Barcelona, capital of the Autonomous Community of Catalunya, Spain, is a seething madhouse in midsummer. Which is something best appreciated from the 9th floor of El Corte Ingles, a towering department store on Plaça Catalunya, the city’s central square. Said 9th floor has a coffee shop with huge people-watching windows that take in a view of the square and beyond down to the Med. It’s a good spot for new arrivals to familiarise themselves with the lie of the land and have a café con leche before deciding to join the throng. And what a throng it is – bumbling tourists, cameras swinging and mouths gaping, are (almost) everywhere, suffering the condescension of stylishly-attired, right-thinking Catalans wherever they go. One thing’s for sure – not many tourists habla Español, which partially explains the haughty attitude. Speak a little Catala (which is not dissimilar to Provençal due to common Latin roots) or Spanish and the frost certainly thaws some. For that matter, once the ice is broken, the Spanish are welcoming and go out of their way to help you, should you be lost or just dim-witted.
Taking a deep breath, you dive into the manic crowds of La Rambla, a wide boulevard built over the original stream that has acted as a path to the sea for Barcelona’s inhabitants since time immemorial. Which explains the occasional whiff of swamp. With the New World conquered by some of the many Catalan seafaring adventurers which sailed from Barcelona port, it’s only fitting that the end of La Rambla is marked by the Mirador Colon, a monument from which Chris Colombus points forever to the Americas. Lined with stately plane trees and beautiful buildings, La Rambla supports a lively selection of drug dealers (‘Ashish? Ten Euro!’) buskers, ‘living statues’, cafés and newsagents and, bizarrely enough, pet shops. Restaurants offering traditional Spanish fare such as tapas, paella, churros, cortado and cava are plentiful, as are bars and fast food joints, but the astute traveller heads for the Mercat Sant Josep, or La Boqueria, as it’s called. Crowned with a beautiful stained-glass arch at its entrance just off La Rambla, this is a marketplace that offers a staggering range of fresh produce: snails, olives, tuna, ham, cheese, capers, miniature pears, octopus, pitahaya (dragon fruit), eels, nuts, prawns, melons, crickets (yes, the Spanish eat crickets), confections, salted cod and a thousand other edible articles that dazzle the eye and assault the nose. If you take your time and speak a little lingo you’ll find there are some great bargains to be had, and a picnic lunch that will fill you to bursting will cost about €8 for two. When you consider that the damage for a meal for two at a restaurant will be around €50 for two, the budget options are not only cheap but offer an altogether more authentic experience. Unless you’ve a friend living in Barcelona to kindly point you in the direction of authentic Catalan cuisine, you may well end up being fleeced in some tacky tapas bar. So the mezze picnic lunch idea wins hands down, and allows you to sample a wide range of local food. And of course lunch never held so much appeal as after an exhausting traipse through the madding crowds of La Rambla.
Finding a place to have that picnic lunch is not hard. Recent years have seen areas in the neighbourhoods bordering La Rambla to the east and west – namely the Barri Gotic (Old Town) and La Raval – undergo the twin-edged sword of urban renewal. Which means that you can find quiet sunlit squares which exude mediaeval charm, but you may find stretches which are now a hodge-podge of demolition, boutique hotels, quiet parks and vacant lot a la ghetto, all in the same area. Nevertheless, the charm of these old quarters, and that of Gracia further north of Plaça Catalunya is not lost. Far from it – the inquisitive traveller can spend endless hours investigating the narrow cobblestone streets and hidden plazas of the old quarters of city, which present an assortment of charming cafés, bars and tapas shops that are overlooked by baroque façades or an assortment of filigreed steel balconies at every turn, covered as they are in ubiquitous cascades of pelargoniums, cacti and bougainvillea. Equally ubiquitous are Barcelona’s gypsies, who only add more colour to an already colourful passing parade. An altogether attractive way to spend some time, really. There are also dodgy elements, but these are easy to spot and on the whole Barcelona does not feel like a city where you have to watch your back. In any case, anybody who has lived in a city should have sufficient smarts to avoid bagsnatchers or pickpockets of any ilk. A little common sense goes a long way - you may be in Europe but (and this may come as a shock to some) they have crime too.
On hearing that you’re headed to Barcelona, the most common response is ‘Oh, you must see the Gaudi buildings!’ They are spectacular, it must be said, and can all be seen in a relatively short while, as the most famous examples of the master of the Modernisme movement are all found within walking distance of each other. Well, if you’re young and relatively energetic. If not, there’s always the world-class bus service that is, unlike some cities, impeccably punctual and air-conditioned, which is a great bonus in Barcelona’s steamy summer. If the bus doesn’t take your fancy, there are also numerous bicycle hire shops throughout the city.
Between Casa Batlló, Casa Milla and Parc Guell your eyes have a hard time taking it all in – in fact, it’s best to take an hour to view each of the buildings and perhaps more for the rambling park. Especially if you’ve packed that delicious ham-olive-allioli-brie baguette lunch from the market. Setting the architectural baubles of Gaudi’s patrons aside, the masterpiece of this visionary artist is undoubtedly the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família – a soaring testament to the strength of magic mushroom tortilla if ever there was one. Enormous fluted bell towers rise above a tableau of the Passion of Christ in a style best described as Star Wars Gothic, counterbalanced by the frieze on the far side of the building that is encrusted with a richly detailed Nativity facade. All of which was, according to the little indication left in his effects by the somewhat barmy Senor Gaudi, supposed to be painted. That alone would take an age, but to give you an idea of how large and how intricate this swooning temple of visual overload is, consider the fact that present estimates set the date of completion for this most ambitious architectural Babel at 2040. And they’ve been at it since 1882.
All in all, Barcelona is a city that holds old and new in sublime balance. Turn one corner and you’ll find the ultra-cool Camper Hotel. Turn another and it’s 1879, replete with nuns in their habits shuffling across a quiet plaza, yet another and the stark white hulk of the MACBA (Museum of Contemporary Art) looms over a synagogue that must have been young when God was in nappies. Barcelona? It’s fantastic.