So guess who just got back from Brazil? Yep a little bit of studying Portuguese in Rio de Janeiro, a bit of Carnival in Recife / Olinda, and then some travelling around the south, to natural wonders like the island of Ilha Grande and the spectacular cascading beauty of Iguazu Falls…
So anyway, there I was, sitting on the beach in Ipanema, with my amiga, Karina (with whom I used to live a couple of years back in Poble Sec – in Flat number 2), probably – along with Copacabana – the most famous city beach in the world, when we both looked at each other and went… “meh”.
Not too shabby… but wouldn’t you rather be in Catalonia?
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice spot, but I guess in Barcelona we are just too damned spoiled. Ipanema, with the Dois Irmois mountains rearing up at one end and its long stretch of natural sands, is certainly more beautiful than Barceloneta, or any of the Catalan capital’s other city beaches; but here in Brazil the sun was too hot, the water effing freezing, and the people – both I and Karina agreed – a lot less easy on the eye. (I don’t care how small your thong is, if you’re 120kg it ain’t sexy). Karina was somehow less fussed, but I also couldn’t help wistfully recall that in Spain topless sunbathing is also a lot more common (in Brazil it’s illegal in fact, as far as I can tell).
So having set these two great coastal cities up against each other, let’s look in a little more detail at the pros and cons of both, a bit like in my Amsterdam vs. Barcelona post, from a couple of years back.
Well I was only in Rio for three summer weeks, and whilst I like the heat it was too def. too hot even for me! Sitting on the beach before 4pm, without an parasol, was akin to torture. Plus, when the sun wasn’t beating down, it rained a helluva lot. Meanwhile Rio de Janeiro’s mild winters might be nice for some people, but little in terms of changing of seasons (at least from what I understand) strikes me as being a bit boring. Barcelona meanwhile has got just about the perfect climate. Loads of sunshine, but only a couple of months where the mercury can rise a bit uncomfortably high, plus just enough of a winter for you to appreciate summer all the more. One, nothing, BCN.
This is a no brainer. Rio may have those majestic mountains and dramatic beaches, but architecturally speaking and even the nice areas look like Barcelona’s ghettoes, whilst its ghettoes (of which there are many) are, predictably, puss-filled eyesores… albeit fascinating ones, with surprisingly good vibes and parties. The legendary Copacabana district is just mile upon mile of high rise flats and hotels, whilst Centro has at most “a scattering” of nice-ish buildings. Overall I’d say Rio scores a paltry and highly disappointing 2/10 for architecture, vs. a pretty much perfect 10 from Barcelona, which combines Gothic beauty and modern marvels (W-Hotel, Torre Agbar, MACBA and @22) with its signature Modernista look, orchestrated by Antoni Gaudi, Domenech i Montaner and chums. What’s more Barcelona also has the coast, Montjuic mountain plus Collserola range in the background, so even when you factor in Mother Nature in Rio’s favour, I’m scoring this Rio 5/10, Barcelona 9.5/10 – and therefore 2 zip to BCN.
Things get a bit closer in the nightlife section as Rio has a raw energy and excitement that Barcelona simply can’t match. The nightly congregation in Lapa district of both princes and paupers intent on revellry, the sheer unpretentious authenticity of clubs like Rio Scenarium or Democraticos, that are not following any trend, but are busy being uniquely Brazilian, are hard to beat. And then of course there’s Carnaval… a party beyond a party that stretches into a way of life for almost four weeks (forget the official “four days” cited by your guidebook). Still the entrance fees for some of the clubs – ironically the most boring/identikit ones – were ridiculous, you have to take a taxi everywhere (and Rio is huge!) for safety reasons, you have to present your ID at almost every club so they can log your details (tedious!), plus you get a bullshit card for drinks and have to pay on the way out (crap system!). Overall I think I prefer Barcelona’s nightlife for accessibility, price and diversity, but I’m gonna call it a draw because that’s just me getting old and lazy.
I’d been told many times that the Cariocas are very friendly, but breaking down the locals into the two genders (I’ll risk the wrath of LGBT campaigners and ignore the ladyboys of Lapa for now… suffice to say they were a little too friendly) and I’ll say the men were only particularly friendly when they wanted to hit on the girls I was with, the gay men when they wanted to hit on me, and the Rio girls were not especially friendly at all. I tend to find in countries where guys aggressively hit on women the whole time (basically all latin cultures, if you’ll excuse the lazy stereotyping) girls are standoffish, because basically they have to be, to stop every mofo hitting on them. This was definitely the case in Brazil where the ladies were pretty lukewarm for the most part. (I’m sure it would be different if I had more Brazilian friends and was being introduced as a persona grata… but most of the time I was hanging around with international people from the language school I was studying at and any interactions with Brazilian women were as a stranger). Anyhow Catalans are not much better… I can count on one hand my Catalan friends in BCN, as they tend to keep themselves to themselves, so I’ll just put this down as a draw too. Who knows, maybe I just need to improve my social skills?
My biggest gripe with Barcelona is the constant state of paranoid alertness one needs to be in to fend off the plague of pickpockets that afflict the city and shows no sign of abating. This however pales into insignificance versus the very real threat of Rio of being held up by knifepoint or gunpoint. I only really felt safe walking around at night in Ipanema and Copacabana, and even then I’ve been told I shouldn’t have been walking around in Copacabana. It’s not quite as bad as some people make out… I escaped Brazil without incident after 3 weeks in Rio and 7 in the country… but you can never quite relax.
Things to To
In Barcelona there’s always a vintage market, gallery opening, craft beer festival, street party, open air cinema or electronic picnic to attend… plus there’s the beaches, mountains, wine region (don’t forget the winter/spring pilgrimmage that is the Calcotada!). You can never be bored in Barcelona! It’s hard for me to judge Rio on this one… with all the tourist stuff I was trying to do, plus learn a bit of Portuguese and attend all the Carnaval parties I was rushed off my feet! But would there be the same amount of fun events for a resident living year around in the city? I’m guessing no… whilst hipsterdom can be a bit tedious, not to mention pretentious, at times, undoubtedly it has led to an amazing array of original events and new trends in Barcelona that tend to only happen in cutting edge “first world” cities like London, Berlin, New York and BCN. There’s no poetry brothel in Brazil!
I’ve been in Barcelona several years and famously (amongst my polyglottal friends) failed to master Spanish. The lack of linguistic purity in the city (many residents of course speak Catalan as their first tongue, whilst a not inconsiderable number speak Mandarin, Punjabi, English, German, French as theirs) hardly helps matters. Brazilian Portuguese is a very sexy language and I love the Carioca accent. Moreover were I to move to Rio, I would actually need to speak Portuguese… unlike in Barcelona, where English gets me around almost without a hiccup. I’ll give this one to Rio.
So there you go… 5:2 and, even if the scoreline is a fraction misleading, this has turned into quite a comprehensive victory for the Catalan capital. I half expected to fall in love with the samba city and settle down to a new life coaching the Brazilian women’s volleyball team, whilst writing the sequel to Blame It On Rio in my spare time. However it was a case of absence makes the heart grow stronger, and even in the face of undoubtedly one of the most magnificent cities in the world (…and any negativity about Rio is purely relative!), Barcelona simply kicks way too much culo to think about leaving just yet.