Walking the narrow warrens of Barcelona's Barrio El Raval the waft of cannabis blends with Arabic Shawarma, Pakistani cuisine and paella. Swedish and German tourists bound along happily to trendy bistros and wine bars as the locals sip Estrella lager and watch FC Barcelona do the unthinkable; lose a Champions League encounter with English side Manchester City. Around the corner on Calle Sant Pau, prostitutes from near and far work the street.
El Raval is Barcelona's most diverse neighborhood, an engaging and enticing blend of tradition, grit and the sort of transnationalisms that are defining contemporary Europe. Almost half of the barrio's 50,000 strong population is foreign born, particularly from Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, Thailand and the Philippines and most recently Eastern Europe. El Raval has been known for generations as an alluring ghetto mixing crime, prostitution and bohemia. Some of the greats of Spanish and Catalan literature have called El Raval home or frequented its bodegas including the Chilean born writer Roberto Bolaño, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán and Enrique Vila-Matas. While most tourists stay across Las Ramblas near Plaça Reial, Hemingway's old haunt, more are making their way to El Raval and the types of business that cater to their needs, from fancy home furnishing outlets to craft beer cervecerias, are sprouting up. There is consternation. Some speak in fretful tones of the dreaded 'G' word: gentrification
"We could be see something similar to what happened to Barri Gotic," says, David, an artist who lets out a room in his modest flat on El Raval's Carrer de la Cerra, referring to the historic district taken over by tourists and high rents. "It will take some time, but the signs are there."
For those that aren't put off by its seedier qualities, more adventuresome tourists admire El Raval's authenticity. And business people see an opportunity as an emerging neighborhood in the center of Barcelona.
Mads Rademacher, a Danish restaurateur, has opened a craft beer house and vegetarian eatery on Carrer de l'Hospital, El Raval's main artery, called Ølgod, which could be translated variously as "good beer" or "beer god" from Danish. On a Danish meet up night, the place is full of young people, many university exchange students spending a semester or more in Barcelona.
"I love El Raval for its liveliness and diversity," Rademacher says. "And when these young Danes come here they find a lifestyle which they could never afford back in Denmark. You would have to be a millionaire to live like this in Copenhagen," he says, referencing the Catalan habit of going out to drink and dine nearly every night.
It's not just foreign entrepreneurs who are drawn by the lower rents and opportunities of the barrio. Sergio Sanchez, a local, has done the gentrification trick of turning old spaces to new purposes by making a small disused fish market a hip fish themed watering hole called Bar Pesca Salada.
"The neighborhood is a little rough," he says. "There's some cocaine, a little marijuana, some prostitution, but no hard drugs and gun violence. You have to watch out for pickpockets."
On a weekday night, it's late and the bar is filled with smartly dressed Ravalistas and tourists both young and old. Sanchez, who bears a passing resemblance to Leon Trotsky, has transformed a fish tank into a diorama, with "floating" plastic fish suspended from strings. Older men in sport coats and scarves discuss politics. Catalonia's bohemian and leftist pedigree seems to have found a home at Bar Pasca Salada.
Nearby, on Calle de Pau, "Emily" a Romanian, sells sex. Prostitutes from Ghana, Columbia and Hungary line up on this street and on the El Raval side of Las Ramblas near the Liceu metro station.
"Come to my apartment," she says. "I promise I won't rob you. It will be a good time."
She looks a little world weary but insists she's OK with El Raval. "I like it here," she says. "My sister does the same work on the internet, but I prefer the street."
Outside the nightclub 23 Robadors on Carrer d'En Robador, an exquisite session of flamenco is concluding. A tiny place, 23 Robadors is widely known as a center of flamenco, a very important cultural form for Catalonians.
"This is the soul of this place," says Pedro enjoying a cigarette. "It will never change."