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COOL GAY GETAWAY
BARCELONA
by Joseph V. Amodio
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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.

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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.

Continued
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