backpacking… upgraded

Flamenco lives!

A week into our family Barcelona trip, Whitney and I broke off to have Friday evening to ourselves. With the afternoon winding down, we stuffed a hip-pack full of books and took the metro to the Ramblas. We wandered around for a while before finding a suitable café with sidewalk seating. For more than two hours we chatted idly and read our books at the table, enjoying the lazing sun, polishing off a plate of assorted cheeses and bread and a bottle of red table wine. Ah, the life of a Spaniard.

Departing the café shortly after eight p.m., we had yet to choose the night’s next stop, so we meandered down the Ramblas in the direction of a metro station. We remembered a nearby club, Jazz Sí, and found our way there. Throughout the week Jazz Sí features live music performances by ensembles of university-student players. We had come to the club earlier in the week and listened to a competent four-piece jazz band, which started out quite well and sounded even better after a bottle of Estrella or two. The club was intimate, comprising maybe thirty sardine-tight seats downstairs, a small balcony (in reality little more than a walkway), and a stage not much larger than a billiards table.

Tonight’s music offering was flamenco, and the show would start at 8:45. We were just in time, and luckily so; the place was packed. I approached the bar to get a couple glasses of wine, throwing an elbow or two for prime positioning, and we set off to find seats, drinks in hand. The entire downstairs had already filled; Whit and I eventually improvised some seats on the floor of the balcony, our legs dangling freely above the crowd. Mildly besotted already from the afternoon’s vino, I wrapped an arm around a balcony rail and held my wine glass in the other, and I became suddenly aware of the possibility of dropping my glass on an surprised onlooker. I visualized myself being ripped from the balcony by my spindly legs, then dragged outside and assaulted with Spanish fists and salty language. I tightened my grip on my glass just as lights went down.

The emcee came to the stage to introduce the musicians to the audience. While my Spanish is generally sufficient to order entrees and find the nearest fire station, I had trouble understanding much of his introduction; the gist of it was that the musicians were students who came from longstanding flamenco families and who understood the music’s rich tradition. From the moment the trio (a singer, a guitarist, and a percussionist) took the stage, one thing was obvious: these were just kids. They couldn’t have been more than sixty-years old, combined. I braced for what might lie ahead.

Rather than grinding my teeth for the duration of the show, I listened intently, my mouth agape in amazement. These kids could really play! A guitar player myself, I couldn’t believe the sounds this young guitarist was coaxing out of his instrument. He colored the songs with left-handed flourishes up the fretboard and propelled them forward with rapid finger-picking and strumming with his right. The singer yowled with such passion and skill that he seemed to inhabit the words and melodies even as he shared them with a rapt crowd. They played for less than a half-hour, then left the stage to enthusiastic applause.

After the intermission they confidently took the stage again, now accompanied by a female dancer. Draped a bright, flowing, floor-length dress, she moved deftly across the stage for the entire second half, locked in with the rising and falling of the music. It was almost too much to take in one sitting. The music itself was overwhelming; the combination of music and dance brought tears to my eyes. To see these big-city university students performing cherished folk music, and performing it authentically and with humility and faith in the centuries-old tradition, was a moving testament to the flamenco’s enduring power.

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Barcelona: Living La Vida Local

La Sagrada Familia -- Antonio GaudiUnless you’re allergic to perfect weather, high fashion, exquisite food and wine, rapturous flamenco music, and genre-defining art and architecture, Barcelona ought to be near the top of your list of desired destinations. Even if you are allergic, you should probably just suck it up and go.

More posts on Barcelona’s cultural appeal will follow, but for now let’s talk about where to stay. Rather than booking a hotel room or rooms (which tend to bottom out at about €100 per night), consider renting a furnished apartment during your stay. You’ll save money for one thing; apartment rental rates are favorable, particularly as the size of your party increases, and with a full kitchen at your disposal you won’t have to dine out as often. But there’s also something qualitatively different about returning to an apartment each night instead of coming back to the cloister of a hotel room. You feel less like a tourist, more like a native.

Our three-bedroom apartment was quintessentially European: a bit compact, but comfortable, clean, and beautifully designed. We were only two blocks from a metro station, and we had a nice food market, a pharmacy, and multiple cafés within hopping distance. The five of us stayed for more than a week at a rate that worked out to about €40 per person per night. Larger apartments can sleep eight to ten people comfortably, and it’s not uncommon to find rates from about €25 per person per night.

The metro is easily the best way to get around Barcelona. It’s cheap, clean, and efficient, and lines extend in all directions. You can stay virtually anywhere and still be a quick metro ride from the Ramblas or one of Gaudi’s mind-sprung wonders, and the farther away from the main attractions you are, the better the deals you’ll find.

It’s not necessarily a bad idea to wait until the last minute to book; you can find special rates on apartments less than two weeks before your trip. Check out Rent4days and Friendly Rentals, among others, for some short-notice savings.

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