It's tempting to trace this mix of self-criticism and bravado back to the city's pre-Democratic past, to draw links between a city that's spent two decades racing to catch up with its capitalist contemporaries while clinging to a grand and treasured cultural heritage. But there's a more direct reason for Barcelona's mixed musical aspirations and achievements. As almost any electronic music fan will know, the city hosts the Sonar festival every June, drawing (in some estimations) an extra one million extra visitors to the city, offering night after night of world-class line-ups in pretty much every venue capable of fitting decks and speakers.
Outside of this single insane week, a different Barcelona scene exists; one that regularly attracts a range of solid international bookings and healthily devoted audiences, but that might surprise a visitor who'd expected an experience akin to the Sonar (and, of course, the unofficial "Off Sonar") madness. "The Off Sonar has definitely grown into one of the biggest displays of underground electronic music gatherings worldwide," says Lars Sandberg, better known as Funk D'Void. He's lived in Barcelona for the best part of the last decade. "Like in most other cities that host conventions, there will be a lot on display, so if you come back and expect that kind of choice when it's not Sonar you will for sure be disappointed."
Monica Franco, a writer for the locally based Playground magazine, agrees. "Yes, a lot of people come to live here thinking it will be the same [as Sonar week]," she admits. "But still for us, it's the most important week of the year. It shows everyone here how it could be, what we could aim for."
Nonetheless, Barcelona's club landscape has plenty to celebrate. According to Sandberg, the city's unquenchable thirst for the new is both its biggest benefit and its most consistent stumbling block. "The scene in Barcelona is constantly changing, and this is something unique for this city," he suggests. "It can go from the worst place to be for underground parties to the best in very little time. People are always ready to try something new and the climate, and the beach, combined with a constantly changing population are factors that contribute to this." Throw in the effects of the global economic crash—which hit Spain harder than most—and it makes for a city that's hard to pin down, its fluctuations and uncertainties as bewildering and bedazzling as the immense hordes that flow down La Ramblas (Barcelona's central tourist drag), throughout the day and night.
Barcelona's dense residential population—the highest of any European city—and exorbitant rents have made it all but impossible for new clubs to establish themselves centrally, meaning that many of the town's key venues involve navigating the sweltering tube or, when that's closed, the famously erratic taxis. Such is the case with BeCool, a relative newcomer to the scene that's been bringing a laudably diverse mix of house, techno and disco luminaries to town each weekend.
When we turned up, it was to see oddball disco auteur Joakim, but we discovered on arrival that he hadn't made it because of a train crash on the way over from Switzerland. All the same, we stuck around for the residents' back-to-back session, which leaned heavily on Aeroplane-esque sleek disco, with incrementally increasing doses of classic house and proto-techno peppering the mix. Gloriously air-conditioned, the 300 capacity dance floor was bathed in aquatic blue lighting, and the unfussy, late twenties crowd aptly lived up to the venue's moniker.
It's a space that's modern without being over-stylised, and comfortable without being bland. The slow-paced frug of the DJs' selections, a contrast to the energetic techno and house that dominates most of the city's club line-ups, suited the atmosphere well—it's the kind of club you can imagine Ewan Pearson, the following week's guest, really making his own.
Our next stop— Ghoa Beach Club, or Raum as it is often confusingly known—was a much larger, ravier affair, housing a swimming pool, vast stage and dancing space for at least 1000. It's a 20 euro taxi ride from the city centre all the way down Diagonal, so when we arrived to catch regular guest Steve Lawler we were pretty much the only tourists there. Equipped with the trappings of a semi-permanent, almost festival like location—which means teams of man mountain bouncers, makeshift entrances and paying booths, and the omnipresent hum of immense power generators—Ghoa's gruff exterior belies its inner opulence to an extent, most obviously articulated by a glowing and pretty much unused swimming pool adjacent to the stage.
Lawler's set was the kind that many say is the major club sound of Barcelona in 2010; rolling tech house, kinetic percussive workouts, a smattering of Latino vocals and samples. The crowd were a shade younger, bringing with them both endless youthful energy, as well as the seemingly global imperative to endlessly harangue our photographer for multiple photographs of themselves at every turn. Speaking to Lawler as Madrid's Christian Varela took over, it transpired that he's in fact moved to Barcelona in the last few weeks, drawn by the climate, his working relationship with Raum promoter Toni Rubano, and—inevitably—his recent marriage.
Top: Losing it - Bottom: Steve Lawler at Ghoa Beach Club.
I asked if it was normal to see a crowd of this size here—it had barely depleted, late into the night. To my surprise, Lawler took me to mean the opposite, replying: "Yeah, but we could do more here. I can carry it on my own to an extent, but if we had say Radio Slave and Guy Gerber here too, attendance would double." Evidently, an extensive market for quality club music still exists here—but at a time when the Spanish economy is pretty much laying in tatters, it seems that clubbers, and more pertinently some promoters, are often unwilling to take risks.
"We are trying to find ways to encourage promoters to book new artists, music that is exciting," explains Monica Franco, who augments her income as a music journalist by working as a bar waitress at Razzmatazz, a true giant of the city's club network. "Last week we had Rusko and Skream—this was the first UK bass music of this level to come here in like, six months. But the promoters are trying to be safe, they have to know that the more commercial people will still come."
Behind the decks (and cash register) at Zentraus Bar.
We hit Razzmatazz ourselves the next night, but not before enjoying a couple of DJ bars, which in times of financial hardship play an increasing role in a scene that's becoming more reluctant to regularly shell out ten euros or more to get into a club. Our favourite was Betty Ford, deep in the notoriously raw Raval region. In truth, the area's been cleared up significantly in the last few years, but it retains a bustling, slightly chaotic mix of revellers, hawkers, scooters and looters that excites and unsettles in equal measure. The bar itself was slick, narrow and all white, while a male and female DJ team took turns to spin the usual mix of minimal grooves and conga-heavy Cecille-type material. Some were dancing, many were laughing, a few were even eating what looked like pretty delicious modern tapas. Although fairly typical of numerous similar spots in town, it was a pleasurable place to be, inadvertently mirroring the city itself in its mix of bold, bright modernism and typically easygoing, fun seeking patrons.
Razzmatazz itself, like many venues in town, has two monikers, in this case the alternative being The Loft. It was by far the biggest space we encountered during the weekend, with cavernous indie and techno areas plus a ramshackle "alternative" space somewhat incongruously sharing the same overarching warehouse structure. Although we turned up with only two hours to go at around 4 AM, the queue still snaked round the block, and once we'd navigated the indie room's cute Oasis singalong we settled in for Redshape's live show.
Top: Redshape's masked drummer - Bottom: The crowd at Razzmatazz.
Barcelona: Eating, drinking sleeping
With Ferran Adria's legendary El Bulli temple of gastronomy an hour or so's drive away from the city, Barcelona prides itself on its cuisine, ranging from wallet busting Michelin starred molecular experiments to traditional pinxtos and tapas at two euros a pop. For seafood so fresh it almost serves itself, check out the handful of tapas bars inside La Boqueria, the stunning and gargantuan food market off La Ramblas that many claim is the best of its kind in the world. You can find cheaper tapas all over, but nothing beats eating in amid the cut and thrust of the countless meat, fish and vegetable merchants, loudly plying their trade.
For a modernist take on the tapas style, Samsara in Gracia is well worth a visit, offering a nine course tasting menu for a reasonable 50 euros that would easily sate two or even three appetites, with creative dishes such as blue cheese guacamole, prawn spring rolls with white chocolate and a seriously voluptuous chocolate fondant. Still on a tapas tip, a taste of more traditional but no less elegant Catalan classics can be found at Gasterea (on Carrer Verdi), where endlessly arriving plates of salt cod with aioli, pork belly with red pepper and quince cheese, clam tortillas and countless more are speedily delivered to a standing room only crowd of devotees.
Less gastronomically impressive but popular with clubbier crowds is Margarita Blue, where you can find decent steaks, colourful cocktails and stylish salads. And for some quality fast-food to soak up the cervezas, there's the Sonar day favourite, Buenas Migas, with its oozing focaccia-style slices of pizza—perfect for a quick fill, and immeasurably preferable to the chain alternatives.
It's hard to walk more than a few places in Barcelona without finding a decent spot to sit and enjoy a cerveza, but be wary of extortionate prices on the main central strips. That said, newcomers to the city could do much worse than meeting up at the huge Cafe Zurich at Catalunya, traditionally the common locus of tired bodies during Sonar week who can't find the energy to navigate the city's winding streets.
A little digging into those streets, however, will reveal countless hosts of compelling alternatives; as well as DJ bars like Betty Ford, be sure to investigate some of the more unique establishments, such as famed Absinthe bar Marbellas, which has been summoning the green fairy since time immemorial in a setting of faded Franco-era grandeur.
Boada, at the intersection of Tallers and La Rambla, is a quasi-mythical place where bow tie waiters serve exquisite cocktails with more style than Tom Cruise could ever dream of. On a more youthful tip, Ãmbar is the hipster's choice, with a wide range of decent beers and cocktails. Or just head to the beach, wander along the chiringuito beach bars until you find one you like, and set up camp—many host decent DJs, and the evenings stay open well into the autumn months.
We couldn't recommend places to stay without mentioning Hotel Diagonal, home to seemingly endless runs of parties (including RA's own) during Sonar week. With breathtaking rooftop views, sympathetic staff and a classy but unshowy level of quality, it's not cheap but worth it, especially if you're in town during Sonar and don't want the party to end.
If you've less to spend, you may well be better off looking into one of the thousands of central apartments to hire—prices are still reasonable, especially if you're in a group, and self-catering in a city that boasts a market as good as La Boqueria can be a pleasure in itself. If money's too tight to mention, a hostel is the best option—Hostal Campi on Carrer de Catalunya is regularly cited as one of the best, where a double room can be as little as 25 euros per night.
No trip to Barcelona would be complete without a trip to the beach, a 6 KM, manmade strand that regularly tops global urban beach polls. It's here that you'll find a seemingly infinite run of beach bars—locally, chiringuitos—that regularly host DJs of almost all persuasions for afternoon and evening sessions throughout the week. When we turned up on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of September, it was a little subdued, with more of a sit-down family vibe than is apparently the case in high summer. Still, we managed to find a DJ with a neat line in premium grade deep house and techno, although he was strangely reluctant to allow photos.
Perhaps, we conjectured, there's a stigma attached to taking chiringuito gigs to uninterested families, playing through an anemic soundsystem, on a drowsy Sunday shift. We had to leave town before the kick off at MacArena beach bar, tipped by numerous locals and DJs we spoke to as the most buzzing party in town of late, which was a shame. But it's heartening to know that after years of gang-related wrangling as a result of over-subscribed post-Sonar beach parties, that some equilibrium has been restored, and that Barcelona can now regularly party the way it arguably does best—on the beach, under the sun, and on into the balmy evening.
Back in the dustily ominous Barri Gotic district, Macarena regularly punches above its miniscule size, and often serves as a meeting spot for local promoters, DJs and similarly music orientated folks. City Hall, at the top of La Ramblas at Place Catalunya, is more erratic bookings-wise but is always worth checking for its regular straight ahead house and techno sessions. And finally, there's perhaps the best loved Barcelona club of all, Moog—almost laughably tiny, it's open 365 days of the year, and has hosted pretty much every techno deity from Juan Atkins onwards in its two decades of existence.
According to almost everyone we spoke to, Barcelona still maintains the strongest electronic music scene in Spain, and Sonar's worldwide significance continues to provide a creative benchmark that, while impossible to replicate year round, at the very least provides the city with an opportunity to prove itself to the world. Sure, it doesn't have a destination venue like fabric, Berghain or Zouk. And a government both unwilling and unable to invest in what could conceivably be a world-leading electronic music city doesn't help. But a little research goes a long way—there is, ultimately, always something good happening, even if you have to dig a little to find it.
At full throttle Barcelona is an intense, overbearing place; it's intimate and yet detached, in a rush yet determined to work at its own pace, awe-inspiringly beautiful and depressingly ugly, often in the space of a few steps. "It's really hard to live here," ponders Monica Franco, who moved from Valencia in 2003 but is resolutely staying put. "We have no jobs. We have no money, even if we have a job, because the cost of living is so much. But we have these wonderful, great people who always want to make the city better, to push it ahead more. That is what Barcelona is all about."