Etoeklis “Theo” Nikolaou spills the beans on what it’s like to be a tour guide in Barcelona, as well as revealing a few of his favourite spots around town.
So tell us about yourself. How has a Greek guy ended up settling in Catalonia via the UK, Germany and Argentina?
I guess everything starts from our childhood…the fairy tales and the stories we grow up with. One of the legends in Greek culture was the story of Odysseus, who travelled for 10 years before he found his Ithaca. His priority was to discover the unknown. At the age of 19, I took part in in the Erasmus programme in Portugal and my desire was the same. I wanted to challenge myself, to live in a different culture with people from all over Europe, even though I didn’t t speak Portuguese. Years later I completed my MA in the UK where I studied international relations and worked in London as a journalist for various organizations. I also lived in Berlin and in Buenos Aires working in journalism.
As Odysseus discovered his Ithaca, the same happened to me: Barcelona became my Ithaca. Barcelona is a multicultural and typically-Mediterranean city, modern and open to the world: it benefited from the Olympics and didn’t waste the opportunity like Athens did.
Also after my experience as a journalist, I decided I wanted a more relaxed pace. I always enjoyed telling stories so I thought I could do this with visitors, presenting my city and telling stories without pressure. So I decided to be a tour guide.
Do you think there are two Barcelonas: the one we saw on TV news a lot last year and the “actual” one visitors will experience?
There are more than two Barcelonas. There is the touristy, promoted Barcelona…a city that can offer you a glass of sangria and a paella at the sea front, a visit to Camp Nou and a walk along Las Ramblas.
Then there is the other city, the one for the locals. You probably you have to wake up at 6am to enjoy one of the most beautiful sunrises of your life while you paddle surf at Barceloneta. You may have to stand in a queue waiting for fresh churros in the oldest churrerja in the gothic quarter, the Xurreria dels Banys Nous. Get ready to walk a lot to find your peaceful spot at the Jewish cemetery in Montjuic before you go to one of the local music festivals in Gracia.
Regarding what we saw on TV news last year, it is true that the city was presented as a dangerous destination due to unrest. That is absolutely not true, if you keep in mind that even on the day of the referendum I was working, showing the city to visitors without any problems. Surprisingly, and in contrast to what we know about hot-blooded Mediterraneans, the Catalans demonstrate in a totally peaceful way.
Have you seen a drop off in numbers since last year’s political events?
There was a sudden drop off on the number of tourists between November and January, as a consequence of the political instability. The image of the city was traumatised and there was a perception that Barcelona is an unsafe place to visit. As soon as the heat came back and the independence drama was over, normality returned to the city.
Is there a different feel to the city since last year, or would that be an exaggeration?
The city is developing into a mainstream global destination, ranking third in Europe after London and Paris. This year 4 per cent more tourists are expected to visit. There’s no different feeling to last year. Barcelona has taken one of the top positions in terms of global destinations, and even political dramas don’t seem strong enough to discourage millions of visitors from discovering one of the most beautiful cities in the world,
What are some of the places you take visitors to on your tour? You say there is no charge for your tours but how free is free?!
First of all, I should explain how the touring industry used to work. Until a few years ago there was only one option for a tourist to go on a tour. They would have to pay a guide normally between 40 to 70 euros for a 3-hour tour. But now, backed by European law, many companies offer so-called free tours, clarifying that every tourist is free to decide the value of the tour, as long as the guide is not supported by the company. This new model has given the opportunity for many students and backpackers to enjoy the benefits of a walking tour at a very low cost.
Which nationality are the best tippers and who are the worst tippers on your tours?
Tipping is an action that depends on each culture and economy. It is easy to understand that US or Canadian tourists are the best tippers because tipping culture there is highly developed. On the other hand tourists from countries with less developed economies can not afford to give a big tip.
Where do you like to go on a day off?
One of the main reasons I feel like at home in Barcelona is the Mediterranean sea. This is where I belong and this I where I enjoy spending my days off. However the beach in Barceloneta is usually crowded so I prefer to take the train and head either north, closer to the village of Mataro or southern, to Sitges.
Where is your favourite place for tapas and a cold beer?
Any place with a long history. As long as they have survived, it means they know how to do something well. El Xampamyet is a tapas restaurant in the neighbourhood of El Born, close to the Picasso museum. I would recommend trying the homemade cava and the tuna and octopus tapas.
What is an “almost secret” spot in the city that you’d pretty much not reveal…but for us, you’re going to.
There is a hardware store, Servei Estacio, near Passeig de Gracia. Go inside, to the second floor and open the door at the back. You will get a perfect view of the back yard of Casa Batlló, Gaudi’s masterpiece.
The second spot is the roof terrace of the hotel Barceló Raval in Raval, which offers a 360 view of the city. A visit there for sunset with an Aperol Spritz seems to me a great way to round off a day.
Theo works for Donkey Tours