¡ Hola señor, señora ! ¿ Hablas Inglès ? Barcelona... the most inviting city I've been to yet, with lots of contrasting things and a well for inspiration. As the centre of a powerful metropolitan region and the capitol of Catalonia, it's the city of Gaudí and modern architects. City of designers and artists. Barcelona is undoubtedly the most trendy city of Spain.
Barcelona is a city engaged in a continuous process of renewal and improvement that results in day-to-day gains in the quality of life. It has a rich cultural heritage of its two thousand year history, the reality of the present an the hopes of the future. Strolling through the streets and squares, you can enjoy the Roman walls, the Gothic Quarter, the architecture of the Eixample, the Modernism of Antonio Gaudí and work of Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró. And on top of that, the city has excellent facilities, modern services and its gastronomy is outstanding!
When I first visited Barcelona in December 1995 (I went back in April 1998 and in May 2000), I bought a cheap airplane ticket and made reservations for a room in the oldest part of the city, Barri Gòtic, near the seaside. It took about 20 minutes from the Barcelona airport to the Plaça Catalunya (blue tourist bus). From Plaça Catalunya I walked through the Barri Gòtic to my hotel. It turned out to be an excellent choice. Hotel Metropol (Ample 31)- en el corazón de Barcelona- is a nice, quiet hotel and a perfect base for several reconnoitering expeditions. I didn't know what to expect of this city, except that it had a rich history of "Art Nouveau" and that the architect Antoni Gaudí has created some beautiful, organic buildings within and around the centre.
Because of the position of my hotel, I started to scout this neighbourhood first. When I faced the sea from the top of the Ramblas, at Plaça Catalunya, the historical centre, known as Ciutat Vella, is in front of me. This is Barcelona's Old Town that's built around La Seu Santa Eulalia, a Gothic cathedral. It forms a quarter that is both monumental and picturesque. It's also a quarter of quaintly narrow winding streets and public squares of ludicrously small dimensions. If it is necessary to stroll through a city in order to really appreciate it, strolling is unquestionably enjoyable necessity in Ciutat Vella. Needless to say, no one should fail to saunter down the full length of La Rambla. This street runs straight through the Barri Gòtic. At any time of day this boulevard contains a mixture of native Barcelonans, tourists from around the world, street musicians and performers. There's a lot of activity around the many newspaper-kiosks, flower and pet shops. It looks like everybody uses this street to go to work or make an appointment with his or her friends on a terrace underneath the big plane-trees. One should certainly not miss the shop-porch ornamented with sumptuous mosaics, enherited from the Barcelonan Jugendstil period (Pastas Alimenticias) and the Mercat La Boqueria, a lively covered market place. A small street off the Ramblas, near the cosy cafè de l'Òpera, a perfect place for a cafè amb llet, leads to the magnificent Plaça Reial where once stood a Franciscan cloister. Nowadays it's a nice square with lots of terraces, a fountain and big waving palm-trees.
Wether you just feel like a drink, after strolling through those narrow streets, try Els Quatre Gats- a nicely refurbished establishment that was the cradle of the Art Nouveau movement in Barcelona. At the end of the 19th century this was the meeting place of a whole generation of great artists and bohemians, including Picasso, Casas, Nonell, Russinyol and others. Now, featuring the same classic decor, 4Gats has re-opened to offer people a fascinating ambience for dining (Montsió 3bis). Another very special establishment is Los Caracoles- which was founded in 1857. It is a typical spot with an outdoor grill. The counter in its entrance is the perfect place to have a drink while waiting for a table. Its dining rooms, covered with lots of photographs of famous international people who've been there, and private halls inside, together with its exquisite attention to diners, make this a good choice for any visitor who wishes to enjoy Catalan cooking in a unique setting (Escudillers 14).
Seeing Barcelona's seafront for the first time, I might conclude that the city is quite fond of this area. With the holding of the Summer Olympics in 1992, the city built the Olympic Harbour, rehabilitated the run-down facilities of the Port Vell (Old Port). In the heart of this fishermen's quarter lies Moll d'Espanya. This former wharf, where merchant ships used to be loaded and discharged, is reconstructed with new seaside promenades, shopping and recreational centres, museums, cinemas (IMAX), a wide variety of shops, musical bars and restaurants. In its centre stand the Maremagnum complex, a large space of innovative design with a beautiful square where water sets the keynote. Together with the Aquarium, a recreational-educational facility with twenty large tanks and a central core formed by the Oceanarium (the largest in Europe), Barcelona's seafront is the favourite area among locals and a place that should not be missed while visiting. Especially on weekends, all these places fill up with local inhabitants and people from other towns, who are eager to spend an enjoyable evening by the sea to the sound of the latest hits. All this in a city where one may sit at a terrace to drink or dine over three hundred days a year. This area is marked by quality offering of gastronomy and squares studded with world-class design architecture. And this should be enough for day one, I guess.
On my second day I went back to Plaça Catalunya from where I discovered the most important avenue of today, the Passeig de Gràcia, and its environment. Barcelona is known around the world for its celebrated painters and its Modernism, or what in other European cities was to be called "Art Nouveau" or "Jugendstil", whose typical traits are a variety of forms and a wealth of ornamentation. Modernism was the physical incarnation of a certain spirit, a state of grace, in the 15 years from 1895 to 1910. Nor was it mere chance that Barcelona, and Catalonia in general, was the only place in Spain where Modernism developed a strong local flavour and resulted in significant achievements. The Eixample, which occupies a large part of the centre of today's Barcelona, is the main focus of Art Nouveau buildings and monuments. Though Catalan Modernism encompassed all the arts, it was undoubtedly architecture that gave expression to its greatest genius and most successfully showed how the movement could bring together various currents. The fact that the zenith of Modernism coincided with the period of construction of the Eixample gave this district of the city a sense of richness and unity that is quite unique and considered to be the most important "Art Nouveau" urban ensemble in Europe. This extremely large district of the city is the site of the well-known trio; Casa Lleó Morera (Passeig de Gràcia 41)., Casa Amatller and Casa Batlló (Passeig de Gràcia 43)., which were respectively designed by the architects Domènech i Montaner, Puig i Cadafalch and Antoni Gaudí. Gaudí gave the whole building a decorative design based on organic shapes. Particularly impressive is the effect of the morning light reflecting on the numerous fragments of glass and ceramic embedded in the façade. The balconies and the rooftop feature shapes like masks and fish scales. The roof is topped by a kind of multi-coloured fish bone and also prominent is the organically-shaped cross crowning the well of the spiral staircase. The stained glass features many circular pieces in relief and the multi-coloured glass is lined with lead. If you got the change, try to have a look inside too.
There are certain times of day when you may hesitate between 'dining' or 'snacking', that is sitting down to a full meal or indulging in the favourite local pastime of nibbling on exquisite 'tapas'. In fact, the Passeig de Gràcia has become a paradise of these little titbits. The establishments serving quality 'tapas' are open from early in the morning till very late at night. Tapa Tapa (Passeig de Gràcia 44) was the pioneering 'tapa' bar in the area and is a favourite among connoisseurs. It offers over eighty original delectable varieties of these appetizers, which makes it sometimes hard to choose. Its creative combinations and quality ingredients have created a genuine passion for 'tapas' in this city (if you can read between the lines, you know I've been there often!). You must also pay a visit to the over 500 sq.m Qu Qu (Quasi Queviures). This 'tapa' bar (Passeig de Gràcia 24) is decorated in the classic style of grocery shop-wine cellars. The quality of its wide offering of Iberian and Catalan charcuterie, cheeses and patés, which are on sale at the shop counter, is complemented by its fresh-baked bread and its assortment of 'tapas', salads and omelettes. Hmm, I'm getting hungry again. Did I already mention Ba-ba-reeba and El Mussol?
As you turn right where the Passeig de Gràcia crosses the Avenguda de la Diagonal, you're one your way to find Antoni Gaudí's great masterpiece, the yet unfinished basilica Sagrada Família (Plaça de la Sagrada Família). The towers are particular awesome with the geometrical stylization that reaches the climax in their finials.
To the north of the Barcelona district of Gràcia lies an urban park (Carrer d'Olot). Gaudí planned and directed the construction of a garden suburb, the Park Güell (1900-1914), for Eusebio Güell, as infrastructure and facilities for a residential garden city based on English models. Park Güell was intended for sixty single-family residential living units, isolated in a sunny area in a country estate on the Montaña Pelada, in the Tres Turons district of Barcelona. The project, however, was unsuccessful and the park became city property in 1923. Still, it is one of Gaudí's most colorful and playful works even though it was never fully completed.
Because I always am very tired after a day walk through this fantastic city, I haven't noticed much of the nightlife yet. I only went to one nightclub, Nick Havanna (Rosselló 208). When I entered around 11:00 pm there were only a few people and when I left at 01:00 am it was very quiet. I asked the bodyguards at the entrance when the fun normally started and they assured me that it would be full-house at 3:00 in the morning. Another way of life...
To be continued.
This is a non-profit web page. All the establishments mentioned in this story are places I've been to and which I would like to recommend to the visitors of Barcelona.
Photos by Joël Neelen © April 1998. All Rights Reserved.
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