A guiding light
George Semler doesn't just write guidebooks to a city's streets.
He aims for its soul.

By Adam de Havenon

George Semler, born in Richmond, Virginia, arrived in Madrid in 1970 with the hope of penning a Vietnam War memoir. Thirty-two years later, the last 26 in Barcelona, he is one of the most respected and published authors of guides to Catalunya and the world. Among them are Barcelonawalks (Henry Holt Publishing), Fodor's Barcelona to Bilbao, and Insight Guide's Barcelona. Over the past 10 years he has published articles in the likes of the International Herald Tribune and Saveur, and written about such diverse locations as Fez, Toulouse, the Basque country, Marrakesh, Havana and Madrid, just to name a few.

When did you first think about writing the book that got it all going for you, Barcelonawalks?
I was actually in New York in winter 1991 to pitch a book of essays about Catalonia, the Pyrenees, on all the things I found extraordinary about living here, and one of the literary agents I ran into just happened to be looking for someone to write the Barcelona book for the Henry Holt walks series in time for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. So it was pretty much blind luck that this book contract fell into my lap.

How does one dig up all the nooks and crannies of a city so densely woven as Barcelona?
Basically I just followed my nose and tried to find the places that appealed to me most and then looked up everything I could find about these places in everything from the Joan Amades Costumari Catala to Cirici i Pellicer's Barcelona Pam a Pam...a great book by the way, though attempts to translate it have not been terribly successful.
When I got the assignment I assumed I already knew all about Barcelona, and then I became aware that I actually hadn't much of a clue, despite having lived here since 1975, about the history, urban development, architecture, or much of anything else. Barcelonawalks got me started in this kind of writing. If you study cities and walk them hard, they reveal their secrets.


Did you ever feel conflicted about publicising neighbourhood favourites: small restaurants, hidden bars and undiscovered plazas?
So far, no problem. I don't think I have ruined any place yet, though tourist pressure will do it. I can think of several places in Barcelona that I can no longer recommend because they simply became too popular and the waiters and maitres simply become greedy and jaded. There are places I feel can't really absorb much tourist pressure, or where tourists might just mess everything up and get in the way, or feel uncomfortable, that I don't write about. Quimet Quimet for example...(oops!)


Your book covers many different areas of Barcelona. If you had to pick one neighbourhood as your personal favourite, what would it be, and why?

I think it would be Gracia, because it's more intimate, younger, because of its mavericky, anarchistic, progressive, untameable history. There was a lot less straight history to build into that walk, a lot less published research, so I got to throw in more personal insights and musings, which, I have been told and am beginning to believe, makes it more interesting reading, something I really wasn't expecting. This would all inform my next attempt to write this kind of book,..less "material", more personal takes.


In what ways has Barcelona changed since you first started writing about it?

Barcelona has changed a lot, but these particular walks remain nearly exactly the way I wrote them, because they concentrate on the five most monumental and historic neighbourhoods; Gotic, Ribera, Raval, Gracia, Eixample. A new addition would, of course, include things like the Espai Gaudi in La Pedrera that weren't around ten years ago...or the new discoveries in the Born...or the recent progress on the Sagrada Familia. I nearly ignore the Sagrada Familia in Barcelonawalks, probably a mistake, but I felt it was too obvious, too well covered by guidebooks available at the site itself. A new Barcelonawalks would probably include an entire chapter on the Sagrada Familia.


What projects are you currently working on? There are rumours about a much-anticipated book concerning the Pyrenees?
Indeed, I'm working on a Pyrenees book, a 40-to-50-day hike through a half a dozen cultures and a hundred stories across the Pyrenees: Basques, Bearnais, Gascons, Aragoneses, Araneses, Andorra, Catalunya...

How would you recommend to others that they begin writing guide books?
I began by trying to write fiction—a novel/memoir about Vietnam—and began to write travel and cultural articles because I was asked to pick up assignments, and was soon busy just keeping up with stuff I was asked to do. People should just write cultural and travel pieces on "spec" and hammer away until they get some in print, develop a few clips, meet a few editors, keeping knocking on doors until they get lucky •

 

Barcelona Metropolitan Magazine October 2002