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Food Tours Help Keep Barcelona's Mom-And-Pop Tapas Bars Alive


There's a disappearing act happening in Barcelona. The quaint restaurants and shops that draw tourists to the city are being replaced by big chain stores. Lauren Frayer reported earlier this summer on the efforts to stop that trend.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Workers are renovating the historic facade of Colmado Quilez, a wine and cheese shop in downtown Barcelona. A hundred years ago, customers rolled up here in horse-drawn carts. Now there are BMWs outside on what's become one of Barcelona's poshest avenues. So posh, in fact, that manager Faustino Munoz says he can no longer afford to stay.

FAUSTINO MUNOZ: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: "We just can't compete with big chain stores," he says. "We're struggling to do right by our employees, but our rent has tripled this year," he says. That's because rent controls expired this winter, so this family business is moving into the only space it can now afford - a storage room. Its historic storefront is being renovated to host a chain clothing store. Barcelona's gentrification has been fueled by a huge spike in tourism. The city of two million now gets more than seven-and-a-half million tourists a year. They boost the economy but put off some locals.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Shouting in foreign language).

FRAYER: Residents of beach-side Barceloneta have been protesting Airbnb rentals that host bachelor parties where foreigners rage and vomit in their cobblestone streets all night. But some foreigners are actually trying to preserve the city's oldest businesses.

RENEE CHRISTENSEN: Everyone - quick question. Has anyone ever been on a food tour before?

FRAYER: Renee Christensen is an American ex-pat and tour guide for Devour Barcelona, a food tour with a social mission to save this city's mom-and-pop tapas bars.

CHRISTENSEN: We have a market here, a great place to have seafood, places you won't find in a guide book. But I think a lot of these places, too, are places with history, so we hope that none of these places will ever close.

FRAYER: Places like Can Tosca, where black-and-white photos of generations of the Tosca family line wood-paneled walls. Rosa Sanchez Tosca was born in the stairwell next door.

ROSA SANCHEZ TOSCA: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: "Without rent control, so many emblematic places are closing and everything's starting to look the same." She says she's had two tough years, but the food tour has helped her stay in business. Now alongside locals at the bar, tourists chomp into Rosa's special botifarra sausage.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Delicious - it's a good thing I'm hungry (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Singing in foreign language).

FRAYER: Christensen leads her tour group through a square where gypsies strum guitars and into a vermouth bodega, a bakery run by a Syrian immigrant and a market completely off the beaten path.

CHRISTENSEN: This market was inaugurated in 1892. That makes it about 20 years older than La Boqueria - that very big, colorful market on Las Ramblas. It has kind of become part market, part tourist attraction. It's a shame, but it is a little bit crazy...

FRAYER: Barcelona's center is becoming a sort of Disneyland version of itself, says Devour tour's founder, James Blick, who's originally from New Zealand. But he says that's not inevitable.

JAMES BLICK: There's nothing wrong with chains, but we don't just want to have all chains. It does feel like David and Goliath, but, you know, David was smarter.

FRAYER: With a little boost from these tours, some of those Davids - Barcelona's oldest family bars - are re-negotiating rents with their landlords and competing with big chains. They see a future with locals and tourists eating together. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Barcelona. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.