Barcelona After Dark
By Babak Haghighi
It was my last night in Barcelona. The sangria-induced hangover was just starting to fade after a day full of Gaudí sightseeing, beach roaming, and paella eating. With an 8:16 a.m. train to Marseille, France the next morning, the smart thing to do would have been to have a low-key night—perhaps stay in at the hostel. But I didn’t come to Barcelona to be smart.
When in Spain, do as the Spanish do: Party. Hard. It was Friday night, after all. So I opted to join a pub crawl with some other travelers from my hostel. It was quite the international crowd, including Ala, a teacher from Poland whom I met in Madrid a few days earlier.
We headed out at 11:30 p.m., which is pretty early for Spain. A typical night out in Spain often starts at around 1 or 2 a.m., but I wasn’t complaining. We started out at Ryans Irish Pub—perhaps not the most authentic example of Catalan nightlife.
“¿Hablas inglés?” I asked the bartender, eager to show off my seven years worth of elementary Spanish knowledge.
He didn’t hear me over the noise, so I asked again.
“Hmm?” he responded.
I asked once more.
“I can’t hear you, man,” he said in his North American accent.
He spoke English. I ordered a beer.
Downstairs, a group of American girls tilted their heads back and opened their mouths wide as the pub crawl leader poured liquor down each of their throats. Those inane Americans wouldn’t last the night—everyone knew it. This was no college dorm party with watered-down beer. This was Spain. This was Catalonia. This was Barcelona. The night was young.
“These American girls are crazy,” said Ala. I agreed. Not once during my six-month tour of Europe did I introduce myself as an American. I was Californian. There’s a difference, and everyone in Europe recognized it. Introduce yourself as American, and they grimace. Many people seem to have their mind set on what an American is like, and they want nothing to do with it. But introduce yourself as Californian, and their eyes light up, eager to learn more. Once you tell them you’re from San Francisco, jaws drop and shrieks of excitement fill the air. Many Western Europeans told me that they think of San Francisco as “the European city of America.” Not a bad reputation over there.
Four pubs and three hours later, it was time to end the night at a dance club. On this particular Friday night, Boulevard Culture Club, or BLVD as the locals know it, was the place to party. Located right in the middle of La Rambla, the busiest street in the heart of Barcelona’s city center, BLVD is a popular spot for tourists and locals alike. The young, international crowd and variety of music make it a worthy party venue, but even with three dance floors it remains one of the city’s more low-key night clubs.
The Polish Ala hits the dance floor. Before long, she notices her purse is open and her belongings are missing—particularly one iPhone and one wallet.
Barcelona is no stranger to pickpockets. TripAdvisor, among many other travel websites, lists Barcelona as the number one place in the world to beware pickpockets and specifically distinguishes La Rambla as a hotspot for wallet snatchers.
In Ala’s case, the pickpocket watched her as she danced the night away. Distracted by the good music and good vibes, she failed to notice the pickpocket open her purse and steal her phone and wallet. She searched the floors helplessly and ran back to the hostel in distress.
“They pickpocketed me in style,” said Ala. “You really have to have your eyes wide open all the time.”
With my own wallet still in my back pocket where I left it, I continued to enjoy my last night in Barcelona. Once I realized I was the only person left standing from the pub crawl group, I stepped outside for a cigarette—one which would spark a six-month chain-smoking session in true European fashion. Outside, I met a friendly group of Germans. Nina led the pack, accompanied by her friends Kirillo, Kai, and Man, who were visiting Nina from their hometown, Düsseldorf. Nina had recently moved to Barcelona and worked as a bartender.
It was late. I had a train to catch in two hours. The nightclub was closing. In most parts of Spain, Barcelona included, the nightlife shuts down at around 6 a.m. The streets are dark. Empty. Lifeless. What was, just minutes ago, a vibrant playground for drunken debauchery is turned into a barren neighborhood of sketchy streets and sketchy people.
What the guidebooks don’t tell you is that at 6:01, a new side of Barcelona opens up.
“We’re going to get some food,” said Nina. “Do you want to join us?”
Most people would think to call it a night. I did have a train to catch, after all. But I was determined to let the good times roll. I joined them, curious as to where one gets food in Barcelona at six in the morning after a long night out.
The city was dead. Business hours were over, as evidenced by the aluminum garage doors covering the windows and entrances of nearly every building. Nothing was open. Or so it seemed.
Nina approaches one of the aluminum doors of a seemingly closed shop and knocks. Lo and behold, a man opens a hidden door and lets us into his diner. The place is packed. The cooks are hard at work at the grill as if it’s the lunch rush at In-N-Out. We sit at a table and each order a breakfast burger and a beer. Nina helps me order, as both the Catalan and Spanish languages are mysteries to me—at least as far as burger menus go.
Germans seem to have a reputation for lacking a sense of humor, yet we still shared laughs as we poked fun at each other’s names, among other things. As we waited for our food, Nina’s bartending colleague, Francesca, walked in. Francesca, a beautiful brunette from Italy, had just gotten off work.
“I’m ready to party!” she shouted.
It was nearing 7 a.m. when we left the diner. The sun was out now. The Germans said their goodbyes and called it a night. But Francesca was just getting started.
“Let’s get a drink,” said Francesca.
I had a train to catch in just over an hour.
“I’ll buy,” she said.
I was sold.
Francesca moved to Barcelona from Italy just a few months earlier. It didn’t take her long to learn the secrets of the Catalan capital, and she was glad to show me the ropes.
“Sow how do you know Nina?” she asked.
“Oh… I met her a couple of hours ago,” I responded.
“Well what are you doing in Barcelona?” she asked.
“All by yourself?”
She found this to be both fascinating and crazy.
But Francesca was fascinating and crazy herself. Standing no taller than 5’2”, the curly-haired Italian was an independent woman of wild energy. She envied my travel plans and hoped one day to do the same.
“A journalist, wow!” she exclaimed.
To call her a free spirit would be an understatement. She wore a collection of Rasta-colored wristbands on both of her arms, making her fit in well in Barcelona. She was a fan of marijuana, as it is a huge part of the liberal Catalan and Barcelonan culture.
Francesca leads me southwest along the beachside promenade towards the Port of Barcelona. She was about to show me one of the most intriguing secrets of Barcelona’s late-night afterlife. Francesca walks up to another building covered up by aluminum doors. She knocks, and once again, a hidden door opens. Inside, a busy and bustling bar awaits. Classy Spanish jazz plays from a jukebox in the back. Nearby, groups of friends play foosball and billiards on their respective tables. Well-over 75 patrons sit at the surrounding tables and chat over food and drink. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Tourists need not apply here. It felt like a speakeasy from 1920s Atlantic City, hidden from the rest of the city. After three days of sightseeing and tourist attractions, this was a refreshing change of pace.
Francesca and I sat at the bar. I had less than an hour to catch my train. When in Spain, do as the Italians do (apparently), and take shots of Jägermeister at 7 a.m. She ordered each of us a shot as well as a side of Patatas Bravas, one of Spain’s greatest tapas dishes. The tapa consists of small slices of fried potato covered in a delicious spicy tomato sauce. But Francesca disliked spicy food, so she ordered a mayonnaise sauce instead. It made for one hell of a chaser.
Alas, all good things must come to an end, and so came to an end my trip to Barcelona. It was 7:45 a.m. and I was taking shots in a hidden bar in the middle of who-knows-where. With a kiss on the cheek, I bid farewell to Francesca but promised we’d meet again. My train was going to leave in half an hour, so I rushed back to the hostel, ignoring the pain from the blisters on my feet. I walked into the hostel and the receptionist gave me a smile. She knew I had a good night in Barcelona. Within minutes I packed my bags packed and checked out.
“I have a train in 15 minutes,” I told the receptionist as I left.
“Uh-oh,” she said.
I learned the secrets of Barcelona’s nightlife. I saw the things they hide from tourists like myself. That 8:16 train to Marseille left, along with its dozens of passengers. I was not one of them.