How to escape city life in Barcelona? The beach

Escaping city life in a metropolitan area the size of Barcelona is easy thanks to the beaches, which were the result of a profound urban reform. 4,5 kilometres of nature, open to the sea, the are the biggest recreational area in Barcelona. Despite an ongoing controversy over the illegality of certain vendors found on the beach, the space remains a popular get-away for locals and tourists alike.

CNA / Caitlin Smith

August 26, 2011 08:31 PM

Barcelona (CNA).- Sitting on Barcelona beach on a lazy summer afternoon is a people-watchers delight. Groups of young people buy beer from men with cool bags, life guards stand watch over the sea, holiday makers receive massages and locals ignore it all in the lively yet relaxing setting. Flat sandy beaches stretching for 4,5 kilometres open the urban skyline in the centre of a metropolitan are of more 4 million people. The integration of nature with a metropolitan area did not happen by accident, but it may come as a surprise to the curious sunbather that the beaches of Barcelona were mostly rebuilt in feat of urban redevelopment following the1992 Olympic Games. Nowadays, the beaches are incredibly popular. Their accessibility, with metro, bus and tram links, continues to call city dwellers out of the urban landscape and onto the city's largest natural recreational area. Whilst there are plenty of authorised facilities, ranging from libraries to umbrella rentals, particularly in the height of the summer the beach swarms with illegal vendors offering everything from drinks to transferable tattoos. Whilst they do not appear to hinder the enjoyment of beach users, their presence is unauthorised and therefore illegal. In spite of these sellers, the crowds and the unavoidable mess that this produces, the real triumph of the beaches is that even though they are situated on the shore of one of Europe's largest port cities, they remain clean, giving the city a true place to unwind. Thanks to the efforts of maintenance crews, Barcelona beaches have sustained the Blue Flag eco-award since 2009.

The result of a profound urban transformation

Looking at the beaches now it is hard to imagine that up to the 1980s the beaches of Barcelona were dirty, polluted, and surrounded by factories. Or that until the 1970s were home to some of the cities poorest people. It was not truly until the urban remodelling that came from the construction of the Olympic Village as part of the 'Barcelona 1992'  Olympic Games project that the beaches became what can be seen today. Careful planning and heavy investment meant that coastal railways were removed, the coastline was cleaned and beaches were literally rebuilt to fit both the natural coastline and integrate with the urban environment.

According to the City Council, all beaches "have been designed according to the same criteria: to closely relate the eastern coastline, its sea and its beaches with the nearby districts and to integrate it into the city as one more of its public areas, in the most rational and sustainable way possible"

Diverse facilities in the beaches

To cater for a city as large as Barcelona, the facilities in the cities largest recreational area have to be diverse and accessible. From those who want to rent an umbrella, soak up the sun and read a good book (borrowed from one of the beach's two libraries) to those who want to get active on the free sports equipment (ranging from fitness machines to volleyball courts), activities on the beach are plentiful. Practical amenities such as toilets and freshwater showers are also within easy reach.

Illegal traders

Due to the heavy summer crowds, illegal trade has grown on the beaches. Services such as tattoos (non-permanent), massages and goods such as cold drinks, scarves and food are offered to sunbathers. Illegal vendors are often immigrants, with different ethnic groups taking on and dominating one particular form of trade. Illegal vendors although working individually appear to be part of organised groups, assisting one another in hiding their goods from on looking police.

Whilst such trade is enjoyed by some visitors, "I'm sat on a beach and people are bringing me drinks… it’s great" (Emma Hart, UK), it has been criticised not only for taking away legal trade from the cafes and bars that line the beach but also for using unsanitary means of storing food and drink and for providing massages without certified training. Although most visitors appeared sympathetic to such vendors, "Some people just take things, but these people work for their living. I think it’s ok" said Jalila Benessi, from Italy; many that the CNA spoke to were unaware of the illegal status of the traders and the possible health risks.  

Keeping the beaches with high cleanness standards

What perhaps is the most impressive aspect of Barcelona's beaches is their relative cleanliness. Even though they are far from a virgin beach of a paradisiacal island, there is a distinct lack of rubbish and pollution considering that they are massively used each day and they stand on the brink of a metropolitan jungle. Aside from cleaning the facilities such as the showers and emptying the bins and recycling points scattered across the beach, maintenance teams of more than 200 people are appointed by Barcelona City Council to carry out 'ecological sifting', where the sand is mechanically lifted "in order to air and disinfect it by means of expose to the sun". Deep sifting (up to 60cm) occurs during the second half of March and normal sifting (up to 30cm) occurs throughout the year.

The cleanliness of the beaches was recognised in 2009, when the Blue Flag, an eco-award given by the Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE) for high environmental standards, was awarded to the beaches of Barceloneta, Nova Icària, Bogatell, Mar Bella and Nova Mar Bella, and has been granted all the next years since then.