I love books about places I have not been. I even like books about places I will never visit, like Africa or India. Books by travelers can be wonderful, but I find that books by someone who has lived somewhere for some time provide more depth. An account by someone who has lived somewhere for an extended period can give a feel for the spirit of a place.
These books are less practical than guide books, since they are no help when it comes to knowing where to stay, how to get from place to place or even where to eat. But they provide a deeper insight into place, or at least one person's view of a place. In preparation for visiting Barcelona I looked for books by people who had spent time there.
Not all cities have inspired writers to write about them. It is difficult to imagine someone being inspired to write a book about Huston or Dallas in Texas. The only book I can think of on Las Vegas, Nevada is Learning From Las Vegas (Venturi et al), a book about Las Vegas' architectural and urban planning mistakes. For Los Angles, California we have a movie titled To Live and Die in LA. For Mexico City, there is the 2004 movie Man on Fire (a movie which will convince many people to avoid Mexico City).
These are not cities most people fall in love with. People just survive in these places. Only a few cities have inspired love and have prompted people to express this love in book form. Most of these cities are outside of the United States, or the New World, for that matter. The United States can boast of San Francisco, New Orleans, and New York. Perhaps a few other smaller places, like Santa Fe, New Mexico and Carmel, California. But the United States has a hard time competing with the old cities of Europe.
The most romanticized city in the world is Paris. No other city comes close. The number of books on Paris or set in Paris are probably impossible to count. Paris is the city of art, food and, according to myth, love. Second to Paris in romantic reputation are the Italian cities of Venice and Florence (Firenze). In the colder climbs there is London and that site of the cold war confrontation, Berlin (now famous for its resurgent architecture).
Barcelona must be included in this list as well. Barcelona is a city famous for its architecture and art. Barcelona is the capital of Catalunya, the region of Spain that fuses Spanish and French cultural influences in a fiercely independent Catalan personality. Barcelona is a city that through most of its history has taken architecture very seriously.
I've found three books in english on Barcelona. These books are by the art critic Robert Hughes and the novelist Colm Tóibín. Both Hughes and Tóibín have lived in Barcelona for extended periods. Their books are:
Barcelona: the Great Enchantress, 2004, by Robert Hughes
Barcelona, 1992, by Robert Hughes
Homage to Barcelona, 2001, by Colm Tóibín
Robert Hughes' 1992 book Barcelona is probably the most well known of the three books listed above. Barcelona is a rambling and extensive discussion of Barcelona's culture and history.
I have never found Hughes an engaging writer. He seems to get lost in his own narrative, falling into pits of detail that he has a hard time climbing out of. And by the time he emerges, the reader may have lost interest. I could only make it half way through Hughes' book on Australian history, The Fatal Shore.
Hughes 1992 book on Barcelona is probably unreadable for most people who do not already have a strong interest in Barcelona and Catalunya. In general this probably means people who have either visted Barcelona or plan to do so. As with The Fatal Shore, I tried to read this book several years ago and could not get through it. Now that I have learned more about Barcelona and am planning a two week visit, I have managed to get through about two thirds of the book. When when I reached a chapter long description of the Catalan language, it became a chore and I dropped it.
Hughes' second book on Barcelona is Barcelona: the Great Enchantress. This book was apparently commissioned by The National Geographic. The National Geographic editors seems to be aware of the difficulty some readers have with Hughes' earlier book. Barcelona: the Great Enchantress provides a summary of many of the topics Hughes covered in his first book. This later book also includes some interesting details from Hughes' life. In Barcelona, the city Hughes has had a long love affair with, he marries his third wife. Hughes is also at least in spirit a bit of a refugee from George W. Bush's United States, which is waging a war of choice in Iraq and torturing some of its prisoners.
Barcelona: the Great Enchantress is a readable overview of Barcelona, its architecture and catalan culture. However, it is not as good as Colm Tóibín excellent Homage to Barcelona.
Colm Tóibín is the author of a number of literary novels. Like Hughes he has lived in Barcelona off and on over the years. Tóibín is an engaging writer and his book gave me a better feel for Barcelona as a city. He also includes some excellent sketches of some of the famous modern artists who have lived in Barcelona, including a fascinating outline of Picasso's early years in Barcelona, Joan Miro and Salvadore Dalí. Although Homage to Barcelona is not a travel guide, Tóibín mentions several restruants he loves like the now famous Agut d'Avignon, which Tóibín started going to in its early days. Homage to Barcelona includes an index.
Southern Seas and An Olympic Death by Manuel Vazquez Montalbán
Manuel Montalbán is supposed to be one of Catalonia's best writers. He is a prize winning mystery author (having won the Raymond Chandler Prize). Since most of his books are set in Barcelona and since Montalbán was a Catalan resident of Barcelona himself, I thought that his books might give me a feel for the city.
Southern Seas is one of Montalbán's first books, written in the seventies, after the death of the dictator Franco and the return of democracy to Spain. An Olympic Death was written in the early 1990s as Barcelona was preparing for the 1992 summer Olympics.
Both books are murder mysteries, whose main character is Pepe Carvalho a private detective. There is also a relatively constant cast of supporting dramatis personae, most notably Carvalho's friend, sidekick and cook, Biscuter. Like his creator, Manuel Montalbán, Carvalho is a leftist and ex-communist. Carvalho was imprisoned by Franco and Biscuter was his cellmate.
Reading Montalbán's books does gives some feel for Barcelona and its recent history. Unfortunately this is not worth the effort of slogging through Montalbán weakly constructed plots.
Perhaps because Southern Seas is the earlier of the two books, it is also the weakest. In tracking down the events and guilty party in a murder, Carvalho tours the upper class of Barcelona of the early 1970s. The characters Carvalho meets along the way are cardboard cutouts of little depth. At times they become unbelievable. Carvalho is an overweight out of shape middle aged man who drinks heavily. Apparently like James Bond, Carvalho is irresistible to women and a beautiful young woman falls in love with him. Their brief sexual encounter is notable for it's unerotic, but explicit detail. Carvalho then spends the rest of the novel fending off the young lady's affections (irresistible stud-muffin that he is).
The writing in An Olympic Death is better and the plot construction is more believable as Carvalho drinks his way through another murder investigation. At one point, for example, Carvalho finishes half a bottom of rum and then, a few hours later, is hitting the bars for more drinks. Given the trajectory of drinking that runs through Montalbán's books I am left wondering if Montalbán was an alcoholic.
Although in An Olympic Death Montalbán's writing has improved, his cynicism seems to have deepened. Carvalho is struggling through late middle age and falls in love with a beautiful French woman, while ignoring his long time love who is a prostitute. The beautiful French woman is searching for her abusive Greek common law husband and hires Carvalho. Among the characters encountered by Carvalho in his search for the missing Greek is a burnt out couple reliving the 1960s and a wealthy man whose daughter regularly brings home men her father's age (who she introduces to dear Dad over breakfast). Montalbán and his creation Carvalho seem to barely manage to stumble though the story before reaching the end, exhausted.
Aparently Montalbán has published a Catalan cookbook that provides recipies for the dishes that his character Carvalho prepares in the books. At least in the two I read everything Carvalho cooks includes Aubergines, commonly referred to as eggplant in the United States. In Southern Seas a friend of Carvalho prepares paella, but Carvalho's cooking is all based on eggplant with heavy sauses like bachamel and hollandaise. After reading about the dishes that Carvalho constructs I'm not sure that Montalbán's cookbook would be any better than his novels.
The Rough Guide to Barcelona
Time Out Barcelona
Time Out Barcelona: Eating & Drinking
While I was in Barcelona I never traveled anywhere without the Rough Guide to Barcelona and the Rough Guide Map of Barcelona. The Rough Guide provides accurate directions on getting to features of interest to tourists, along with the hours they are open. There is also an excellent summary on each of the quarters of Barcelona's old city, along with some of its suburbs. Each section has a map that covers that section showing the points of interest.
The Rough Guide Map of Barcelona became was so indispensable that I feared misplacing it. Unless I was just going to the supermarket or to take out the trash, I never went out without the map. The Rough Guide map is printed on some kind of plastic or plasticized paper. It is very tough and survived two weeks of daily use.
The Time Out Barcelona guide provided some interesting coverage of Barcelona that the Rough Guide did not. For example, there is a little section on the controversial architect Richard Bofill. The Time Out guide also provides more extensive coverage of resturants, bars and night clubs. I did not always find the Time Out guide as accurate as the Rough Guide.
I also carried around the Time Out Barcelona: Eating & Drinking (2002). The later edition was not published in time for my trip. I found this guide useful, but not great. Restaurant guides are problematic since they depend greatly on the taste of the reviewer. It is probably safe to say that I'm more of a "foodie" that most people. I would not have rated some of the "starred" restaurants as highly as the Time Out guide did.
back to home page