Inspired by a cult Spanish bestseller, visitors to Barcelona are shunning brightly lit bars and investigating a more mysterious side of the city.
It’s practically de rigueur these days to arrive in Barcelona clutching a copy of The Shadow of the Wind, the atmospheric bestseller by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. With a rumoured film adaptation in the pipeline, the book has become the Catalan city’s version of The Da Vinci Code.
Much of the book is set in two labyrinthine areas of the city: the Barri Gotic and, on the other side of the Ramblas, the previously rundown quarter of El Raval. While Barcelona has for some time marketed itself as a vibrant, fashionable city, it now seems to be getting in touch with its darker side. The trend might be termed Catalan Gothic.
A tour of Zafón’s Barcelona begins in Calle Santa Ana, just off the Rambla de Canaletes, where the young hero of The Shadow of the Wind lives above a bookshop with his father. Here you’ll find many remnants of 19th century Barcelona, including one store, which sells fans and other ladies’ accoutrements, with a restored Modernista façade.
Running parallel to Santa Ana, Calle Canuda features dusty antiquarian bookstores stuffed with out-of-print tomes, as well as the sombre edifice of the Ateneo, the Literary Society of Barcelona. Needless to say, with its door knockers in the shape of human hands and its shadowy vaulted courtyard – in which a lamp burns even at midday – the Ateneo is a key location in Zafón’s sepulchral tale.
Turn right at the end of Calle Canuda and you’ll soon stumble into the Gothic quarter itself, dominated by the cathedral. Here, insiders dive off the tourist trail and enter the web of narrow streets around Plaça de St Filip Neri. Obscure curiosity shops, authentic bars and leering gargoyles abound. When you’ve zigzagged your way through this maze – and found yourself back exactly where you started – you’ll be ready for lunch.
Now you’re in for a treat: make your way to Calle de Montsio and the venerable Els Quatre Gats, a restaurant and café where artistic and literary types (including Picasso and Gaudi) have been holding court for more than 100 years. The décor remains unchanged – and the prices have remained reasonable, too, with a set lunch including wine and coffee for 17 euros. Arrive before 2pm and grab a table on the creaking balcony that runs around the dining room, and you’re guaranteed an hour or so of pure theatre.
Heading back to the Rambla, you may have time to visit another crucial location in Zafón’s book. A dank archway leads to a narrow street called Calle Arco del Teatro – the location of the fictional Cemetery of Forgotten Books. In reality this grimy thoroughfare, with its cackling flock of clapped-out prostitutes, is one of the gateways to the Raval quarter. Rapidly undergoing gentrification, El Raval has become one of the hippest areas in Barcelona.
If you’re not obsessed with literary treasure trails, the quarter is probably best entered via the colourful Boqueria covered market, a cathedral of consumption selling every fresh foodstuff you can think of – and a few that have never entered your mind.
Emerging from the rear of the market, you fall into the Raval that locals know and love: narrow streets, walls covered with artistic graffiti, funky record stores and piercing parlours that rub shoulders with crumbling traditional shops. You’ll probably want to return here in the evening to take advantage of the many slick restaurants and cocktail bars. Your correspondent was impressed by Anima (6, Carrer dels Angels), which combines cool, airy décor with friendly service and successful Mediterranean fusion cooking. There’s also a terrace that urges you to sip a cava under the stately plane trees.
Raval is home to the MACBA, Barcelona’s modern art museum, which has done much to change the area’s formerly dodgy reputation. Fortunately, feral skateboarders still glide, dip and leap on the smooth space outside. Long, lean and powder white, the building is certainly worth a visit. But after a couple of hours in its pure, minimalist interior, you may be yearning for another slice of Catalan Gothic.