have four euros.”
The man considered for a second. “Okay.”
We continued down the lower promenade at beach level, back towards our place, gulping our beers.
I passed a curly-haired man staggering in the opposite direction. His friend who trailed behind him slowed down and approached me. On closer inspection I noticed his pupils were hugely dilated, twisted on some heinous and debilitating drug, no doubt.
He pointed to my beer and said something in a language I didn’t understand. I held up my hand in confusion.
Sensing my reluctance, he lowered his head to a position where I could pour some beer straight into his mouth.
“Cheers.” I said, pouring in a waterfall of suds.
As he walked by, I turned back to see the curly-haired man in a drunken embrace with Brad. After slapping each other on the back, they parted company and all seemed well.
A few moments later Brad groaned.
I looked back to see him with his head in his hands.
“I think he’s taken my phone”.
The two men were now out of sight. Seemingly defeated we slunk up the staircase to the upper promenade overlooking the beach. We began walking back on ourselves, moving towards our original position, attempting to spot them making an escape.
“It’s probably pointless.” Brad said. “They’ll be long gone by now.”
“They’d have to be pretty stupid to stick around.” I said.
Tracing the railing overlooking the beach, I glanced downwards whenever I noticed some movement. A couple drunkenly walking home. A homeless man pushing a shopping cart. A curly-haired guy sitting on a bench playing with a phone.
“I think that’s him.” I said, ushering Brad over.
He rushed over and leant over the balcony to get a closer look.
“Found something, have you mate?” Brad shouted, exasperated.
The man turned around and looked up.
He pocketed the phone in his shorts and held up his now empty hands.
I noticed there were two other men beside us on the upper promenade, conversing with the thief and his friend. Another guy had now joined them on the lower level. I looked over slyly to Brad. He nodded.
Brad signed for the thief to come and meet him on the upper level and made a ‘phone’ sign with his right hand.
The man continued to deny all knowledge and appeared to be reaching into his jacket pocket for something, with a grin.
Suddenly Si walked forward with his phone and began filming the scene.
The drug-addled accomplice noticed this. He lurched foward and held the arm of the thief, preventing him from bringing out whatever was in his pocket. He said something inaudible and a few moments later the thief appeared to come to some kind of realization.
Both groups began walking towards the nearest set of stairs.
Keeping the high ground, Brad began to edge down the stairs, drawing the thief up to meet him. The men who were on our level simply watched from afar, perhaps a common scene for them.
After Brad had grabbed his phone back, Si hurled some insults over the railing and we swiftly made our exit.
“Yes lads.” Brad said beaming. “Feels amazing to get it back. I’m almost glad they took it, just so we could get it back.”
I understood and nodded with a smile.
There is a lot of commotion about the panopticon of surveillance technology that has become embedded in modern society. But it had, at least today, come good and proven that the smartphone could be mightier than whatever was lurking in the thief’s pocket, ready to be drawn.
The next day I woke around noon. Dave, who had gone to bed before last night’s events, had been up for hours and was reclining on the sofa. A sportswriter, he was glued to his Twitter feed, picking arguments about the minutiae of football.
“Mike will be here soon.” He said without looking up. “His flight gets in around three.”
I opened the fridge and started gulping a bottle of chilled water. “You heard about last night? We could have been sliced up like salami. We were outnumbered.”
“Brad told me. Crazy.”
“Where’s Brad anyway?”
“He went back to bed.”
I shrugged and slumped on the sofa.
Mike arrived later in the afternoon and we all set off for the beach. On arrival, we bounded across the scorching sand towards the sea. The place was crowded, so I immediately swam out into the sea, towards the huge concrete blocks that serve as a breakwater for the beach.
Sitting on the blocks, the tide sloshed rhythmically, only a distant murmur from the beach. After a while we jumped into the sea, slowly paddling back towards the beach.
Floating in the sea is always pleasure for me, the further from the shore the better. To be weightless, at one with the water, just close your eyes and drift. I bobbed on the surface for a while, alone and at peace.
Bump. I looked up with confusion. A girl had plowed into me on her paddleboard.
“Sorry.” She said, hurtling off with the momentum from our collision.
Wading back towards land, I approached Mike and Dave. “Let’s go. We’ve got some serious drinking to do.”
The apartment’s rooftop terrace was a beautiful spot. The beacon of Tibidabo gleamed on the hill above the city, as dusk fell. We played card games, quaffed whisky and got increasingly wild as night descended.
“Guys.” Si said, hushing us. “We need to tone it down a bit. The owner has just told me they’ve had a noise complaint.”
Stomping down the five-storey staircase we arrived outside the apartment. I noticed the first floor window was open. A bizarre and ugly scene seemed to be playing out inside.
“Jesus.” I said. “That explains the noise complaint. It must be those depraved Danish bastards.”
Every ten seconds or so a loud whip crack emanated through the window, followed by a weird yelp and an uproar from within. We had met a group of Danish guys on the rooftop the night before. They were staying on the first floor. Seemingly young and innocent, who knew what perversity was being perpertrated up on the first floor that night.
“Better tell the owner.” I said. “We don’t want them thinking its us who have set up a sadomasochism convention in their apartment.”
Strutting out into the city, warm winds blew down the sandstone corridors of the Gothic quarter, mystery and romance in the air. We came to a bar called Mr Robinson, pumping with music and movement.
Barcelona is cosmopolitan city and this bar was a perfect illustration. One minute you can be talking politics with an elegant government lawyer from Buenos Aires, the next beatboxing poorly with a rapper from New York. After a brief tour of the room I had chatted with people from Sao Paulo to Berlin, as well as locals from Catalonia. Sometime around midnight I realized I had been abandoned by the group. I had become lost in the moment and lost track of time. I made my excuses and staggered out into the night.
Si had sent their location and I eventually found them in a busy street of bars. People on the street were boisterous and noisy, every bar a hive of activity.
Inside we descended further into drunkeness. I found myself talking insane gibberish with a local artist and her friend about disturbing surrealism and the friend’s penchant for elderley men.
Next thing I knew we were back on the beach. We had returned to the area we had been in on the first night. It had a large public gym apparatus, generally populated with young men doing chin ups and swinging from the monkey bars.
A pull up competition ensued, everyone took their turn, except for me, wanting to relax at the end of the night.
“Aren’t you bothered that you didn’t take part?” Mike said, having taken the victory. “I thought you were an alpha male?”
“Is a Lion bothered by a few flies buzzing around it’s head?” I said, shaking my head and settling back on the concrete recliner.
Years ago when I was backpacking through western Europe…
Another hot a sticky day in Catalonia. Two or three stops on the metro and a hilly walk, led us to the funicular railway below Mount Tibidabo. I had seen the mountain from afar on previous trips to Barcelona, a distant light on the hill and been enthralled by its mystery.
As the train clunked up the hill, the amusement park situated on the summit came into view. There is a timeless nostalgia to Tibidabo amusement park. From the bright red Avió airplane ride dating back to 1928, to the carousel and white ferris wheel, it has an eerie time capsule feel, despite being spotless and well-maintained.
Towering over the park is a gothic revival church, Sagrat Cor. A statue of Christ looks out over the expanse of the city from the zenith of the church. Indeed, the name Tibidabo means ‘I will give you’ in Latin, recalling the bible story of Jesus being tempted by Satan on the mountaintop. So the story goes, the devil offered him all the kingdoms of the world if only he would bow down and worship him.
There was a wedding going on, so we skipped the church interior and headed to the viewpoint. The entire sprawl of Barcelona was visible down to the sparkling sea, so much city waiting to be explored.
“What do you reckon to visiting Parc Guell while we’re in the area?” Si said. “Apparently it’s only half a mile from here.”
“Sounds good.” Brad said.
Over an hour later and after a tour of most of the surrounding neighbourhood, we finally arrived at the park. I marveled at the Gaudi architecture in the park. Jagged organic irregularity juxtaposed with the curving Moorish forms, religious iconography and intricate mosaics. Garish monuments to nature’s hatred of a straight line. I was struck in particular with one building which looked like a huge seashell.
We ate paella that evening in a large courtyard near the Ramblas. A large group of drunkards were chanting and cheering a few tables away.
“English people.” I said, rolling my eyes.
“They are the worst.” Si said. “You can’t take them anywhere.”
A group of local gymnasts in Brazilian football shirts had started a street performance next to the group and one of the drunken men was now interfering in the performance, attempting to do cartwheels, while his group hollered and cheered at his buffoonery.
That night we took a bottle of Captain Morgan to the marina, people-watched and discussed bizarre conspiracy theories about Donald Trump.
Vamos a jugar por la playa
I headed out with Brad and Si the next day to the Montjuic area, while Dave and Mike went to the beach. We walked through the gardens, past the imposing Palau Nacional and toured the old Olympic park, which was hosting what appeared to be an international skateboarding competition.
Returning to the apartment in the late afternoon, I found Dave in his spot on the sofa, scrolling through Twitter. Mike was snoring in his bedroom.
“How was the beach?” I said.
“Terrible.” He said. “I couldn’t move without someone trying to sell me an ice-cold mojito.”
He sniggered and shook his head. “It got crazy down there at one point. There was a turf war between the mojito guys. Three or four of them. Then another one nipped in while they were all busy arguing and offered me a samosa.”
I chuckled. “Those bastards can sniff out an opportunity like a bloodhound.”
I had come to Barcelona to reach below the veneer of the city, to seek out the secret haunts of the locals and escape the banal treadmill of the sightseers. So with that logic we decided sign up for a tourist bar crawl through the Gothic Quarter. Prime territory for immersion in the human zoo of inebriated travelers looking for a good time.
We fueled up on rum and whisky before heading out to the first stop, a dimly lit cavern called the Mint Bar.
The crawl was run by a trio of American barmen.
One of the men, a stocky white guy approached me. “Here’s your wristband.” He checked my name off the list on his clipboard and after a perfunctory smile moved on with his duties.
“I think there are only three women in here.” Mike said, looking around. “And two of them are barmaids.”
“I like those odds.” I said. “What do you think Brad?”
He drained the rest of his mojito. “I think the girl over there is with her boyfriend, too.”
The organizers called everyone downstairs to a deserted bar, with the promise of a complementary shot of rocket fuel. Mercifully, another lively bar crawl bustled down the stairs a few minutes later and the place came alive.
I watched, cringing, as a diminutive Asian man, part of the the new group, glanced around desperately, trying to locate a woman to converse with. Every time he thought he had found an opening, the women would notice his glance and quickly turn away. Poor guy, I thought.
I noticed one of the organizers next to us, talking to a group of tall blondes with American accents. He was trying to persuade them to join the bar crawl in return for free wristbands.
A cheer echoed from across the room.
I looked over at the Americans. “Typical English people.” I said, directing my gaze to the source of the cacophony. “They ruin everything.”
Something snapped in the organizer’s mind. He walked over with a wolf’s smile and placed his hand on my shoulder. “Drink up.” He said. “We’ll be moving on soon.”
I grinned and gave him a jovial slap on the back. “Good news. Where is this mythical shot I’ve been hearing about, by the way?”
He nodded, disappearing behind the bar and bringing out a tray of unidentifiable alcohol shots, before distributing them around the room.
“What the fuck is this?” Brad said, holding the drink up to the light.
“Who knows.” Si said, necking his shot. “It looks like drain cleaner.”
The crawl continued to a small bar in the heart of the gothic quarter. The organizers distributed pitchers of vodka and orange as people became increasingly rowdy. The stifling weather was exacerbated by the large overhead lighting inside of the bar. Unable to cope with the unbearable heat we migrated to a table in the alleyway.
Eventually most of the other people on the bar crawl had escaped the furnace indoors and we stood in a large circle. Us five, a young couple from the Netherlands and a foursome of guys from Yorkshire.
“I’m starting to feel pretty drunk.” Mike said, with a savage look in his eyes. Once a connoisseur of serious partying and getting naked in public places, he had settled down and was enjoying life as a father and hedge fund manager. I still saw that streak of wildness in him occasionally though, waiting to be released.
Suddenly a loud splash came from behind us. I noticed what looked like soapy water at the foot of my jeans. Someone had thrown a water balloon from one of the balconies above the entrance.
“Locals.” The organizer said, looking upwards. “We were lucky this time. Sometimes they fill them with bleach.”
“What do they expect, living above a bar?” I said, knocking back more vodka.
The three American girls had now retreated from the bar and one had come over to the table that Brad, Mike and I were at. It turned out they were all recent graduates from Penn State.
“You should be careful.” I said, to the woman. “These bar crawls are just a scam. They take the money of thirsty men, then try and make off with all the women. They are sexual predators.”
She looked concerned, but put on a brave face. “Don’t worry. We are pretty good at looking after ourselves.”
“Pepper spray is always a good idea, if you can find it.” I said.
Mike moved over and tapped my shoulder. “Perhaps we should go in and get another drink.”
He looked over at Brad and the American girl conspicuously. “And see what happens.”
“Mines a vodka and coke.” I said, as he guided me back into the oven.
Two minutes later Brad stormed in. The conversation had obviously gone sour, in Brad’s view, due to Mike’s blatant matchmaking techniques. I slipped back out as they continued their disagreement.
The American girl was still at the table stirring her drink. “What was wrong with that guy?”
“Oh don’t worry about him.” I said. “That’s just Mike. He’s Portuguese.”
We moved on to another bar located in the large courtyard where we had endured the boisterious chanting of the English tourists, the night before. Brad and Mike seemed to have made up and everyone was enjoying the drunken vibrations in the bar.
Staggering around a crowded bar with ear-thumping music is not an ideal environment for sharpening your language skills, but I gave it a go. I danced around, striking up conversations with varying degrees of success. Ultimately, I had gravitated back to the English-speaking members of the bar crawl, when my attempts had floundered.
The group had decided in my abscence that the bar crawl had been a total failure and that we should go home or at least somewhere else. Mike pushed his way towards me and made it clear that they were leaving. I bid farewell to the American woman who I had been discussing politics with and we set off for the beach.
Saturday night on Barceloneta beach is vibrant place to be. Larger groups of five or ten people were dotted across the beach, drinking, swimming and playing guitars. Rickshaws whizzed by as we strolled onto the sand, bass thumping from a distant club.
I noticed a group who were splashing about at the edge of the water. I began talking to a woman who turned out to be English. The group were also on a bar crawl.
“It was organized by those Argentinian guys.” She said, pointing to a swarthy man who was standing face to face with a drunk blonde girl. “That’s the organizer. And the girl he’s with is my friend, Louise.”
“Jesus.” I said, chuckling. “She looks wasted.”
They started to kiss shamelessly, staggering around the beach.
“How about a smoke?” I said. “My good friend Brad is just over there.”
We slumped down next to Brad who was reclining by the shoreline. He passed the glowing cigarette to me. Dave and Si had gone out into the sea for a swim, while Mike had returned to the apartment to hit the sack.
“Watch out, tonight.” I said, passing the smoke. “These bar crawl guys are all animals. Pure opportunists. I admire their business model though.”
“When are you guys going back?” She said.
“I came out here looking for the real Barcelona.” I said. “This place is probably the closest I’ve come.”
She said nothing.
“Except for all the English drunkards.” I pointed over to her friend who was now vomiting on the rocks. “Not us guys though, of course. We are cultured travelers.”
“You keep telling yourself that.” She said, passing the cigarette back to Brad.
I laughed at the absurdity of my vision. But it is possible, I thought. There are certain cities that have that energy, a constant flux of travelers from far flung lands mixing effortlessly with natives. You can arrive as a tourist and experience a real taste of the place, without befouling it. But so what? Maybe this is all pretentious gibberish and I should just accept my role as walking dollar sign.
We eventually dragged ourselves up and ambled over to the area we had sat on our first night. The English woman had long since ditched us in search of a foreign lover. Brad hunkered down on the sand to roll yet another cigarette.
I noticed a bevy of locals nearby. A man wailed love songs and strummed his guitar, while some of his companions pitched in off-key. On the other side of us, a man had passed out face-first. The two bikini-clad girls that were with him, danced slowly in the moonlight, perhaps to the distant bass or maybe to music only they could hear.
“I’m going for a swim.” I said, casting off my t-shirt.
Gliding out into the water, I lay back, floating on calm seas. I could see the glow of Brad’s cigarette as I drifted further out. How sweet to be out here, nymphs on the shore, music and laughter all around. I felt a deep sense in that moment, that there was nowhere else I’d rather be.