George Semler doesn't just write guidebooks to a city's
He aims for its soul.
By Adam de Havenon
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
does one dig up all the nooks and crannies of a city so densely woven
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,
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
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...