‘Homage to Barcelona’ by Colm Tóibín

Non-fiction – paperback; Picador; 240 pages; 2010.

Perhaps it’s because I grew up in Australia, right at the bottom of the world, so removed from everywhere else, that I quickly developed a desire to travel and to explore and to discover new places and cultures. As a child and teenager I could only do it through books.

Later, as an undergrad, my interest in travel was piqued even further by classes I took in the history of human civilisation and the great gardens and landscapes of the world. When I was about 21 I distinctly remember aching to visit Italy and Spain and Rome and New York and England to see all the amazing places I had studied and learned about.

Of course, as a cash-strapped student, and later as a new graduate struggling to find a job because Australia was in the grip of an economic recession, I had to satisfy my wanderlust through books. That’s when I went through a phase of reading travelogues — Eric Newby’s Round Ireland in Low Gear and Robin Hanbury-Tenison’s Worlds Apart: An Explorer’s Life are the two that stick in the mind the most.

But those kinds of books never really did it for me. If I’m honest, they bored me. It was a genre I quickly abandoned.

It wasn’t until I  left Australia for the first time, aged 29, that I got to explore the Northern Hemisphere. During my 30s and 40s I learned a valuable lesson: those travelogues don’t really resonate with me unless I’ve already visited the places that are mentioned in the book, or, better still, if I’m in-situ at the time of reading.

Which is a long-winded way of getting around to saying what I really wanted to say: that reading Colm Tóibín’s travelogue-cum-memoir Barcelona while I was actually in Barcelona was an immeasurably pleasurable experience.

In this book, the mere mention of the quiet, dark alleyways of the Gothic Quarter, which I had explored thoroughly for an entire afternoon, or the descriptions of Plaça Reial, where I’d treated myself to a glass of white Rioja and a plate of deep-fried anchovies while watching passersby, felt all the more special because I had experienced them first hand.

Plaça Reial is a large, exotic-looking square, that is lined with restaurants and cafes, the perfect place to people watch

 

Bishops Bridge, in the Gothic Quarter, looks medieval but was built in 1928 to match the style of the two Gothic buildings it links together

 

The chapter on Antoni Gaudí — A Dream of Gaudí — gave me a greater understanding and appreciation for the man’s amazing architectural achievements, the Sagrada Família (his great unfinished Catholic cathedral) and Casa Milà (aka La Pedrera or the “stone quarry”), both of which I’d visited and marvelled over, my jaw hanging open with the sheer wonder and beauty of them.

The Sagrada Família, which has been under construction since 1882 and isn’t expected to be completed until 2032!

 

Casa Milà, built in the early part of the 20th century, was the last private residence designed by Gaudi

 

But the book is much more than a tourist guide to the city. It’s a comprehensive look at Barcelona’s history, its food and culture, its nightlife, its artistic achievements and its political ups and downs. Tóibín’s lyrical writing, which I know so well from his novels (you can see reviews of them here), is only equalled by the subject matter he covers such as the artists (Picasso, Miró, Dali) and the urban designers and architects that shaped the city.

It’s written with all the insight of someone who has lived and breathed the city (Tóibín lived there from 1975 — “two months before the death of Franco” — until 1978, and has been a frequent visitor ever since.)

Reading it now, almost 30 years later after it was first published in 1990 (just as Barcelona was gearing up to host the Olympic Games), some of it appears to be a little out of date. For instance, Plaça Reial, he writes, is best avoided because it was “reputed to be the source of all the crime in the city centre, the place where the handbag-snatchers and the dope dealers hang out” and he shares similar advice about the rest of the Barri Gòtic, which has clearly been much cleaned up crime-wise since then.

But this hardly seems to matter, for Barcelona is a wonderful book that celebrates a wonderful European city. It’s a beguiling portrait of a sometimes troubled place, one that continues to forge — and fight for — its own Catalan identity. And it’s rich with personal insights and anecdotes, almost as if Tóibín is your own private tour guide. What more could you want from a travelogue?

The photographs in this post were taken during my solo trip to Barcelona on 19-22 March 2019. There are a lot more on my Instagram account if you fancy scrolling back through my timeline.

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24 thoughts on “‘Homage to Barcelona’ by Colm Tóibín

  1. That’s how I feel about Robert Hughes’s Rome. It was panned by the critics (well, Australian ones anyway) but I liked it. Because I’d been there:)

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    • Thanks Karen. I admit to absolutely falling in love with Barcelona. I left my Other Half at home and went by myself and I had such a lovely time just exploring everywhere on foot and marvelling at all the beautiful urban design (which is what I studied during that aforementioned undergrad degree). I wish I had have discovered this city a decade ago; I would be visiting it every year if I had!

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  2. I’ve never been much interested in travel for travel’s sake, and on my one trip “os” as a tourist paused through Barcelona, barely stopping to look. My concern with this book and with your review is that you don’t mention George Orwell’s Homage to Barcelona which Tolm is surely referencing and which was an homage to the revolutionary spirit of a people being overrun by Facism and a corrupt upper class (and being betrayed by the elected government) and very little to do with place.

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    • Oh, he references Orwell a lot. And I’ve glibly skipped over the Civil War and Franco and dictatorship etc but Toibin has a lot to say about it, especially the tensions (still ongoing) between Spain and Catalonia, so much so that I bought Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia as soon as I finished this book.

      Like you, I don’t do travel for the sake of it, but to get a better understanding of a place and it’s people (and usually it’s food & booze!). My recent trip to Barcelona, in the wake of trips to Rioja and San Sebastián within the space of 9 months, has made me wonder why it took me so bloody long to discover Spain. It certainly rivals my affection for Italy!

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    • Thanks Cathy. Reading the book while in Barcelona (and on the plane back) certainly made it come alive because I could literally see and visit the place she was talking about.

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  3. I loved Barcelona when I visited last summer, which drew me to this post and makes me want to read Toibin’s book. I visited Rome too then, maybe I’ll look at Hugh’s book as well. Thank you for this. It does make a difference when you’ve been to the places you are reading about.

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    • Thanks for your comment, Deborah. If you’ve been to Barcelona then I’m sure you’ll appreciate this book… Toibin really has a way with words and I love his little insights into the strange and funny things that happened to him when he lived in Barcelona.

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  4. My favourite European city (sorry Paris!) – culture, architecture, food, wine, what more can one want?? Sadly like so many of the world’s popular cities it is being changed by tourism – too many cruise ships offloading thousands of their passengers every day so it gets darn difficult to walk through the gothic quarter. Locals are moving out because there are too many ice-cream shops and not enough grocers apparently.

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    • I think Barcelona might be my favourite European city too (sorry Venice in winter)… I just loved how pedestrian friendly it was and how every building, regardless of the condition it was in, was simply beautiful. A shame to hear about the influx of tourists ruining the very place they are going to see… (which is why I tend to do my travels in the off season). I know Barcelona has been very vocal about AirBnB taking over the city as people get more money for renting out their flats than living in them, which means the whole feel of a community changes.

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  5. I love Barcelona, and this sounds like the perfect travelling companion. Oddly enough, I hadn’t come across it before (only Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia), so thanks for the heads-up. Something to put on my wishlist for a future trip, especially given my fondness for Toibin’s fiction.

    Gorgeous pictures, by the way. They bring back very fond memories of my previous visits to see all that wonderful Gaudi architecture!

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    • Toibin does a nice line in non-fiction books but I guess it’s his fiction that wins him attention. Interestingly, he references Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia so much that I went out and bought a copy, which I hope to read sooner rather than later. I’m going through a bit of a phase reading books set in Spain/Barcelona right now.

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  6. Pingback: ‘The South’ by Colm Tóibín – Reading Matters

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