Surrender to Barcelona
|A street performer sports a Gaudi-inspired costume for The Forum.|
By Rick Steves
Barcelona, Spain's most cosmopolitan corner, welcomes the world this summer with Forum Barcelona 2004, a party with a purpose.
The Forum, which runs from early May to late September, will feature parades, circuses, concerts, exhibits, and street performances, all to promote the festival's three themes: cultural diversity, sustainable development, and conditions for peace (for details, see www.barcelona2004.org ). If you plan to visit, book your room ahead.
This worthwhile symposium is just another reason to visit Spain's second city and the capital of the proud and distinct region of Catalunya.
Anytime of year, Barcelona bubbles with life. While the city had an illustrious past as a Roman colony, Visigothic capital, 14th-century maritime power, and — in more modern times — a top Mediterranean trading and manufacturing center, it's most enjoyable to throw out the history books and just drift. If you're in the mood to surrender to a city's charms, let it be in Barcelona.
The soul of the city is its compact core — the old town and the Ramblas boulevard. This is your strolling, shopping, and people-watching nucleus. The city's sights are widely scattered, but thanks to the sleek subway system, all is manageable.
The vast central square, Plaça de Catalunya, is the starting point of the Ramblas, the grand boulevard that takes you from rich at the top to rough at the port in a one-mile, 20-minute walk. You'll raft the river of Barcelonan life past a grand opera house, elegant cafés, tapas bars, power-dressing con men, retread prostitutes, pickpockets, artists, street mimes, an outdoor bird market, great shopping, and people looking to charge more for a shoeshine than you paid for the shoes.
Rambla means "stream" in Arabic. The Ramblas used to be a drainage ditch along the medieval wall that once defined what's now called the Gothic Quarter. This quarter, a bustling world of shops, bars, and nightlife, is home to the fascinating Picasso Museum. Pablo Picasso spent his formative years (age 14-21) in Barcelona. This museum houses the best collection of his early works anywhere, offering insight into his later, more challenging art.
Barcelona showcases the work of another famous hometown boy, Antonio Gaudí, master of galloping gables and organic curves. The architect's most notable and persistent work is the unfinished landmark, the spire-studded Sagrada Família (Holy Family) church. He worked on the church from 1883 until his death in 1926. Since then, construction has moved forward in fits and starts. Even today, the half-finished church is not expected to be completed for another 50 years.
For an uptown experience, stroll the Eixample neighborhood, with its wide sidewalks, hardy shade trees, chic shops, and Art Nouveau. When you need a break from the big city, drop by any tapas bar for a slice of local life and Catalan munchies. Choose among spicy potatoes, chorizo al diablo (sausage from hell), and scads of seafood from sardines to squid. Wash it down with apple wine.
"You're not in Spain, You're in Catalunya!"
The region of Catalunya — with Barcelona as its capital — has its own language, history, and culture, and the people have a fiercely independent spirit. With Franco's fascism now ancient history, Catalan flags wave once again. And while Spanish ("Castilian") is widely spoken, the native tongue in this region is Catalan, as different from Spanish as Italian.
Catalunya is not the land of bullfighting and flamenco that many envision when they think of Spain. To see Catalan culture, look for the patriotic sardana dance (locals linking hands to dance in a grand circle on an outdoor square) or an exhibition of castellers, teams of acrobats that build human castles reaching up to 50 feet high.
For all the details, check out Rick Steves' Spain and Portugal tour.