Ramon Holgado’s first life sounds quite glamorous: After culinary school in New York he got to woo stars like Dustin Hoffmann with delicious dishes at the Michelin-starred “Chez Pascal.” He traveled a lot, visited thirty countries, and lectured to sold-out halls about high-end cuisine. Nowadays, the Spaniard, who wears a threadbare cap and a mark underneath his left eye, has a different story to tell – one told in quiet and friendly English. How could someone like Ramon become homeless?

While he does not want to spill his entire life story, Ramon mentions contracting a serious illness on his return to Spain. Once he had regained his health, the world and Spanish labor market had moved on and the by now 63-year-old had to survive on the streets. Now back in housing and with a social worker supporting his reintegration into society, he wants to take a further step towards self-sufficiency – and decides to meet Lisa Grace in front of Barcelona’s cathedral.

Lisa, a born and bred Mancunian, considers herself a “social entrepreneur.” She wants to give the homeless work and turns people like Ramon into tourist guides. Her “Hidden City Tours” aim to show visitors a slightly different side of Barcelona: through the city’s lesser known lanes, accompanied by people that often remain invisible in the urban hustle and bustle. At home in Spain since 2004, the 39-year-old lost her market research job in late 2013 – and this turned out to be a real eye-opener. “I realized that I was sick of helping global cosmetics and drinks manufacturers to sell their products.”

Over the past few months, Lisa has worked out a route with plenty of historical and social highlights; a tour she now retraces with Ramon to prepare him for guiding his own group of tourists come next spring. Soon, the two delve into the city’s shadowy alleyways, accompanied by a stream of data and stories on historic Barcelona. The former market researcher is a true fount of grim anecdotes like the one on the 13-year-old virgin Santa Eulalia who – according to legend – was forced into a barrel filled with shards and knifes by the Romans for her Christian beliefs and was then pushed down today’s Baixada by her merciless tormentors. Balancing these gruesome tales, the tour also offers welcome bright spots like a hidden café and bakery run by nuns that delights with well-preserved old Roman baths on the ground floor.

Eventually, Lisa and Ramon reach El Raval, a neighborhood with a strong police presence since prostitution and drug dealing are rife in the district. A ray of hope, light, and warmth for those in need – and another stop on the “hidden” tour is “Chiringuito de Dios,” the bar of god. Here, German believer Wolfgang Striebinger supplies the poor and sick with free meals and a short-term residence because most official forms require a fixed abode. “Many soup kitchens can be unpleasant due to aggression and theft,” adds Ramon, but Wolfgang’s “bar” is more organized. “Everyone joins an orderly queue,” Lisa explains with a quick smile.

In 2014, the alternative guides will find out if their business concept works. In the current economic climate, the founders are unlikely to receive support from the Spanish authorities, but will need to pay high social contributions for their guides. Nevertheless, their outlook is optimistic. “Each year, Barcelona welcomes 7.5 million tourists and most of them come from countries with a relatively strong social conscience and a high willingness to donate, according to the World Giving Index.” A wealth of potential customers and a source of hope for Ramon. Beyond the additional income the Catalan focuses on fundamental values. “The most important thing is to retain your dignity and respect.” And with their choice of city tour, tourists could help Ramon and his colleagues to find their feet again.

Make sure to follow the Hidden City Tours on Facebook and Twitter.

Header image by tomr/photocase.com
All other images by Ole Seidenberg
Text by Daniel Kruse