Letter from Barcelona (2) – An open-top Bugatti … and flowers for Hitler.

They’re holding the annual Barcelona to Sitges vintage car rally today. I took part in it 23 years ago – in March 1994. For some reason we’d got involved as co-sponsors to promote the Spanish edition of GQ magazine, which we were to launch in November that year. I say I ‘took part’ – but all I had to do was sit as a passenger in the back of a beautiful, open-top Bugatti, sipping cava yet feeling car-sick as the old vehicle slowly weaved and chugged its way along the winding Garraf coastal road from Barcelona to Sitges, for over an hour under a blazing sun. Without wanting this to sound like Taki’s ‘High Life’ Spectator column, the only other passenger in the chauffeur-driven vehicle was Prince Giovanni de Borbón Dos Sicilias. Giovanni spoke Spanish, English, Portuguese, Italian, French, German, Polish and Russian (I kid you not). He was born Jean Maria Casimir Prince of Bourbon-Two Sicilies in Warsaw in 1933. His late father was the uncle of the previous King of Spain (Juan Carlos I, who abdicated in 2014). And here’s something else for you: when poor Giovanni was a toddler, he was pushed forward at a ceremony somewhere (I don’t know where) to present a bouquet of flowers to Adolf Hitler …

Giovanni was our glorified ‘society editor’ at Ediciones Condé Nast in Spain. He was also a gifted gourmet and food writer for Spanish and Brazilian Vogue, as well as a connoisseur of all the finer things in life – a man with many stories to tell, yet rather selfishly we often used him to simply ‘open doors’. For the veteran car rally he’d been wheeled out to officially signal the start of it all from outside the Barcelona City Council in the Plaza Sant Jaume – a sort of Spanish equivalent to a Prince Michael of Kent figure for the London-to-Brighton rally, I guess. How times have changed in 23 years. I doubt they’d want someone like Giovanni to do it now. In fact, come to think of it, I doubt they wanted him to do it back in 1994, either – but they’d be much more vocal about it now.

The competition side of the rally is not based on it being a race or a measure of velocity, but the uniqueness of each vehicle’s age or appearance, as well as the costumes of the drivers and passengers to mirror the age and spirit of the time. Giovanni already mirrored the age and spirit of the time. He also looked as regal as you can get, almost like a cartoon character. He had the long Bourbon aristocratic forehead, nose and teeth, all of which went on forever, and he was crowned with neatly trimmed, swept-back silver hair. He was tall, and always immaculately attired, but for the rally he was kitted out from head to foot in Sherlock Holmes gear, complete with cape and hat. It was his own gear … not fancy dress.

So anyway, there I was, sitting in an open-top Bugatti, on the coastal road to Sitges, alongside a man dressed as Sherlock Holmes, who’d once given some flowers to Hitler … and I was wearing an old, smelly, itchy tweed jacket, and it was a hot day, really hot. And then when we finally reached the chequered-flag finishing line in the Passeig de la Ribera of Sitges, I realised I had terrible sunburn from the Mediterranean rays, but it was only on the left side of my face. With his colourful culinary vocabulary, Giovanni said I looked like a half-sliced, well-grilled tomato. We remained close for several years, but he died in Madrid only 6 years later, in December 2000. He was 77.

On Wednesday evening, I was invited to Camp Nou by a good friend to see FC Barcelona put 6 goals past Sporting de Gijón, who could only score one. As Real Madrid could only draw with Las Palmas later that night, Barcelona went top of the league, and it has remained that way after last night’s games, too (after Barça beat Celta 5-0, and Real Madrid won 4-1 against Eibar). Real Madrid still have a game in hand, of course, but it will go to the wire, as they say. Barcelona’s coach, Luis Enrique, officially announced he will be leaving at the end of the season after Wednesday’s game. After a 6-1 win and going top of the league, it was probably the ideal time to announce it.

The atmosphere inside Camp Nou was superb, as always – this week helped, perhaps, by more than one badge-wearing exec from the Mobile World Congress, all trying to take the best photos or videos with their … yes, mobile phones. The MWC attracted 108,000 visitors from 208 countries to Barcelona this week, and it will stay here until 2023 – maintaining the city’s reputation as the mobile nucleus of Europe.

The battle between Madrid and Barcelona continues to intensify in the courts, too, with various on-going trials against Catalonia’s pro-independence politicians. On Monday, the former Catalan President’s right-hand man, Francesc Homs, was brought before the Spanish Supreme Court in Madrid. ‘If putting out ballot boxes challenges the (Spanish) state,’ he said, ‘I don’t want to be part of this state.’

And we have a new high-profile trial that has started in Barcelona this week, too, into the alleged corruption at Barcelona’s Palau de la Música concert hall, eight years after the investigations first begun. Watch this space …

One thought on “Letter from Barcelona (2) – An open-top Bugatti … and flowers for Hitler.

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    March 6, 2017 at 8:44am

    Brilliant memories of Prince Giovanni, Tim!! Remember him well

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