We were warned about pickpockets, con-men, gypsies, and shysters.
"Watch out for pickpockets"...
"I just heard a friend of a friend had their suitcase stolen from the reception of their hotel as they booked in, so be careful"...
"When on the trains, watch out for card sharks"...
"Don't trust those buskers in Las Ramblas"...
"The gypsies work in groups you know... be alert"...
So when we booked accommodation (I had technology problems and was unable to book any of the places that came highly recommended on TripAdvisor) we relied on a travel agent.
She told us the best area to stay so that we would be in a safe area but also in the heart of the action. We emphasised our requirement for a central location where we would feel comfortable to come and go at any time of the day or night if we so pleased, and given her experience and knowledge of Barcelona (and lack of ours) we left it in her safe hands to organise.
On the morning we flew from London to Barcelona (knowing we were going to arrive around 8pm) I finally double checked the booking and our hotel location, only to find we had been booked into a hotel in the area our travel agent* had told us to avoid, which also happened to be in the old red light district. Trip advisor reviews were a mixed bunch, but on the whole the hotel location was an issue with many travelers. Unfortunately it was too late to change the booking.
We arrived after dark and my heart sank as I saw the narrow shadowed street where the hotel was located. It was a nice hotel, the staff were friendly and helpful, but their advice on how to get to and from the hotel in hours of darkness did not instill confidence.
The first night we ate locally at a little street side restaurant a few blocks from the hotel. It was a warm evening so there were lots of people out and about, the tables were full and well serviced by attentive waiters and we sat in the flickering lights and neon glow of the neighbouring strip club/porn shop and watched the world go by.
We followed the local custom of sitting with our handbags on our laps whilst dining, deciding it was a pretty good practice and if it was good enough for the locals, it was good enough for us!
Sangria, an enormous pan of paella and a few scuttling cockroaches later... and our warm welcome to Barcelona was complete!
Knowing we were staying in a 'less desirable' location, and with all the warnings ringing in our ears, we spent much of our time in Barcelona alert to our surroundings. We carried our handbags close to our bodies, and once we checked in to our hotel, we locked all our valuables in the safe in our room and carried only what we needed.
And we never had a problem. We walked everywhere, caught buses and the local metro and felt safe wherever we went. And whilst we never personally felt under threat and we left Barcelona with our wallets intact, I think it is fair to say, that problems do exist.
Tourist areas were a particular target and in one of the shops at Park Guell (a major Gaudi attraction at the top of the city), the first thing we noticed was a sign warning of pickpockets IN THE SHOP!!! Local signs, all tourist advice and even the shop keepers and market holders warned us to be careful.
Barcelona has a bad reputation not of violent crime, but of the 'petty' crime that removes passports and wallets from bags, steals cameras, mobiles and valuables and can generally ruins a holiday.
So, if you plan to visit Barcelona (or any other major city for that matter) take my advice...
Carry no more than what you can easily hold on to. Don't be flashy with jewelry or expensive accessories. Keep your valuables close, with bag zips hidden from prying eyes and hands. Try to know where you are going so you are not a target (avoid consulting maps and guidebooks in the streets if you can). Try NOT to look like a tourist. Dress as you would at home. And stay alert.
And whilst you are taking these simple precautions, try and remember not everyone is dangerous. Remember that people can be friendly and helpful and genuinely happy to be of assistance... without wanting to rob you! And remember to have fun. To enjoy your surroundings. To soak up the amazing atmosphere. Get out and enjoy the sights, just be careful.
Because, for all it's 'bad' reputation, Barcelona's reputation as an amazing city, is also well deserved. It is beautiful, fascinating, friendly, intriguing and welcoming. The old city centre with it's narrow lanes and hidden doorways is full of secrets and well worth exploring. The history is incredible and the art and architecture in particular is breathtaking! (another photo filled post to come)
One security guard we saw was standing guard with a baton at his side and chupa chup at the ready... I kid you not - a chupa chup! Supposedly he was ready for any sticky situation! (ha ha!)
*In our agent's defence, on the day of booking there were major computer issues and another agent booked the accommodation, and had I checked the booking earlier, it could have been changed, but I left it until it was too late.