Sounds of Travel 9: Me Gustas Tu?

Here at Gadling we’ll be highlighting some of our favorite sounds from the road and giving you a sample of each — maybe you’ll find the same inspiration that we did, but at the very least, hopefully you’ll think that they’re good songs. Got a favorite of your own? Leave it in the comments below and we’ll post it at the end of the series.

Manu Chao is a vagabond by nature. He was born in Paris to a Spanish mother and father, but he’s really from all over. Chao’s music wanders and meanders like his personal life, drifting languages from Spanish to English to French, and picking up influences and passport stamps from South America to Spain and to France and then back again. His improvised concert tours are equally freewheeling, featuring actors, circus performers and tour stops only accessible by boat (?!).

I stumbled across Chao’s free-form music while I was in college. There was something that sounded very culturally rich about it – it felt authentic and regional, yet somehow equally global and devoid of place. As I began to travel and see more of the world, I found Chao to be a poignant soundtrack for my travels, particularly in the Spanish speaking world where I happened to be visiting.

Whether wafting over the balconies of ancient windows in the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona, jingling from makeshift speakers in an apartment in Buenos Aires, or bouncing out of a car radio in Mexico City, Manu Chao’s music somehow made a particular sonic sense to me. Perhaps my favorite example is his song, Me Gustas Tu:

Me Gustas Tu is a bastard child of a song. It doesn’t have a lyrical “narrative” like you would expect from a pop tune. Instead it’s composed of a single continued refrain. As a guitarist plucks away a catchy, whimsical melody, Chao regales us with his love for life and for the Spanish speaking world, peeling off a list of countries, neighborhoods and “favorite things,” including the wind, traveling, planes, the morning, dreaming and the sea. Each of these favorites is preceded by the phrase “me gustas,” which basically translates as “I like” or “I love” in Spanish. In this case, Chao seems to be recalling the memory of a lost love, romanticizing what he remembers best.

If there’s one place Me Gustas Tu always evokes for me, it’s Barcelona. Each time I come back to this city on the Mediterranean, I’m drawn to the ancient walls and narrow alleys of the Gothic Quarter, a neighborhood that virtually explodes with life. As I walk the area, I always feel more alive, envigorated by rich, sensory experience. Down each street, the laughter of old men stumbles out of simmering tapas bars, water burbles quietly from forgotten fountains and my eyes gaze up at tiny metal balconies, shrouded in green curtains of plant life.

It’s hard to explain why, but I always feel happy when I’m there. I suspect it’s the sensory assault of the place and feeling of joy and wonder I find in the simplest experiences. Perhaps Chao is on to something then – Me Gustas Tu is a song that’s less about telling you where a vagabond like Chao has been, and more about where he is. That place is in his mind, filled with happy memories and vivid sensory experiences. For me the place is Barcelona, a memory I can conjure from time to time and forget my troubles. Suddenly I’m there, listening to Manu Chao on my balcony. And suddenly, life seems pretty awesome, doesn’t it?

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Drink at Barcelona’s “secret” bars

Barcelona is a nightlife-lover’s paradise. Between the city’s thriving music scene, liberal drinking laws and the generally hedonistic social attitudes of many Spaniards, you’re almost assured a good time when you go out. I have spent many a night wandering the narrow streets of the Barrio Gotico neighborhood, hopping from one tiny bar to the next while enjoying a few mojitos with friends.

If that’s not convincing enough, an article in today’s Guardian points out that nightlife-lovers have yet another reason to visit Barcelona – a growing trend of “hidden” bars. In recent years an estimated 40-some-odd illegal drinking establishments have sprung up, thanks largely to the okupas, Spanish squatters who occupy the city’s many empty buildings.

Spiraling housing costs have put buying or renting apartments out of reach for many Spaniards, who have taken to occupying empty buildings as a last resort. Some of the more enterprising squatters have created bars with their space, earning themselves some extra cash. A few spots to check out include:

  • El Mariachi – a favorite hangout for the city’s musicians, this quirky spot is nothing more than a few mismatched pieces of furniture. The real highlight is the cocktails, which include the Hydro-Miel, the house specialty mixed with honey. (Corner of Carrer dels Codols and Carrer d’en Rull, Barrio Gotico)
  • El Armario – another tiny spot in the El Raval neighborhood. The name in Spanish means “wardrobe,” which is accurate: you literally walk past the owner’s clothing collection to get inside. (Carrer de la Riereta, El Raval)
  • The Front Room – this bar, which does not seem to have an “official” name, occupies a small front room behind a tiny metal door on the Carrer d’en Carabassa. (Metal door opposite 5 Carrer d’en Carabassa, Barrio Gotico)

If you want to visit these places, be prepared and be patient. Most don’t have signs or set hours of operation, usually opening after 2am when Barcelona’s other bars are shutting down. Furthermore, their illegal status makes them targets for closure by police. In other words, have some back-up drinking options. But if you’re headed out with an open mind and little bit of persistence, Barcelona’s hidden bars look ready to offer a uniquely Spanish “night on the town.”