Must see Europe: Olé Barcelona
Barcelona has been breaking ground in art, architecture and style since the late 19th century. From the groundbreaking marvels of Antoni Gaudi’s Modernism to the Cubist movement by founder Pablo Picasso, to the city’s avant-garde chefs who whip up culinary delights that have even the French reaching for superlatives—the racing heart of Barcelona has barely skipped a beat.
Barcelona is set on a plain between sea and the mountains. Long regarded as an imortant port city, Barcelona loves and lives its historical past. From Roman town to medieval trade giant, its old center has one of the most unique studies in Gothic architecture you’ll find anywhere in Europe. You’ll be mesmorized by some of the world’s most bizarre building including the one-of-a-kind Sagrada Familia church by Gaudi. Love it or hate it—it’s bound to cause a reaction one way or another.
Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, a region with its own language, character and history—many Catalans consider themselves Catalan first, Spanish second. The Catalan people are extremely independent and have consistently upheld a desire to be self-governed. There are two official languages spoken in Barcelona: Catalan, generally spoken in all of Catalonia, and Castilian Spanish. The city of Barcelona has a population of more than 1.5 million people.
The capital of Catalonia has a distinctly Mediterranean flavor, not only because of its geographic location but also because of its history, tradition and cultural influences. The documented history of the city dates back to the founding of a Roman colony in the second century B.C—but its actual origins date more than 2,000 years prior, centuries before the Roman Empire ruled the Iberian Peninsula.
Take a Memorable Stroll
Amble through one of the most colorful neighborhoods called La Rambla. Five separate streets strung end to end, La Rambla (also called Las Ramblas) is a tree-lined pedestrian boulevard packed with buskers— living statues, mimes and itinerant salespeople selling everything from lottery tickets to jewelry. The noisy bird market on the second block of La Rambla is worth a stop, as is the nearby Palau de la Virreina, a grand 18th-century rococo mansion. Next door is La Rambla’s most colorful market, the Mercat de la Boqueria. Just south of the Boqueria the Mosaic de Miró punctuates the pavement, with one tile signed by the artist himself.
The next section of La Rambla boasts the Gran Teatre del Liceu, the famous 19th-century opera house. Below the Plaça Reial, La Rambla becomes decidedly seedy, with strip clubs and peep shows, but venture on; La Rambla terminates at the Monument a Colom (Monument to Columbus) and the harbor. You’ll see things haven’t changed much. The discoverer of America is pointing in the wrong direction, because he points to the east at the Mediterranean Sea, and America is on the other side to the west. Take the lift down to the Reials Drassanes (Royal Shipyards), which house the fascinating Museu Marítim. It has more seafaring paraphernalia than you’d care to wag a sextant at—boats, models, maps, paintings, ships’ figureheads and 16th-century galleys.
If you aren’t tired of walking yet, head to the Barri Gotic, an area that contains a concentration of medieval Gothic buildings only a few blocks northeast of La Rambla. This area is the nucleus of old Barcelona. It’s a maze of interconnecting streets and squares, and there are plenty of cafes and bars to choose from. Most of the buildings date from the 14th and 15th century, when Barcelona was at the height of its commercial prosperity and before it had been absorbed into Castile. Around the Catedral, one of Spain’s greatest Gothic buildings, you can still see part of the ancient walls incorporated into contemporary structures. The quarter’s center, the Plaça de Sant Jaume, is a spacious square and the site of a busy market. It is also one of the venues for the weekly dancing of the “sardana”, a regional folk dance of Catalonia in which the dancers form a stately, slow-moving circle.
The Museu Picasso is Barcelona’s most visited museum. It’s housed in three strikingly beautiful stone mansions on the Carrer de Montcada, which was, in medieval times, an approach to the port. The museum shows numerous works that trace the artist’s early years, and is especially strong on his Blue Period with canvases like The Defenseless, ceramics and his early works from the 1890s. The second floor shows works from Barcelona and Paris from 1900-1904, with many of his impressionist-influenced works. The haunting Portrait of Senora Canals (1905), from his Pink Period is also on display.
La Sagrada Familia
La Sagrada Familia is truly awe-inspiring—even if you don’t have much time, don’t miss it. Begun in 1886, it’s life’s work of Barcelona’s favorite son, Antoni Gaudí. The magnificent spires of the unfinished cathedral imprint themselves boldly against the sky with swelling outlines inspired by the holy mountain Montserrat. They are encrusted with a tangle of sculptures that seem to breathe life into the stone. Gaudí died in 1926 before his masterwork was completed, and since then, controversy has continually dogged the building program. Many believe it will never be completed. Nevertheless, the southwestern (Passion) facade, with four more towers, is almost done, and the nave, begun in 1978, is nearing completion as well. Some say the shell should have been left as a monument to the architect, but today’s chief architect, Jordi Bonet, argues that the task is a sacred one, as it’s a church intended to atone for sin and appeal to God’s mercy on Catalunya.
Another Gaudí masterpiece, La Pedrera was built between 1905 and 1910 as a combined apartment and office block. Formerly called the Casa Milà, it’s better known now as La Pedrera (the quarry) because of its uneven grey stone facade that ripples around a street corner - it creates a wave effect that’s further emphasized by elaborate wrought-iron balconies. Visitors can tour the building and go up to the roof, where giant multicolored chimney pots spiral up like medieval guardians. On summer weekend nights; the roof is eerily lit and open for spectacular views of Barcelona. One floor below the roof is a modest museum dedicated to Gaudí’s work.
Montjuic, the hill overlooking the city centre from the southwest, is home to some fine art galleries, leisure attractions, soothing parks and the main group of 1992 Olympic sites. Approach the area from Plaça d’Espanya and on the north side you’ll see Plaça de Braus Les Arenes, a former bullring where the Beatles played in 1966. Behind it lies Parc Joan Miró, where stands Mir’s highly phallic sculpture Dona i Ocell (Woman and Bird). Nearby, the Palau National houses the Museu National dart de Catalunya, which has an impressive collection of Romanesque art. Northwest of Montjuic is the Spanish village of Pole Espanola. At first glance it’s a tacky tourist trap, but it also proves to be an intriguing scrapbook of Spanish architecture, with very convincing copies of buildings from all of Spain’s regions. The Angela Olympic (Olympic Ring) is the group of sports installations where the main events of the 1992 games were held. Down the hill, visit masterpieces of another kind in the Foundation Joan Mire, Barcelona’s gallery for the greatest Catalan artist of the 20th century. This is the largest single collection of his work.
At more than 1700 ft, Tibidabo is the highest hill in the wooded range that creates the magicalbackdrop to Barcelona. On a clear day, it’s a great place for panoramic views of the city. Visit the Parc d’Atraccions, an amusement park with thrill rides and a house of horrors. Just as hair-raising, is the glass lift that takes visitors more than 377 feet from the base to the visitors’ observation area at Torre de Collserola telecommunications tower. Looking for less thrills, then opt to visit the Temple del Sagrat Cor, Barcelona’s answer to Paris’ Sacré Coeur. Looming above Tibidabo’s funicular station, it is actually two churches, one on top of the other. You can’t miss them, one by a huge statue of Jesus Christ.
Beach or Mountain Air
The city itself could keep you occupied for weeks but just outside it are the trendy white sand beaches of Barceloneta and the mysteriously shrouded Montserrat mountain range. Either one is a welcome reprieve; it really just depends on which is calling your name and what time of the year you are visiting.
If you hear your name over the waves, and it’s between May and September, head to Barceloneta—with the rest of Barcelona. Barceloneta may not be the prettiest beach in the area, but it is the closest beach to the city. The easiest way to get there is via the yellow metro line. Walking from the city takes approximately 20 minutes. Barceloneta has a wide range of American style restaurants and bars. Other beaches include the Icaria Beach (beachside bars) and Mar Bella Beach (water sports). The Barcelona beach season usually runs from march 15th to November 15th, when all installations and facilities are dismantled. High season begins May 31st and runs through September 28th.
If the mountains are more your speed, then head to Montserrat and join the age old quest for the Holy Grail. The multi-peaked mountain range houses the Benedictine Abbey of Santa Maria of Montserrat and according to legend, the chalice was protected by the first Grail king and the Abbey monks.
Every country has its fried dough must-have. And Spain has a very delicious example of one. Churros y chocolate is a great treat anytime, but especially during the cold winter months. Churros are a cake-like treat that is long and thin and dusted with sugar, usually fried in a loop shape. They are a popular street food, but they are also served in typical Spanish cafés known as “granjas”. These cafés or Chocolate Restaurants specialize in soft drinks and tasty cakes. Churros are served with a hot chocolate that is so thick and creamy it can be enjoyed with just a spoon.
Must Eat, Must Drink
Catalan cuisine is mainly Mediterranean in nature, with liberal use of olive oil and milk. Traditional Catalan cuisine includes the bruschetta, a special kind of tomato bread, which is a staple in many Catalan homes. The Catalan cuisine also features very little red meat, and more of fowl and fish; one of the famous delicacies being the Escudella, a traditional fish stew. Their garlic and oil sauce, known as allioli, has become famous around the world for its unique pungent flavor.
Barcelona’s cuisine is best known for its four staple elements: sofregit (tomato and onion fried in olive oil); picada (combination of crushed saffron, ham, bread, nuts and garlic); garlic mayonnaise; and Catalan samfaina (mix of aubergines, peppers, onion, tomatoes and garlic).
Barcelona is known for its rich array of tapas. Tapas aren’t distinguished by a specific food, but rather by the portion size. Tapas are bite-sized and can include anything from olives to squid to meatballs. They are found on almost every corner of Barcelona. They originated as street food, but their popularity has resulted in many tapas bars, some are still free as long as you drink.
Barcelona is known to have an active night life and alcohol is a part of its rich culture. While non alcoholic local drinks include the orxata, granizado and the beguda de pobre which means drink of the poor; alcoholic drinks include beer, red wine, Vermuth al grifo, the semi-sparkling wine called Cava and sweet wine Moscatel. Sangria is local drink, a refreshing mix of wine and fruit which can be quite strong and is sometimes mixed with brandy.
Need to Know
The Spanish do not believe in having a heavy breakfast, this meal is usually light and includes coffee combined with any of the various pastry options. Spaniards prefer coffee over tea and drink it as espresso or iced. However, there are several eat outs and cafes that offer other breakfast options.
Walking is preferred, but at some point in time you’ll probably need to use the Metro. Each journey is about 1.5 Euro, so splurge for a T-10 for about 8 Euro, good for 10 one-way trips.
Built in 1929, the magic fountain is a spectacular display of color, light, water acrobatics and music (since 1992) that takes place in the neighbourhood of Montjuic for two hours during the summer. Hours may vary, so check the official website for dates of operation, bcn.cat.
The dragon-like lizard at the entrance to Güell Park has become a symbol of Barcelona. Designed by Antonio Gaudí between 1900- 1914, the park is probably the most famous park in Barcelona. The main entrance to the park, the stairway leading to the Hundred Columns Room, the pavilions, even the benches are covered with brightly colored tiles that appear to be in constant motion. The plaza is bordered by what is known as the largest bench in the world. The colorful ceramic serpentine bench, designed by Jujol, twists snakelike around the entire plaza. The view from the plaza is spectacular, with views as far away as the Mediterranean Sea. The onsite museum and park were declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1984.
The Park de la Ciudadella, is situated in the Barri Gotic, and you can find many huge, important museums of art and culture, and even a lake where you can rent boats in good weather. This was originally a fortress made in the shape of a star, built for King Felipe V in 1715. Now, a public garden and exhibition space, you’ll find typical Spanish architecture and palaces filled with art. The gardens and fountains were designed, in part, by a very young Gaudí.