Barcelona as a whole, if taken from the motorway, or by train, is monstrously ugly. Its outskirts have the same shambly, cheap, urine-stained, graffitied, weedy looks of cities which are interchangeable. It could have been Johannesburg. But in the Gothic Quarter it is another city: a city of terraced balconies that jut like stiff mantillas above the streets, the damp stone tiles and the tickly smell of sewage. Clothes are strung from balconies or extended wires; ferns and spiked plants explore or gingerly poke out from between the bars; pigeons and noisy green parrot-like birds shoot up to the roofs or are keep in domed iron cages; doors of vehement graffiti overlaid by political posters or advertisements or slogans. But the rhythm of the city is exhausting, continual wearing alleviated by the home one makes in it, no refuge for tourists.
And still, we are fortunate. When winding around the streets of the Quarter, we stumble across the front of a church in a small plaza. There are well-dressed men and women milling around with flower petals in their hands, looking at the fortressed doors expectantly. In one of the terraced buildings overlooking the square, in the window on a balcony, there is a large plastic horse waiting also. The lights from the cafés in the plaza throw up beams on his muzzle and back. I beg to stay. Within a few moments the doors open, the couple emerges, the flowers are thrown, everyone – the friends, the priest, the tourists who have stopped, charmed – cheers. Beside the couple a man in a brimmed hat strikes a furious guitar and a proud Spanish babushka in folk dress and white mantilla – within arms length of the bride – begins to sing in an unwavering, gut-punching nasal alto that can be heard in all of the alleyways.