“It was the early summer of 1945, and we walked through the streets of a Barcelona trapped beneath ashen skies as dawn poured over Rambla de Santa Monica in a wreath of liquid copper.” (The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon)
Walk a bit further along Rambla de Santa Monica towards Calle Arco del Teatro and step through its arch. You will find yourself in a narrow alley. Even on a sunny summer’s day, these intricate, narrow streets that form so much of Barcelona’s old city are cooler, quieter, in shadow. On the day I find myself walking down the Ramblas in search of the red ICONO Serveis umbrella, it is a leaden, cloudy sky that watches over me, one like many others I’ve known during my university days in England, but not one you’d expect in Spain. There is a light drizzle by the time I come closer to the Santa Monica Arts Centre and I wonder again whether I should have just rescheduled like I had been planning to until a few hours ago.
What am I doing here in the more of a scar than a street of the Arco del Teatro on a spring evening with a South African, a Spaniard, an Australian couple and some Norwegians? There is colourful graffiti on the walls—the yellow and red of the Catalan flag, the greens, blues and pinks of a rather inquisitive dragon—but the place we are searching for is more subtle. It would be tucked away in a corner, the sort of doorway that most walk by without more than a glance, if that. A large door of carved wood, blackened by time and humidity. Is it there next to the shop with chipped forest green shutters? Or might it be behind the rusted ladder that leads to a first-floor building?
In reality, the Cemetery of Forgotten Books will find us only when we slip back into the pages of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind. Set in a 1940s Barcelona still reeling from the Civil War, this gothic tale with Daniel Sempere, the young son of a book-dealer, as the protagonist, makes ample use of its setting and has triggered walking tours to trace the footsteps of characters hard to forget, in a city almost impossible to shake.
Walking back onto the Ramblas requires a moment of readjustment to the senses. We walk past the shops selling newspapers, postcards, souvenirs, even seeds and flowers. Keychains and diamante encrusted sunglasses blink at us from where they are piled or hung on revolving stands, cheap plastic toys light up when wound and thrown in the air, making a peculiar buzzing sound that lingers as the marina approaches. Our guide, a very expressive woman with an excitable manner, gently directs us towards Placa Reial; its palm trees and tangy air reminding us how close we are to the sea. It’s a busy time of evening and most of the chairs outside the cafes are occupied. The chatter of the many visitors and circling seagulls makes it difficult to listen to anything anyone is saying. We have to huddle by the fountain, near the two big lamp-posts designed by Gaudi, as our guide puts her finger to her lips and whispers rather theatrically,
“If you listen closely enough, you may hear the sound of a piano drifting out from one of the buildings that line the square, maybe even see the outline of a tall, pale girl half-hidden by the curtains that flutter out onto the balcony.”
She is referring to the blind Clara Barcelo, an adolescent Daniel’s first love. It feels rather silly to try and imagine anything amongst all the tourists posing for selfies…until I remember the first time I’d visited this square. It was back in 2010 during my first trip to the city and it was later, darker, quieter, the forest bar in a far corner of the square the only door through which there was any sound of life. I’d thought then that Barcelona was so much more than just sun, sand and sangria. Since the friend I was staying with (a penpal I was meeting for the first time) had to study and work during the day, much of my first impressions of the city were after sunset and I’d concluded that the dark especially blurred the lines between times and histories until they all existed at once. It was probably the first moment I fully appreciated how the personality of a place changed from day to night; a complex, layered, living being.
The same feeling creeps up in me now, starting at my toes as we cross over into El Call (The old Jewish Quarter born from the Hebrew name for community) and El Born of the ancient merchant guilds, the guide periodically stopping to show us points of interest—old metal plaques set into the uneven cobbles to commemorate the different trades and guilds across the Barri Born, artisan workshops that dot the tiny streets, their unique sets of sounds echoing off the walls of their opposite buildings—and moving up to my shoulders and arms as we step over the threshold of Santa Maria del Mar in the adjoining El Ribera. I hold my breath for just a beat at the pure simplicity of design, the feeling of light and space so in contrast to its rough, rather severe exterior. There is a brief moment to remind me of the routinely ugly reality of the past—I step over a skull and crossbones fixed onto a stone on the floor of the church which I’m told is how they buried the people who died of infectious diseases—but on the whole, we are all silent as we move slowly through the church. Something I’m tempted to call lingering sanctity seems to prompt our current introspection and thought.
The Shadow of the Wind talks about books, stories, connections, destiny, and as our guide quotes relevant passages at intervals, I find myself thinking about whether my belief in fate and magic remains as unshakeable as it was when I was a child reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time, paralysed by the power of words to transport me to a place that seemed (and still seems) very real. Now of course it’s possible to do the walking tour of sites featured in the Peter Jackson trilogy, but what of books set in cities and worlds that are a part of our reality? Did I still believe that a book, a travel experience, a person, a place could transform me, change my world-view and impact my life for the better?
Quiet contemplations like this suit the square we later visit. Dusk has set in and the El Barri Gotic, where Placa de Sant Felipe Neri resides, is sprinkled with the amber light from the ornate wrought-iron streetlamps found on every corner in the old city of Barcelona. During the Civil War, the convent in Sant Felipe Neri housed evacuated children. Franco’s Air Force bombed it on January 30th 1938 killing 42; the walls still retain marks of the two explosions and a simple, bronze plaque reads –
“In memory of the victims of the bombardment of Sant Felip Neri.
Here died 42 people – the majority children – due to the actions of Franco’s airforce on the 30th of January 1938.”
It is here, to the baroque church, that Gaudi was headed when he was run over by a tram on Gran Via, subsequently dying from his injuries. Despite its tragic past, there is an underlying serenity as soon as you walk in through one of the narrow alleyways. There are trees lining the square, a fountain and benches to sit on. There is also fittingly a school here now, the guide explains, though we have come at a time when we have to imagine the sound of their voices and the echoes of their feet slapping the hewn stone floor.
Here it’s possible to imagine another time. Here in this underrated square hidden near the Barcelona Cathedral, where Nuria Montfort lives in the book, I dare you not to feel the tug of a city hidden behind history, behind layers of stories, of voices long gone that peek out and call you before disappearing again.
“It felt as though I had found the place I had been looking for: the sacred core of the world, a deserted square reached by two narrow alleyways, dimly lit, with a fountain, two trees, a church and some church buildings.” (The South, Colm Toibin)
The contrast between here and Calle Montsio housing the famous Els Quatre Gats (the 4 Cats), our next stop, is part of the variety that makes up Barcelona, where the quiet and the colourful, the old and the new, the Baroque, the Gothic, the Modern co-exist without ever seeming obnoxious, yet retain their strong, individual flavours. The famous cafe, opened in 1897, was a meeting place for artists, writers, poets, including Picasso, Dali, Lorca, and is a bright space with paintings, sketches, photographs, ceramic pottery, elaborate fixtures and chandeliers seeped in the modernist style of the early 20th century Barcelona. In the book, it is where Daniel’s parents meet for the first time. It is a five minute walk from their eventual house on Calle Santa Ana, where we are headed for the conclusion of the tour.
The street is right in front of Placeta de Ramon Amadeu, another peaceful square that comes as even more of a surprise than Felipe Neri; a private enclosure tucked away from the teeming crowds, noise and light of Porta del Angel with an easy-to-walk-past, unassuming entrance. Santa Ana lies behind us, its doors shut and a poster outside talking about a violin concerto in the church at the weekend. This is where Daniel is born, where he gets married and where, years later, his son is born.
Maybe they are all peeking through their window as our guide ends the tour, thanks us and walks back out. I feel glad that I’m not the only one in the group that wants to linger behind a little; not ready for the spell to be broken just yet. I’m glad I decided not to cancel; it is an experience I will write about in my travel journal, later when I am back in my room, maybe even take inspiration from for a future story set in a city that seems even more familiar that evening. At this point, full as I am of images and feelings that I’m afraid will slither away as soon as I go back out into the real world, I can scarcely predict that the evening isn’t quite finished with me.
It has started to drizzle again and the only source of light is the lamp outside the door of the church. We move under the shelter of a tree and talk about travel, the places we’ve visited, want to visit, where we’re from. When I say that my last trip was a weekend in Norway to visit a university friend, the group of Norwegian ladies ask me whereabouts I’d been. When I say a small town called Brummundal near Oslo, there’s an excited clatter of voices. It turns out that one of them is from near there. More surprising is the fact that she is my friend’s high school teacher and knows his family really well!
Back in January 2010 when I first read The Shadow of the Wind, I hadn’t planned on finishing it before I stepped out of the plane at Barcelona’s El Prat for my very first visit to the city. I hadn’t planned for my friend to take me to some of the places from the book. I hadn’t planned on falling in love with the city, the tourist that I was and the tourist that I still felt like when I left a week later. I didn’t know my friend in Brummundal yet (that would come only in early 2011), nor was I aware that I would live near Barcelona for 9 months in the future and get a chance to visit him. I hadn’t planned on a continuing relationship with the city because of a book. And yet, all these disparate events have led me to this very moment in front of Santa Ana where I suddenly feel anchored in time, to history, to the world. In the truest of senses, for the briefest of moments, I can’t shake the feeling that I am part of the ongoing narrative of Barcelona.
“The city is a sorceress, you know, Daniel? It gets under your skin and steals your soul without you knowing it…” (The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon)
Travel is so much about the place, the people, the culture, the language and yet it’s also intrinsically personal…and how that personal intersects with all of it, the connections that it finds, forms and cements or disregards, the inexplicable, intangible feeling of oneness that creeps over our shoulders even as we’re so caught up in searching for those rare life-affirming experiences.
That day marked the point of me shedding my last vestiges of the tourist. It heralded a new sense of freedom, a willingness to be more spontaneous and open to newer challenges and experiences. As a writer and a person, I was free to make my own discoveries of hidden corners and streets, of new people and their stories.
“I believe that nothing happens by chance. Deep down, things have their own secret plan; even though we don’t understand it…It is all part of something we cannot comprehend, something that owns us.” (The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon)
Do I still believe that a book, a travel experience, a person, a place can transform me, change my world-view and impact my life for the better?
… After this, how can I not?