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COOL GAY GETAWAY
BARCELONA
by Joseph V. Amodio
I’m lost in an alley in the middle of a twisty maze of tall stone buildings somewhere in the old section of town. This being Barcelona, I’m not worried. Getting a little lost here is standard operating procedure, almost part of your hotel package. Or it should be.

Barcelona is the New Orleans of Spain. Nestled on the country’s northeastern coast, this easy, breezy port city feels exotic, colorful, and nonconformist, a delectable amalgam of cultures that’s part Spanish, part French, part…something else. That something else is Catalan, a little-known people boasting their own proud history (Catalonia was its own country for five centuries until Spain swallowed it up in the 1400s), cuisine (lots of fish, legumes, pork), and language (Catalan sounds like a combination of French and Spanish). Here I am, eager to shed my plain ole American Joe-ness and test out my high school Spanish, but in Barcelona I find I’m not José but Josep (“djoh-SEPP”), and it’s not buenos días but bon dia.

The one thing I do know about Barcelona, and all of Spain, is that I’ve got plenty of time to figure things out. Literally. Here, even the squares dine at 10 P.M., and hipsters don’t hit the bars till midnight. The dance clubs? Figure 1A.M. for starters, while 2 A.M. to dawn is the sweet spot. That leaves plenty of time during the day (even if you sleep in) to peruse the city’s great shops, galleries, museums, the gloriously Technicolor parks, and decadent architecture by the renowned architect Antoni Gaudí.

Stare at a Gaudí building long enough and Barcelona seems easier to understand. He and his surrealist pals eschewed all things straight, establishing here a love of wiggles and curves…and we’re not just talking walls.

Indeed, there are few places in Europe where gay and lesbian travelers will feel more welcomed. The number of gay clubs, bars, and shops is astounding. This summer, Barcelona hosts the annual Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in July, then the Circuit Festival—a week-long nightclub fiesta in August that is expected to draw 30,000 gays and lesbians from around the globe.

On my visit last fall, I searched for Cómplices, Barcelona’s first gay and lesbian bookshop, tucked within the Barri Gòtic (or Gothic quarter), a neighborhood known for its labyrinth of cobblestone streets and charming, hidden courtyards (Think Venice without the canals). After losing my way, I stumble upon the teensy shop, and peruse its wide selection of literature, maps, and nightlife guides.

I grab some reading material, turn the corner, and plow into Avinyó, a street with edgy, eclectic boutiques that would feel at home in Manhattan’s East Village. Like Sushi & Moda, a brilliant retail/restaurant hybrid, its front filled with funky men’s and women’s wear, leather duffels, and purses trimmed with Cher-hair-length fringe; in back, tables are open for dinner. Across the alley, music lovers squeeze into L’Escala, a dim, smoky cubbyhole packed to the rafters with vintage vinyl LPs and 45s. Round the next corner, and there’s Custo Barcelona, a shop brimming with crazy, colorful sportswear. The city is full of such surprises.

Eventually I find Las Ramblas, and am once again oriented. If the Gothic’s streets meander like capillaries, Las Ramblas—a thoroughfare stretching from city center to waterfront—is the jugular vein, surging with the life blood of Barcelona. The boulevard is teeming with pedestrians—young, old, locals, tourists—who stroll past the performance artists and spray-painted human statues, the flower and bird stalls, and the overpriced sidewalk cafés.

On one side of Las Ramblas sits the Gothic quarter, and beyond that El Born, a chi-chi shopping district. On the other side you’ll find El Raval, a once sketchy barrio, now home to artists, students, a modern art museum, and the famed Boqueria greenmarket. Above Las Ramblas lies Eixample, a classy neighborhood of high-end boutiques (including Spanish brands like Purificación García, Armand Basi, and Camper shoes), art galleries, modernist architecture, and a cozy ‘hood-within-the-’hood—called Gayxample—with bars, restaurants, saunas, and other venues catering to gay and lesbian fun-seekers.

Is that rumbling you hear? Could be a bass beat seeping out of a gay bar, but more likely it’s Francisco Franco, the homophobic tyrant who ruled Spain for four decades, rolling over in his grave. Cranky Franky died in 1975, and ever since, the country has been getting in touch with its pinker side. In 2006 they even legalized gay marriage, a stunning move in a country that’s Catholic—and big-time.

When it comes to accommodations, you’ll find the city offers many excellent gay and gay-friendly options. The Axel Hotel, in the heart of Eixample, is unsurpassed with Vitra furniture, Kenzo fabrics, a restaurant, bar, spa, chill-out zone, pool, and solarium. Gay-friendly Hotel 1898, with colonial-era ceiling fans, leather club chairs, romantic terrace, and two pools, is another great choice, while Casa Camper, a boutique hotel run by the Spanish shoe company, hangs bicycles from the lobby ceiling and displays artifacts found during the building’s renovation: a vacuum, ceramic cats, a Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee tin…ahh, viva la kitsch.

I decide to check out the Hotel Casanova, which seems to fall into the very-friendly category, given its high design, spa, rooftop pool in the works, and “toy dogs permitted” policy. Renovated last year, the 124-room Casanova lies smack dab in the middle of the city, between the shops, galleries, and gay outposts of Eixample, and the lower city’s clubs, Ramblas, and historic sights.

My room, in sleek brown and silver tones, offers some surprises, so be sure to tap the walls like you’re in a James Bond flick. Halfway through my stay I realized one wall slid to the side, revealing a translucent glass panel looking into the shower, for a sexy show in silhouette. I also liked the handsome, blue-glass bottles of water dropped off in my room each day, to keep me hydrated.

The Stone Spa downstairs, with it’s polished pebble floor, is a tranquil oasis where I indulged in a combination jacuzzi and massage. Or you can try other treatments, like a steam with Vichy shower (a foam rinse of milk, honey, and rosemary), mud wraps, waxing, or an outdoor couples massage in the back garden utilizing—hola!—suction cups, cocoa, or gently exfoliating rice.

Dining options in Barcelona are extensive and impressive. On my first night in the city, for convenience sake, I hit the Casanova Hotel’s Mexiterranée restaurant, a fusion of Mexican, Catalan, and Mediterranean flavors. The white ceviche—zesty sea bass with coriander and purple onion—is served martini style, the grilled rib-eye Coloradito provides a filling slab of beef marinated in a guajillo and ancho chiles sauce, and the flaky tart tatin is served warm, drizzled with Papantla vanilla (Papantla being a major vanilla-producing region in Mexico). I also try the quesadillas sincronizadas—a delightful mix of wild mushrooms and butifarra sausage, a spicy regional specialty. Also recommended: the tortilla soup (soothing) and cactus sorbet (refreshingly tangy).

For dining with a sea breeze, check out La Gavina, on the waterfront. Menus here come in six languages, though not all the waiters do—be prepared to point. There’s not much by way of décor, but you can’t go wrong with the acorn-stuffed Bellota ham appetizer and a pitcher of the Cava Sangria with umpteen liquors, plus Fanta Lemon, mixed at your table. The seafood paella, piping hot from the skillet, and monkfish with lentils and garlic, are sure hits, as are desserts like the grapefruit and rose sorbet, and Crema Catalana, their version of crème brulée.

Also, don’t forget Castro, a gay restaurant where quite decent Mediterranean fare is offset by rather indecent décor (swags of S&M chain drapes and large photos of nuts and bolts). It’s popular, so call ahead for reservations.

For a hidden gem, trek into the Gothic quarter in search of L’Antic Bocoi del Gòtic, a cozy charmer with heavy wooden tables and ancient stone wall (one of the city’s original walls that dates back centuries). Platters brim with local sausages and cheese, and the coques de recapte, Catalan thin-bread pizzas (the house specialty) flaunt toppings from the expected (tomato, assorted veggies) to the exotic (herring, codfish, marrow). Just say sí to dessert. The cinnamon-toffee ice cream and raspberry bavarois (a Bavarian cream concoction) will have you contemplating extending your stay.

Barcelona is definitely a walking city, but it also offers an easy-to-navigate subway system that makes getting around a fairly simple affair. Some must-see sights to visit during your stay include the Museu Picasso, which is set in a block of medieval mansions. This place is perfect for those not crazy about museums. It’s small, with brief explanations of Pablo Picasso’s amazing works, from his youth (when he hung out in Barcelona’s seedy districts painting the bohemians), through his Blue and Rose periods, to the ceramics he dabbled with in old age. A room containing “Las Meninas,” his series of 59 paintings inspired by the old Velázquez portraits of Spain’s youngster royals, will take your breath away (if not provoke a giggle—it’s vintage Picasso, with the kiddies’ hair like shoe boxes, and all those eyes and noses crowded to one side of their heads).

Before strolling around the city, it would be wise to get a map that pinpoints Gaudí architecture. The works of this genius are sprinkled throughout the city, with several in Eixample. His crown jewel is the (unfinished) Sagrada Familia church, with its mind-blowing steeples that seem to drip like candle-wax. You can climb up inside, but even the view from below is arresting. From here, walk to La Pedrera, an apartment building on the Passeig de Gràcia, a chic shopping boulevard. Take the tour inside, exploring a curvy-walled apartment and the meringue-dolloped roof deck that Dr. Seuss would’ve loved. Three blocks down, there’s Casa Batlló, another Gaudí wonder. Or head up to Parc Güell, where there’s not a single straight line, and the landscape must compete with Gaudí’s mesmerizing mosaics that skitter over benches and stairs.

Meanwhile, La Boqueria (set halfway down Las Ramblas) is the largest market in Europe. Here, Barcelonans shop daily for the region’s freshest produce, seafood, meats, and more. You’ll work up an appetite just watching the hustle and bustle. The Casanova Hotel offers a fascinating Boqueria tour and cooking class with Jaume Brichs, their food and beverage consultant and a Michelin-pedigreed chef.

Whatever your style, from romantic to raunchy, the city’s got you covered when it comes to gay nightlife options. After a day of sightseeing, start off the night with a cocktail or espresso at Dacksy, a friendly lounge with sugar cube seats in the back and neon blue lighting for a sleek, mod look. Punto BCN is another popular hangout that gets jam-packed on weekends, while the Bacon Bear Bar holds fun theme nights. Or mingle with the diverse crowd (white collar to wild boyz) at Café Dietrich. They host drag strip shows, and on some nights you’ll score a free pass to Metro when you buy a drink.

Metro, a popular gay disco, offers two dance floors and a back room. The crowd skews slightly older, and you might even catch male couples dancing the traditional Sevillana. Bikini, a straight club, hosts “Tuesday is Tuesgay” underwear parties (Snap up party-ready underwear—plus swimwear, denim, and slick tees bedazzled with Swarovski crystals—at ES4U, a shop in Eixample).

You’ll find a mixed crowd drinking and dancing (and lots of young heteros sucking face) at Otto & Zutz, which boasts two levels and three dance floors for the masses, plus a third-floor private room for VIPs and the elderly (that is, anyone over age 25).

Options for lesbians are fewer but no less festive. The Arena folks have several clubs across the city, including Aire/Sala Diana, a mainstay on the lesbian scene for years. Women of all ages mix and mingle round the spacious dance floor and friendly bar. Kiut Disco is open Thursday through Sunday nights, and the new club, Whip, offers electro/house on one dance floor, Spanish charts and oldies on another.

Barcelona’s party-all-night mantra is a blast, though it takes getting used to even for a night owl like myself. On a Saturday night I squeeze in dinner, then drinks at two bars before rushing over to arguably the city’s hottest dance scene, Salvation. The doormen here are gruff and selective, but the buff bartenders pour a nice drink. Both dance floors are packed, one throbbing with house music, the other with disco and chochi (Spanish trashpop). The crowd is young, trendy, and going till dawn.

At 5 A.M., or so, I’m back on the street, lost again in the Gothic. I follow a trickle of college students who seem to know where they’re going. Sure enough, I’m soon back on Las Ramblas, and from here I know the way.

It’s been said that the famed, gay, Spanish writer Federico García Lorca, who was killed by pro-Franco militants in 1936, was a fan of this boulevard, calling it “the only street in the world I wish would never end.” It’s easy to see why. Even at night the strip seems to glow. The boulevard is broken up into sections: La Rambla de Santa Monica, La Rambla de Sant Josep (where you’ll spot a Joan Miró mosaic on the pavement), and so on. At the top, near the Casanova, it’s called La Rambla de Canaletas, named for the old Canaletas fountain located in the plaza. Legend has it that those who drink from the fountain will always return to Barcelona.

Hmmm, I think to myself, as I turn toward my hotel. Then stop. Then double back. After all, it couldn’t hurt to take a sip.

[Published: August, 2008]

Resources
When calling Spain from the U.S., first dial 011-34. Barcelona is easy to get to from the U.S. thanks to various carriers that fly there, including Iberia, American, Continental, Delta, and US Airways.


ACCOMMODATIONS
Casa Camper
, Elisabets 11. Tel: 93-342-62-80. Guests can borrow books from the hotel library and enjoy free tentempié (snack) service in the lounge or terrace. Yes, a Camper shoe store is nearby should the retail jones strike. Low-season doubles start at US$382. http://www.casacamper.com

Casanova Hotel, Gran Via de les Corts 559. Tel: 933-964-800 (or for U.S. reservations: 866-849-6396). To take the edge off the high US/Euro exchange rate, Rafaelhoteles offers a “New Currency” program with a set exchange rate of just 1.3 at their eight Spanish hotels (including the Casanova) this summer. After September 15, doubles start at US$248. http://www.casanovabcnhotel.com

Hotel 1898, La Rambla 109. Tel: 93-552-95-52. Check their website for offers like the Colonial Suites package, which includes a stay in an opulent suite with private pool, terrace, and garden. Doubles starting at US$300. http://www.hotel1898.com

Hotel Axel, Aribau 33. Tel: 323-9393. Sleek, chic, and hetero-friendly, they have special shopping, fitness, and romantic getaway offers, and a “Wild Weekend” package that includes VIP passes to nightclubs. Low-season doubles start at US$237. http://www.axelhotels.com

Hotel California, Rauric 14. Tel: 933-177-766. More bare-bones, but in the middle of the Gothic and welcoming to gay and lesbian guests. Doubles, US$203. http://www.hotelcaliforniabcn.com.


DINING
Cal Pep, Plaça des les Olles 8. Tel: 93-310-79-61. Small spot near Museu Picasso, praised for its seafood and tapas. Yep, that’s Pep, your host, hustling about, keeping everyone happy and well-fed. Like his sardines, it’s packed—reservations are a must. http://www.calpep.com

Castro Restaurant, Casanova 85. Tel: 93-323-67-84. Barcelona’s numero uno gay restaurant, located in “Gayxample,” with devilish décor and food that...hey, actually tastes good. http://www.castrorestaurant.com

Evinia, Laietana 23. Tel: 93-319-73-88. A cozy tapas and wine bar next to the Jaume metro stop, and not far from Museu Picasso, perfect for lunch or a post-Pablo snack. Try the patatas bravas with spicy ketchup or creamy garlic aioli. Wash it all down with a local red from the Penedes region.

L’Antic Bocoi del Gòtic, Baixada de Viladecois 3. Tel: 93-310-50-67. Cozy ambience and a menu chock-full of tasty local delights, located in the heart of the labyrinthine Gothic quarter. http://www.bocoi.net

La Gavina, Plaza Pau Vila, 1 Edificio Palau de Mar. Tel: 93-221-20-41. Located on the waterfront, in the historic Palau de Mar building. http://www.lagavina-rte.com

Mexiterranée, Gran Via de les Corts 559. Tel: 933-964-800. Located in the mod Hotel Casanova, with an eclectic, savory melding of Mexican, Mediterranean, and Catalan cuisines. http://www.casanovabcnhotel.com

Passadís del Pep, Plaça del Palau 2. Tel: 93-310-10-21. Can’t get into Cal Pep? Try this sibling joint, if you can find it, hidden down a passadís (passageway, in Catalán) inside an unmarked building. No menus here—just sit down and they do the rest. http://www.passadis.com


SIGHTS AND ATTRACTIONS
Casa Batlló, Passeig de Gràcia 43. Tel: 93-216-03-06. One of Gaudi’s magnificent buildings, inspired by Saint George (Barcelona’s patron saint) and his dragon. The seductive, curvaceous walls and dazzling chipped-tile mosaics will practically have you salivating. His fab furniture is scattered throughout. http://www.casabatllo.es

Fundació Joan Miró, Parc de Montjuïch. Tel: 93-443-94-70. A huge selection of the Barcelona-born painter’s surrealist works, set in a gorgeous park high above the city. http://www.bcn.fjmiro.es

La Boqueria, Plaça de la Boqueria, Tel: 93-318-25-84. Open Monday through Saturday, 8 A.M. to 8:30 P.M. http://www.boqueria.info

“La Pedrera” (a.k.a. Casa Milà), Provença 261-265. Tel: 902-400-973. Open March to October, 9 A.M. to 8 P.M.; November to February, 9 A.M. to 6:30 P.M.; last admission 30 minutes before closing. http://www.fundaciocaixacatalunya.org

La Sagrada Familia, Mallorca 401. Tel: 93-207-30-31. Open April to September, 9 A.M. to 8 P.M.; October to March, 9 A.M. to 6 P.M. http://www.sagradafamilia.org

Museu Picasso, Montcada 15-23. Tel: 93-256-30-00. Open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 A.M. to 8 P.M. http://www.museupicasso.bcn.es

Parc Güell, Carrer del Carmel 28. Tel: 93-424-38-09. Free admission. Open daily, 10 A.M. to sunset.


LESBIAN BARS/CLUBS/ CLUB NIGHTS
Aire/Sala Diana, Valencia 236. Tel: 93-487-83-42.

Dejavu, Aribau 81. Bar with music.

Kiut, Consell de Cent 280. Crowded disco with cute bargirls that host an opening party for July’s Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. http://www.kiutdisco.com

Les Fatales. Dedicated to the electronica scene, this women’s group holds parties in locations across Barcelona. http://www.lesfatales.org

Whip, Mejico 7. A new club on the scene.


GAY BARS/CLUBS/CLUB NIGHTS
Bacon Bear Bar, Casanova 64. Bears and their admirers sidle up to the brick bar at this new Gayxample spot.

Bikini, Diagonal 547. Tel: 654-656-799. A straight club that hosts “Tuesday is Tuesgay” underwear parties. http://www.pridedancing.com

Café Dietrich, Consell de Cent 255. Tel: 93-451-77-07. Drag divas put on quite a show for a mix of gay professionals and just-wandered-in heteros.

Eagle, P. Sant Joan 152. Tel: 93-207-856. Leather and attitude.

La Base, Casanova 201. Leather bar, underwear parties, and “no tangas” policy (leave that thong at home). http://www.labasebcn.com

Martin’s, Passeig de Gràcia 130. Expect an older crowd, and “Only Men’s” parties the first Saturday each month. http://www.martins-disco.com

Metro, Sepulveda 185. Tel: 323-52-27. Gay disco offering two dance floors and a back room.

New Chaps, Diagonal 365. Tel: 93-215 5365. Popular with bears, “mature men,” and the denim-loyal. http://www.newchaps.com

Punto BCN, Muntaner 63. Tel: 93-453-61-23. Popular hangout that gets jam-packed on weekends.

Salvation, Ronda Sant Pere 19-21. Tel: 93-318-06-86. http://www.matineegroup.com


GAY BOOKSTORES
Librería Antinous, Josep Anselm Clavé 6. Tel: 93-301-90-70. Books and a bar. http://www.antinouslibros.com

Librería Cómplices, Cervantes 2. Tel: 93-412-72-83. Barcelona’s first gay bookstore. http://www.libreriacomplices.com


WEBSITES & INFORMATION
For a comprehensive guide to gay accommodations, restaurants, bars, clubs and saunas, visit http://www.gaybarcelona.com

Casal Lambda, a nonprofit gay and lesbian center based in Barcelona. For info on gay events and their monthly tea dances, visit http://www.casalambda.org. For info on their annual International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, held in Barcelona, visit http://www.cinemalambda.com

Turisme de Barcelona, Plaça de Catalunya 17 (and other locations). Tel: 933-285-3834. http://www.barcelonaturisme.com