Written by Eleanor Dean
Eleanor Dean has just got back from a spell working and playing in Barcelona and has a suggestion for a fantastic way to see the city’s highlights in only four days.
Woody Allen was onto something when he chose the location for his recent film Vicky Christina Barcelona. For a movie about the experiences of two very different girls, you couldn’t ask for a better location. Studious Vicky gets serious with Barcelona’s Catalan culture, weeping every time anyone whips out a Spanish guitar. Rebellious Christina goes for the city’s bohemian jugular and shacks up with some fiery Catalan artists. The adventures of Allen’s characters show just how diverse this city can be, and if you want to get the most from a short visit, you’d better be prepared for some variety.
Start off by recovering from your journey with a day in leafy Montjuic. This hilltop district – once home to the city’s Jewish community - is covered in shady gardens and criss-crossed by hidden paths. Amongst all this lushness hides the Foundació Joan Miró, a white-washed, Mediterranean style building housing the bold works of the late, great Catalan surrealist. The sculptures up on the roof are a nice touch, especially if the sun is shining.
Nearby is Barcelona’s castle, a sticking point in the Spanish/Catalan power struggle: until the Catalans promise to keep a Spanish flag fluttering from its towers (which they never will), they can’t have it back. To visit, take the cable car from outside the Funicular station – it’s a little pricy, but the feeling of hanging in a glass bubble in the middle of a panoramic view is pretty hard to beat.
The Olympic stadium and other relics from Barcelona’s 1992 games are up in Montjuic too, along with the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. This impressive building overlooks the Plaça d'Espanya, providing an artistic backdrop to many a fiesta firework display (and to the half-hourly music and light shows featuring the plaza’s fountains every night). In the evening, head for La Champagneria. This tiny cava bar is ridiculously popular, despite being cunningly hidden on a street full of electrical hardware stores. Arrive early to get a space at the bar (or even to get in at all). The tapas are hearty variations on the theme of meat, cheese and bread, and the cava is deliciously cheap. Once La Champagneria fills up, move on to the hidden bars of El Born for cheap mojitos and, if you think you’re hard enough, leche de pantera – it’s pink, but it’s an eye-watering combination of alcohol and cream which is definitely not for little girls.
“I guess you want to see the Gaudi” is a comment often made by members of Barcelona’s ex-pat community to their bright-eyed, guidebook wielding visitors. The works of this groundbreaking Catalan architect have been drawing in the crowds and providing travel guides with snazzy front covers since his death (by tram) in 1926.
The sculpture-filled Parc Guell and the Sagrada Familia – Gaudi’s as-yet unfinished cathedral masterpiece – are both worth a visit. Despite its huge fame, Gaudi’s work is very accessible. Even if you know nothing about architecture, the distinctly bright mosaics and peculiar shapes of his creations are quirky enough to grab anyone’s attention. Parc Guell is free to enter, and the Segrada Familia, staggering in scale and artistic detail even on the outside, is free to look at. In the same day, you could take in some more alternative culture at the MACBA, a vast collection of contemporary art housed in an achingly modern building. The MACBA is enormous, so take a nervous wander though its toothpaste-white corridors and see what you can find. The gallery has its own roof-top bar, but it’s expensive – it’d be cheaper to pick up a beer in the plaza below, where you’ll be entertained by the local skater population as they hurl themselves across the concrete.
This district – el Ravel – is home to cheap eateries and strange bars, with a fantastic Mexican place just up the road. Check out Bar Marsella, an absinthe bar on Carrer de Sant Pau. For the uninitiated, the sugar lump is for setting on fire and melting into your vicious green beverage, and it helps if you give it a dip first (not in your water). Other bars lurk on nearby Rambla del Ravel, famous for its sculpture of a giant bronze cat. According to local legend, something wonderful will happen if you climb up it without help. No-one is ever sure what this might involve. Get enough absinthe down you, however, and the cat might just tell you.
They say fresh air is good for a hangover. With that in mind, take the metro out of the city to Mount Tibidabo. According to legend, this was where the Devil tempted Jesus by offering him the whole world in return for his worship. “The whole world” might only stretch from Barceloneta beach to the mountains, but it’s a spectacular view nonetheless. It’s an uphill struggle from the Metro to the mountain, so save your legs by taking the tram – it’s so quaint it would make Judy Garland blush. From there, tumble into a cable car and let it haul you up to the mountain-top, bizarrely shared by an enormous church and a slightly dated theme park.
The church features stunning decorations, incredible views of the city and a statue of Christ, arms outstretched, and (one can imagine) saying something along the lines of “but Satan, does it come in any other colours?”. The viewing platforms get smaller the higher you climb, so the last one – just under Jesus’ stone feet – is cramped enough to put most people into a cold sweat. That’s one way to get the absinthe out of your system, at least.Barcelona’s nightlife is infamously good, and to visit without hitting at least one nightclub would be a terrific waste of your darkest hours. For the best experience, stick to Catalan time – have a late dinner, hole yourself up in a bar until 2am at the very earliest, and then head on to a club just in time to catch things as they start to get interesting.
Clubs are all over the city – you can find dance at Sala Apolo (near Parallel metro), mainstream house and R&B at the waterfront clubs, and just about anything alternative you could fancy at “indie” superclub Razzmatazz. Often described as five clubs in one, the Razz never fails to surprise in its efforts to give you what you want. Top notch dance and electro in roof-shaking “The Loft” – check. Live bands and indie anthems in the factory-sized main room – check. Dancing in the street at 7am, a beer in one hand and a samosa in the other, while music blares from a car stereo and someone sings Michael Jackson at you in a thick Mexican accent – not guaranteed, but certainly quite likely.
For a relaxing morning, go for a walk (or picnic) in the Parc de la Ciutadella. It’s green, it’s serene, and in typical Barca style there’s a giant artificial mammoth lurking in one of its flowerbeds. From here you can head for the sea, or wander back into the twisting streets of El Born. There’s a Picasso Museum around here, which is worth a look even though many of the artist’s most famous works have long since been moved to the capital. There’s also a whole host of odd little cafes, good for a coffee or a couple of tapas plates.
In the evening, celebrate your last night in the city with a meal at Los Caracoles. Fading photographs of celebrity diners line the walls of this famous Catalan eatery, overlooking its traditional décor and marvellously chaotic central kitchen. The combination of authenticity and a top spot near Las Ramblas has set many a tourist’s mouth watering, so arrive early and be prepared to wait. The food is pricy, but it’s quality Catalan fare and definitely worth it.
There are a number of nearby options for post-dinner drinks: you could head back to Plaza Real and the wealth of budget cocktail bars tucked just behind it, you could grab a beer in nearby Plaza George Orwell, or – if you do a bit of research – you could hunt down the Mariachi, a tiny bar owned by musician Manu Chao. It’s laid back, it’s brightly decorated, and it’s hidden away just off the Plaza George Orwell. As with many of Barcelona’s hidden gems, it’s definitely worth tracking it down.
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