As we sat on Berkeley East watching clouds of black smoke rise high over the city, the deafening roar of a police helicopter hovering directly above BE's mast, we wondered what had happened to our beautiful Barcelona.
Berkeley East spent her first Mediterranean winter, nine years ago, in Port Vell Marina, Barcelona. After crossing the Atlantic Ocean, and relaxing much of the season on small islands, landing in one of Spain's most vibrant cities was exciting, to say the least. Back then; the marina was an eclectic mix of liveaboards, cruisers, local sailors, and the crews of a few luxury yachts. Just steps away from the charming Barceloneta quarter, a short walk to the city center and all the treasures that Barcelona had to offer, Berkeley East was in the heart of one of the most historic cities in the world.
But our Barcelona experience of 2010 was much more than touring monuments and visiting museums, the marina's location was like living in the neighborhood, the people we met were our community, fellow cruisers became family that we would travel with for years to come.
Ever since we sailed away from Barcelona in 2011, we have dreamed of returning one day; Port Vell is one of the few marinas in the world set at the foot of a major city, making it possible to merge the casual cruising life with a stimulating land existence.
A lot has changed in Port Vell since our first visit. Now called One Ocean, the marina underwent a massive renovation and has become a premier destination for super yachts. We were surprised they even allowed entrance to small vessels like Berkeley East. Gone are the quirky boats with gardens growing on their decks, absent is the lively international liveaboard vibe, missing are the fun and laughter of frequent dock parties. BE's neighbors in 2019 are the likes of 369-foot "Reah," 276-foot "Pacific," and 273-foot "Savanah." One Ocean has room for 151 yachts with space for ships as large as 625 feet in length.
We arrived in Barcelona on October 1st, anxious to get reacquainted with the city.
With our list of favorite places in hand, we began wandering the small twisting streets, thrilled to see familiar spots, eager to discover new ones. We had a month, plenty of time to get Berkeley East ready for winter, so we began alternating boat chores and exploring. From famous landmarks to hidden gems, cooking classes, art galleries, churches, concerts, boat shows, markets, beaches, wine bars, and restaurants; the plan was to soak up as much of Barcelona as we possibly could.
At the boat show one of us was trying to downsize, while the other was thinking big.
The Basílica de la Sagrada Família, a large unfinished Roman Catholic Church, is one of Barcelona's most iconic landmarks. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it was designed by famed architect Antoni Gaudi, combining two contrasting styles, Gothic and curvilinear Art Nouveau. It has been under construction since 1882; when completed in 2026, the enormous sanctuary will have 18 towers, each one with its own dedication.
Barcelona has been celebrated in artistic circles for centuries through its Gaudi architecture, Joan Miró sculptures, and world-renowned Picasso museum. Today, the city is a globally recognized center for the graffiti and street art.
More street art at here
While some are commissioned pieces to enhance the doors of businesses, most are illegal works created during the night, even in disguise, to avoid discovery by police. The art changes regularly, or is removed by the city's cleaners. For many Barcelona residents and visitors, it is a conflict between appreciating this form of expression and the desire to keep the city clean.
We had been having a terrific time learning to live in Barcelona again. Then, on Monday, October 14th, our boat guardian stopped by to warn us to be cautious; there would be protests throughout the city. We wondered what the issue was, as we set off for the phone and internet store to restore our lost connections. We hadn't gotten far when we noticed fewer people than usual, no cars, and streets blocked by police. In 2017, the people of Catalonia voted to become independent from Spain. The Spanish government declared the referendum illegal, arrested the organizers and jailed them for two years during prosecution. On this particular day in October 2019, the courts handed down very hefty sentences, sparking shock and outrage among pro-independence groups in Catalonia, throughout Spain, and around the world.
What followed was weeks of protests, marches, and violence. The airport was occupied one day, trains were blocked, highways and roads became grounds for demonstrations. Mossos d'Esquadra (Catalan police), and Spanish Policia Nacional, along with the country's Guardia Civil, lined the streets, helicopters watched from the sky. While the demonstrations were meant to be peaceful, protestors and police officers were injured, civilians arrested, trash bins and cars set afire, business and tourism fell. And yet, for the most part, life continued as usual in Barcelona, and around Catalonia, albeit with delays, and concern. Apparently, this was the new normal.
While the chaos was not far from Berkeley East, our marina and surroundings were like a bubble of calm, but for the frequent racket of police choppers overhead. We began monitoring planned demonstrations in order to avoid the conflict, never strayed too far at night, and took a couple of road trips to escape the madness.
The Priorat is a small dynamic wine region about a three-hour drive from Barcelona. We are fortunate to know a woman from home who makes wine there, very good wine, and we were lucky she was in for harvest and graciously found time to show us around a bit. We spent a few days enjoying the famous wine country, with a quiet stay in the village of Gratallops, known for its top producers, where there are 23 officially certified cellars, some 200 people, and what seemed like an equal number of cats.
While our time in the Priorat was peaceful, our thoughts were not far from the events in Barcelona where the protests raged on. Tens of thousands of "freedom marchers" converged on the city from outlying towns, blocking roads in the northeastern region of Spain, to join in a General Strike that brought Barcelona to a standstill, closed the Sagrada Família, and united 600,000 demonstrators for one cause. But by morning, the waterfront was abuzz again, like nothing had ever happened.
Another road trip took us to three countries in one day: breakfast in Spain, lunch in France, and dinner in Andorra. Andorra, a tiny, independent principality situated between France and Spain in the Pyrenees mountains, is known for its ski resorts and a tax-haven status. There was not enough snow for skiing, but the shoppers were out in force to capture duty-free bargains in the giant shopping mall. We enjoyed the scenic drive and added one more country to our list, only 260 to go.
As our time in Barcelona came to an end, we noticed a dramatic drop in the number of tourists. It was the end of October, but tourism counts were 60 percent less than was typical for the time of year. Travel agents, airlines, hotels and tour groups reported a growing number of cancellations; cruise ships skipped their stops in Barcelona. It was sad for Barcelona to lose so much income, and equally as sad for the travelers who were being deprived of such a wonderful city.
We questioned when the controversy would end, but knew it wouldn't be any time soon. The Catalans say they are committed to the cause; they want the prisoners released, they want to vote again on independence, and they are willing to do what it takes. On our last morning in Barcelona, we had our usual read about the previous night's issues, only to emerge from Berkeley East to find a beautiful, bright sunny day; the neighborhood was humming, the beach was alive, as if no one had a care in the world, it was simply the new normal.
We dedicate this blog to Pam Steele, our friend and fellow cruiser on SV Eirene. Having met in Barcelona in 2010, Pam became an important part of our Mediterranean cruising experience. She was fun, adventurous and full of good advise. And while we didn't always take her counsel to heart (such as her intelligent suggestion to not go north in the Cyclades in summer), we appreciated her attempts to try and keep us from doing stupid things. She was a very special lady. This is one of our favorite photos, taken in Portofino, Italy in 2011.