Madrid and Barcelona can sometimes be reduced to stereotypes, the two polar opposite metropoli (not unlike Moscow-St. Petersburg, Beijing-Shanghai, Sao Paulo-Rio de Janeiro. et al.), one a coastal city, polyglot and mercantile, often unruly or subversive; the other the landlocked center of a bureaucratic monarchy. Neither of those images ring true any longer, although regionalism and even football keep the idea of rivalry alive. Still, each is distinctive and both have become ever more popular tourist destinations since the end of the Franco regime in the 1970s, with “scenes” that attract the young from around the world.
Guidebooks and histories provide context and orientation. Any visit can be enriched, however, by in depth analyses of aspects of urban culture and fictional accounts that convey the “feel” of a place. One kind of writing that appeals to many travelers is an account by another traveler.
For the traveler who wants to see the cities in film, Madrid is the setting for most of Pedro Almodovar’s films, and Barcelona figures in his “All About my Mother.” The 2002 French film “L'Auberge espagnole” concerns young people from all parts of Europe studying and living in Barcelona. Alejandro González Iñarritu’s “Biutiful” (with Javier Bardem) takes place in an unattractive Barcelona. Woody Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (also with Bardem) shows a prettier Barcelona. English director Ken Loach’s “Land and Freedom” covers some of the same ground depicted by Orwell in Homage to Catalonia, culminating in the betrayal of the Republican cause by the Communist Party.
No fictional detective has covered Barcelona more intensively or chronicled modern Spain more thoroughly than Manuel Vázquez Montalbán’s sophisticated gourmand Pepe Carvalho. The novels are very popular, they feature substantial amounts of food, sex, and politics, and there are plenty of them. There have been reprints and they are easy to find online, if not in your local library. Yes, the detective gets to travel in some cases, for example, to Buenos Aires.
There is a very helpful appreciation of Vázquez Montalbán written soon after his death in 2003 here.