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Street Life

A different kind of sightseeing in the Catalonian capital

Author Jessica Benavides Canepa Illustration Marc Rosenthal

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BARCELONA – In a secluded square, away from the bustle of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, a group of tourists huddle around an ornate fountain, cameras at the ready. Their guide, a thin, bespectacled man with a mop of graying hair, rattles off a few historic factoids before revealing the real reason for the stop. This, he says, gesturing at a low stone wall in the center of the square, used to be a great place to sleep at night. “That is, until the police came and shooed us away.”

José Felipe Martín, 42, works for Hidden City Tours, an enterprise that supplements explorations of the city’s monuments and luminaries with a more immediate kind of history: the personal experiences of its guides, all of whom used to be homeless. Martín started with Hidden City in spring 2014, having spent a year living on the streets. The job, he says, has provided him with more than a living wage. “It made me think, ‘I am useful.’”   

Aside from being knowledgeable, Martín is an engaging escort. At one point, outside an ancient cloister, his commentary is drowned out by a street musician. “You know, you have to pass an exam to do that,” he says. “I can’t understand why he isn’t better at it.” When the laughter dies down, Martín tells a story dating back to the year 303, when a young girl named Eulalia defied a despotic Roman emperor and was tortured and killed for her troubles. “What a brilliant idea,” he says of her rebellion. “Are you joking or what?”

As the tour reaches its end, Martín recalls how he and a friend were walking the streets one night when a police car pulled up. “Great,” he thought, “what have we done now?” Instead of harassing them, the officer offered to drive the pair to a shelter, 20 minutes across town. “I told him, ‘We don’t smell, but our feet do from walking around all day,’ and the cop said, ‘Shut up and get in.’” People seem to like this story, possibly even more than the one about brave, doomed Eulalia.

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