A ramble in historic Barcelona
Kick the list, not the bucket. Barcelona can’t be shrink-wrapped to a “top ten” trophy list, but here are a few starters.
“The only street in the world which I wish would never end, ” was the great Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca’s take on his favourite Barcelona street, La Rambla or Las Ramblas. The best way to discover the Catalan capital is on the hoof and there’s nowhere better to start than down the wide, 1.2km-long Rambla de Catalunya as it tilts towards Barcelona harbour. Shade trees and seats dot its central promenade while fashion franchise stores form their familiar gauntlet on each side. You can see their wares in any city but not the Rambla’s wondrous array of Modernista-Art Deco buildings, such as Casa Bruno Cuadros, a former umbrella shop whose orientalist fantasy facade bristles with both dragons and brollies. You know your Rambla ramble has finished when you find yourself by the waterfront and looking up at Christopher Colombus who, atop a 60m column, is still gazing far over the horizon.
“My client is in no hurry, ” quipped architect Antoni Gaudi when asked why his devotional masterwork, the massive Sagrada Familia cathedral was taking so long to finish. After 130 years under construction, it is still far from complete but you can join the throngs who queue daily to enter it and gaze up, overwhelmed, at its kaleidoscopic Gothic nave and ceilings. Unfinished, cash-strapped and transcendent, this work of genius is, fittingly, the international symbol of Barcelona.
Elsewhere on the so-called Gaudi Route you can see his smaller-scale, although no less extraordinary works, with shorter queues. Like Lorca poems cast in stone, ceramic and daydreams, 14 of his major creations are scattered across town, including Guell Palace (just off La Rambla), and La Pedrera apartments and Casa Batllo — both not far apart on the central avenue, Passeig de Gracia. Casa Batllo has inspired many nicknames and similes since its unveiling in 1904. For me it is a house of clouds and bones, thanks to its facade of skull-like balconies and whimsical “tibia fibula” columns, along with the nimbus curves of its interior spaces. Gaudi was bowled by a trolley car in 1926 but his spirit still walks through these walls.
A.Gaudi's Casa Batllo. Picture: John Borthwick
Life, as they say in Spain, is what happens between meals. Amid all the shopping, art and architecture, you’ll soon walk up an appetite. Forget the local penchant for dining at 10pm, just hit the tapas bars whenever you want. Try Fishhh! Oyster Bar (557 Avinguda Diagonal). Here there is Catalan seafood tapas to drown for, including exotics such as “goose-necked mussels from the Coast of the Dead” — seriously — all washed down with cava (Spanish sparkling wine), perhaps chased with a frozen lime-juice popsicle and capped with an old-fashioned ice-cream wafer sandwich.
Elsewhere, bars such as Tapas 24 (269 Carrer de la Diputacio) have a near-endless retinue of temptations like ox-meat carpaccio, tuna pie, chunky swordfish adobe, potato tortilla, fried sardines, jamon iberico (cured ham) and tangy turkey escabeche. For an up-market tapas lunch try Le Petite Comite, (13 Passatge de la Concepcio) or the Moritz Beer Brewery. Be warned, Spaniards lunch at their leisure. Hit ’n’ run snacking, Oz-style, isn’t their form. The meal is the main event and life, the sideshow, can happen later, perhaps after siesta.
The Tropic of Gothic
Founded by the Romans, Barcelona has seen glory days come and go, and come again. One of the most important cities of the Kingdom of Aragon, its medieval (and later) architecture is best preserved in the Gothic Quarter. There are two ways to experience this labyrinthine zone: by wandering at will, getting lost and then hopefully finding yourself again, or by joining a walking tour (departing Barcelona Tourism information office, 17 Placa de Catalunya).
Either way, you’re soon amid the Barrio Gotico’s “intestinal windings” (as Robert Hughes called them). Adumbral stone alleys, redolent of the Inquisition or General Franco, or just this morning’s laundry, lead to hidden gardens and museums, while an unsung archway might lead you into a little square with a chapel and cafe. Although much gentrified, this is the “old” Barcelona of days before the city got all frocked-up for the 1992 Olympics. The superstar here is the 14th century Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia, also known as Barcelona Cathedral, that faces a broad market square. Meanwhile, a few blocks away the Palace of Catalan Music (Palau de la Musica Catalana) shouldn’t be missed.
This extraordinary Art Nouveau confection of tiled columns, stained glass and seraphim was designed by Montaner, a contemporary of Gaudi, and is World Heritage-listed.
Drinking in Spain is about more than sinking jugs of sangria. Order a gin and tonic and it arrives in a balloon the size of a fishbowl. Two of these and you’re in the bowl; three and you’re the fish. Similarly, with vermouth often served on tap, you can get into serious martini trouble here. In Passatge de la Concepcio, just off Passeig de Gracia, sample the upstairs/downstairs establishments of Boca Grande and Boca Chica. The elaborate decor is clubby, classic, timbered, mirrored, intimate and enfolds several very cool bars and a restaurant. It’s not cheap but it is excellent. The piece de resistance, however, is in the basement — probably the best bar “bathroom” in the world. This spacious, glorious, white-tiled unisex loo features not only a cascading fountain but also a DJ booth. A disco dunny, no less.
Before You Get There
In his surreal, acerbic book A Spaniard in the Works, John Lennon punned Barcelona’s name as both Barcelover and Barcelunder, but that’s as much as you’ll learn about the place from John. If you’re seriously researching a trip, go to Robert Hughes’ authoritative Barcelona (1992). For dark ambience, dip into Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s novels, The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game, both set here in the early 20th century.
Barcelona comes up well, if not often, on the big screen. Vicky Cristina Barcelona was Woody Allen’s airbrushed, postcard version of the place, however, you’re far more likely to run into gypsy beggars on the Ramblas than Penelope Cruz or Scarlett Johansson lookalikes. Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1975 classic, The Passenger, is a lot grittier, being set in pre-Olympics Barcelona and starring Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider. The delightful comedy, The Spanish Apartment and Almodovar’s more serious, All About My Mother, both capture the city’s ambience minus the cliches.
Barcelona is the fourth most visited city in Europe (after Paris, London, and Rome), drawing visitors whose passions range from gastronomy to history, art and sport. This is the city of Picasso, Miro and Dali, but equally of the huge Barcelona Football Club, a major visitor magnet. However, if you’re in Barcelona for the bullfights, it’s like being in Casablanca for the waters — there are none. In 2010 Catalonia banned all torro v torero match-ups.
Finally, about 300 Australian passports were reported stolen in Spain last year so beware of pickpockets, including backpack pocket-pickers and pickpockets disguised as backpackers. It’s a big, spread-out city of well over five million people but don’t worry if you can’t find the “heart” of Barcelona — it’s all around you.
John Borthwick travelled courtesy of Spain Tourism and Singapore Airlines.
- Singapore Airlines flies from Perth to Barcelona via Singapore, see singporeair.com
- For rail travel, contact EuropeRail, raileurope.com.au
- Two of Barcelona’s very best hotels, both centrally located on Passeig de Gracia, are the classic Majestic Hotel and Spa (hotelmajestic.es) and the very modern Hotel Omm (hotelomm.es)
- Information spain.info and barcelonaturisme.com
© The West Australian
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