This beautiful Spanish city has it all, from fanciful Modernista masterpieces to sensational shopping, writes Judy Bryant.
South African Garden and Home
Judy Bryant / supplied
Barcelona is a fabulously stimulating city with ancient Roman roots, yet bursting with contemporary, cosmopolitan culture. Relics of ancient third and fourth century walls marry happily with Modernista architecture, best known for the undulating facades, curvaceous roofs and vibrant colours of architect Antoni Gaudi.
Wherever you are in this portside city, there’s always something to enjoy in the neighbourhood: just-unpacked produce markets with beautifully-displayed fresh fruit and vegetables, fiery orange saffron and golden olive oils; parks with water features and slender sculptures where you can cool off or watch a spot of spontaneous, sweaty Flamenco dancing; soaring Gothic churches; and super-stylish shopfronts of one-off boutiques and indie shops.
Where to start, when there’s so much to see? This is one city where it’s worth investing in a hop-on hop-off bus tour, so that you can orientate yourself. Once you’ve got an overview of the beautiful sights, buildings and monuments you can retrace your tracks and hop off at some of your favourite destinations on the same ticket.
On the following days, the super-efficient and affordable metro and other transport services will whisk you to destinations such as the seaside promenade near the yacht basins, or up to the hill area of Montjuïc with its old fort, gardens, art museums and 1992 Olympics-era buildings. (That event was pivotal in rebooting Barcelona from an industrial backwater to one of the world’s coolest cities.)
Simply strolling down the streets is like viewing a performance. The best-known walk is La Rambla, which cuts a swathe from the older part of the city right down to the port. You’ll pass fragrant flower stalls, cafes, a fresh produce market (an essential detour), buildings with fabulous exterior decorations on the walls, and street performers. Look up and catch a wave from a Marilyn Monroe-dressed figure on the balcony of the Erotic Museum.
Our base was in the elegant Eixample district, at a Lonely Planet-recommended guest house set in a 1900s former fashion building. It offered bedrooms with balconies and separate shared bathrooms, free Wi-Fi and a casual guest lounge where breakfast was served. Simple but spotlessly clean, Fashion House was only about 100 metres from a delightful small café and the Urquinaona metro station, and a five-minute walk from the main square of Plaça de Catalunya.
On our first day of go-it-alone sightseeing, we stoked up on coffee and a snack in the little café with the locals, and caught the metro before walking to the Fundació Joan Miró. This modern gallery in Montjuïc has over 200 colour-drenched paintings, 180 sculptures, thousands of drawings and some textiles.
Designed by Miró’s close friend, architect and city planner Josep Lluís Sert, it’s a welcoming white building with plenty of glass and sunlight. Visiting schoolchildren’s bright little jackets matched the colourful sculptures set on the lawn and rooftop terrace, and I discovered Miró artwork wash-off tattoos in the gift shop – the perfect gift for my artist sister.
We strolled down the Montjuic hill to the home of one of Spain’s top art collections – the vast neo-Baroque Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. It houses room after room of awe-inspiring art and sculpture, from 11th century frescoes salvaged from Pyrenean churches to works by Picasso and Dali.
The ground floor has deeply textured old wooden altarpieces, the first floor is dominated by Catalan painters and the local theme continues with furniture pieces by Gaudi, and art by masters from Velázquez to El Greco.
Even if you’re swooning from taking in 1000 years of art in one location, it’s worth trudging up to the rooftop. With a 360-degree view of the city you can scan all the main buildings and monuments that make up the Barcelona skyline, from Gaudi’s remarkable Sagrada Família cathedral-in-progress to the Olympic village. Then walk down the hill, helped by some escalators, and you can view the cascading fountain that is lit up with colourful lights in a water and music show at night.
Other cultural must-sees include the Picasso Museum (set in five mediaeval stone mansions) and the Design Museum, with a hip bar and café. Fascinating collections range from iconic Spanish graphic design ad campaigns, to five centuries of fashion, including corsets that not even Dita Von Teese could slip into.
As our visit was in early spring, it didn’t take much queuing to enter the Sagrada Familia. The vision and scale of this work-in-progress cathedral is awe-inspiring. It’s no surprise that three million visitors view it every year, in the process helping fund its construction. Building began in 1882 and there are another ten years to go.
One side of the exterior falls in shadow, and this Passion Façade is raw and austere, focusing on the Last Supper and Christ’s burial. The main entrance on the other side offers the Nativity Façade, with sculpted figures of people and animals celebrating the birth of Jesus in the sunshine.
Much of the inspiration is drawn from nature, with the cathedral’s stone columns resembling snaking tree branches; hexagonal grilles are inspired by bees’ honeycomb.
Sports fans would probably want to make another pilgrimage, to the home of FC Barcelona. You can take in a tour (or even a game) at the massive stadium. The football museum outlet offers everything from shirts and bags to iPhone covers. (I found some great men’s gifts of silver football key-rings with those famous red-and-blue insignia at a Waterfront satellite store.) That seaside shopping centre is a great spot for bargain-hunting at outlets such as Zara.
End a great morning here with a paella, ice-cold beer on a balcony, while listening to a live band playing at the market stalls below. And while in the area, you can’t miss Frank Guery’s stainless steel fish sculpture (over 50 metres long).
Another highlight was an evening of Spanish dance and guitar music at the Palau de la Música Catalana, about a ten minute walk from our apartment. Built between 1905 and 1908, every section of wall and ceiling of this concert building is decorated with exquisite stained glass, mosaics and glazed tiles. Regular tours are available.
Sight-seeing is hungry work, but tapas (Catalan canapes) can be found absolutely everywhere. Best sampled from a bar stool or standing around a bustling counter, with vast smoked hams hanging overhead, they range from unpretentious spicy sausages to ornate little designer culinary landscapes. Sample with a refreshing beer, wine, or my favourite, a glass of local sparkling wine, cava.
In fact, when my friend and I had just arrived in Barcelona, dragging our suitcases across the cobblestoned square, we decided to divert into the basement of the well-known department store Corte de Ingles.
Sipping cava, accompanied by our first tapas (salmon on bruschetta) we congratulated ourselves on finally doing what we’d debated a decade ago: to one day travel to this cosmopolitan capital of Spain’s Catalonia region, unearth the influence of architect Gaudi and dip into the vibrant street life and amazing art and architecture. Mission accomplished!
First published in South African Garden and Home March 2017
Images Judy Bryant and supplied