Simon Calder: A reckless ramble down the Ramblas

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The Independent Travel

* Spanish police and British consular officials in Barcelona have quite enough on their platos without my adding unnecessarily to their workload. So while in the city last week I took care about being careless. I wanted to test the extent of street robbery there, without resorting to consular help or distorting crime figures.

Barcelona has a strong claim to be the ideal European city. Whether you seek culture, cuisine, nightlife, architecture or simply a good beach, the Catalan capital is superlative. Indeed, the problem with prescribing 48 Hours in Barcelona is the sheer abundance of first-class attractions; in my article last Saturday I left out sights such as the splendid Picasso Museum, which anywhere else would qualify for inclusion with ease. With such appeal, no wonder Barcelona proves so popular with tourists. And, where there are visitors, villains are sure to converge.

I have encountered more attempted robberies in Barcelona than anywhere else. In 1992, when the city dazzled in the Olympic flame, someone tried to nick my bag while I walked along the Ramblas; five years ago, while filming on the same street, another rogue tried to lift my wallet even as the camera turned. But in 1995 a more sophisticated villain managed to steal my passport on a crowded Metro train. So, was it me? Or is Barcelona a city whose premier-league allure is matched with world-class larceny? That is what I set out to discover.

* "Your Name Here", promised the only plastic card I was carrying. American Express helpfully sent me out an invitation to sign up, and with it a genuinely fake card. I also had some cash: €10 for essentials during my two-hour experiment, and a wad of $80. Not US dollars, you understand, which would amount to £50 more than I would want to lose. I had packed 80 Guyanan dollars: colourful, appealing and worth a total of 25 pence. I also had an out-of-date passport, ironically the one that replaced the document stolen in Barcelona. And, in a bag slung over a shoulder, a broken laptop. I opted not to carry a sign saying sírvete ("help yourself") around my neck. Then I launched myself into the river of humanity that flows down the Ramblas.

* A street named desire? For travellers, the Ramblas is the perfect place to promenade. This broad, leafy stripe connects the main square, Placa Catalunya, with the Mediterranean, while separating the tangle of lane in Barcelona's old town to the east from the bohemian Barri Xines to the west. Look up as you walk, and a sequence of fabulous facades parades by, taking you through the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, by way of the Orient.

As well as gazing up, I looked around for anyone regarding me as the soft touch I intended to be. Yet the entire population of the Ramblas seemed to be divided into dawdling tourists, hurrying workers and solicitous waiters.

Where, I wondered as I sat down for a €4 shoeshine, were the villains? I put the laptop bag down beside the seat; Carlos moved it to keep it in his sights.

As he polished, a hot autumn day softened into a warm evening. The lights came on, and the police came out in neat fluorescent jackets.

Sporting the shiniest shoes in town, I caught up with one of them. Instead of saying "I'd like to report not being robbed, I asked "Is this street dangerous?"

"No, but if someone gets to close, move away. There is pick-pocketing, but no violence."

With that, I took my worthless possessions back to the hostal, my faith in this fine city restored.

Mobile targets

Not every visitor to Barcelona escapes with their possessions intact. Several delegates attending the Abta Travel Convention in the city last week had their mobile phones pinched, including two members of The Independent staff; one had her handbag stolen in a bar, the other was chased down the street by two villains.

Meanwhile, the journalist James Ellis had his iPhone snatched from his ear by a passing cyclist. "It was a well-practised and perfectly executed crime," says Ellis. "He'd obviously been loitering just behind me as I walked, waiting for a time when I was more relaxed and there were fewer people around."

Rick Kelsey reports on a stag weekend earlier this month, in which two of the 10 participants were robbed, "the first by a teenage girl on rollerblades, the second when his designer spectacles were removed from his head in an Irish bar." And Dan Donnelly warns: "If you hear a voice from behind say, 'Hey, friend', be prepared to grab your wallet, run or chin someone".

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