“Today, for most people, the Ramblas is Barcelona.”
—  Robert Hughes, Barcelona the Great Enchantress

The Ramblas, Barcelona

The Ramblas, Barcelona

“The humanity of the Rambla!  It’s an inscrutably human street!  So many stories come and go every day from these cafes, shops, and stairways!  The air is saturated with their human feet.”
— Josep Pla, The Gray Notebook, translated by Peter Bush

“The Ramblas is and always will be one of the great, seedy, absorbing theaters of Spain, or for that matter of Europe.”
—  Robert Hughes, Barcelona the Great Enchantress

Mercat de la Boqueria

Mercat de la Boqueria

My favorite part of strolling the Ramblas was our little detour into the grand food market, Mercat de la Boqueria, which reminded me of Seattle’s Pike Place Market and the one on Granville Island in Vancouver, B.C.  An overwhelming panorama of vibrant colors, prepared dishes, and raw food.

“[The Boqueria] is the hub and heart of both Barcelona’s gastronomy and its everyday eating.  Its site was originally occupied by the sixteenth-century convent of Sant Josep and the fourteenth-century one of Santa Maria.  Hang me for a gluttonous atheist if you will, but compared to the increase of human happiness afforded by this great market, the loss of a couple of convents is nothing. . . .

For any serious lover of food — which most Catalans aggressively are — there is no other place in the world quite like the Boqueria, that vast covered space crammed with stalls that display just about everything short of human flesh that could conceivably be eaten, from skinned rabbits (their moist eyes still peering reproachfully at the hardhearted shopper) to soft brown hills of newly shot but unplucked partridges, neatly tied fagots of expensive but irresistible angullos or jamon Serrano. . . . If there were a grocery, butcher, and fishmonger attached to the Garden of Eden, in which one could sample what terrestrial food tasted like before the fall of man, it would be something like the Boqueria.”
—  Robert Hughes, Barcelona the Great Enchantress

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“The paseo was accepted as health-giving, rejuvenating exercise.  More importantly, for the traveller out of his depth in foreign surroundings and reduced to constant apology and confusion  imposed by the loss of language, it was a godsend.  Whether merchant, soldier or minister of religion, the paseo smoothed out all problems.  The mere act of walking in the company of beaming strangers provoked a change of mood.  Within minutes of joining a paseo’s ranks the beginner had shaken hands with everyone in sight — a cordial gripping of fists sometimes strong enough to produce a moistening of the eyes.  The leaflet [explaining paseo to foreigners] we collected as new members of the ‘friendly walk’ advised us that one should ‘always smile, but laugh with caution.’  A number of actions came under its ban: ‘At all times refrain from shouting or whistling.  Gestures with the fingers are to be avoided.  Do not wink, do not turn your back on a bore in an ostentatious manner, and, above all, never spit.'”
— Norman Lewis, The Tomb in Seville from his travels in Spain in 1934

Las Ramblas, the famous pedestrian street in Barcelona

Las Ramblas, the famous pedestrian street in Barcelona

“When darkness fell Madrid began to take seats as if for a nocturnal pageant or procession.  Every pavement chair was occupied.  Offices and shops had let down their shutters and the day’s work was over.  Then into the main avenues thousands of men and women came from a hundred tributaries, by underground, bus and on foot, to stroll about and walk up and down, and down and up.  This was the nightly paseo, that queer relic of the seventeenth century when the aristocracy took the air in the evening along the Paseo del Prado.”
— H. V. Morton, A Stranger in Spain

Day time street scene in Madrid

Day time street scene in Madrid

People strolling and meeting along the Quadalquiver River in Seville

People strolling and meeting along the Guadalquivir River in Seville

Day time street scene in Seville

Day time street scene in Seville

If Amsterdam is a city for bicyclists, then Madrid is a city for walkers.  Carol and I arrived in Madrid in the morning, too early to check into our hotel on Gran Via.  So we ditched our bags and took a walk to begin to get our bearings.  I was immediately struck by how the city felt like Manhattan to me because so many people were walking.  But the crowds were nothing compared to the throngs that took to the streets in the evening.  When we finished our dinner on a Thursday night at 10:30 p.m., the streets behind our hotel were wall-to-wall thick with people.  I’d never seen anything like it.

Surprisingly, the sidewalks in Madrid were quite narrow.  You could not walk two abreast without forcing oncoming walkers to step into the street.  And yet the pedestrians were undaunted.

Later in our travels we strolled in the old sections of Seville and Barcelona, where the medieval streets were sometimes too narrow even for cars.  There, of course, you could do nothing but walk.

But you got the sense that the Spanish walk not just for transport from place to place, nor for exercise, but instead for social reasons.

“Spain is a country of small, tightly packed towns, cities and villages.  Spaniards like to live piled on top of one another.  Their natural meeting place is in the crowded street, the busy bar or the plaza.  It is a life of close physical contact, of loud, sociable bustle.”
— Giles Tremlett, Ghosts of Spain:  Travels Through Spain and Its Silent Past