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Barcelona is known for its bling of beaches, architecture, discos, and over 70 museums. It is a vibrant, glorious city and has its problems for residents and tourists. Julie Sheridan relays her experiences that have been challenges. The Scoopettes have been robbed. Come on cops, stop this *#>*.
By Julie Sheridan
I adore Barcelona, but the city’s reputation precedes it. When I announced to friends and colleagues in Edinburgh last year that I was moving here, the reaction was always the same. “Oh my god, I love Barcelona!” Followed by a frown. “Except it’s really dangerous…”
The city doesn’t have a bad track record on violent crime, and it’s certainly nowhere near as dangerous as the likes of New York, London or Naples. But when it comes to ‘petty’ crime Barcelona’s in a league of its own. Just a few months ago it was revealed that that there are over 400 robberies a day in the city – and that’s only the ones that that are officially reported. Like any big city, Barcelona has its downsides.
You have to hand it to them (literally), the pickpockets in this city are an accomplished bunch. You name it, if it’s a scam to part tourists with their possessions, they’re already doing it. You need to keep your wits about it wherever you are in the city. If you are robbed, they police are likely to be sympathetic but ultimately uninterested in tracking down the culprit.
1. Don’t have any preconceptions about what a pickpocket looks like. They can be any age, any nationality, and might even be well dressed. They’re not the obvious down-and-out! Be especially wary of sweet-looking little old ladies who approach you with a begging cup or trying to sell you a flower. They’re often the decoy as part of an organised gang.
2. Pickpockets often work in groups. Typically, one person will do something to distract you (it could be bumping into you, spraying what looks like bird shit or ketchup on you, or even just smiling at you) while their accomplices move in unnoticed.
3. Not all thefts involve devious scams – outright bag snatching happens too. I heard one story of an elderly couple walking through the Gothic quarter with the woman’s handbag slung over her shoulder, only for a robber to cut the strap from behind and run off with the camera. Her husband tried to run after the thief, only to fall and break his hip. Carry your handbag or rucksack in front of you at all times, so that you can see it’s safe.
4. Be extra vigilant with your bag in bars, cafés and restaurants. Don’t hang it over the chair where it’s very easy to nick. Keep it tucked firmly between your feet on the ground.
5. Spanish people have different ideas to a lot of other nationalities when it comes to personal space. And of course on a packed metro train it’s tricky not to be sardined up against someone. But if anyone does press against you, be very suspicious. This isn’t normal behaviour and could well be an attempt to get at your stuff.
6. Don’t walk around with a sign on our back saying ‘rob me’. As a tourist, you’re a target, but there are things you can do not to advertise the fact. Mimic how local people dress so’s not to stand out.
7. Plan your route from your hotel or apartment in the morning so that you’re less likely to need to consult a map. Most of Barcelona’s streets are laid out as a grid-like pattern, apart from the labyrinthine-like parts of the old town. It’s easy to get lost in the Gothic quarter but then again, that’s part of its appeal.
8. Be especially protective of your belongings when you’re at the beach. It’s not just a case of not leaving your stuff unattended while you’re in swimming…a friend of mine was approached by an old man asking her for help, and while she was talking to him a young guy appeared from nowhere and made off with her bag.
Being ripped off
The first thing I should point out is that in nearly a year of living in Barcelona, I have never once been ripped off by a local person. Catalans have a reputation throughout Spain for being tight with their money. They certainly are very careful with it, but one thing I’ve noticed time and again is that they’re also very careful to make sure they pay their fair share and that you do the same. In shops, restaurants and taxi rides across the city I’ve never once been short changed.
But of course, there are the inevitable tourist traps. The tourist site I’ve been most disappointed in is the Aquarium, down at the port. (Which is ironic, because it’s Barcelona’s most visited attraction after the Sagrada Familia.) It costs 18€ for an adult to get in, which seems grossly over-inflated when you consider the meager range of specimens inside. It’s a shame, because with its setting right next to the Mediterranean Sea, they could have done so much more with it.
Then there’s the Ramblas, which is the first port of call for most visitors to the city. On this tree-lined boulevard you can achieve many things. Get your shoes shined, coo at baby bunnies, hopscotch over a Miró mosaic, get your photo taken with a giant cockroach, get your wallet nicked and generally indulge in a whole lot of people watching. It’s a crucible of all that is famous and infamous about the Catalan capital and you should revel in it. But please don’t buy anything on it! Veer off into the narrow streets to either side just a few minutes away and you’ll pay half the price for food and souvenirs.
Another major draw on the tourist trail are the spectacular town-houses designed by Antoni Gaudí on the glamorous Passeig de Gràcia. The two main ones are La Pedrera (aka Casa Milà) and Casa Batlló. Of the two, I’d recommend you admire Casa Batlló from the pavement rather than pay the hefty entry fee. Save your cash for entrance to La Pedrera, where you’ll be rewarded by the sight of ‘witch-scarer’ chimney stacks on the roof. Casa Batlló – best seen from the outside.
Being sexually harassed
For me, this is the worst aspect of Barcelona and one I still haven’t figured out how to deal with effectively. I can be walking along the central Plaça de Catalunya when a smartly dressed middle-aged guy walks past and mouths puta! (whore!) at me. Or in the posh L’Eixample area where on one block after another men from all walks of life direct overtly sexual comments at me. It’s made worse, Spanish friends tell me, by the fact that I’m going about the city as a single female, rather than as part of a couple or in a big group.
Sexual harassment isn’t limited to women, either. If you’re a guy, at some point in the old town you’re bound to encounter the attentions of prostitutes touting for business. The worst area for this is on the Ramblas and the ropey area to one side of it, the Raval. The Barcelonan authorities have taken massive steps over recent years to clean up this notoriously dodgy district, and it’s nowhere near as bad as it used to be. But I’ve wandered through the Raval in broad daylight and still seen prostitutes everywhere.
I’m struggling to know what advice to give you about this seedy side of the city, because I haven’t got to grips with it myself yet. Just be aware that you could encounter it and try not to pay it any attention – comments and stares are likely to be as bad as it gets.
Julie Sheridan made the move to Barcelona from her native Scotland in Spring 2011, after 10 years living under Scotch mist in Edinburgh. Out of an innate love of making things difficult for herself she deliberately chose a part of Spain where she knew no-one and couldn’t speak the local language. Her blog focuses on the social and cultural differences between Scotland and Spain, Caledonia and Catalonia. Guiri girl in Barca is her site.