Photo by Melissa Fry
Some people would hate living in one of the most popular plaças of Barcelona, hearing loud tourists, cerveza men and accordion music from their apartment at all hours of the day and night. Brazilian acrobats performing outside your window once is a treat, but seeing them four times a day could become disconcerting. However, Julie Stephenson, co-founder of homeless charity, Esperança, and her 17-year-old daughter, Ella, consider themselves lucky to live in a flat directly off Plaça Reial. They’re city girls, having lived on Carders before gradually moving into their current place last autumn, and couldn’t see themselves anywhere outside the centre.
“I wouldn’t be living here if it wasn’t for Ella, though,” Julie explained. The flat technically belongs to Ella’s father. In the past, he rented it out, but when the last contract finished, he offered it to Ella. She hadn’t seen the apartment since she was 10, but after visiting, she was sure it was where she wanted to live. “So it’s really Ella’s apartment, and I’m just crashing.”
Photo by Melissa Fry
The view of Plaça Reial from the front living room.
When you first enter the flat, the airy, high-ceilinged rooms are a pleasant surprise. As you continue to walk around, you realise the layout is basically one giant circle, with everything revolving around the light well in the middle. “In the past, this place was actually an 11-room pensión,” said Julie. It’s hard to imagine how that would have worked looking at the wide open spaces of the flat today.
First, there’s the wonderfully roomy kitchen. “I like having a kitchen that people can also sit in and hang out,” said Julie. “Cooks like to be sociable, too.” This leads into the elongated dining/living room, which stretches across the entire front of the apartment. Three sets of floor-to-ceiling windows provide views of the square below, perfect for people-watching. “It was still warm when we moved in,” said Julie, “so we would sit on the balcony and enjoy the gorgeous views as much as possible.”
With room to move about and a table that seats 16, this area comes in handy for hosting events. From dinner parties to fondue nights to big Sunday brunches, the pair always seem to be planning something fun at the flat. Every Christmas, Julie has a girls’ night out with her friends and, this year, they used her flat for pre-drinks. “Everyone was so comfortable, laughing and enjoying themselves inside, we almost didn’t want to leave.” Ella and her friends also use the flat to get ready before they go out, and they often end up coming back here at the end of the night. “My two best friends always spend the night at my place,” said Ella. When you live in the middle of Barcelona’s best nightspots, you’re clearly destined to have house guests come the weekend. But Ella assures us it’s a lot of fun.
Photo by Melissa Fry
Ella astride her 16-year-old rocking horse.
Although the flat came mostly furnished, their personalities still shine through in the decoration and in some signature pieces. The most noticeable addition to the living room is a rocking horse that Ella received for her first birthday from her uncle. It’s a sentimental piece that they could never get rid of. The piano, two colourful abstract paintings and a psychedelic floor lamp are also personal touches. Plus two chunky trunks—one of dark wood and the other painted to resemble playing cards—that Julie found a long time ago at secondhand shops.
The cosiest part of the flat is the small nook at the back, where the girls have recreated the living room from their previous flat. Full of soft cushions and blankets, mother and daughter can chill there together and watch TV on their projector. “In fact, when it’s just the two of us, we rarely use the main living room,” Julie admitted.
From there, you can access the bedrooms. Ella uses two of them for a mixture of sleep and study. “I love how spacious the apartment is, but I need a place where I can shut myself off from everything,” she said. “That’s what these rooms are for.” The master suite is Julie’s, and it flows back around to the sights and sounds of the square. “The best thing is that I can drink my coffee in bed and still see the tops of the palm trees out there,” she said with a smile.
The bedrooms are all equipped with double-pane windows, but that doesn’t mean the girls sleep in a silent oasis. “I honestly can’t believe how noisy it is,” Julie said. “It’s really quite incredible.” Ella agreed the noise is hard to handle, but she countered, “If that’s the only con of a beautiful apartment like this, you get used to it.” And they both really love everything else about the neighbourhood. “This area gives me a real sense of community,” said Ella. “When I walk down the street, I always see familiar faces. The shop owners or locals walking their dogs. It’s nice.” She also enjoys a chat with the men selling beer. “They don’t hassle me like they do the tourists,” she explained. “I like talking to them, and I know they have my back if I become a target for any robbers in the vicinity.”
For Julie, it’s all about her routes. When she’s out walking their dog, Lula, she tends to drop by the same places, such as Penny Banger, which her friend owns, the new Federal Café in the Barri Gòtic, or somewhere in Plaça de George Orwell.
Photo by Melissa Fry
The girls’ snug TV room.
It’s strange for them to think about ever leaving this place, the apartment and maybe even Barcelona. Their situation seems so perfect, but Ella is going to finish school soon. She hasn’t decided where she wants to go to university, but England—where she was born—is an option. “I would miss my friends so much if I left, not to mention the Barcelona vibe and way of living,” she said. “I have lived here since I was three, so for me it would mean leaving my home, not just this amazing apartment.” Julie, on the other hand, is just going to miss living with her daughter. “Sometimes it’s like having a large, messy roommate rather than a child,” Julie joked, reflecting on all their years shared under the same roof. And then on a more serious note, “Everyone who knows me knows I’m going to miss Ella very much when she leaves home. But it’s inevitable. That’s life.”
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