I wrote an article about Barcelona recently, and it brought back memories of my first visit there back in 2001. We had been driving from France and entered the city in the early afternoon, when temperatures were firmly in the high 30s. The city seemed strangely deserted – we had no idea that most of the population was in the town centre wreaking havoc on the city's statues during one of the anti-capitalist protests that were going on at the time.
We pulled into the underground garage of our hotel and fell into conversation with a Swedish couple. "You have to be careful in Barcelona," said the husband. "There's a lot of street crime here." We knew that, but weren't quite prepared for his next statement. "We've just been robbed. We had stopped at the traffic lights and thieves reached into the car and stole my wife's handbag and the rucksack that had our cameras. We're just off to the police now."
We commiserated with them, thinking what bad luck to have such a terrible introduction to a beautiful city. But I was thinking to myself that I don't even drive in my own village without locking the doors and keeping the windows closed, let alone in a city known for its crime.
In the hotel room, all the info about the hotel services was full of dire warnings to guests: lock up your valuables! Watch your wallets! Hold on to your handbag! Well, of course. I always carry my handbag bandolier style, and I rarely let go of it. But still, I couldn't quite relax as we started to explore the city.
The intense heat didn't help – the coolest it got was 28C and that was at midnight. We'd walk down the main boulevard, the Ramblas, watching people get drawn into the tricks the resident con artists pull, with their accomplices not so surreptitiously looking out for any passing policeman. It was great entertainment, as we duly held on to our wallets and handbags.
On a later visit I watched groups of drunken British women on a hen weekend fall about on the Ramblas, one just lying there waiting to be robbed. I recalled another travel writer's account of a visit to Barcelona in which she was quite nastily mugged, and the the taxi driver who drove her to the police station was attacked as he was getting out of his car.
Funnily enough, my love-hate relationship with Barcelona has nothing to do with its street crime. For some reason, I often find myself wandering through its streets wishing I were in France or Italy instead. But I still love to visit, marvel at the barmy Modernista architecture, eat some seriously gorgeous tapas and get into the Mediterranean vibe. And then look forward to going home again.