I recently went to Barcelona for the fist time. By myself. And once again I’m left pondering how many things have to go wrong whilst solo travelling before you can credibly declare yourself cursed? And more importantly, why don’t I have more friends? By my calculations it’s three. Not friends, I mean you need to have a shit solo holiday three times before you can start believing there’s been some jiggery pokery in the universe and your travel fortunes.
Last year I went to Istanbul solo. Wasn’t the most successful trip ever. No power or water in my apartment for two days out of four, humid September weather I hadn’t packed for and an early morning groping by some arsehole on the way to my airport bus. Barcelona on the other hand gave me two firsts, but not the kinds you can show off on Facebook about. Nah. Barcelona gave me my first ever dose of food poisoning and a £350/14hr flight back home when I realised way too late, like, at the departure gate, I’d booked the wrong date for my return journey. I have one more chance. After that, god help me, I’ll have to resort to solo travel group tours (is that an oxymoron) for my own safety.
I’m still not sure what I thought of Barcelona. It was January, about ten degrees, but that’s not a complaint because the sun was still out and there were no crowds. There was a palpable relaxed vibe to the whole city which I enjoyed, especially in the deserted, calming, beach-side Barceloneta. It’s undoubtedly beautiful, the architecture is stunning, the people are friendly and the food is good. But it just didn’t have that thing for me, that thing that hits you about a place almost the second you get off a plane, the instant click, like meeting a stranger at a party who gets your t-shirt quote without having to explain where it’s from.
So here’s the best I can do, the one thing I did quite like; Gracia, a village directly north of the Avenue Diagonal. Experiencing a bit of a surge in popularity lately, it’s essentially a family neighbourhood, but if you let yourself get lost wandering the grid-like streets you’ll soon see it has a lot to offer visitors too. Gracia is full of beautiful architecture (again), decades old specialty food shops (cheese, ham, legumes, bicycles, confectionery), endearingly cluttered bodegas full of colourful locals, street art, restaurants and little hidden squares just made for sitting to take a breather and people watch.
I love old school shops. So much more character than modern chain stores.
If you like to get a feel for the real heart of any city you visit to get a proper taste of how the locals live, unlike the still beautiful but tourist-centric areas further south, Gracia is where you need to head. Wander round at your leisure and keep an eye out for legendary churro shop Trebol, Abaceria Central Market and all the amazing street art displayed on shop shutters. And if you’re lucky enough to be there in August, don’t miss the Festa Major Gracia, when the local residents get together to decorate the streets in lavish, colourful displays that’ll have you oooohing and ahhhhhing and probably filling up a huge chunk of your camera’s memory stick.