Best of Barcelona

spain metropolis

Best of Barcelona

What’s so special about Barcelona? Its pretty name? A perfect combination of the sea and land with green hills overlooking an ancient sea route on the blue Mediterranean? Its historical Gothic quarters and fabulous architecture lining the wide avenues? Or, an air of excitement that hangs over the great city? Perhaps all these and more.

There can be little dispute that Barcelona, capital of Catalunya region in Spain, is one of the most alluring of world cities. As it has been for centuries. The port town attracted the sea-faring Phoenicians and Carthaginians more than two thousand years ago. In fact, the Carthaginian ruler Amilcar Barca is often referred to as the originator of the town’s name, Barcino, later adopted by the Romans when Emperor Augustus founded the city (15-10 BC).

As it is quite a spread-out city with many interesting points, one of the best ways to explore Barcelona is to buy a hop-off-and-on Barcelona Bus Touristic card and explore the area of your choice as per the guide’s information. Or be adventurous,  and with a map and guidance from tourist information centres, explore it on your own. I did both. Getting lost sometimes has its own rewards; you ask strangers directions, get introduced to locals, and even gain a friend. I found Barcelonians extremely helpful.

Built with passion

They helped me to locate Palau de la Musica, in a cul-de-sac of sorts. A masterpiece in art nouveau style by famous architect Lluis Montaner, the concert hall is now a UNESCO Heritage Site. Built between 1905 and 1908, the boom period of Catalan modernista buildings, it is a popular concert hall where stalwarts like Zubin Mehta perform regularly. It hosts all kinds of music and dance performances, not only classical. A guided tour (fee € 17) introduces you to the beautiful interior, tier upon tier of decorated floors with ceramic embellishments and a fantastic auditorium with a 1908 German pipe organ.

Overhead is a huge skylight of stained glass — like an inverted dome in gold and blue — symbolising the sun and the sky. At a walking distance from Placa de Catalunya (the hub of the city), Palau de la Musica should not be missed.

Montaner’s another signature building is Casa Lleo Morera (1902). The Morera family who became rich through sugar trade in Puerto Rico had commissioned the architect to design this family home overlooking the gracious Passeig de Gracia street, which was turning into an ‘it’ location for the rich and famous at the turn of the century. A guided tour introduces you to the richly embellished quarters with fabulous tiles in each room.

Talking about Barcelona’s architecture cannot be complete without the other giant, Antoni Gaudi. The recluse Catholic, son of a coppersmith, visualised the Sagrada Familia cathedral a century ago (basilica since 2010).

The unorthodox cathedral was his tribute to the creator. It was left unfinished as he died suddenly in a tram accident in 1926. He did not leave behind a blueprint either. Still under construction and funded by anonymous donors, architects today depend on some ‘guess work’ and computer interpretations. It’s a cathedral like no other, with pillars looking like trees, birds, animals and colourful baskets of fruits (as offerings) tucked into the crevices of the stone façade. From the beginning it was known as the “Cathedral of the Poor.”

Barcelona also hosts 14 of Gaudi’s signature buildings like Palau Guell, Casa Batllo etc — all different, surrealistic and colourful. They are now under UNESCO’s Heritage list. There is a special ‘Gaudi tour’ for those interested.

To time-travel to old Barcelona, a walking tour of the Gothic quarters with its stone buildings and cobbled paths, is illuminating. The tourism office at the Plaça Sant Jaume square conducts a guided two-hour walking tour to Barri Gotic that introduces you to the Roman quarters, the Jewish quarters (from where they were driven away), the Cathedral cloisters etc. Cafes and boutiques are tucked into the buildings without disturbing the façades. The atmosphere is such that you forget that modern Barcelona is just round the corner.

I was lucky to be there on the festive day called Tres Tombs Parade, a wonderful tradition of blessing animals and pets, associated with Saint Anthony — patron saint of animals, the poor and the sick.

A parade of horse carts with period-costumed men and women passed one by one as they distributed candies among all the onlookers. Barcelona has so many museums that you have to choose carefully if there is a time constraint. The Picasso Museum has the most extensive collection of the Cubist artist’s work. The Museo Nacional d’Art de Catalunya is one of the best museums in the world on medieval art and architecture. Being a great maritime nation, its museum Museu Maritim on the seafront has wonderful sea history.

Sweeping scenes

The promenade along the sea, developed before the 1992 Olympics, is a wonderful place to relax. Just sit and watch the seabirds fly around as people of many nations take to the boardwalk leading to a huge shopping complex. Walk back via La Rambla, the vibrant promenade (once a drainage channel), at the lower end of which is the Columbus Monument. On the tiled walkway are artists sketching busily, street performers posing like statues or showing off tricks, music trailing in from somewhere, numerous pricey restaurants or stalls with ‘offers’ (read discount). All make for a heady mixture.

Montjuïc or Hills of Jews, named after a Jewish necropolis there, is the city’s lungs. From Tibidabo, another mountain  at 1,650 feet, you can have a panoramic view of Barcelona hugging the sea. There’s a cable car if you want to glide across the sea. Montjuïc also locates Poble Espanyol, a living museum showcasing various architectural and craft traditions of Spain. The place was developed for the 1929 World Fair but was retained as a tourist attraction because of its popularity. Walking through the winding lanes, you feel as if you are in typical Spanish outback, not in savvy Barcelona. As for food and drinks, Barcelona has aplenty. But the famous dishes are of sea food, naturally.

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