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Barcelona

The infinite variety of street life, the nooks and crannies of the medieval Barri Gòtic, the ceramic tile and stained glass of Art Nouveau facades, the art and music, the throb of street life, the food (ah, the food!)—one way or another, Barcelona will find a way to get your full attention.

The Catalonian capital greets the new millennium with a cultural and industrial rebirth comparable only to the late-19th-century Renaixença (Renaissance) that filled the city with its flamboyant Moderniste (Art Nouveau) buildings. An exuberant sense of style—from hip new fashions to cutting-edge interior design, to the extravagant visions of star-status Postmodern architects—gives Barcelona a vibe like no other in the world. Barcelona is Spain’s most-visited city, and it’s no wonder: it’s a 2,000-year-old master of the art of perpetual novelty.

What sinks in first about Barcelona is its profoundly human scale—its dogged attention, in all matters of urban development, to the quality of life. Corner buildings in the Eixample are chamfered, leaving triangles of public space at the intersections for people to do what people have done on street corners since cities were invented: stop and schmooze, put out tables and chairs, survey the passing scene. Arteries like La Rambla, Diagonal, and Rambla de Catalunya send the vehicle traffic flowing down both sides of broad leafy pedestrian promenades. Benches and pocket parks are everywhere, graced as often as not with a striking piece of sculpture. You have to look hard for a building more than nine stories high: barcelonins are reluctant to live too far up away from the street, where all the action is.

And the action never stops. Families with baby strollers are a common sight on La Rambla until well after midnight. Restaurants don’t even begin to fill up for dinner until 9 or 10. At 2 am, the city’s bar and club scene is barely in first gear. Creative, acquisitive, and playful in about equal doses, barcelonins seem to have learned to do without much sleep; they stay up late but then just get up in the morning and go about their business—buying and selling, planning, building, working in fields where Catalonia has established itself at the frontier, in everything from medical research to “smart city” green technologies, to hospitality.

Barcelona’s present boom began on October 17, 1987, when Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, announced that his native city had been chosen to host the 1992 Olympics. This single masterstroke allowed Spain’s so-called second city to throw off the shadow of Madrid and its 40-year “internal exile” under Franco, and resume its rightful place as one of Europe’s most dynamic destinations. The Catalan administration lavished millions in subsidies from the Spanish government for the Olympics, then used the Games as a platform to broadcast the news about Catalonia’s cultural and national identity from one end of the planet to the other. Madrid? Where’s that? Calling Barcelona a second city of anyplace is playing with fire; its recent past as a provincial outpost is well behind it, and the city looks to the future with more creativity and raw energy than ever. More Mediterranean than Spanish, historically closer and more akin to Marseille or Milan than to Madrid, Barcelona has always been ambitious, decidedly modern (even in the 2nd century), and quick to accept the most recent innovations. (The city’s electric light system, public gas system, and telephone exchange were among the first in the world.) Its democratic form of government is rooted in the so-called Usatges Laws instituted by Ramon Berenguer I in the 11th century, which amounted to a constitution. This code of privileges represented one of the earliest known examples of democratic rule; Barcelona’s Consell de Cent (Council of 100), constituted in 1274, was Europe’s first parliament and one of the cradles of Western democracy. The center of an important seafaring commercial empire, with colonies spread around the Mediterranean as far away as Athens, when Madrid was still a Moorish outpost on the arid Castilian steppe; it was Barcelona that absorbed new ideas and styles first. It borrowed navigation techniques from the Moors. It embraced the ideals of the French Revolution. It nurtured artists like Picasso and Miró, who blossomed in the city’s air of freedom and individualism. Barcelona, in short, has always been ahead of the curve.

It must have something to do with the air. The temperature here is almost always just right; the sky is impossibly blue; the light dazzles and transforms. Every now and then a breeze from the sea reminds you that Barcelona is, after all, a beach city and one of the great ports of Europe, still flourishing—and bewitching visitors as it has for centuries.

POINTS OF INTEREST

GENERALITAT DE CATALUNYA

Opposite city hall, the Palau de la Generalitat is the seat of the autonomous Catalan government. Seen through the front windows of this ornate 15th-century palace, the gilded ceiling of the Saló de Sant Jordi (St. George’s Hall), named for Catalonia’s dragon-slaying patron saint, gives an idea of the lavish decor within. Carrer del Bisbe, running along the right side of the building from the square to the Cathedral, offers a favorite photo op: the ornate gargoyle-bedecked Gothic bridge overhead, connecting the Generalitat to the building across the street. The Generalitat opens to the public on the second and fourth weekends of the month, with free one-hour guided tours in English on request, through the Generalitat website. The building is also open to visitors on Día de Sant Jordi (St. George’s Day: April 23), during the Fiesta de la Mercé in late September, and on the National Day of Catalonia (September 11). There are carillon concerts here on Sunday at noon, another opportunity to see inside.

PLAÇA DE GARRIGA I BACHS

Ceramic murals depicting executions of heroes of the Catalan resistance to Napoleonic troops in 1809 flank this little space just outside the cloister of the Catedral de la Seu. The first three scenes show the five resistance leaders awaiting their turns to be garroted or hanged (the garrote vil, or vile garrote, was reserved for the clergymen, as hanging was considered a lower and less-humane form of execution). The fourth scene depicts the surrender of three agitators who attempted to rally a general Barcelona uprising to save the first five by ringing the cathedral bells. The three are seen here, pale and exhausted after 72 hours of hiding in the organ, surrendering after being promised amnesty by the French. All three were subsequently executed. The bronze statue of the five martyred insurgents (1929) is by the Moderniste sculptor Josep Llimona, whose prolific work in Barcelona also includes the frieze on the Arc de Triomf and the equestrian statue of Count Ramon Berenguer III (1068–1131) in the Plaça de Ramon Berenguer el Gran, between Via Laietana and the Cathedral.

MUSEU D’HISTÒRIA DE LA CIUTAT

This fascinating museum just off Plaça del Rei traces Barcelona’s evolution from its first Iberian settlement through its Roman and Visigothic ages and beyond. Antiquity is the focus here: the Romans took the city during the Punic Wars, and the striking underground remains of their Colonia Favencia Julia Augusta Paterna Barcino (Favored Colony of the Father Julius Augustus Barcino), through which you can roam on metal walkways, are the museum’s main treasure. Archaeological finds include the walls of houses, mosaics and fluted columns, and workshops (for pressing olive oil and salted fish paste), marble busts, and funerary urns. Especially fascinating is to see how the Visgoths and their descendants built the early medieval walls on top of these ruins, recycling whatever came to hand: chunks of Roman stone and concrete, bits of columns—even headstones. The price of admission to the museum includes entry to the other treasures of the Plaça del Rei, including the Palau Reial Major, the splendid Saló del Tinell, and the chapel of Santa Àgata.

MUSEU DEL MODERNISME DE BARCELONA

Unjustly bypassed in favor of rival displays in the Casa Milà, Casa Batlló and the DHUB Design Museum in Pl. de les Glòries, this museum houses a small but rich collection of Moderniste furniture, paintings and posters, sculpture (including works by Josep Limona), and decorative arts.

MUSEU EGIPCI DE BARCELONA

Housing what is probably Spain’s most comprehensive exhibition on Egypt, this excellent museum takes advantage of state-of-the-art curatorial techniques that are nearly as interesting as the subject matter, which ranges from mummies to exhibits on what the ancient Egyptian had for dinner. On Friday in summer (June–September), there are night visits 9:30–11, with light dinner on the terrace; the guided tours are only in Catalan or Spanish.

SANT AGUSTÍ

This unfinished church is one of Barcelona’s most unusual structures, with jagged stone sections projecting down the left side, and the upper part of the front entrance on Plaça Sant Agustí waiting to be covered with a facade. The church has had an unhappy history. Originally part of an Augustinian monastery, it was first built between 1349 and 1700, later abandoned, rebuilt only to be destroyed in 1714 during the Wars of the Spanish Succession, rebuilt again, burned in the anti-religious riots of 1825, when the cloisters were demolished, rthen looted and torched again in the closing days of the Civil War. Sant Agustí comes alive on May 22, feast day of Santa Rita, patron saint of “los imposibles”—that is, lost causes. Unhappily married women, unrequited lovers, and all-but-hopeless sufferers of every sort form long lines through the square and down Carrer Hospital. Each carries a rose that will be blessed at the chapel of Santa Rita on the right side of the altar.

SANT PAU DEL CAMP

Barcelona’s oldest monastic church was originally outside the city walls (del camp means “in the fields”) and was a Roman cemetery as far back as the 2nd century, according to archaeological evidence. A Visigothic belt buckle found in the 20th century confirmed that Visigoths used the site as a cemetery between the 2nd and 7th centuries. What you see now was built in 1127 and is the earliest Romanesque structure in Barcelona. Elements of the church—the classical marble capitals atop the columns in the main entry—are thought to be from the 6th and 7th centuries. Sant Pau is bulky and solid, featureless (except for what may be the smallest stained-glass window in Europe, high on the facade facing Carrer Sant Pau), with stone walls 3 feet thick or more; medieval Catalan churches and monasteries were built to be refuges for the body as well as the soul, bulwarks of last resort against Moorish invasions—or marauders of any persuasion. Check local events listings for musical performances here; the church is an acoustical gem. The tiny cloister is Sant Pau del Camp’s best feature, and one of Barcelona’s hidden treasures. Look carefully at the capitals that support the Moorish-influenced Mudejar arches, carved with biblical scenes and exhortations to prayer. This penumbral sanctuary, barely a block from the heavily trafficked Avinguda del Paral.lel, is a gift from time.

PARK GÜELL

This park is one of Gaudí’s, and Barcelona’s, most visited attractions. Named for and commissioned by Gaudí’s steadfast patron, Count Eusebi Güell, it was originally intended as a gated residential community based on the English Garden City model, centered on a public square, where impromptu dances and plays could be performed, built over a covered marketplace. Only two of the houses were ever built (one of which, designed by Gaudí’s assistant Francesc Berenguer, became Gaudí’s home from 1906 to 1926 and now houses the Casa-Museu Gaudí museum of memorabilia). Ultimately, as Barcelona’s bourgeoisie seemed happier living closer to “town,” the Güell family turned the area over to the city as a public park—which it still is, for local residents. Visitors must pay an entrance fee. You can purchase tickets online, at the park, and at the Lesseps and Vallcarca metro stations.

An Art Nouveau extravaganza with gingerbread gatehouses, Park Güell is a perfect place to visit on a sunny afternoon, when the blue of the Mediterranean is best illuminated by the western sun. The gatehouse on the right, topped with a rendition in ceramic tile of the hallucinogenic red-and-white fly ammanite wild mushroom (rumored to have been a Gaudí favorite) houses the Center for the Interpretation and Welcome to Park Güell. The center has plans, scale models, photos, and suggested routes analyzing the park in detail. Atop the gatehouse on the left sits the phallus impudicus (no translation necessary). Other Gaudí highlights include the Room of a Hundred Columns—a covered market supported by tilted Doric-style columns and mosaic medallions; the double set of stairs; and the iconic lizard guarding the fountain between them. There’s also the fabulous serpentine, polychrome bench enclosing the square. The bench is one of Gaudí assistant Josep Maria Jujol’s most memorable creations, and one of Barcelona’s best examples of the trencadís technique (mosaics of broken tile fragments: recyling as high art). From the metro at Plaça de Lesseps, or the Bus Turístic stop on Travessera de Dalt, take Bus No. 24 to the park entrance, or make the steep 10-minute climb uphill on Carrer de Lallard.

ZOO

Barcelona’s excellent zoo occupies the whole eastern end of the Parc de la Ciutadella. There’s a superb reptile house and a full assortment of African animals. The dolphin show usually plays to a packed house.

PORT OLÍMPIC

Choked with yachts, restaurants, tapas bars, and mega-restaurants serving reasonably decent fare continuously 1 pm to 1 am, the Olympic Port is 1 mile up the beach from Barceloneta, marked by the mammoth shimmering goldfish sculpture, in its net of girders, by starchitect Frank Gehry, who designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. In the shadow of Barcelona’s first real skyscraper, the Hotel Arts, the Olympic Port draws hundreds—nay, thousands—of young people of all nationalities on Friday and Saturday nights, especially in summer, to the beach at Nova Icària, generating a buzz redolent of spring break in Cancún.

ARC DEL TRIOMF

This imposing, exposed-redbrick arch was built by Josep Vilaseca as the grand entrance for the 1888 Universal Exhibition. Similar in size and sense to the traditional triumphal arches of ancient Rome, this one refers to no specific military triumph anyone can recall. In fact, Catalonia’s last military triumph of note may have been Jaume I el Conqueridor’s 1229 conquest of the Moors in Mallorca—as suggested by the bats (always part of Jaume I’s coat of arms) on either side of the arch itself. The Josep Reynés sculptures adorning the structure represent Barcelona hosting visitors to the exhibition on the western side (front), while the Josep Llimona sculptures on the eastern side depict the prizes being given to its outstanding contributors.

MUSEU D’HISTÒRIA DE CATALUNYA

Established in what used to be a port warehouse, this state-of-the-art interactive museum makes you part of Catalonian history from prehistoric times through more than 3,000 years and into the contemporary democratic era. After centuries of “official” Catalan history dictated from Madrid (from 1714 until the mid-19th century Renaixença, and from 1939 to 1975), this offers an opportunity to revisit Catalonia’s autobiography. Explanations of the exhibits appear in Catalan, Castilian, and English. Guided tours are available Sunday at noon and 1 pm. The rooftop restaurant has excellent views over the harbor and is open to the public (whether you visit the museum itself) during museum hours.

FONT DE CANALETES

This fountain is a key spot in Barcelona, the place where all great futbol victories are celebrated by jubilant (and often unruly) Barça fans. It was originally known for the best water in Barcelona, brought in by canaletes (small canals) from the mountains. The bronze plaque on the pavement in front of the fountain explains in Catalan that if you drink from these waters, you will fall under Barcelona’s spell and are destined to return forevermore.

CASTELL DE MONTJUÏC

Built in 1640 by rebels against Felipe IV, the castle has had a dark history as a symbol of Barcelona’s military domination by foreign powers, usually the Spanish army. The fortress was stormed several times, most famously in 1705 by Lord Peterborough for Archduke Carlos of Austria. In 1808, during the Peninsular War, it was seized by the French under General Dufresne. Later, during an 1842 civil disturbance, Barcelona was bombed from its heights by a Spanish artillery battery. After the 1936–39 Civil War, the castle was used as a dungeon for political prisoners. Lluís Companys, president of the Generalitat de Catalunya during the civil war, was executed by firing squad here on October 14, 1940. In 2007 the fortress was formally ceded back to Barcelona. The present uses of the space include an Interpretation Center for Peace, a Space for Historical Memory, and a Montjuïc Interpretation Center, along with cultural and educational events and activities. A popular weekend park and picnic area, the moat contains attractive gardens, with one side given over to an archery range, and the various terraces have panoramic views over the city and out to sea.

MUSEU BLAU-COLECCIONES GEOLOGÍA I

Barcelona’s first public museum, now in its ultra-modern new home in the Marisme, displays rocks, minerals, and fossils along with special exhibits on Catalonia and Spain. Kids will go for the hands-on interactive “Living Planet” exhibits and the special collection of venomous beasties. The affiliated Jardi Botànic (biotanical garden ), on Montjuic near the Olympic Stadium, boasts a notable collection of species of trees, flowers, and shrubs from Australia, South Africa, California, South America, and the Mediterranean.

BIBLIOTECA FRANCESCA BONNEMAISON

Barcelona’s (and probably the world’s) first library established exclusively for women, the Biblioteca Popular de la Dona was founded in 1909, evidence of the city’s early-20th-century progressive attitudes and tendencies. Over the opulently coffered main reading room, the stained-glass skylight reads “Tota dona val mes quan letra apren” (Any woman’s worth more when she learns how to read), the first line of a ballad by the 13th-century Catalan troubadour Severí de Girona. Once Franco’s Spain composed of church, army, and oligarchy had restored law and order after the Spanish civil war, the center was taken over by Spain’s one legal political party, the Falange, and women’s activities were reoriented toward more domestic pursuits such as sewing and cooking. Today the library complex includes a small theater and offers a lively program of theatrical and cultural events.

PALAU DALMASES

If you can get through the massive wooden gates that open onto Carrer Montcada (at the moment, the only opportunity is when the first-floor café-theater Espai Barroc is open) you’ll find yourself in Barcelona’s best 17th-century Renaissance courtyard, built into a former 15th-century Gothic palace. Note the door knockers up at horseback level; then take a careful look at the frieze of “The Rape of Europa” running up the stone railing of the elegant stairway at the end of the patio. It’s a festive abduction: Neptune’s chariot, cherubs, naiads, dancers, tritons, and musicians accompany Zeus, in the form of a bull, as he carries poor Europa up the stairs and off to Crete. The stone carvings in the courtyard, the 15th-century Gothic chapel, with its reliefs of angelic musicians, and the vaulting in the reception hall and salon, are all that remain of the original 15th-century palace. Espai Barroc, on the ground floor, is a café-theater (flamenco, jazz, opera concertante) with baroque-era flourishes, period furniture, and musical performances.

MUSEU PICASSO

The Picasso Museum is housed in five adjoining palaces on Carrer Montcada, a street known for Barcelona’s most elegant medieval palaces. Picasso spent his key formative years in Barcelona (1895–1904), and this collection, while it does not include a significant number of his best paintings, is particularly strong on his early work. The museum was begun in 1962 on the suggestion of Picasso’s crony Jaume Sabartés, and the initial donation was from the Sabartés collection. Later Picasso donated his early works, and in 1981 his widow, Jaqueline Roque, added 141 pieces.

Highlights

Displays include childhood sketches, works from the artist’s Rose and Blue periods, and the famous 1950s cubist variations on Velázquez’s Las Meninas (in Rooms 22–26). The lower-floor sketches, oils, and schoolboy caricatures and drawings from Picasso’s early years in A Coruña are perhaps the most fascinating part of the whole museum, showing the facility the artist seemed to possess almost from the cradle. His La Primera Communión (First Communion), painted at the age of 16, gives an idea of his early accomplishment. On the second floor you see the beginnings of the mature Picasso and his Blue Period in Paris.

Tips

Buy tickets on line for a specific day/time slot, and skip the queues.

When the museum offers free admission, expect long lines, so arrive extra early.

For a light Mediterranean meal, the terrace café and restaurant provides a good resting point and breaks up your visit into manageable portions.