Barcelona Nights

Barcelona. Night and the City

Ramblista is the Catalan word for someone addicted to wandering up and down the Ramblas, the central artery of Barcelona which throngs with people day and night. It is a word that could be applied to most of the citizens of this buzzing, driven city as they follow their nocturnal paseo from bar to bar, restaurant to club. The sense of liberation remains palpable here even 20 years after Franco, the Barcelonans are fiercely proud of their city, and want you to enjoy it too. They love to go out – all you have to do is join the party. Spain claims 50% of the bars and restaurants in Europe, most of which seem to be in Barcelona, a city which basks in a felicitous combination of northern work ethic and Southern joie de vivre. In other words, they work hard and play hard.

It can seem as if the only difference between night and day here is that it is sometimes dark. Otherwise life goes on much the same; they eat at all hours, (lunch at 2 or 3pm. dinner 10 pm or later) shop till 8 pm, go to the beach to swim or even dance, go clubbing all night; it is not at all unusual to find a group of people still chatting and laughing in a cafe at 3 or 4 am. It is a late city, and if not quite as late as Madrid, you can still start to feel pretty jet lagged dining at 11 or 12 o’clock before getting the night started. Take a siesta or rest early evening if you want to stay the course.

Barcelona has been known for its nightclubs since the late eighties, following the explosion of design and style which came with democracy. The clubs remain an essential part of a Barcelona night out, but there are many other alternatives, and there’s much to be said for enjoying such a city al fresco, not just plunging into air conditioned fantasies that could as easily be in London or New York.

The tiny bodegas and shady courtyards of the Barri Gotic, the bustling fish restaurants of the old port, the swanky post-Olympic marinas, the smart clubs and restaurants of modernist Eixample, with Gaudi’s “demented” architecture ( as Dali called it) floodlit at night; all of Barcelona has a nightlife. But it would be perverse to start anywhere other than La Rambla, where you can spend an entire evening simply cruising up and down with everyone else, pausing at the terrace cafes for drinks or tapas; delectable morsels of squid, spicy sausages, anchovies, peppers or mussels. Drink cava, the creditable Catalan version of champagne, or Vermouth, a recently revived traditional aperitif. La Rambla is a sensual feast; one of the world’s great promenades. Despite the honking traffic either side, the central boulevard is wide and shady, flanked by book and magazine stalls, musicians, gypsy fortune tellers and human statues. Caged birds add to the glorious cacophony and the flower stalls, coffee and chocolate, combine with the fish and vegetable aromas of the Boqueria market in a pungent melange.

There are still good little bars and cafes all around this area, (though the famous Cafe Zurich has, sadly, been bulldozed.) On the Rambla itself Cafe de l’Opera (302 4180) is a much loved institution, a classic bar with marble tables and aproned waiters. Or start the evening in art deco style with a cocktail at Boadas (Tallers, Tel 318 95 52) just off Placa Catalunya. Kasparo,(302 20 72) is a friendly terrace cafe just off Placa Bon Success, run by three Australian sisters, where you can pick up Metropolitan, Barcelona’s English language What’s On magazine.

The Barri Gotic (Gothic quarter) the medieval heart of the city, has been renovated just enough to make it feel safe but not too much to lose its flavour and there are still plenty of old style bodegas and tiny coffee shops to be discovered in the warren of narrow streets, while every now and then is a pretty square full of shady tables and parasols; head for Placa del Pi and Josep Oriol. Near the cathedral is the bijou Meson del Cafe on carrer de la Llibreteria, where the capuccino is considered the best in the city.

After a visit to the superb Musee Picasso you might pick up the artists’ trail at Els Quatre Gats, (Carrer Montsio. Tel 302 41 40) a traditional bar in a Gothic Revival building, with traditional ceramic tiled walls and live piano music; a meeting place for artists early in the century, it was where Picasso’s work was first exhibited. Or nearby there is classical music in the shady courtyard of Espai Barroc.(Montcada. Tel 310 06 73) In Eixample, sample the high design of Seltz (Rossello 154, Tel 453 6099) a new bar dedicated to Vermouth with excellent tapas, or go to Tragaluz, (Passatge de la Concepcio. Tel 487 0621) where the downstairs bar has the latest in designer chairs and a Tragarapid Japanese menu; upstairs the restaurant roof is rolled back on hot nights.

The new buzz word is “chiringuito”, according to local journalist and chronicler of the night, Xavier Agullo. Chiringuitos were simple little shacks serving food right on the beach, a popular custom on this coast, but most were swept away during Olympic reconstruction. Now the word is applied to a whole new trend of al fresco drinking, dining and dancing which exploits the potential of this Mediterranean city to the full. More and more people find themselves heading for the waterfront, revitalised since the Olympic Games development of 1992, with a long promenade, brand new beaches (Blue Flag, remarkably) and dozens of canopied restaurants and bars. Here live bands play beneath the palm trees and the foot tapping crowds start dancing. It is here that the scene has shifted as the development takes hold. Suddenly Barcelona after centuries of facing away from the sea and the industrial port has all the potential of a Mediterranean seafront; already there are new hotels, notably the extraordinary Hotel Arts, a huge post-modern building overlooking the sea and the city, crowned with a vast copper fish designed, like the hotel, by American architect Frank Gehry (also responsible for the new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, due to open in October.) The Hotel is a performance all of itself, with walls of water and modern art everywhere. During the summer the terrace Bar Marina next to the swimming pool gives a great view of the action below, and there are several bars in the hotel open to the public.

Food is an essential part of the entertainment, from the traditional Catalan style tiled restaurants like Casa Leopoldo or Agut in the Barrio Chino, or the Hotel Espana, well worth visiting for its art nouveau dining room and chimney piece alone, to the famed fish restaurants of Barceloneta; here you can share a paella or sample every imaginable variety of seafood (baby cuttlefish or octopus, and crayfish highly recommended) Further along the seafront, Porto Olimpic has spawned several new style “chiringuitos” with canopied terraces overlooking the sea; several are offshoots of older establishments, such as El Crangrejo Loco (Moll de Gregal 29 Tel 221 0533) owners of Botafumeiro, famous for its fish, and Escriba, (Litoral Mar. Tel 221 07 29) the celebrated pattisserie-(desserts in particular are highly imaginative) .Here too is the “nouvelle Catalan” cuisine of Talaia, (Marina. Tel 93 221 90 90 ) run by one of Catalonia’s new star chefs, Carles Aberllan, where food as entertainment reaches its apotheosis; a sharing tasting menu might include marinated sardines with raspberries, monkfish with octopus and garlic, mango ravioli with basil jelly.

Entertainment abounds, though football is highest on the list for the Barcelonans themselves. The more cerebral combine opera and architecture in Montaner’s celebrated Modernist Palau de Musica, the only concert hall lit by natural light. (An appropriate place to eat afterwards is Brasserie Flo around the corner with its wonderful modernist interior. ( Jonqueres 10. Tel 317 8037.) Catalan purists sniff at watching flamenco in Barcelona but you can avoid the tourist offerings with a visit to Los Tarantos on Placa Real, (318 30 67) and there’s jazz at Jamboree next door. Of bars with live music and performance, the current favourites are La Boite (Diagonal 477. Tel 419 5950) and Luz de Gas (Muntaner 246. Tel 209 7711), offering blues, country, soul, even classical, till the early hours. The legendary Zeleste, one of the first clubs of the eighties, remains one of the best rock n roll venues. (Almogavers. Tel. 309 14 04) And Bacchus lays claim to being the most pornographic club in Europe, tickling the jaded palate of many celebrities.

Montjuic, the hill to the south where the Olympic Games were held, is also a centre of nightlife, including major pop concerts. Catalans have a reputation for being canny with money and they certainly use their imagination in exploiting these facilities; the Olympic swimming pool is sometimes used for films, and a ticket includes the cost of a swim afterwards. A bizarre attraction is the Poble Espanyol, which combines all styles of Spanish architecture in one village. It was originally built for the 1929 World Fair, but proved so popular no one could bear to knock it down. (Today it is so popular with the Japanese they have built their own copy in Japan). One of the pastiche castles, The Towers of Avilla, had its interior designed as a nightclub by Mariscal (Barcelona’s best-loved designer, of Olympic dog logo fame). It is an indulgent sci-fi fantasy of moving walls, transparent floors, and a hilltop terrace open to the stars.

The futuristic designer bars and clubs around the Diagonal that were a design movement in their own right during the eighties are still popular, packed out by 2 am and often spilling out into the street; Nick Havanna (Rosello. Tel 215 65 91) with its bank of video screens, waterfall urinals, and swinging pendulum; Universal, (Maria Cubi 201 46 58) a fashionable club which successfully combines dancing and a (relatively) quiet room of sofas and conversation; Velvet, (Balmes. Tel 217 6714) so smooth even the coasters are designed; or Up & Down (Numancia. Tel 280 2922) which divides the generations, parents upstairs and teenagers below. Really late nights invariably seem to end up at Otto Zutz, still the hottest place in town.(Lincoln 238 0663) It is a a funky well designed warehouse space with floors for frenetic dancing or retreating to a quiet game of pool and is open till 4 or 5 am. You don’t have to stop there, but after hours clubs are so ephemeral you just have to go with the flow. Most clubs have bouncers on the door, but the only real criteria for entrance is to look the part. Barcelonans love to dress up, and often look as if they bought everything they were wearing just the day before. Just don’t turn up in back packs and shorts.

The drift to the sea is evident here too however, and Porto Olimpico is still heaving with people, music and dancing till early in the morning. “Chiringuito” has been encapsulated in a new nightclub, Maritimo Club, on Moll de la Fusta, (35 75 96) with dance floors inside and out, featuring the Balearic beat of house music and Spain’s most glamorous transvestites. Truly, dancing under the stars on a warm Barcelona night is one of life’s great pleasures.