I clutched my purse tighter to my side as we turned off the main thoroughfare and onto Carrer de Sant Pau, a dimly lit side street in the heart of Barcelona’s red light district. After reading travel alerts before our European foray, I knew pickpockets would be on the hunt for college kids like us—obvious tourists with a visible buzz from several hours of drinking red wine on the beach beforehand. But our quest was clear, and I was undeterred by the threat of danger: We were looking for Barcelona’s oldest bar, and I wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of the glass of absinthe that was promised upon arrival.
It was July 4, 2007, and absinthe had just recently emerged from a 95-year ban in America. Still mysterious and alluring, few brands had entered the market and the spirit’s reputation remained mired in lore. It’s the drink of artists and poets and musicians! It’ll make you hallucinate! While we know most of the unsavory rumors to be untrue, at the age of 21, I believed the mysterious elixir held the key to unlocking the bohemian spirit. I was intent on dragging my then boyfriend and his buddies along on my search for the Green Fairy, even if it meant traipsing through the sketchy side of a city where none of us was fluent in the local language.
I was told there would be no better place to find the ghosts of Barcelona’s bar culture than at Bar Marsella. Established in 1820, the now disheveled hole-in-the-wall is regarded by many to be the city’s oldest bar, a place where Hemingway, Dalí and Picasso sought inspiration at the bottom of the glass. Behind the barrier of cigarette smoke that divides the front door from the street lies a space untouched by time, with paint peeling off the ceiling like flaky layers of garlic skin. Mirrors tarnished with the fog of age and janky chandeliers added a theatrical vibe to the otherwise unkempt space, and café tables overflowed with locals, laughing, smoking and looking chic with their glasses sloshing around in tune to the din of the room.
In true college kid fashion, I was wide-eyed and eager to soak it all in, including the house specialty: absinthe. Behind the bar, a portly bartender in a bright red shirt and baseball cap took our order. He must have pegged us as Americans as soon as we crossed the threshold, because we barely spoke before four footed wine glasses appeared on the bar, filled with a sticky honeysuckle-yellow liquid and the requisite accoutrements for assembly—a fork, bottle of water and sugar cube.
I’ve always been a self-conscious traveler, intent on blending in with locals as much as possible when outside of my comfort zone, so I was desperate to get the ritual right. Inspired by my curiosity and enthusiasm, my companions were equally as eager to lap it up when a crucial question entered the equation: light the cube on fire or drizzle the water over the sugar without prior caramelization? While literature abounds on the topic now, the question hung thick in the air at the time.
We opted to light the cube on fire. Like the clunky, naive tourists we were, we whipped out a lighter and quickly bastardized the process. The bartender shook his head with a look of disdain. But the jolt of anise-flavored liquor was strangely empowering. I let my tourist flag fly free and quickly sank into the details of the moment instead of worrying about fitting into the crowd.
The night passed in a fog. I didn’t have a grand epiphany in that beautifully downtrodden bar. I didn’t find my inner artist or devise any life-changing plans. But the place has stuck with me since then as a marker of things that would eventually come to pass. A full decade later, I now know how to prepare a proper absinthe drip, I married the (then) boyfriend who patiently indulged my quest, and now I seek out places like Bar Marsella for a living—bars with a true sense of place and history that help transport visitors to a specific time and place.
Today, the neighborhood where Bar Marsella lives has changed. I’ve heard the area has cleaned up its seedy image and abandoned the name Barrio Chino to the more politically correct Raval. As quickly as 2008, The New York Times reported, “If louche had a location, the Marsella would be it,” and Woody Allen filmed a part of his love letter to Spain, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, in the historic haunt. Flash-forward to 2014, when Conde Nast called the revitalized neighborhood one you can’t miss, and around the same time it was almost sold to a condo development company.
I no longer stay up until four in the morning drinking absinthe, but I’ve heard the bar remains as lovely and disheveled as ever, so new generations of wide-eyed college kids can continue to chase the same feeling of revelry in Barcelona. If you’re one of the bar’s many annual visitors, just be sure you don’t light the sugar cube on fire.
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