By Craig Davis, Craigslegztravels.com
It was yet another outrage. One more act of violence, more lives senselessly snuffed in the ongoing cycle of terror that lurks like a viper in the darkness and gives all of us pause as to where it will strike next.
This was before the answer to that question became Las Vegas.
This one came with a personal connection.
No, not Barcelona, the whimsical and wonderful city we fell in love with during two days of exploring following a Mediterranean cruise. That was just over two years prior to the Aug. 17, 2017 terrorist act that killed 13 when a van plowed through a crowd on Las Ramblas, the city’s most famous promenade.
Then October saw another violent turn in a tumultuous year in Barcelona when about 900 people were injured in clashes with police attempting to suppress the vote on Catalan secession from Spain. A few days later, the other side had its say with an estimated 350,000 rallying against the push to separate from Spain.
All of these events are reminders that there is much more to popular travel destinations than idyllic vacation playgrounds.
Media accounts of the demonstrations included interviews with tourists who were unaware of the issue of Catalan nationalism, that there was even a question that Barcelona was anything but Spanish.
It was notable, though, that despite the images of the bloody confrontations and streets jammed with demonstrators, foreign visitors reported that they felt safe moving about the city.
Barcelona ranks high on any list of best places to visit in Europe. I’d put it above some of the usual chart-toppers, including London and Rome.
The Catalan capital is walkable and welcoming, loaded with famous attractions as well as unexpected curiosities that are fascinating to explore in plazas and unassuming streets scattered throughout the city.
A historical novel about it was aptly titled, “The City of Marvels.”
The city itself is a work of art. It’s reflected in the architecture from the Gothic to Gaudi-style modernism to the more recent contemporary influences. And it’s still evolving.
It is easy to get a quick overview via any of the hop-on, hop-off buses.
Distinctive city has much to offer
We had strolled Las Ramblas, browsing the shops and kiosks and enjoying the diverse flow of people on the boulevard.
It’s on the must-do list when visiting Barcelona. The area is a tourist hub, but also a major social and cultural hub for residents in the heart of the old city center.
Lots of restaurants, tapas bars and nightlife can be found there and in adjoining plazas. Fans of FC Barcelona, one of the premier clubs in international soccer, celebrate victories on the boulevard.
Back in the 1930s, Spanish poet Federico García Lorca referred to Las Ramblas as “The only street I wish would never end.”
It struck us as a joyous place. We photographed the Joan Miró mosaic embedded in the pavement, one of three works of the Barcelona-born artist that were commissioned to welcome visitors to the city.
It made us smile.
In the aftermath of the August terror attack, it was a site for tears and grieving, covered by candles and flowers in remembrance of those who died and were injured.
Barcelona has already become burdened by its own popularity with the 30 million visitors each year overwhelming the 1.6 million residents. A volatile 2017 began with demonstrations against mass tourism and the problems it has brought to the city through inflation and housing shortages.
Following the carnage on Las Ramblas, concern shifted to the possibility that tourists will stay away.
The proliferation of attacks, particularly in Europe – Paris, London, Berlin, Nice, Stockholm and others – is devastating for residents and has created a quandary for travelers.
Giving in to fear and staying home would be an overreaction. Unfortunately, it may mean avoiding some desirable places, or delaying visits.
Avoid attracting attention
In future travels, we will pay closer attention to situations and surroundings than seemed necessary in the past. Will also avoid appearances and behavior that may make one stand out as a tourist, and thus a target.
Best to leave shirts and hats that identify allegiance to favorites sports teams at home. I no longer walk around with a big camera around my neck, instead going for more discreet photo opps with a pocket camera or phone.
Earlier this year the U.S. State Department issued a general alert for visiting Europe but hasn’t recommended against traveling there.
What happened on Las Ramblas won’t prevent us from returning to Barcelona. There is so much to see and experience there.
Parc Guell, Gaudi’s flop as a high-end housing development but a fanciful treasure as a park, was memorable not only for the view from the heights overlooking the city and the architecture that seemed inspired by Dr. Suess, but for the surprises while exploring its paths and distinct features.
Among them, the electric-string quartet playing Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida” and other popular tunes in the imitation Roman aqueduct. And the man launching giant bubbles for the amusement of himself and passersby.
Fortunately, the terrorist cell was thwarted from wreaking more widespread havoc, which reports indicated included an attack on Sagrada Família, Gaudi’s ever-evolving basilica that is a Barcelona icon and unlike any church we’ve visited. Even with the crowds that file through steadily it is a peaceful, uplifting haven that must be experienced on any visit to Barcelona.
For those who may be seeking alternatives to the most trafficked attractions, there are plenty in Barcelona.
We found Guell Palace just a block off Las Ramblas, an elaborate multi-story townhouse that Gaudi designed for wealthy industrialist Eusebi Guell. We caught it at an off time late in the afternoon and enjoyed an unrushed tour of the opulent mansion that spans six levels from basement to terrace roof.
The most pleasant find away from Barcelona’s tourist favorites was the colorful Hospital de Santa Creu i de Sant Pau in the El Raval district. It was a fully operational hospital until 2009 and now is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Catalan architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner designed the buildings to provide pleasant surroundings for patients suffering from serious diseases. Now it is one of the most elaborate modernist sites in Barcelona, each building distinct and decorated with florid ceramics, mosaics, sculptures and stained glass.
It is a peaceful place, and one of many reasons to return to Barcelona.