The only way to really see a city

16:00, Feb 04 2014
WALK THIS WAY: A city at your feet: Barcelona.

I know where this love of walking comes from. It comes from being broke.

I'm sure it wasn't always by choice that I would explore a city on foot. It was probably because I couldn't afford a taxi; because I didn't want to pay for a tourist bus; because even the couple of bucks I'd have to spend on public transport was a couple of bucks that I would rather have spent on beer.

So I walked. From my earliest travel days, I've walked. I'll still choose walking over any alternative. Whether it's sunny or rainy, warm or cold, uphill or down, through cityscape or countryside, I'll walk.

Today, I'm going to walk.

I've just finished checking out La Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi's fantastically strange masterpiece that pierces the flat Barcelona skyline. I've already spent hours on foot in the church, gazing at the ceiling, climbing the steeples. And the walking has only just begun.

I'm about to head back to El Born, the artsy Barca neighbourhood I'm staying in, which is a few stops from here on the Metro. That would cost only a couple of euros, but I've got nothing better to do today, so I'm walking. Exploring the city.


Only problem is, I don't have a map and I don't really know where I'm going. The glory of walking, however, is that you don't have to know where you're going. It's almost a good idea to get lost, to stumble on the otherwise undiscovered.

So I wander off to the south - I think. Anyway, my apartment in this general direction. Probably.

While it's tourist central at La Sagrada Familia, you only need to walk a block in any direction and all of a sudden you're back in suburban Barcelona, all apartment buildings on wide, tree-lined streets. The city is set up roughly on a grid, so I figure I can't go too wrong. Probably.

Plod, plod. The first couple of blocks are pleasantly unremarkable. People live here. It's standard Barcelona and it's still beautiful, still interesting.

This is the great thing about walking - you see normal life. You also find out how a city is connected - how the wide avenues around La Sagrada Familia morph into the narrow alleyways of El Born; the way Avinguda Diagonal carves a deep gash through Barcelona's neat grid, separating the old and the new.

You also work up an appetite. It's lunchtime, and around a corner I spy a few tables crowded on the pavement. Every spot is filled with a laughing, chatting diner - surely a good sign.

The place is called Restaurante Tossa, and it's a neighbourhood joint filled with what looks like mostly neighbours. I'll later Google this restaurant and find out that, on TripAdvisor, it's the number 864-ranked eatery in Barcelona.

There's no way you'd discover this place unless you walked past it.

The menu on the blackboard inside isn't written in English. It's not written in Spanish, either. It's written in Catalan, the language spoken by the restaurant's clients.

The food served is a fair reflection of that. The dishes on the "menu del dia", or menu of the day, are things such as roasted chicken with vegetables, omelets, baked cod and simple servings of asparagus. Three courses costs €10 ($NZ16.70) - you'd be lucky to get a sandwich for that around La Sagrada Familia.

Back outside, and back on foot. I'm still not convinced I'm walking in the right direction.

Barcelona's tree-lined beauty continues to unfold, however, soundtracked by the bark of little dogs, the chatter of old men on park benches.

On foot you feel less like a visitor and more like you're a part of the city. I could be a resident here, for all anyone knows.

I could live in one of these grand old buildings; I could shop in the little grocery stores. The only giveaways would be my appalling Catalan and my lack of a little dog.

Eventually the pavement becomes more crowded as I stumble upon La Rambla, the touristy street filled with Barcelona's crooks, grifters, buskers and touts. I've taken a wrong turn somewhere - I should be further east. But that's easily fixed. A veer left has me ambling through the twisting lanes of the Gothic Quarter towards home.

This whole experience has taken about two hours; it would have been only a few minutes on the train.

Rather than stare at the inside of a subway tunnel, however, I've lived and breathed Catalonia for two hours, I've strolled through an ordinary life that looks so amazing to foreign eyes. I also saved a couple of euros, so now I can probably afford a beer.