WHO knows a city better than the people who have lived on its streets? Literally. Inspired by this seemingly simple idea, Barcelona’s Hidden City Tours has set about recruiting and training formerly homeless men to act as guides to the city. The aim is to give them a leg-up to self-sufficiency while providing a unique experience for visitors. The result is a journey with one foot in Barcelona’s volatile past, and an eye on its unsteady present.
My guide is Ramón, who is to take me on a two-hour walking tour of the Gothic and Raval districts. One now a tourist mecca, and a warren of narrow, winding streets with busy shops, shaded market squares, and everywhere some staggeringly beautiful detail to be found.
The Raval sits on the other side of the Rambla, the famous plane-tree lined avenue that divides this part of Barcelona. It is even more exotic, seedier, and home to a seductive array of restaurants, galleries, hipstery shops, edgy bars and, of course, magnificent architecture around every bend.
Having started in front of a Roman aqueduct, we finish up in the peaceful Jardins de Rubio i Lluch. In between we cross centuries of conflict, growth, defeat and rebirth. Barcelona is indomitable. As, clearly, is Ramón.
Sharply dressed in a black suit and snazzy hat, Ramón has the patter to go with the look. He loves people, and telling stories, which makes him a never less than entertaining guide. He seems born to the job, though he is in fact a professional chef. Or was.
Naturally, the tour takes in the architectural and historical details, who put what where, when and why, and who then tried to blow it up. But Ramón is just as interesting and engaging when talking about the problems facing Spain today, and their real human impacts. For example, there are roughly 6,000 homeless people in Barcelona, almost double the count from 2012. And increasingly, they are Spanish, working-age men, who have simply run out of options.
In a tiny square whose walls are pockmarked by debris from bombs dropped on it during the Civil War, Ramón explains why it’s also attractive to the homeless when the shoppers go home. A nearby stone arch provides shelter from the falling rain, though clearly not necessarily from the stream of water that must flow down the slight incline it graces.
“Ramón is not unusual among our guides,” says Lisa Grace, the British woman who created Hidden City Tours after she lost her job here in Barcelona. “We have five now, and in addition to Ramón there is also a qualified architect and a professional translator. They’ve just fallen on hard times. It could happen to anyone.”
Ramón’s own story is fascinating. Originally from Salamanca, the 64-year-old has lived in Paris, Morocco, Costa Rica, Florida and New York. In the last, he graduated from hospitality school with flying colours, and then spent 20 years cooking in restaurants frequented by Dustin Hoffman, Jackie Kennedy and Jack Nicholson. He married and has a son, who is contemplating taking up an offer to study for his doctorate back in New York.
Compelled to move back here almost 10 years ago, he found there was no place for a man of his age and experience in the kitchens here. Then everything else went wrong too. His brother, to whom he was incredibly close, died, shortly followed by his father. An illness put Ramón into a coma for nine days, and he was still struggling with memories of 9/11. Things spiralled, and one day he spent his first night sleeping rough. He was homeless for a year and a half.
Despite his cheerful demeanour he won’t talk to me about his time on the streets, or what it was like. “I don’t want to go back there,” he says. “It’s over.”
Back on his feet now with support from the state, the tours give this natural story-teller more than an income and something to do.
“I love watching how people react, it’s amazing. One French lady cried and thanked me for the gift I had given her. That is my reward,” says Ramón with genuine passion.
“We select our guides based on their attitude,” says Lisa. “Obviously, they must have another language, but the right attitude is key. None of us has done this before, so we’re all learning. This project is about creating opportunities, and I include myself in that too. I love it. The guides are fantastic and it’s really worked”.
I walk back to the other side of the city. It’s still as beautiful as ever. But my eyes have been opened to some of the deeper aspects of this intensely human city. I’m grateful.