Barcelona is probably better suited than most cities in the world to be described in images rather than words. Save for some technology that could transport the smells of an early-morning market or send the rays of warmth one experiences sipping sangria in a sunny plaza in the late afternoon, the iconic images of Gaudí architecture, Medieval cathedrals and freshly-prepared tapas are as good as one can gets to convey what it’s like spending time in this capital of Catalonia.
Perhaps no other city in the world is so inexorably linked to one architect than Barcelona is to Gaudí, whose La Pedrera (or Casa Milà) was his last work before concentrating the rest of his life (16 years) to the Sagrada Familia. Rumor has it that George Lucas’s costume designers based the image of Darth Vader on the chimney sculptures on the building’s roof.
It is hard to imagine that just 20 years ago Port Vell, Barcelona’s scenic and active port, was nothing more than a run-down leftover from the city’s industrial past. However, ahead of the 1992 Olympics, as part of the city’s miraculous makeover, Port Vell and the surrounding area was transformed into a marina, pedestrian walkway, and entertainment center, and is now a bustling gateway to the city’s beachfront and a destination in it of itself.
Not limited to just buildings, Gaudí was commissioned in 1900 by the wealthy industrialist Eusebi Guëll to create an urban oasis in the style of British garden villages. Sprawling over 42 acres of then remote hillside overlooking the city, Parc Guëll itself was a failure in the sense that the village never materialized. However, what remains today is one of the most iconic landmarks of any city.
The “Hansel and Gretel” houses welcome visitors as they enter the park, followed by a winding staircase that leads to a expansive plaza (supported by 86 columns below), the Gran Placa Circular, bordered by a famed serpentine bench covered in a mosaic of colorful tiles. From this vantage point, the park offers unparalleled views of the city below and the Mediterranean Sea in the distance.
For true urban explorers, keep in mind that the Gaudí portion of the ground makes up only a small fraction of the park. Follow the paths that lead upward from the plaza for even better views of the city. (And if you have hiking shoes on, or are oblivious to pain to your feet like I am, head even further up the hillside to reach the pinnacle of the park.)
Plaça Reial, or Royal Plaza, located just off the southern portion of Las Ramblas, was once part of a convent. Today, it is one of the city’s most well-known plazas (and biggest), and is home to two Gaudí-designed lampposts. (This was his first and only commission by the city. A dispute over money arose after completion and he vowed to never work for the city again).
Sitting on the edge of Montjuïc — the immense hill that was home to most of the 1992 Olympic events — The National Art Museum of Catalonia was designed in the neobaroque style for the 1929 World Exhibition. From the perch of its main steps, visitors can listen to classical guitar being performed while taking in views of Plaza España and beyond.
Though the Catholic Church may have some objections, the closest thing to a unified religion in Barcelona is food. Catalonia is home to famed chef Ferran Adrià and his protégés, and the region and city are universally recognized as being at the forefront of the the evolution of dining.
On pretty much every corner of the city you will stumble upon someplace serving tapas, whether it be in the traditional style, served simply along with a drink, or in a fine-dining style. Barcelona is also home to the famed market La Boqueria, a market that can date its history to the Middle Ages. Today, you’re more likely to find overpriced Chorizo or Australian tourists than you are to experience a true market experience, but the smells of curing meats and aged cheeses that waft over the aisles as you explore the market are worth your time alone.
Remember that part about food being the closest thing to a religion in Barcelona? Scratch that. Here at Camp Nou, the nearly 100,000-person capacity stadium home to FC Barcelona, Barcelonins make the pilgrimage to this sacred site to worship at the feet of star footballer Lionel Messi and his teammates whose club is one of the best in the world (Real Madrid fans may have issue with that statement).
Come game day, the city buzzes with anticipation, and you can forget about doing much while a match is going, as everyone becomes glued to the TV and radio. Simply accept this fact, slip into a bar, and order an Estrella beer and enjoy the religious service like a true convert.
One thing I noticed before I traveled to the city was that people would always say, “I was in Barcelona,” or “I love Barcelona.” They would never say “I was in Spain” or “I love Spain,” to describe their trip. Catalans love their home region, and take pride in their unique culture, and this attitude creeps into travelers’ minds as well.
It’s rare that I visit a city where it feels like everyone I talk to has been as well, but even just a week spent there reveals why. There is something special about this Mediterranean city that has drawn visitors dating back to the days the Romans left the confines of their city. The city has had its ups and downs, and with the current problems facing the country today, the future is unclear. But this much is true: Barcelona will forever capture something unique in the minds of all that step foot on its streets.
Matt Stabile runs TheExpeditioner.com. You can read his writings, see his videos, purchase the book he co-edited, or contact him via email at any time at TheExpeditioner.com. He also kind of wishes he was in Barcelona right now.
Oh, the tapas! Looks like you had an amazing time, Matt!
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