Tapas tours aim to save the unique flavor of Barcelona | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 16.08.2015
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Tapas tours aim to save the unique flavor of Barcelona

Europe's third most visited city is attracting cheap mass tourism without regard for genius loci. That means local family businesses are giving way to big chain restaurants and shops, killing the city's individual charm.

Locals grumble that Barcelona might be losing its bohemian edge because of all the mass tourism.

Workers are renovating the historic facade of Colmado Quilez, a wine and cheese shop in downtown Barcelona. There are BMWs outside on the Rambla de Catalunya, which has become one of Barcelona's poshest avenues. So posh, in fact, that manager Faustino Munoz says he can no longer afford to stay.

"We just can't compete with big multinational chain stores," Munoz says. "We're struggling to do right by our 14 employees, some of whom have worked here for 40 years. But our rent tripled this year."

Multinational takeover

Rent controls expired this winter in Barcelona and many other Spanish cities. So Colmado Quilez is moving into the only space it can now afford: a storage room. Its historic storefront is being renovated to host a chain clothing store.

Such gentrification is common in big cities. But Barcelona's has been fueled too by a huge spike in tourism. This city of 2 million people now gets more than 7.5 million tourists a year. They might boost the economy, but they put some locals off.

Residents have been holding protests in the beachside Barceloneta neighborhood. They're angry about Airbnb rentals that host bachelor parties, where foreigners rage and vomit all over the cobblestone streets all night.

Barcelona's new mayor has said she fears her city could become the next Venice, Italy - "sacrificing itself on the altar of mass tourism." That's why she has expressed hopes of limiting hotel permits and cruise ship visits.

Preserving a slice of life

Even as Barcelona becomes known for a less-discerning caliber of visitor, another type of tourism has emerged. Renee Christensen is an American expat and tour guide for Devour Barcelona - a food tour with the mission of saving the unique quirks that put Barcelona on the map in the first place. She takes her group to la Vila de Gracia.

Pedro Barros Diéguez and Albina Macia Fernández, the husband-and-wife owners of Casa Pages

The end of rent caps is driving out small family businesses and bringing in big chains

"Everyone, a quick question, has anyone ever been on a food tour before?" Christensen calls out to her assembled group. "For those of you who haven't, it's really just a way to explore a neighborhood or a city through the gastronomy, through the food. So it does involve walking a bit, eating a lot, as we roam around la Vila de Gracia."

First stop: "We have a market here, a great place to have seafood - places you won't find in a guidebook. A lot of these places too are full of history. We hope that none of these places will ever close."

Family histories

Christensen is referring to places like Can Tosca, a wood-paneled bar covered with black-and-white photos of generations of the Tosca family. Rosa Sanchez Tosca was born in the stairwell next door, and now runs the family bar with her siblings.

Rosa Sanchez Tosca (left; quoted in story) and her sister Inma Sanchez Tosca (right) pose in front of photos of their ancestors

"Everything is starting to look the same," Rosa Sanchez Tosca (left) says.

"Now that rent controls are gone, so many places are closing, places that were really emblematic of this city," Sanchez says. "It's such a pity. Everything is starting to look the same."

Sanchez says she's had two tough years, but the food tour has helped her stay in business. Now, alongside elderly locals at the bar, tourists chomp into her special botifarra sausage sandwiches. JJ and Narissa Nuqui are here from California.

Black and white photos of the Tosca family line the wood-paneled walls of Can Tosca

The food tours are breathing new life into Can Tosca

Tasting, talking and buying

Christensen leads her group through a square where musicians strum guitars ... and into a local olive oil shop ... a vermouth bodega ... a bakery founded by a Syrian migrant.

"OK guys, this is El Mercat de L'Abaceria Central, one of Gracia's main markets," Christensen says. "It's kind of the lifeblood of the community."

The market is completely off the beaten path, somewhere where most tourists just wouldn't stumble across unless led by someone like Christensen.

"This market was inaugurated in 1892," Christensen says. "That makes it about 20 years older than La Boqueria, that big colorful market on Las Ramblas. It has kind of become part market, part tourist attraction. It's a shame, but it's a little bit crazy."

Unlike La Boqueria, this market is deserted except for a few little old ladies buying fish. It's a world away from La Boqueria, which tourist Connie Chung says she visited a day earlier.

"There are millions of tourists who go in and take photos and not buy anything," Chung says. "And I think a lot of merchants have been devastated because of that."

The food tour empowers tourists to taste, talk and buy. It introduces them to Spanish and Catalan produce that they might not otherwise have had the courage to try and gives them a safe space to buy tasters for their friends and family at home.

David vs. Goliath

Here, tourists sample skewers of olives and salt cod from Giuseppe the olive vendor, and an array of delicacies from Conchita the cheese lady, who has worked here since she was 12. Many of the tourists return after the tour to buy more.

Carlos Reig and Maite Britapaja Gómez, the husband-and-wife owners of l'Anxoveta, a tapas bar in Barcelona's Grácia neighborhood.

Food tours are empowering small business to stand up to big brands

Lauren Aloise and James Blick, an American and a New Zealander, are the founders of Devour Spain, which runs tours in Barcelona and several other cities. They're both married to Spaniards and feel strongly about helping to preserve the authenticity they've discovered in Spain - now under threat from mass tourism.

"People are sad to see how it's changed, and sad to see how almost every single one of those - even laundromats, delis - they've all become something that's a big brand," Blick says. "And there's nothing wrong with chains. But we don't want to have all chains. It does feel like David and Goliath. But David was smarter! You just have to recognize where that strength lies, and harness it."

With a little boost from these tours, some of those Davids - Barcelona's oldest family bars - are renegotiating rents with their landlords and because of that are more able to compete with big chains. They now see a future with locals and tourists eating together and helping to preserve a way of life that had given the city its renown in the first place.

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