On every trip I take I like to grab a book from where I have been. I think it can help uncover the deeper insider feel to the city that we often look for when traveling. More than just walking the streets, seeing the sights, and trying the food, it provides more of a cultural link to the space. If I am fortunate enough to understand the original language of publication, I will always try to seek that out, but if not a good translation will do. I love reading any book I can get my hands on set in Barcelona and love it when I get asked questions on tours about good book recommendations. We can learn so much about these cities through books, fiction or non-fiction.
I have always wanted to throw together a list, and promised one in my last post, about the best books to read set in or about Barcelona so here is a list of my recommendations (and a few extras) for books you can read while your getting ready for your next trip to the city, or for those of you already missing it from your last trip.
Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruíz Zafón (2001)
If someone asks for a book recommendation in Barcelona, I always start here. This is probably my favorite book ever written and one I know I can go back to a countless number of times, and have. I read this at the end of my first year in Barcelona and was instantly hooked. I have recommended this to a countless number of others. The entire series (there are four books), is something to read. It wouldn’t be fair to list them all here, so I will just give this spot to Shadow of the Wind, but know there are 3 extra suggestions here as well. It is the story of Daniel Sempere who finds a book, Shadow of the Wind, at the Cemetery of Forgotten Books (for which the series gets its name) that he must protect. Enthralled with his new novel he seeks out other works by its author, only to find out he has one of the last remaining copies of his work and the mysterious figure that has been pursuing the works and burning in them is now after Daniel’s copy. The mystery and intrigue lead Daniel down a long path to find out the truth about not only the book but the the book’s author Julian Carax. The streets and plazas of Barcelona are ever-present throughout the novel and allow you to trace you steps on your own journey. If you like the first one, The Angel’s Game, The Prisoner of Heaven, and The Labyrinth of Spirits are all available as well.
Cathedral of the Sea, Ildefonso Falcones (2006)
This is another incredibly popular book based in Barcelona that is a catchy read. I have a friend who claims to have read it in one day! Though I still doubt the validity of that claim, I highly recommend it. Set in 14th century Barcelona we follow the character of Joan living in as he grows up during Barcelona’s rise as a Mediterranean maritime empire. The background to all of this is the construction of the “People’s Church”, Santa Maria del Mar, a place of special significance to Joan, who never knew his mother, since his father told him the Virgen Mary is mother to all those without one. Read it before visiting Santa Maria del Mar in Barcleona’s Born district and the church will take on a whole new meaning for you. I have always considered this to be the Spanish version of Ken Follet’s, Pillars of the Earth, so if you have read that, this might be up your alley. If you can’t read it in a day like my friend, you can always binge watch the Netflix series of the same name in no time.
City of Marvels, Eduardo Mendoza (1986)
After finishing Shadow of the Wind (I am serious about this one), I began looking for other books of a similar nature set in Barcelona. I remember one day popping into the bookstore Documenta just off of La Rambla near the Plaça del Pi (which unfortunately had to move out of the Gothic Quarter and eventually closed for good) to check out some options. The bookkeeper an I got to chatting a little bit as I explained what I was looking for and he suggested this reading Mendoza if I really wanted to get a feel for Barcelona. The City of Marvels has to be his most famous work in Barcelona, and the list is immense. Set in 19th century Barcelona just before the World Exhibition the story centers around Onofre Bouvila as he rises from lower to upper class. This is a time where Barcelona is changing, and changing fast. The city would never be the same after the World’sFair in 1888 and the expansion of the Eixample District is covered in great detail. It’s class struggle, city expansion, Modernism and everything that makes up turn of the century Barcelona.
Origin, Dan Brown (2017)
I don’t think much needs to be said to introduce this one, fans of Dan Brown will probably have gobbled this one upquickly after its release, as I did in 2017. The 5th instalment of the Robert Langdon series has everyone’s (second) favorite professor come to Spain. We visit Bilbao to the north in the Basque Country, Seville, and of course Barcelona. The things that make Dan Brown novels so popular apart form the quick-moving nature and intrigue (and this one has plenty) are that they get you in that mood to travel and explore. In Barcelona we visit the various works of Gaudí, principally the Casa Milà and the Sagrada Familia, even some other lesser visited parts of the city that had me taking on my own form of tourism.
Barcelona, Robert Hughes (1992)
Probably one of the first books I invested in when I moved to Barcelona just to try to get a great overview of the city and its history and hopefully understand all I was living. Since then, I have heard this referred to as the “Bible for Tour Guiding in English”. I have recommended it to travelers looking into diving deeper into the history of the city but always warn them that it is dense. It is not a book you will sit down and read in one sitting or on the plan ride back, but one you will be glad you took the time to read when you’re done. Hughes is an art historian who originally set out to right a different book before winding up with an entire history of the city. The one downfall is that it is the history of the city up until the death of Antoni Gaudí. The Civil War and Franco Regime are not explained (which in fairness requires an entirely separate book) and the publication year coincides with the Olympic Games, which would change the city forever. It is dense, but great.
Scots and Catalans, J. H. Elliot (2018)
An incredibly informative study into the current independence movements in both Scotland and Catalonia taking a look back at the unions of each of the crowns of the United Kingdom and Spain in 1707 and 1469, respectively. I always think it it so interesting to compare what is going on today in Barcelona and greater Catalonia with other places that might have similar situations during the tour. With the timing of the recent referendums Scotland has been the closest comparison, especially after the 2014 referendums. A book that does not provide answers, but does provide an incredible insight into the history of these two movements and certainly helped me to gain a further understanding of from where we come. I think Elliot has a degree or honorary degree from every distinguished Spanish university possible and does a wonderful job comparing and contrasting these two movements. For anyone interested in understanding the current political situation a bit better before or after coming.
Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell (1952)
If you enter a bookstore in Barcelona you are sure to find this book. Over the years doing tours I have found that people don’t know two things about George Orwell. One, he both fought in and wrote a book about the Civil War in Barcelona and two, he was 6’4″ (read the book to see why this is important). Both of these things have lead to the production of one of the best accounts of the Civil War in Barcelona and it’s a special treat to be in the English language. Barcelona basically experienced a civil war within the Spanish Civil War and Orwell was able to document much of the action and the changes that took place as a result. An all time famous book about the city. There is even a plaza named after Orwell in the heart of Barcelona.
Homage to Barcelona, Colm Tóibín (1990)
Like Hughes’, Barcelona, Tóibín released the first edition in pre-Olympic Barcelona and later again 10 years after the Games about the city he called home for three years. I myself really enjoy books like these because of some of the similarities in experiences and think this is great one, especially for expats living or that have lived in the city. Other similar books, I have enjoyed about Spain on a larger scale are Ghosts of Spain and The Spaniards. Both written by expats as well. These types of books usually dedicate and entire chapter to each of the three historic nations with the greater country; the Basque Country, Galicia, and Catalonia so you still get quite a bit about Barcelona. Tóibín mixes his own experiences with hitsory, and at the time current events, to narrate a really pleasant book that brings the reader closer to Barcleona. If you like it, he also has a novel set in Barcelona called The South.