Enrique Lorenzo, the unofficial godfather of street skateboarding in Barcelona -- widely considered to be one of the top two or three cities in the world to skateboard, and the host of next week's Global X Games stop -- remembers when his hometown was nothing more than unrealized potential. It was 1987. Lorenzo was 10 years old.
"There were maybe 15 skateboarders in the whole city," Lorenzo said. "And nobody was skating Sants or MACBA -- MACBA didn't even exist. People were skating on a little avenue next to [the famous 1882 Roman Catholic cathedral] Sagrada Família, going downhill, doing slides and bonelesses. Nobody was even really doing ollies at that time."
The secret lasted another decade or so. Then, like a perfect wave hidden on a coast full of surfers, word began to leak. A handful of professional skaters and photographers discovered the city's endless possibilities in the late 1990s, and soon enough, skateboarders young and old, from no-name amateurs to an entire generation of elite pros, were flocking to Barcelona like hippies to Woodstock.
Now, if you flip through a recent skateboard magazine or press play on any skateboard film from the past 10 years, Barcelona is one of the most frequently represented locations. Says pro skater Vincent Bressol, a well-traveled Frenchman who like many pros over the years moved to Barcelona for good in 2003: "It's the paradise."
This is mostly due to Barça's architecture. Renowned for its visually stunning buildings and urban spaces, the actual function of those shapes and angles is perhaps most appreciated by skateboarders, who regard the city as surfers regard the North Shore of Oahu. Here, a natural hip; there, a lipstick-shaped column below a wave-like transition. From long slides to manual pads to perfectly positioned ledges and handrails, a skateboarder's first trip to Barcelona always evokes mouth-agape amazement.
"Just the structures, man. The structures are as good as it gets," says Chico Brenes, a longtime Chocolate-sponsored pro who first skated Barcelona 10 years ago. "The architects who did the city, it's almost like they built it for skateboarding. You see natural banks everywhere; if you go somewhere outside the city, you'll find natural quarterpipes. It's like, how is this not made for skateboarding?"
The king of all Barcelona skate spots remains the sprawling marble plaza surrounding MACBA, or the Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona in Catalan. And for that, skateboarders have a Cornell-educated architect named Richard Meier to thank. Meier met then-Barcelona Mayor Pasqual Maragall at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in the mid-1980s. Maragall, already plotting the city's rebirth in advance of its hosting the 1992 Summer Olympics, asked Meier what kind of building he would like to design in Barcelona. Meier's answer: a museum.
The then-56-year-old architect designed MACBA in 1990 and it opened in 1995 after five years of construction. Not coincidentally, given the plaza's baby-butt-smooth surface and perfectly spaced ledges and gaps, the city's skateboarding profile took off soon after MACBA opened. Even now, with hundreds of other spots having gained popularity in and out of the downtown area, the contemporary art museum remains choice No. 1 for locals such as Bressol.
The city's other two iconic spots are the Sants and Paral-lel train stations. Much older than MACBA, Sants is renowned for wooden benches, ledges -- some of them under a roof, which comes in handy during the summer -- and a large flat bar. Paral-lel is the place to go for elevated platforms known as manual pads, as well as ledges sheltered by shade trees.
Among the more recent additions to the go-to menu of spots, Lorenzo says, the W Barcelona hotel, known among locals as Hotel Vela due to its sail shape, is attracting more attention. The 325-foot structure was built in 2009 and offers ledges as well as wave-like transitions on the beach in Barceloneta.
Barcelona no longer holds the undisputed world No. 1 status it did five or six years ago. As tends to happen with skateboard meccas, not only does the sport's core community catch on -- the authorities do, too. A number of skaters interviewed for this story lamented the "bust" Barça has become, with police cracking down, handing out fines, even confiscating skateboards in a city where anything used to fly.
A series of laws proposed in 2005, and ultimately passed, made it tougher to skate in Barcelona. (They also banned a wide range of other activities, including playing music in the street.) Hundreds of local skateboarders distributed flyers warning that "The Skate is going to end" and fought the proposed ordinances with peaceful protests through rush-hour traffic, to no avail.
Stricter policies have driven away some of the crowds -- it's technically illegal to skate at MACBA any day other than Tuesday or Sunday -- sending a ripple effect into rising European cities like Berlin and Lisbon, Portugal. On skateboarding's global stage, Barcelona has been supplanted by Guangzhou, China, as the hottest destination to film and photograph (Brenes, for instance, took eight trips to Guangzhou last year). Meanwhile, Barça holdovers uphold the sport's unwritten laws and skate as they please, albeit with a watchful eye.
"It's a bit of a lottery," Bressol says. "Sometimes you can skate all day and nothing happens, and the next day a cop walks by and starts to bother you."
Adds skateboard filmmaker Ty Evans: "That's happening everywhere in the world, not just Barcelona. But I think that's one of the best things about skateboarders: They're great at adapting to their surroundings, and whenever there's any sort of roadblock by people trying to stop you from skateboarding, skateboarders always figure out a way around that."
History continues to be scripted on the plazas and ledges of Barcelona. Evans, who works with leading action-sports production company Brain Farm and has made more than 20 skateboard films -- often spending three to five years on each one -- ticks off moment after sport-altering moment that took place in Barcelona. Among the standouts: "Alex Olson ollieing the huge street gap at MACBA that's been there forever but no one had ever ollied it [summer of 2007]" and "Eric [Koston's] backside bigspin at the Wave spot in 2003," which was featured in "Yeah Right."
"I still remember the day Eric did that," Evans said, rattling off the details as if it happened earlier that morning.
The list of famous skateboarders who have plied their trade in Barcelona -- from Danny Way to Jesus Fernandez to Paul Rodriguez to Nyjah Huston -- could well include every pro from the past 15 years. Yet despite the city's renown, Lorenzo, the de facto patriarch and probably the person most responsible for exposing it to the world, is still as open as he was when the first outsiders showed up.
"Whenever some of my friends from out of town come to visit, I will show them around," he says. "We go out and skate. It's common courtesy here."