Spain was one of the countries worst hit by the coronavirus pandemic, with citizens on lockdown for two months. But in recent days and weeks the country has entered a series of phased easing of restrictions. Barcelona local and Lonely Planet writer Esme Fox, describes what it's like having one of Europe's most touristed cities all to herself.
Phase zero at the start of month allowed people leave home for the first time in two months for a walk. Around half of the country moved to phase one on 11 May, however residents in some larger cities, including Madrid and Barcelona, where I live, were told we would have to wait longer before we could progress to phase one.
After some protests a new phase was created – phase 0.5 – which Barcelona and Madrid entered this week. During this stage, small shops were allowed open with limited capacity, libraries reopened, and museums and places of worship are now permitted to operate at 30% capacity. Barcelona's beaches have also reopened but for exercise only, no sunbathing is permitted.
Unlike the places in phase one right now, I still can’t sit outside, get a drink at a bar or visit my friends, but I can get a takeaway coffee, as my favourite coffee shop is now open, buy an ice-cream or churros at the local churrería. It feels a bit ironic to see people walking along eating ice-cream in the sunshine while everyone else is masked but an order this week stated masks must be worn in all public places, unless someone is eating, drinking or exercising. Heavy fines are in place for anyone who breaches the facemask rules.
If I want to take a walk or exercise, or basically do anything other than shopping or buying takeaways, I can only do it between 6 -10 am or from 8-11 pm. If I’m simply walking, I can go within one kilometer of my house, but if I’m exercising, I’m allowed to go anywhere within my municipality of Barcelona. As I work from home and still don’t have the need to go on public transport, I can only go places that my legs will take me. I’ve been taking full advantage of this and getting back in shape by doing long cycle rides, hikes or runs to various parts of the city. Last week I cycled the 10km roundtrip to La Sagrada Família, for a rare opportunity to see Gaudí’s unfinished masterpiece without the crowds which usually surround it.
As we have been locked down for two months at home and unable to stretch our legs, the whole city has suddenly turned into exercise fanatics. During our allotted outdoor times, the streets are full of cyclists, joggers and roller-skaters, and sport attire is now the city’s official uniform. During the past two weeks, I have hiked the 7km round trip up to the Collserola Natural Park, and cycled the 10km roundtrip down the river to the beach. I have to wake up pretty early and time my trips exactly right, so that I’m back in my house before 10am. Usually, there’s only enough time at the end to enjoy a quick stop to admire the view, before turning around again for home. Throughout most of the day, I feel as if I’m waiting for the moment when I can finally leave my house again.
Last night, I did another 12km trip to one of the city’s main beaches. At 9pm, the promenade was packed with joggers, cyclists, couples on moon-lit walks and people simply enjoying the sea breeze. There were so many people that it almost felt akin to the mid-summer festival of Sant Joan (or San Juan), when everyone heads to the beach for the evening. The beach itself was closed however, with 'no-entry' tape blocking entrance to the sand and the police on watch. The only people that were allowed near the water were surfers and paddle boarders. If I make the same trek in the morning however, I’m told that I will be able to exercise along the sand – maybe that will be tomorrow’s 6am adventure.
When we are finally able to enter phase one with the rest of Spain, hopefully on 25 May, I too will be able to enjoy drinks on bar terraces and meet up to 10 of my friends in a private home. Hotels will also be able to open to 30% capacity. Like many other countries though, the lockdown rules here have caused some confusion. If the museums are now open – does that mean I can only visit them in my time slot or can I visit at any time? And as we’re still not allowed to travel outside of our municipality or do much outdoors other than shopping and exercising at specific times, who is permitted to book into a hotel?
Some of the smaller islands in Spain such as the Canary Islands’ La Gomera, El Hierro and Isla Graciosa have even moved onto phase two today, allowing the interiors of restaurants, shopping centres, cinemas and theatres to all reopen at 30% capacity. Much of the country will follow them on 25 May, and if we don’t get stuck at any of the other phases, it looks like Barcelona may finally reach this stage sometime around the beginning of June. In the meantime, I’ll be looking forward to next week and planning the socially-distanced drinks with my friends when the outdoor bars reopen.