A version of this article first appeared in The Irish Post April 2016.
More of us are choosing city breaks in 2016 in preference to basking on a beach according to recent research by Sainsbury’s travel insurance. In Barcelona you can have both and it is the now the fourth most popular city in Europe after London, Paris and Rome
If you’ve only got few days and nights in Barcelona there’s an understandable urge to hit all the major attractions on the run: see everything, do everything. It is the only city in the world with nine World Heritage buildings, and the streets fizz with life, history and art galleries. But I would suggest a gentler pace works best. You can’t get under the skin of any city in a short break, but slow down and you might be able to tune into Barcelona’s heartbeat
Although the transport system is good and the hop-on, hop-off Barcelona Bus Turistic is an excellent way of getting a sense of the city’s layout, it’s important to leave time for wandering. Traffic is easy to navigate even for the less than nimble and in the Gothic Quarter, the oldest part of the city the streets are so narrow that the only sensible way to get about is on two feet. Elsewhere the majority of street crossings have a ramp rather than a kerb: perfect for buggy-pushers, wheelchair users, toddlers and seniors, those wheeling luggage or with tired feet. Everyone really…
Look up as you wander. You may not have much interest in architecture, but here are buildings that flounce and swirl even if the ground floor sells t-shirts. One of my favourite buildings is the C&A store. If you are on upstairs on the tourist bus you are at the right level to admire the larger than life size statues and the glass globe that tops the tower.
Visiting Barcelona Cathedral is on most people’s itinerary, but make sure you also see the 13 geese in the cloister. They live in a green sanctuary in memory of Saint Eulalia, the city’s patron saint, who was 13 when she was martyred by the Romans. While you’re there go up to the roof of the cathedral – there is a lift – to get a superb view of the city.
Boqueria Market near the cathedral is a must. Dating back to 1200 but now wearing an undulating roof as colourful as the food inside, it’s won awards and is often described as the best market in the world. It has had to ban large, organised groups of tourists because they were getting in the way of locals shopping for dinner. You will be made very welcome, however, especially if you want to buy as well as take photographs. I counted 29 varieties of tomato on one stall and bought some that were sweeter than strawberries.
You’re spoiled for clothes shops in Barcelona ranging from cheap to high-end fashion and don’t walk past the small street markets which sell beautifully crafted local goods as well as mass-produced tourist items. For cheap, fun presents visit an Ale-Hop store. They are hard to miss because a life-sized Frisian cow stands outside each of the 100+ stores in Spain and Portugal.
For the price of a coffee you can people watch as long as you like. Be aware though that ordinary breakfast tea can be hard to get and some cafes assume it only comes in herbal or floral flavours. From mid morning until late you will be entertained by musicians. I heard Bach on a French horn and truly a dreadful version of Leonard Cohen’s Halleluiah performed by a duo better at collecting money than at playing their instruments. I also heard a 30-something woman sitting on the steps of a church sing with such strength and purity that I wished I knew Simon Cowell’s phone number. Her voice vibrated around the square and for a few minutes all other sounds were shut out. And then it was over. She collected a few euros and was on her way to the next square and the next cafe.
Barcelona is a beach city. The National Geographic says its miles of sand make it the best in the world, ahead of South Africa, Australia and Hawaii. You can walk to it in 20 minutes from the centre or use the yellow metro line. The season runs from mid-April to the end of September and the water temperature is officially lovely from mid May. As it attracts three and a half million people a year the best advice is to go in the morning and by-pass the first beach – there are nine in total, all of them blue flag quality – and make a base further down where the sand is even better. You’ll pass some interesting cutting edge 21st century architecture on the way. This is Barcelona: there is always interesting architecture.
Soak up the taste of Barcelona by joining an afternoon cookery course or wine tasting session. Or, better still, walk the city with a guide. 2016 is the 80th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War and I chose to join Nick Lloyd, a former teacher from Manchester, who unravels the complex conflict between fascism and democracy with such passion and in-depth knowledge that it’s suitable for the complete novice and the history expert. He has written a book on the subject and won one of the highest scores I’ve seen on TripAdvisor.
Walking with Nick, I noticed the bullet marks on statues, the shrapnel damage on walls and the scorch marks on the ceilings of churches which burned for days. We walked across the square where tourists camped out in July 1936, attending the Alternative Olympic Games in answer to the official Olympics in Hitler’s Berlin. Instead they woke up to find themselves in the middle of a war.
We also follow the footsteps of George Orwell, the author of 1984 who took out a bank loan to fight fascism in Spain. His wife Eileen, second generation Irish from South Shields, came out later and we stand in the lobby of the hotel where she told him in a whisper that he was a wanted man and had to go on the run.
Spanish Civil War Tours take place three or four times a week and groups are limited to 16 so it’s best to book in advance.
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And then there’s Gaudi
You can’t claim to have visited Barcelona without seeing examples of his work. It’s not hard because his buildings are unmistakable, many are on the World Heritage list and recognised as works of art.
The most famous and the most must-see is the Bascilica of La Sagrada Familia. Its voluptuous lines – nature doesn’t do straight and neither did Antoni Gaudie – makes it a controversial building. Outside it is an in-your-face fantasy of organic forms, fruit decorate the distinctive spires and the walls undulate like a country landscape. Inside the light from the stained glass windows create the same kind of spiritual uplift that you can get from the Notra Dame in Paris, but there are touches that seem extravagant and silly: for me it was the parasol over the crucifix in the main body of the church. But turn away and you notice another feature that forces you to hold your breath such as the tree-like pillars that form a forest canopy high above our heads.
Work started on the basilica in 1882 and Gaudie was still working on when he died 35 years later. By then it was only a quarter completed and it’s still a building site: the entrance fee contributes to the bricks and mortar and scaffolding. Some strong Gaudi supporters argue that work should stop as the original plans were destroyed during the civil war and we can’t know for certain what the great man wanted. George Orwell thought it a shame that the anarchists hadn’t gone the whole hog and set light to the building.
Book your tickets in advance online for Sagrada Familia to avoid queuing for an hour or more. Smart phone tickets are accepted so there’s no need to print out.