By Rupert Wright, Sunday Times, January 2003
If you didn’t already know that Barcelona is the coolest, hippest, grooviest city in Europe, you have probably been on Mars for the past 10 years. But what is it like to live in the Catalan capital? When Alex and Patricia Neish decided to retire after working in South America, it was a choice between their home city, Edinburgh, and somewhere in Portugal or Spain. Portugal was rejected because they were told the healthcare system was not up to snuff. So they toured Spain without much enthusiasm, until they arrived in Barcelona.
“I liked it from day one,” says Patricia. “I knew that we could live here.” Her husband is even more sure they made the right choice. “You come to live in Barcelona because you are intelligent. Besides, there are three main things wrong with Edinburgh: the climate, the taxes and the people,” he says.
They came six years ago and bought a derelict 350sq m apartment in Calle Sant Pere Mes Alt, where Barcelona’s nobility used to live. After years of neglect, it was used as a textile factory. They paid £230,000 for the building, which needed gutting and fitting with electricity and water. They spent another £230,000. Now the apartment is valued at about £985,000.
“I thought it would take three years to finish,” says Alex, who was living in Brazil when the building work was taking place. “Patricia managed to complete the work within 11 months.” She says: “It turned out to be the easiest building work we have ever done. In Britain, a similar project would cost twice as much and take three times as long.”
There may be a germ of truth in the myth about Spanish workers and their love of mañana, but Barcelona is Catalan, not Spanish. Most of Catalonia may be in northern Spain, but the people are a distinct group who teach their children to speak Catalan before Spanish. This has deterred some Spaniards from moving to Barcelona. The Catalans are a mercantile people, with a love of order and punctuality. “Sometimes we even find them a bit dour,” says Alex.
One man who fell in love with the people as much as the place is Mark Stucklin. He gave up a job in the cigar business and went to Barcelona five years ago to do an MBA at IESE, Spain’s leading business school. When he married a fellow student, a Barcelonese with an Anglo-Catalan background called Maria Cinnamond, it seemed natural to stay in the city. They bought an apartment in the Eixample, an area named after its grid system that was developed in the 1850s. His wife has set up a business helping people to find property in both Barcelona and the Costa Brava, and Stucklin runs Spanish Property Insight, a consultancy that reports on the Spanish property market and helps buyers understand the conveyancing process.
“The Passeig de Gracia is the main shopping street in Barcelona – Bond Street and Regent Street rolled into one,” she says. “It is like living in Mayfair. You will have to pay up to £3,940 per square metre for an apartment here, with prices dropping to £1,970 per sq m as you get further from the centre.”
Most of the best work of Barcelona’s much-loved architect Antonio Gaudi – including the Casa Mila and the Sagrada Familia cathedral – is in the Eixample. Maybe it was a reaction to the grid system. Some of the modernists were opposed to its ordered lines. Gaudi himself was at work on the Sagrada Familia when he was run down by a tram.
The pijos – the posh people of Barcelona – all used to live around here. Now many of them have escaped the shops and the bustle and moved to the Zona Alta, up in the hills.
Foreign buyers tend not to head for the hills. They prefer the Barrio Gotico around the cathedral. As this has become more developed, a new area has sprung up around the Santa Maria del Mar church, called the Born. This is a cross between Soho and Notting Hill Gate in London, full of bars, shops and museums. An apartment here costs £1,970 to £2,600 per sq m, although there is a risk of being kept up all night by party-goers.
New areas tipped by Cinnamond include the Poble Nou, which used to be a fishing village and later a textile area. It received a face-lift for the Olympics in 1992 and benefits from its location near the sea, but is easily accessible from the centre of town. “The latest new restaurant-cum-nightspot, Oven, has just opened here,” says Cinnamond. “Prices have already moved up sharply, but there are still some bargains to be had.”
Another area worthy of attention is Gracia, just to the west of the Eixample. This used to be a village, almost a suburb, of Barcelona, but now it is very central. There are small, pretty squares, with narrow streets and tiny houses and apartments. Expect to pay from £660 per sq m and to be surrounded by students.
“I have lived in Nairobi, Edinburgh, Istanbul and London, and Barcelona is easily the best,” says Stucklin. “It is big enough to attract culture and interesting people, but small enough to allow you to get around easily. The nightlife is legendary, the food is good, and there are beautiful beaches and mountains a short drive away, and of course, great shopping.”
However, you have to be careful where you buy. Cinnamond highlights the area of the Raval as a place to avoid: “There is not much good housing, there is some crime and it’s not safe.”
If the bustle of Barcelona is all too much, you could try just outside the city. Peter and Ginette Cobbold, both in their late thirties with two children, 10 and 8, bought a farmhouse 30 minutes’ drive away. “We didn’t want to live in the centre of Barcelona, but we wanted to be close to it. I work all over Europe. This is a great base from which to travel,” says Ginette.
Their farmhouse has many sprawling buildings, lots of bedrooms and a sea view. They paid £370,000 and spent a further £105,000 on it, which included installing a swimming pool and converting part of the house into a guest wing that can be rented via www.masiarentals.com.
“It’s a myth that the builders are no good here,” she says. “The ones we used were great, including the architect, plumber and electricians. We had to rewire, connect the water and sort the plumbing.”
One of the drawbacks of Barcelona is that it is very hard to find property. “We spent two months solid looking for the right house,” says Cobbold. “We looked at more than 40 houses until we picked this one.” Ginette says: “We have a couple of friends looking for houses in Barcelona and the region. It can be tough.”
Ginette says it is important to carry out due diligence on a house before you buy. “Agents tell you that you don’t need a lawyer, or a survey, but you do. It is lucky that we speak Spanish, otherwise we would have found it very difficult.”
Few people tend to buy second homes in cities. They are generally looking for an escape to either the seaside or the mountains. But such are the attractions of Barcelona that a number of second homebuyers have decided to buy there.
Robert Shaw, an Englishman in his fifties, has already bought one apartment in the Eixample and is just closing on a second deal. “I bought the first flat to give me a place to stay in Barcelona when I visit friends,” he says. “I have now bought another flat as an investment. Even though prices have doubled in the past four years, I think there are good opportunities here.”
When Shaw is not in Barcelona, he rents out his flats via a short-term letting agency, Barcelon Apartments. “Without them, I definitely would not have bought a second property,” he says.