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Brilliant Barcelona

Barcelona is a golden city for visitors seeking fine food, culture, green spaces – and even a beach.

I had beeen told that Barcelona is one of the liveliest cities in Europe these days, up there on a level with Prague, Budapest; with more than enough culture to last for a week’s stay but smaller, hipper, than London, Paris or Berlin. So I was delighted when I had the opportunity to visit for a weekend of exploring and learning about this interesting city.

With a population of around 1.7 million, Barcelona is big enough to have lots going on, but small enough that you can explore the city center on foot. Take very comfortable shoes though; by the third day even my tough hiker’s feet preferred to wear sneakers. The combination of hot temperatures (86°F plus at mid-day) and city sidewalks can be killing. Luckily, there are many tempting places to stop, sit, drink a coffee or eat an ice cream, and watch the world go by. The city council has even provided seats and benches on the sidewalk if you don’t need or want to use a cafe.

Getting there
Barcelona International Airport is just a few miles from the city center. Traveling with hand luggage, it took less than 30 minutes from my plane landing to arriving by taxi at my hotel. Barcelona is Spain’s second-largest airport after Madrid, and it is easy, and not too expensive, to get there from many destinations.

If you want to make a stay in Barcelona part of a longer summer vacation, driving through France, perhaps stopping in the Burgundy area or the Pyrenean foothills en-route, is also an option. We heard many French tourists and thought that some of them had probably driven down. The drive through the Pyrenees is spectacular and it is well worth spending a couple of days on either the French or Spanish side if mountain hikes and excellent country cooking are your passions. Having a car while in Barcelona means you can get out of the hot, noisy city and explore the surrounding countryside.

The Olympics helped
My Spanish friends explained that Barcelona had been neglected for decades between the Civil War and the early 1990s. The 1992 Summer Olympic Games brought investment money to clean up the beaches and open them up to the city. Where previously the seafront had been dirty and neglected, lined by abandoned and decaying warehouses, now the excellent public transport system is full of locals and tourists heading for the beach with their surfboards. Since the Olympics, Barcelona has thrived. More and more tourists come for a unique and wonderful combination of culture – the historic center has many buildings by famous architects, some of them UNESCO World Heritage Sites – and beach vacation. Not to mention some of the best food in Europe – another well-kept secret until fairly recently when word got out that Spanish chefs were overtaking the rest of the world for creative cuisine using top-quality ingredients.

Eating out in smart restaurants and simple cafés
After I arrived on Friday evening I walked with a couple of friends to an interesting restaurant, Alkimia, C/ Indústria 79. This is one of TimeOut magazine’s “10 best restaurants in Barcelona” and its chef Jordi Vilà is a member of the new Catalan cuisine group founded several years ago by the legendary Ferran Adrià. It is almost impossible to eat at Adriá”s restaurant El Bulli, thought by many to be the best in the entire world, where the kitchen is almost more of a chemist’s laboratory; you have to reserve more than a year in advance and even then all they do is take your phone number and call you when they have a slot. But Alkimia was easy. We called a couple of days in advance and there we were, eating some of the most interesting food I had ever tasted at a cost of about EUR 100 per person including wines. The seafood in a sea of blue called “Dentro de Mar” was spectacular and the blackberry chocolate-coated ice on a stick, which was part of the desert selection, was so good that one of us asked for, and got, seconds for all of us. Dinner was booked for 9:30 p.m. Many Spanish restaurants do not even open for dinner before 9 p.m.

During the next few days I discovered that the inexpensive option for good food is the tapas bar, where two can eat a selection of 4-5 delicious tapas and drink a beer or two for around EUR 40. Barcelona is not supposed to be a great place for tapas bars, and there were fewer than, say, in Madrid, but the two we tried were very good. The Cervecería Catalana on C/Mallorca 236 is quite upmarket, meaning clean and shiny, no discarded scraps of paper napkins on the floor. Their version of deep-fried green peppers was so good that I went back on my own for more two days later. One of the tapas del dia (tapas of the day) was plantadito di carpaccio de setos de cardo gamba y calamar, which turned out to be some absolutely delicious mushrooms, a grilled shrimp, a perfect tiny squid … and it only cost EUR 2.95. It seems you always have to wait about 10 minutes for a table at Cervecería Catalana but on my own I could hop onto a high stool and sit at the bar. It’s a great place for families, they have a room especially to store strollers and plenty of special baby seats. We also liked the tapas at the Cuines Santa Catarina in the Santa Caterina market, Avinguda de Francesc Cambó, 20. On Sunday lunchtime, only the tapas bar and restaurant were open, the market section with its many stalls was unfortunately closed so I made a note to go back during the week next time I visit Barcelona.

We ate an excellent shrimp paella at a fish restaurant called Els Pescadors, Plaça Prim 1, a bit out of the center so we took the metro to the Poublenou stop. It’s hard to find once you get out of the metro station, but worth it. We also tried another recommended fish restaurant called Set Portes, which was friendly and had excellent vegetable starters but rather disappointing paella with overcooked ingredients. Set Portes cost around EUR 40 per head; at EUR 60 per person Els Pescadors was much the better deal, with greatly superior cooking.

Culture, or: we did we just eat the entire weekend?
Well, we did get a couple of ice creams from Barcelona’s answer to Häagen-Dazs which is called Farggi, very nice ices, which tended to melt very fast in the heat but we also managed to fit in quite a bit of culture. We began by exploring the part of town called Eixample, famous for its many buildings in the Barcelona version of art nouveau called Modernisme. We started in the Passeig de Gràcia which not only has several moderniste buildings but also some very smart shops. (Carolina Herrera at No 87 had a sale on with up to 60% reductions, a shocking pink cocktail dress was to die for if I could only have figured out when and where I would wear it. Dolce & Gabbana just opposite a branch of Farggi very kindly invited me in to wash my ice-cream sticky hands). The Mansana de la Discòrdia – literally “the block of discord” because of the three very different buildings by three different architects, Gaudí, Domènech i Montaner and Puig i Cadafalch, is at Nos 35-45. Casa Battló at No 43 is a key moderniste work designed by Antoní Gaudi in 1877, which has recently been opened to the public. Entry is restricted so that the house is never overcrowded but it is well worth waiting in line for 10 minutes. Like many Gaudí buildings, it is very colorful, there’s a Disney feel about it, like a gingerbread house with dragons or lizards (Gaudí’s iconic giant porcelain lizard has become one of Barcelona”s symbols).

Rambles and parks
We also loved the lively la Rambla street in the nearby Old City, with its shops, cafés, street markets and Liceu opera house (planned for the 2008-09 season: São Paulo Ballet, Pina Bausch Company and Nederlands Dans Theater 1, all must-sees for the lover of modern dance). There were also several nice-looking hotels on la Rambla, which I could well choose to stay in on my next visit. We finished off our first afternoon with a trip out to the Parc de Montjuic. A cool walk under shady trees and a lot of water in a streetside café restored our enthusiasm for culture.

We visited the Fundació Miró, located within the park, which contains the finest public collection of works by the Barcelona artist Juan Miró, with 300 paintings, 150 sculptures and what they say is the complete collection of his graphic works. Miró is the artist most of us associate with Spain, many of his colorful paintings from the 1920s and 1930s look as if they were made specifically to go on a Spanish Tourist Office poster.

Since travel writers make mistakes so their readers don’t have to, I’ll explain two important mistakes we made.
• First important thing: at the Fundació Miró ticket office we were offered a season ticket called articket. This ticket, which cost EUR 40 (not the EUR 20 stated on; I guess they haven’t updated their website) offered entrance to seven major Barcelona museums for a period of six months. The seven are: Fundació Joan Miró, Museu Picasso, Fundació Caixa Catalunya / La Pedrera, Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Museu d”Art Contemporani de Barcelona, Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (CCCB) and Museu Nacional d”Art de Catalunya (MNAC). We figured we would only manage two or at most three of the seven and thus that it would be cheaper to pay separate admission. But when we discovered the next day that Sunday lines to get into both La Pedrera and the Museu Picasso were well over an hour and that we could have gone straight into both those places had we bought the artickets we wished we had spent the money. Did we miss much by not waiting to go into the Picasso museum? Several people have told me that it’s disappointing, that all the best stuff is in Paris, at the Musée Picasso, but our guidebook mentioned many works from Picasso’s early Blue Period as well as some interesting later works and I would have liked the chance to see for myself.
• Second important thing: opening hours. Fundació Joan Miró is open from 10 a.m. – 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday (9 p.m. on Thursday) but only 10 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. on Sundays. We wanted to visit the chocolate museum, Museu de la Xocolata, after Sunday lunch but strolled up to find the doors closed; the Museu de la Xocolata is open until 7 p.m. Monday and Wednesday through Saturday but closes at 3 p.m. on Sundays. If we had only checked our guidebook more closely we would have left Sunday morning’s stroll in Parc Güell for the afternoon.

Parc Güell and Gaudí
Parc Güell, a leafy park to the north of central Barcelona, was commissioned by Eusebio Güell in 1900 to be developed as a kind of upmarket housing estate / garden city for Barcelona’s increasingly prosperous upper middle classes. But Gaudí’s initial plans for the park – the entrance area with its famous giant porcelain lizard, Hansel and Gretel gingerbread houses, and broken porcelain decorations which reminded us of Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn in Bangkok, is like a mad version of Disney World – did not appeal to prospective buyers and only two houses were ever built. The park is a lovely place to spend an hour or two though, with paths leading up through shady gardens planted with oleander and bougainvillea, tables for picnicking or playing cards, and remarkably good street musicians playing excellent jazz or classical violin on the day we visited.

On Monday, there was just time for me to visit one more tourist attraction: La Pedrera, also known as Espai Gaudí, yet another Gaudí masterpiece located on Passeig de Gràcia 92. Since so many tourist sites are closed Mondays, I decided I might as well stand in line for 20 minutes to get in. Espai Gaudì is an arts center these days and I enjoyed an exhibition of Japanese prints from the Bibiothèque nationale in Paris, including 12 of Katsushika Hokusai”s “36 Views of Mount Fuji” one of my very favorite Japanese works of art, so very different from Gaudì”s gaudy works. The roof terrace was my favorite part of La Pedrera, with fantastic views over the city and Arabian-nights style turrets and balustrades.

Most useful guidebook
We used TimeOut’s Barcelona guide, which we found very helpful and highly recommend. As well as the printed book, which we carried everywhere (just wish we had checked opening times in it) there is also a Website: Since I wanted to write about my Barcelona impressions, I made a very deliberate decision not to read about Barcelona on the Web until I had finished my article. But now I have looked, I can see that is a good place to check on music, theater, dance, and also hotels.

Text © Ailsa Mattaj & • Photos used with the kind permission of I. Mattaj

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