Beautiful, bizarre... why Barcelona should be on your bucket list

Beautiful, bizarre Barcelona - Gaudi's work is everywhere.

Three nights in Barcelona – what would you do with them? It’s a cultural and architectural dream, with a laid-back pace yet plenty of razzmatazz, endless sunshine and unbeatable food. Plus there’s that football team. Tempted? With a direct flight from Jersey available in September, we asked Peter Frankland and his wife Stephanie (she comes from Barcelona) to share an insiders’ view of one of Europe’s most vibrant cities.

 

MORE than two decades have passed since the Spanish city with a reputation for crime and decay was reborn as one of Europe’s leading tourist destinations.

The catalyst for this transformation was the 1992 Olympic Games, during which the capital of Catalonia had a total facelift to turn it into the vibrant, cultural hub that it is today.

Spain’s second-largest city is one of the world’s leading economic and cultural centres and its contributions to science, entertainment, fashion, education, media and the arts make it one of the world’s major cities.

And with three-night breaks flying direct from Jersey in September, it’s one to add to your bucket list.

The city has an intense sense of identity, one which is ever-increasing as the campaign for Catalan independence builds at an alarming rate, and its language, culture and traditions are fiercely guarded. You will struggle to find another city in Europe with a people as proud and passionate about their home as the people of Barcelona. The locals do not take their city and all its charms, culture and lifestyle for granted and it truly shows.

Barcelona combines everything that is most charming about Mediterranean cities – a laid-back pace yet plenty of razzmatazz, months of endless sunshine and unbeatable food. Don’t arrive here with too much of an agenda, however, as one of the real pleasures is simply mooching.

The city is sandwiched between mountains to the west and the Mediterranean to the east and anyone not familiar with Barcelona is advised to plunge straight into its most celebrated street, and central axis of the city, La Rambla.

This wonderful, wide, colourful boulevard runs from the centre of the city, Placa de Catalunya (a beautiful, large square adorned with fountains, statues and surrounded by chic cafes and shops) to the giant statue of Columbus on the seafront.

Teeming with all of Europe’s life, tree-lined La Rambla is a pedestrians-only zone, home to street artists, entertainers, tat sellers and living statues, and stretches for about a mile.

It’s popular with tourists and locals and the Spanish poet and playwright Frederico Garcia Lorca once said that La Rambla was ‘the only street in the world which I wish would never end’.

To the north and east from here lies the ancient core of the city, the Barri Gotic, a labyrinth of winding cobbled streets, most of which are closed to traffic, lined with wonderful medieval architecture and scattered with boutique shops and cafes. Many of the streets open up into small squares, the most famous of which is Placa Reial (Royal Plaza) and which is well worth a visit, especially at night, for some of the city’s most famous nightclubs and bars.

Also within the Barri Gotic is the Catedral de la Santa Creu i Santa Eulalia (Barcelona Cathedral), which is the seat of the Archbishop of Barcelona and was constructed between the 13th and the 15th centuries atop a former Roman temple.

The exterior sits like a Disney construction, adorned with gargoyles of both domestic and mystical animals, but the interior is truly beautiful and should not be missed.

The cloister is known for its courtyard, which is home to 13 noisy geese. They represent the age of Saint Eulalia, who is buried in the crypt and to whom the cathedral is dedicated. From the roof you can also get an impressive panoramic view of the city.

The Monument a Colum is Barcelona’s answer to Nelson’s Column (which some say provided the inspiration) and sits at the eastern end of La Rambla. Locals believe that Christopher Columbus was not Italian but Catalan and the panels around the base of the plinth depict Columbus’ various voyages and exploits.

There is a frighteningly creaky lift up to the top of the 60m. high monument and although the view out to sea from the top is spectacular, it’s not for the faint-hearted.

Across the (extremely busy) road from Columbus is the entry to Port Vell (old harbour), one of Barcelona’s most appealing areas. The area was rejuvenated as part of the urban renewal programme just before the Olympics and as such takes something of a back seat in the list of attractions of the city, with the Gaudi buildings and more historical sites elsewhere considered Barcelona’s crown jewels.

Port Vell offers a different and more modern twist and is well worth a wander around for a bit of people watching and to take in a view of the superyachts which sit alongside the quay. It also houses many other attractions, including the Maremagnum, a large shopping centre containing a multiplex cinema, bars and restaurants. There is an Imax here too and Europe’s largest aquarium (spectacular and not to be missed).

On the subject of cinemas, there are many in Barcelona that show films in English (with Spanish, or Catalan subtitles). Look for ‘VO’ (Version Original) at the end of the advertised film title. By far the easiest one to find is the Yelmo Icaria, which is just over the road from the beach near the port.

One of the city’s major pluses is its beaches and although some of them are man-made – with sand dredged from the seabed and palm trees imported from Malaga – there is no doubt that the few miles of sand lapped by the warm, clear waters of the Mediterranean are a Mecca for locals as well as tourists and they form an integral part of the neighbourhood.

The beaches are quite classy and get quieter the further north you go. The liveliest is the Platja de Barceloneta, marked by visual artist Rebecca Horn’s tower of rusty cubes, and is home to some of the city’s hippest bars and clubs as well as a casino and the Hotel Arts – a 44-storey luxury hotel often frequented by celebrities. This is the area to head to for a night out, with countless chill-out bars and cocktail lounges dotted among some fine restaurants.

A top tourist attraction is a visit to Camp Nou, one of the greatest stadiums in the world and the home of Barcelona Football Club. There is a guided tour that takes you pitchside through the player’s tunnel, allows access into the visiting teams’ dressing room and includes a visit to the club’s museum, where you can gawp at the mountain of silverware on display. But be warned: the stadium is no oil painting from the outside and the surrounding area is drab and nondescript, so unless you want to watch a game or take the tour I’d advise against a visit. The real magic of the stadium is saved for the interior, where the jaw-dropping view from the upper tiers of seating in the giant bowl is frighteningly spectacular, even before the football begins.

If that isn’t your scene, then taking in some of the city’s spectacular architecture might be. You can’t escape the work of Antoni Gaudi, of course. His designs are world-renowned and the natural, curved stonework, twisted iron sculptures and organic shapes create a stunning and very individual face for the city. La Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s magnum opus, is Barcelona’s number-one visitor attraction and most famous symbol. It’s a giant basilica that has been under construction since 1882 (yes, 1882) and is not expected to be completed any time soon. Much controversy surrounds the building and since Gaudi’s death in 1926 it has been ‘open to interpretation’ on the final design, which some say would not have won his perfectionist approval. Be prepared to see some degree of building work under way but don’t let it put you off, as it’s quite interesting to watch and to compare the new work with the old. The interior is stunningly beautiful, with the central nave rising to mind-boggling heights. Every door, every column and almost every area has its own concrete or symbolic significance and is adorned with pattern, colour and sculpture.

If you’ve only got a short time in the city it’s well worth pre-booking tickets online, as the queues are almost as famous as La Sagrada Familia itself and in the blistering Spanish sunshine are no fun at all. If you intend to queue take plenty of water and expect to be standing around for up to two hours to get in.

Another famous Gaudi building worth a look is Casa Batllo. From the outside the facade looks as if it has been made from skulls and bones, but the ‘skulls’ are balconies and the ‘bones’ supporting pillars.

Gaudi used colours and shapes found in marine life as inspiration for his creativity in this building, with the colours chosen for the facade similar to those found in natural coral.

Architecture in Barcelona isn’t all about Gaudi, though, and you’ll find modern, bold, colourful and distinctive works wherever you look.

Few European cities can offer the wide diversity of cultural experience that you’ll find in Barcelona. Couple that with the beach only a short walk from the centre, warm sunshine most of the year and some of the finest food you’ll find in the Mediterranean and you have all the makings of a great holiday.