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Capital of Catalonia, 2,000-year-old Barcelona commanded a vast Mediterranean empire when Madrid was still a dusty Moorish outpost on the Spanish steppe. Relegated to second-city status only in 1561, Barcelona has long rivaled and often surpassed Madrid's supremacy. Catalans jealously guard their language and their culture. Barcelona has long had a frenetically active cultural life. It was the home of architect Antoni Gaudí, and the painters Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí. Pablo Picasso also spent his formative years in Barcelona. Native musicians include cellist Pablo (Pau, in Catalan) Casals, opera singers Montserrat Caballé and José (Josep) Carreras, and early music master Jordi Savall. One of Europe's most visually stunning cities, Barcelona balances its many elements, from the medieval intimacy of its Gothic Quarter to the grace of the wide boulevards in the Moderniste Eixample. In the 21st century, innovative structures, such as the Ricardo Bofill Vela (sail) hotel, demonstrate Barcelona's insatiable appetite for novelty and progress.
Barcelona is one of Europe's busiest cruise ports. Vessels dock at the Port Vell facility, which has seven terminals catering to cruise-ship traffic. All terminals are equipped with duty-free shops, telephones, bar/restaurants, information desks, and currency exchange booths. The ships docking closest to the terminal entrance are a 10-minute walk from the southern end of Las Ramblas (The Rambla), but those docked at the farthest end have a long walk or must catch a shuttle bus to the port entrance. The shuttle, which runs every 20 minutes, links all terminals with the public square at the bottom of The Rambla. If you walk up Las Ramblas, after about 10 minutes you'll reach Drassanes metro station for onward public transport around the city. A metro or bus single ticket price is €1.25; a day ticket is €5.25.
If you intend to explore Barcelona, a vehicle is not practical. Public transportation or a taxi are by far the most sensible options. City buses run daily from 5:30 AM to 11:30 PM. The fare is €1.30. For multiple journeys purchase a Targeta T10, (€7), valid for metro or bus. The FCG (Ferrocarril de la Generalitat) train is a comfortable commuter train that gets you to within walking distance of nearly everything in Barcelona. Changes to the regular city metro are free. The Barcelona Tourist Bus is another excellent way to tour the city. Three routes (Roman, Modernisme, and Gausi) cover just about every place you might want to visit, and you can hop on and off whenever you want. A one-day ticket is €19; you can buy online at www.tmb.net.
If you plan to explore the Spanish coast or countryside, a vehicle would be beneficial, but even an economy car (manual transmission) is expensive at approximately €93 per day.
Barcelona's Old City includes El Barri Gòtic (the Gothic Quarter). Although this section of the city is being cleaned up, bag-snatching is common here, so keep your wits about you, and if at all possible, carry nothing in your hands. Nearby is Sant Pere, which was once Barcelona's old textile neighborhood.
Barcelona's best-known promenade, La Rambla, is a constant and colorful flood of humanity with flower stalls, bird vendors, mimes, musicians, and outdoor cafés. Federico García Lorca called this street the only one in the world that he wished would never end; traffic plays second fiddle to the endless paseo (stroll) of locals and travelers alike. The whole avenue is referred to as Las Ramblas (Les Rambles, in Catalan) or La Rambla, but each section has its own name: Rambla Santa Monica is at the southeastern, or port, end; Rambla de les Flors in the middle; and Rambla dels Estudis at the top, near Plaça de Catalunya.
North of Plaça de Catalunya is the checkerboard known as the Eixample. With the dismantling of the city walls in 1860, Barcelona embarked upon an expansion scheme. The street grid was the work of urban planner Ildefons Cerdà much of the building here was done at the height of Modernisme. The Eixample's principal thoroughfares are Rambla de Catalunya and Passeig de Gràcia, where the city's most elegant shops vie for space among its best art nouveau buildings.
Once Barcelona's pungent fishing port, Barceloneta retains much of its maritime flavor. Nearby is La Ciutadella, once a fortress but now the city's main downtown park. Montjuïc, a hill to the south of town, may have been named for the Jewish cemetery that was once on its slopes.
Boqueria. Barcelona's most spectacular food market, also known as the Mercat de Sant Josep, is an explosion of life and color sprinkled with delicious little bar-restaurants. It is also the oldest of its kind in Europe. La Rambla 91, Rambla 08001.
Fundació Miró. The Miró Foundation was a gift from the artist Joan Miró to his native city and is one of Barcelona's most exciting showcases of contemporary art. The late-20th-century building makes a perfect canvas for Miró's unmistakably playful and colorful style. Av. Miramar 71, Montjuïc. Admission charged.
Manzana de la Discòrdia. On this city block you can find three main Moderniste masterpieces.
Casa Lleó Morera (No. 35) has a facade that is covered with ornamentation and sculptures of female figures using the modern inventions of the age: the telephone, the telegraph, the photographic camera, and the Victrola.
The pseudo-Flemish Casa Amatller (No. 41) was built by Josep Puig i Cadafalch in 1900 with decorative elements by Eusebi Arnau.
At No. 43, the colorful and bizarre Casa Batlló is Gaudí at his most spectacular, with its mottled facade resembling anything from an abstract pointillist painting to rainbow sprinkles on an ice-cream cone. Nationalist symbolism is at work here: the motifs are allusions to Catalonia's Middle Ages, with its codes of chivalry and religious fervor. Passeig de Gràcia 43, between Consell de Cent and Aragó, Eixample 08007. Admission charged.
Museu d'Història de Catalunya. Built into what used to be a port warehouse, this state-of-the-art museum traces more than 3,000 years of Catalan history. The rooftop cafeteria, open to the general public, has excellent views over the harbor. Pl. Pau Vila 3, Barceloneta. Admission charged.
Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya. Housed in the imposing Palau Nacional, built in 1929 as the centerpiece of the World's Fair, the superb Catalonian National Museum of Art was renovated in 1995 by Gae Aulenti, architect of the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. The eclectic collection spans the Romanesque period to the 20th century and includes works by Rubens, Tintoretto, and Velázquez. Pride of place, however, goes to the Romanesque exhibition, the world's finest collection of Romanesque frescoes, altarpieces, and wood carvings. Mirador del Palau 6, Montjuïc 08030. Admission charged.
Museu Picasso. Picasso spent key formative years (1895-1904) in Barcelona, and this 3,600-work permanent collection is strong on his early production. Displays include childhood and adolescent sketches, works from Picasso's Blue and Rose periods, and the famous 44 cubist studies based on Velázquez's Las Meninas.Carrer Montcada 15-23, Born-Ribera 08030. Admission charged.
Palau de la Música Catalana. A riot of color and form, Barcelona's Music Palace is the flagship of the city's Moderniste architecture. Designed by Lluís Domènech i Montaner in 1908, the Palau's exterior is remarkable in itself, but the interior is an uproar. Wagnerian cavalry erupts from the right side of the stage over a heavy-browed bust of Beethoven, and Catalonia's popular music is represented by the flowing maidens of Lluís Millet's song Flors de Maig (Flowers of May) on the left. Overhead, an inverted stained-glass cupola seems to offer the divine manna of music; painted rosettes and giant peacock feathers explode from the tops of the walls. Even the stage is populated with musemlike Art Nouveau musicians, each half bust, half mosaic. Ticket office, Carrer Palau de la Música 4-6, just off Via Laietana, around corner from hall, Sant Pere 08010. Admission charged.
Santa Maria del Mar. This pure and classical space enclosed by soaring columns is something of an oddity in ornate and complex Moderniste Barcelona. Santa Maria del Mar (Saint Mary of the Sea) was built between 1329 and 1383, in fulfillment of a vow made a century earlier by Jaume I to build a church to watch over all Catalan seafarers. The architect, Montagut de Berenguer, designed a bare-bones basilica that is now considered the finest existing example of Catalan (or Mediterranean) Gothic architecture. Pl. de Santa Maria, Born-Ribera 08003.
Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família. Barcelona's most unforgettable landmark, Antoni Gaudí's Sagrada Família was conceived as nothing short of a Bible in stone. The cathedral is comprised of a series of magnificent monumental tableaux drawing inspiration from the long tradition of medieval allegory in church design and decoration yet standing firmly in the Modernist era in its delivery. This landmark is one of the most important architectural creations of the 19th to 21st centuries but remained unfinished at the time of Gaudí's death. Controversy surrounds subsequent work to complete the structure. Mallorca 401, Eixample 08025. Admission charged.
Between the surging fashion scene, a host of young clothing designers, clever home furnishings, delicious foodstuffs including wine and olive oil, and ceramics, art, and antiques, Barcelona is the best place in Spain to unload extra ballast from your wallet.
Barcelona's prime shopping districts are the Passeig de Gràcia, Rambla de Catalunya, Plaça de Catalunya, Porta de l'Àngel, and Avinguda Diagonal up to Carrer Ganduxer. For high fashion, browse along Passeig de Gràcia and the Diagonal between Plaça Joan Carles I and Plaça Francesc Macià. There are two dozen antiques shops in the Gothic Quarter, many off the Passeig de Gràcia on Bulevard dels Antiquaris, and still more in Gràcia and Sarrià. Bulevard Rosa is a fashion and shopping mall off Passeig de Gràcia. For old-fashioned Spanish shops, prowl the Gothic Quarter, especially Carrer Ferran. The area surrounding Plaça del Pi, from the Boqueria to Carrer Portaferrissa and Carrer de la Canuda, is thick with boutiques, jewelry, and design shops. The Barri de la Ribera, around Santa Maria del Mar, especially El Born area, has a cluster of design, fashion, and food shops. Design, jewelry, and knickknack shops cluster on Carrer Banys Vells and Carrer Flassaders, near Carrer Montcada. The shopping colossus L'Illa, on the Diagonal beyond Carrer Ganduxer, includes the department store FNAC, Custo, and myriad temptations. Carrer Tuset, north of the Diagonal, has lots of small boutiques. The Maremagnum mall, in Port Vell, is convenient to downtown. Diagonal Mar, at the eastern end of the diagonal, along with the Fòrum complex offer many shopping options in a mega-shopping-mall environment.
Galeria Joan Prats (La Rambla de Catalunya 54, Eixample) is a veteran, known for the quality of its artists' works. Art Escudellers (C. Escudellers 23-25, Barri Gòtic) displays ceramics from more than 200 artisans from all over Spain. The Eixample's Centre d'Antiquaris (Passeig de Gràcia 55, Eixample) contains 75 antiques stores.
Beaches. Five kilometers (3 mi) of beaches now run from the Platja (Beach) de Sant Sebastià, a nudist enclave, northward through the Barceloneta, Port Olímpic, Nova Icària, Bogatell, Mar Bella, Nova Mar Bella, and Novíssima Mar Bella beaches to the Fòrum complex and the rocky Illa Pangea swimming area. Next to the mouth of the Besòs River is Platja Nova. Topless bathing is common. The beaches immediately north of Barcelona include Montgat, Ocata, Vilasar de Mar, Arenys de Mar, Canet, and Sant Pol de Mar, all accessible by train from the RENFE station in Plaça de Catalunya. Especially worthy is Sant Pol (Passeig Maritim 59), with clean sand and a handsome old part of town.
Port Photo: Alexa Catalin/Shutterstock
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