Barcelona, whats not to like, by Anita Traynor, Melbourne Art consultant, blogger,
Some of the amazing Public Art Works
giant lobster, Javier Mariscal, commissioned for Olympics in 1992
I recently travelled to Barcelona, ostensibly to catch up with my daughter who has been living overseas. We decided our meeting point would be here as neither of us had been there before, we both adored Gaudi, the sun was shining bright (and I was coming from a very cold Melbourne winter). So off I trotted with another daughter on toe who was in the midst of celebrating her 18th, not really knowing what to expect, but like most of my travel history I had done some research, for I like to know in advance where the good places are to eat, the gallery scene as I work in the arts, shopping etc. Oh and as you will see above, my recent fascination with Public Art, (I have to say Barcelona has some ripping examples if you look out for them).
Me and Keith Haring, well a pretty amazing Haring mural
Most people advised that I stay in or near the Gothic area, being the older and more established part of Barcelona, it would appeal to my penchant for all things inherently quirky, and this area is renowned for just that, at the very least you are certain to find the very best tapas bars here. The Gothic quarter, as it is known, is flanked by stunning Gothic architecture, a bustling neighbourhood full of delightful places to shop and eat, but you get the sense that the real Barcelonan’s eat here and immerse themselves in city life. Our apartment (sourced by my gypsy daughter an avid air b & b fan) was right in the hub of things, just far enough away from the maddening crowds of La Rambla, where the tourists flock in hoards and rowdy soccer fans huddle at local Irish bars merrily chanting the night away (we were right at the peak of the Euro cup at the time) and believe me you know it in Barcelona. The nights were not quiet, but somehow, I didn’t mind the occasional cries of the drunken larrikins, the tourists it would seem didn’t sleep, and sometimes, lying awake at night, I would even hear the distant chants from the neighbouring Turkish and Arabic locals performing their daily rituals of prayer, a sound that would become familiar and wake me in the early hours of the morning, it became a ritual that welcomed in the start of a new day with a peaceful melodic air.
Setting off with my comfortable flats on we ventured out to explore the haunts of this rather grand old town, literally walking for miles each day, ogling its exquisite Gothic and Romanesque architecture. I found myself endlessly meandering through the many quaint old alley ways and cobblestone lanes which are abundantly clad with restaurants, bars and a very eclectic range of shops, from clothing, jewellery, chocolatiers, mouth- watering pastries, crafts and all sorts of odds and sods.
Gothic area laneways
There are so many different neighbourhoods and things to see here we very soon discovered. It is, in fact, a very large city and quite frankly I don’t know how people manage to do it in a few days. We had a 10-day stay here and needed each and every minute of it. The Marina area and promenade walk is a great spot to stroll, or as we found, a great way to end the day as we drooled over the numerous gob smacking yachts moored there, and settled in for a refreshing cocktail in one of the many restaurants that flanked this location. The beaches at peak season are crowded, it’s very hot, and a whole gamut of hustlers are there to satisfy your every whim, from massages to hair braiding, beers and cocktails and the odd trader flogging their wares. Of course I ended up buying a rather over sized beach blanket with a Turkish inspired print, which really looks like a humongous tablecloth, but everyone seemed to be lying on them over here, so as not to feel too displaced I purchased one, immediately regretting it due to its size and my limited baggage, back home we use beach towels….
There is no shortage of food areas wherever you go and the beaches are surrounded by oodles of restaurants selling fresh local seafood and paella, there are juice bars and cocktail bars lining the foreshore, you really are quite spoilt for choice. However, my very favourite spot to drop into whether it be early morning for a quick feast or late afternoon for a little grazing is the La Boqueria market place. This market, voted one of the best in the world, is a visual delight at every juncture, practically bursting with a smorgasbord of perfectly arranged fruits, rows of nuts, chocolates, nougat, vegetables of so many varieties, antipasto’s of course the local ‘jamon’ or as we say prosciutto takes the centre stage. You can sample everything, my taste buds were popping with delight, there’s almost no need to go to lunch, and many little tapas bars are dotted around the market place, as are freshly shucked oyster bars and coffee shops. It is cheap, fresh and fabulous…..trust me there is no need to go hungry in Barcelona!!
Sensational delights at the la boqueria market in Barcelona a visual feast and a culinary delight
Once the taste buds have been suitably satisfied, we have a rough idea of must see places and a plethora of sites to be seen. As you would imagine, when in Barcelona Gaudi is on top of the list of things to do. As a lover of art, and fondly admiring all things Gaudiesque for many years, I can’t wait to check out the stunning buildings that this master of all masters conjured up in his creative lifetime, the majority of which largely saw him designing buildings for his chief patron and friend, Eusebi Guell.
Eusebi and his wife had 10 children and Gaudi designed their first residence which is probably my favourite, and a brilliant example of early modernist architecture, Palau Guell, (works commenced between 1886 -1888) and it is located just off La Rambla. This multi-storeyed building is layered with typical Gaudi iconographic detail, from the intricately chosen tiles, to the sublimely carved timber columns and arches and divine lead light windows all undulating towards a rooftop terrace with its highly decorated chimneys that are adorned with broken ceramics of a variety of colours and patterns; all of which has become synonymous with the style of Antoni Gaudi.
Gothic windows at Palau Guell Gaudi’s random ceramics
He later designed the main residence for Eusebi and his family which is now a very popular tourist attraction, Park Guell. Positioned in the residential Gracia district this park built between 1900 and 1914 was insanely unique for its time and epitomises Gaudi’s obsession with all things natural and modern. Gaudi unleashed his architectural genius on this project and much of what you see today is characterized by a formidable and curious mind that pushed his creative genius to the limits, abandoning the rigid and austere guidelines of the previously revered classical styles, in search of pure and organic forms that would sit comfortably in the environment. Park Guell is a must see destination in Barcelona and the views from the top terrace are really quite breathtaking.
Park Guell views
There is also the beautiful Casa Batllo and la Pedrera buildings both very close and within walking distance from the central zone at the top end of la Rambla, Placa Catalunya. It is definitely worth visiting these two, if you don’t have the time to go inside, at least stand out the front and take in the magnificent facades.
Exquisite Batllo facade
That leads me of course to Gaudi’s main feat, still not finished, and possibly never really will be, la Sagrada Familia. There is far too much detail to be delved into in this summary about this magnificent building decorated both inside and out in Gaudi’s rather eccentric style. From the Nativity Façade to the Crypt to the towering Gothic-laced pillars that jut out so far you feel they are heading towards the heavens. This monolithic building can be seen from just about any vantage point in the city. The building is astonishingly detailed and a magnificent feast for the eyes to behold. Gaudi’s complex yet ‘fairy tale’ vision confirms his determined nature to produce an organic building which brings joy and yet fulfils its purpose in a pragmatic sense as a place of worship. It weaves tales of love and pain, here intricately carved gargoyles and reptiles are juxtaposed with pietas and images of Christ. No one could question its inherent and remarkable presence here in Barcelona and for this reason, it has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe, attracting approx. 5 million tourists each year.
La Sagrada Familia is a phenomenal architectural landmark that will never be recreated anywhere ever again for it has become Barcelona’s mascot and symbol of life and vitality.
La Sagrada Familia front view ( close ups of façade)
Ok, something important you need to know about Barcelona. Everybody sleeps on Sundays, well pretty much, almost all of the shops and popular haunts are closed, so here’s what I suggest; it’s a great time to go to visit one of the many art galleries or museums as they are usually all open. I visited the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Picasso Museum, which has a wonderful collection of Picasso’s early works and is well worth the visit. The Contemporary Art Museum is a mixed bag, mostly conceptual but in a great area near the University, so you will find the cafes and crowds there very ‘’arty’’ and young, lots of skaters, as apparently that is the main skating site. I missed Miro’s Gallery, which is apparently fantastic, but you just can’t do it all, so next time I will tick this box. If you are a history buff then you can’t go wrong with a visit to the History Museum, a great place to discover the city’s history and even explore some archaeological digs, if that’s your thing.
If you don’t feel inclined to go gallery hopping then I suggest you visit the historical Montjuic Castle ( built in 1640 as an old military fortress to protect the city from foreign invaders), it rests in an idyllic spot on top of Montjuic hill and boasts spectacular views over the city, I don’t recommend you walk up from the cable car as we did, particularly if it’s hot as it is quite a hike, so either bus or take two cables.
Barcelona is a young, vibrant place bursting with life wherever you are. You can opt out of the crowds and find solitude in the gardens, (although there are not many) or take the back streets where fewer tourists tend to roam and get lost wandering. It really offers everything a city is supposed to from great shops and restaurants, tapas and very cool bars, galleries and amazing public art (by the way the images at the top of the page display a couple of my favourites and I think the very quirky lobster who greets everyone heading to the beach towards Port Vell pretty much sums up the laid back lifestyle here and the sense of fun). It has oodles of culture and history, but if you are looking to just chill you can lull away the hours on the beach simply contemplating where to eat your next amazing tapas and sip cocktails.
Oh and for the record, I was warned constantly about bag snatchers, thieves etc. we did a lot, and ventured off the main tourist route often and not once did I feel threatened. I was warned at the market to keep my bag shut, as I had it open, but so long as you are sensible and keep an eye on things there is no problem at all, in fact, I would go as far as saying, it is a city that felt safe to me.
Finally, if you have a few extra days up your sleeve, I highly recommend you make a trip to Figueres, Dali’s home town, to visit his monumental theatrical museum. I incorporated it with a well worth tour, which visited the Medieval town of Girona, (a really stunning town, so glad we did this) where they are currently filming Game of Thrones. Not one to usually book tours, I have to say, this one did not disappoint and took some of the pressure off travel/maps etc…the guide gave us plenty of free time, and the air conditioned bus was a bit of a spoil as the weather was particularly hot on this day. The Dali museum is one of the most amazing places I have visited, and I have been to many art museums throughout the world. In fact, it was a pleasurable day away from the city taking in some of the countrysides and the beautiful sights of the small town of Figueres, I can understand why Dali chose to live here.
I hope to return very soon to Barcelona, it is such an invigorating city full of energy and vivacity, it’s a less up tight version of Paris, a more chilled out version of London and perhaps a tad more hipster than Italy; it is a city of intrigue and adventure if you are prepared to do your research and via off the main tourist routes.
beautiful Medieval town of Girona
Dali Theatre /Museum
* for a great spoil and marina vistas try One Ocean Club……….worth a treat food and interior are stunning
* favourite location around the Gothic area;
*great roof top views and cocktails try the roof top terrace at the Royal Hotel on Passeig de Gracia; 360 views right across the city with La Sagrida in the background, fantastic
La *Boqueria Market place;
*tapas so many, but we found two places a must visit, Sensi tapas (there are two both in Gothic area and brilliant but my favourite was Cerveseria Catalanya, Carrer de Mallorca, 236, great atmosphere, a bit of a wait but worth it, you can eat at the bar, waiters are lively and entertaining
* Milk is definitely amazing for a typical Melbourne style breakfast, and has a great reputation you may have to line up though
*so many great bars, just live dangerously, try them all,
*Placa Reial ,beautiful square, with family style restaurants, lively but not rowdy at night, it has beautiful fountain and great buskers each night, very family friendly