A group of young dark-haired men sat on the steps of the Plaça del Sol, strumming guitars and tapping the ground with their feet. Around them, a crowd gathered to clap to the Spanish beat and sing along to the popular folky tunes. In the centre of the group, an inebriated girl in a thin white dress writhed to the music, twisting her wrists like a flamenco dancer and snapping her head back so her hair cascaded behind her. People moved back to allow her more space.
I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the experience. Just hours ago, I’d thrown off my backpack in my new dorm room after a gruelling five hour train ride, two transfers through Barcelona’s metro system, and an overground hike to the hostel. I looked dishevelled and felt frazzled. I was far from feeling sociable.
Now I was sitting on the tiled ground in the middle of a typical Spanish plaza, cradling a can of Estrella beer and marvelling at this totally organic, mostly local gathering. What had begun with a handshake and a welcome from my fellow roommate had turned into this.
By day, Plaça del Sol in Barcelona’s bohemian inner-city barrio Gracia is much like any other Spanish plaza, speckled with tables and chairs and surrounded by restaurants.
Plaça del Sol by day. Photo by Carlos Lorenzo.
But by night, it becomes the suburb’s heartbeat. Everywhere else in Gracia, the streets are quiet. Roller doors cover the shop fronts and the al fresco seating has been brought behind restaurant doors for the night.
In Plaça del Sol, there are a few fancy hole-in-the-wall bars catering to the spontaneous crowd, but the real winners of the night are the entrepreneurial men combing the plaza selling beer from six-packs for €1 a pop.
And there I sat in the centre of it all, trying to fathom how I’d arrived here. I had only planned to join a few fellow hostellers on the hostel terrace for a brief chat on arrival. Now, in this square at midnight, more and more people were approaching me for handshakes and introductions, all beginning: “Hey, we’re in the same hostel.”
The Hostel Family
Little did I know this was the start of something special. Sometimes you encounter a rare experience in travel: the Hostel Family, when a group of random individuals from across the globe combine their medley of personalities to form an unusual and remarkable cell, a transient but powerful force. Its unexpectedness, and its infrequency, makes it all the more precious.
Night #2. On the hostel terrace, chopping boards, potatoes, onions and blunt knives were distributed among the hostel guests. In the kitchen, two Aussie girls were enthusiastically mixing up a homemade batch of sangria from the instructions on the back of a postcard.
By pure luck, most of my new family were leaving within 24 hours of me, giving us some three or four more days together. But for one of our members, this was his last night. True to his personality, he wanted to close his stay in style by organising a home-cooked meal for his fellow hostellers. With gusto, he combed the hostel for willing participants. By dinnertime, some 15 travellers had gathered in the basement kitchen for a camp-styled dinner around several tables. All but two of our number were lone travellers.
This clan came from Europe, Asia, the US … And of course, there was a solid Aussie contingent. They worked in IT, banking, advertising, the art industry, hospitality, teaching. They studied. There were fresh-out-of-school backpackers, mid-lifers, and grey nomads.
If you had placed us all in the same bar surrounded by our own friends, we wouldn’t have given one another a second glance. But here, in this foreign setting, and with the courage and openness that always accompanies solo travel, we were family.
Some credit has to be given to the magic of our location: Barcelona. This is a city that breathes mysticism and romanticism, from its fantasy-fuelled Gaudi buildings to the brooding alleyways and arches of the Gothic district.
Barcelona has a strong list of sights, for which I had formed a checklist in the days leading to my visit. But by my second night, I had to make a decision: the sights or the people. It was a no-brainer. The monastery at Montserrat, the hop-on-hop-off buses, the cathedral and twisting alleyways … they would be here next year. My hostel crew was irreplaceable; a one-time thing.
The checklist was discarded. By day, sightseeing was limited to a morning visit or a stroll with my new friends, based on the mercy of the weather and the whims of my companions. But it was really all about the nighttime: the tapas bars, Catalan restaurants, live music venues and, of course, Plaça del Sol.
Night #6. Locals and tourists would have flocked to Plaça del Sol. Some probably even came from my hostel. Men would have wended their way through the crowds seated on the tiled ground, approaching each cluster to offer their cheap cerveza.
Around two thirty or three in the morning, the police would have come, their presence enough to see the gatherers scarper. Cleaners would have taken their place, blasting away the night’s traces – the cigarette stubs and Estrella cans – with the force of a powerful water hose.
But our traces were already undetectable. We had already made new tracks across the world in our separate directions; to Lisbon, Brussels, Rome, Berlin, LA, on planes, trains, boats … never to converge again. In our place, new hostellers would be meeting and greeting. And if we were lucky, we’d form new friendships, new families, in other locales around the globe. But the Barcelona family would never be replicated.
You can’t predict when or where you’ll find your next hostel family, but if you’re looking for top-notch hostels, make sure you check out this great value luxury hostel list.
*A note on the photographs: Confession time. I was too busy being entranced by this experience to take snaps, so I’ve taken the liberty of pilfering my fellow hostellers’ photography. All due credit goes to Dante and Ritesh. Thanks guys 🙂