Barcelona loner

Fifteen years ago, Jeremy Atiyah came looking for an old-world Spanish experience. His neighbours craved a Spain that was 'super-moderno'. Today he admits, perhaps they had a point

Mercedes may not have been my kind of girl, in the same sense that Barcelona may not have been my kind of town. "Super-moderno!" she would shriek, at 5am, at the sight of a chrome Cadillac affixed to a discotheque wall in the name of design. Yes, we were in the 1980s. But I had fled to Spain to live the life of a penniless Bohemian. Had I chosen the wrong city?

Mercedes may not have been my kind of girl, in the same sense that Barcelona may not have been my kind of town. "Super-moderno!" she would shriek, at 5am, at the sight of a chrome Cadillac affixed to a discotheque wall in the name of design. Yes, we were in the 1980s. But I had fled to Spain to live the life of a penniless Bohemian. Had I chosen the wrong city?

There were good reasons for Mercedes' addiction to modernity. The Catalans, after all, were still emerging from a fascist twilightland of sexual, linguistic and cultural repression. But then again, I too was emerging from something that seemed almost as bad – a privileged British education. Weren't we all on the rebound? And yet, while I had taken my typewriter to live in a pension in the Gothic quarter, trapped amid smells of frying chips, with cracked-tiled floors, a creaking bedstead and a front-door key as long as my forearm, Mercedes had got into glamorous hairstyles and designer jackets.

"You like that slum?" she used to ask me, with deep mistrust. I told her that I did. And down the road from the Pension Costa, what was more, at a café called the Casa Jose, where the floors were strewn with tissues and prawn shells, I ate daily lunches of chickpea soup followed by meat or fish a la plancha ("on the plate"). This honest fare, I told Mercedes, in triumph, was washed down with wine drunk from the spout of a carafe. Why pay for chrome Cadillacs in your disco when you could have a set menu with characterful old peasants for £1.50?

We really did not mesh. Mercedes showed me the Pedrera, Gaudi's (and her) idea of what a man's home should look like, rippling round a corner on the Passeig de Gracia like a cliff-faced eroded by centuries of dripping water. Its balcony-rails resembled pieces of burnt-out wreckage, or the dissolved residue of an acid attack.

"You see, we are modern people," Mercedes would exclaim, icily, pointing out half-seen towers swirling from the roof. "We are not peasants, as you English think. Am I right or am I wrong?"

I fear she was right. But I didn't want to be wrong. I wanted patatas bravas, funny old Spaniards, olive trees, ancient inscriptions, idle chat, haphazard service and sunshine; not stylish discotheques or designer bars or the Olympic games or modernism or Miró or Gaudi. Which was why, in 1988, I ran away from Barcelona, vowing never to return. Until now, that is. Because here I am again, essentially the same man, wondering what I left behind.

And all I can say so far, is that the hoopla surrounding the 1992 Olympic games has not yet gone away. Checking in at the new-fangled art hotel, on the restored seafront, I arrive to find thousands of Catalans massing here for a Sunday stroll through the Olympic Village. They are predictably proud of this hotel. It is Spain's tallest building. It has been built within a superstructure of naked girders. Inside, it is full of original art. But when I notice that my room costs £100, I yearn for the Pension Costa.

Meanwhile, the first bit of tourism I need to do, is to visit the Sagrada Familia. Catalans measure their lifetimes by the progress of the works on this place. Stepping out of the metro right now, I confess that I am thunderstruck. Beyond the piles of half-cut masonry, an interior to the nave has emerged, with delicate columns leaning like giant rhubarb stalks to a canopied roof. Now I can see how long I have been away.

I set off strolling, but at an anxious speed, through town. Idly walking is a civic duty here. Mercedes used to assure me that the Spanish derived their late-night energy from doing it with friends before dinner. "It is the best time of the day to socialise. You English go to your pubs after dinner. This is wrong. After dinner is a time for dancing, not for talking."

Yes, I think. Dancing. But now the original Ramblas seems to have lost something. I see foreign fast-food outlets everywhere. What I remember as a peep show is now a bank. The performance artists are still there amid the flower-vendors, but looking rather tired. And when I take a closer look at the Catalans, I see what I have always suspected: that they are old-fashioned at heart. In their eyes I see scant evidence of Miró or Gaudi; but plenty, of new apartments and Habitat furniture.

In the glorious Boqueria market, skinned goats' heads with bulging eyeballs are on sale. The salted bacalao looks as raw as the shores of Newfoundland. I remain as calm as a Spaniard while waiting 10 minutes for service behind a hatted lady who is remonstrating with a fruit-vendor. "Last week the oranges were dry," she is exclaiming, "the week before stupendous, the week before sour! Now I just don't know where I am!"

Even as she speaks, I am noticing that the Boqueria's piles of hand-selected fruit would not disgrace the Harrods' food hall. I see plums from Chile, apples from Japan, kiwi fruit from California. This worries me. What is more, all the housewives are totting up their sums in euros.

Walking down to the waterfront I keep catching views of a city that never used to exist. The Barceloneta district I remember as an isolated grid of alleyways and dodgy fish restaurants on the edge of town; now I see tour groups of schoolchildren, exclaiming over Catalan marvels of the 21st century.

Didn't this bit here used to be part of the sea? This bit where lawns and mature palm trees have been planted? Gaudi too seems to be here, in the dismembered handrails and erupting plazas. I step out onto floating bridges to arrive at a super-moderno shopping and cinema complex called Maremagnum which reminds me of Singapore airport.

It is all wonderful. I'm just annoyed that Mercedes has been proven right. And I promptly duck back into the Gothic quarter, in a desperate bid to find my own neighbourhood. But here, instead of quaint old grocers, I pass shops selling lava lamps, dyed fabrics and ethnic kitsch. Inca and Hindu goddesses have replaced chickpeas and lentils. The grocery stores that survive are now run by Pakistani families.

And where is the Casa Jose? Is this it? I am standing in front of a bar decorated with pretentious Art Deco calligraphy, glinting with bottles and seductive lighting. Credit cards are accepted. The set menu is an astronomical £6.

I am almost in a panic by the time I approach the building where I once spent a year of my life. I pass another furniture shop. Surely that never used to be there? Or might it be that I just didn't notice furniture shops in those days? As for the Pension Costa: I am convinced it no longer exists. Then on street level, right next to the Plaza St Jaime, a mere 100 yards from the Gothic cathedral, I notice a herborist which strikes me as new, until I recognise the smell, a mix of camphor and camomile, mingling with the alleyway aromas of frying oil and cats' piss.

This is it. The medieval doorway is open. It is a place Mercedes would never have gone. I creep up broken brick steps and ring on the bell. A clanking and jangling of keys announces the extremely slow approach of an owner who, when he finally gets the door open, seems not to have seen the light of day in decades.

"How much is a room?" I ask. Seven thousand a week, he tells me. He hasn't worked that out in euros yet. But I make it about £3 a night, a slight decrease, in sterling terms, since the 1980s. I check the room, which hasn't changed in 15 years, and realise, with worry, that neither have I. It still strikes me as a very interesting bargain.

"We just have retired people staying here," the old man mumbles. "The ones who can afford it. You want to book the room now?" I think about years long gone, and tell the man that I will let him know as soon as possible.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in the win over QPR
footballInternet reacts to miss shocker for Liverpool striker
Voices
Sol Campbell near his home in Chelsea
voices
News
Kimi the fox cub
newsBurberry under fire from animal rights group - and their star, Kimi
Arts and Entertainment
Ella Henderson's first studio album has gone straight to the top of the charts
music
News
<p>Jonathan Ross</p>
<p>Jonathan Ross (or Wossy, as he’s affectionately known) has been on television and radio for an extraordinarily long time, working on a seat in the pantheon of British presenters. Hosting Friday Night with Jonathan Ross for nine years, Ross has been in everything from the video game Fable to Phineas and Ferb. So it’s probably not so surprising that Ross studied at Southampton College of Art (since rebranded Southampton Solent), a university known nowadays for its media production courses.</p>
<p>However, after leaving Solent, Ross studied History at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, now part of the UCL, a move that was somewhat out of keeping with the rest of his career. Ross was made a fellow of the school in 2006 in recognition of his services to broadcasting.</p>
TV

Rumours that the star wants to move on to pastures new

Life and Style
fashion
News
Paul Nuttall, left, is seen as one of Ukip's key weapons in selling the party to the North of England
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Russell Brand labelled 'left-wing commie scum' by Fox News
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC's Antiques Roadshow uncovers a TIE fighter pilot helmet from the 1977 Star Wars film, valuing it at £50,000
TV

TV presenter Fiona Bruce seemed a bit startled by the find during the filming of Antiques Roadshow

News
people

Comedian says he 'never laughed as hard as I have writing with Rik'

Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Sport
Steven Caulker of QPR scores an own goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Queens Park Rangers and Liverpool
football
Arts and Entertainment
artKaren Wright tours the fair and wishes she had £11m to spare
News
i100
Life and Style
Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh been invited to take part in Women Fashion Power, a new exhibition that celebrates the way women's fashion has changed in relation to their growing power and equality over the past 150 years
fashionKirsty and Camila swap secrets about how to dress for success
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
booksNew book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Financial Controller

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful entertainment, even...

    Direct Marketing Executive - Offline - SW London

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A fantastic opportunity h...

    Day In a Page

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past