By Rick Steves
Barcelona, Spain's second city, bubbles with life in its narrow Barri Gòtic alleys, along the grand boulevards, and throughout the chic, grid-planned, new part of town. This top Mediterranean trading center is also the capital of the proud region of Catalunya. With Franco's fascism now history, Catalunyan flags wave once again and the stirring, patriotic Sardana dances are a weekly event at the cathedral. While Barcelona had an illustrious past as a Roman colony, Visigothic capital, and 14th-century maritime power, it's most enjoyable to throw out the history books and just drift through the city. If you're in the mood to surrender to a city's charms, let it be in Barcelona.
Stroll down the main street, the Ramblas. This grand boulevard, more than a Champs-Élysées, takes you from rich (the elegant Placa de Catalunya at the top) to rough (at the port) in a one-mile, 30-minute walk. You'll raft the river of Barcelonian life past a grand opera house, elegant cafés, retread prostitutes, pickpockets, power-dressing con men, artists, street mimes, an outdoor bird market, great shopping, and people looking to charge more for a shoeshine than what you paid for the shoes. Grab a bench and watch the scene. The Ramblas, which means "stream" in Arabic, is an endless current of people and action.
Duck in the lively produce market on the Ramblas. Best in the morning, La Boquería (also called Mercat de Sant Josep) is an explosion of chicken legs, bags of live snails, stiff fish, delicious oranges, and sleepy dogs. Drop by a café for an espresso con leche or breakfast (tortilla española — potato omelet).
Wander deep in the Barri Gòtic, Barcelona's Gothic Quarter. The area around the cathedral is a tangled yet inviting grab bag of undiscovered courtyards, grand squares, schoolyards, Art Nouveau storefronts, baby flea markets (Thursdays), musty junk shops, classy antique shops (on Carrer de la Palla), street musicians strumming Catalan folk songs, and balconies with domestic jungles behind wrought-iron bars. Go on a cultural scavenger hunt. Write a poem.
The centerpiece of the Barri G̣tic is its colossal cathedral, a fine example of Catalan Gothic, started in about 1300 and completed 600 years later. Rather than stretching toward heaven, it makes a point to be simply massive. Don't miss the cloister with its wispy garden.
Nearby, the Picasso Museum is on the pilgrimage route of modern art lovers. Far and away the best collection of Picasso's (1881-1973) work in Spain, this is a great chance to see his earliest sketches and paintings and better understand his brilliance. He'd mastered the ability to paint realistically when just a teenager. Follow his progress as his skill geometrically increased...to Cubism.
Antoni Gaudí, another artistic genius, left his mark on Barcelona's architecture. The city is a scrapbook of the galloping gables and organic curves of this hometown boy. A devoted Catalan and Catholic, Gaudí's toil was for his soil. Completely immersed in each project, he often lived on-site.
Gaudí's most famous and persistent work is the unfinished Sagrada Família (Sacred Family) church. From 1883 to 1926, Gaudí worked on this monumental church, which is funded only by private donations and entry fees. When the church is finished (perhaps in 2055?), a dozen 330-foot spires (representing the apostles) will stand in groups of four and mark the three entry facades of the building. The center tower (honoring Jesus) will reach 580 feet up and be flanked by 400-foot-tall towers of Mary and the four evangelists. A unique exterior ambulatory will circle the building like a cloister turned inside out.
The cranking cranes, rusty forests of rebar, and scaffolding require a powerful faith, but the Sagrada Família church offers a fun look at a living, growing, bigger-than-life building. Take the elevator on the west side or the stairs on the east side (free but often miserably congested, most likely closed in hot weather) up to the dizzy lookout that bridges two spires. You'll get a great view of the city and a gargoyle's-eye perspective of the loopy church. If there's any building on earth I'd like to see, it's the Sagrada Família...finished.
Overlooking Barcelona's hazy port, the Montjuïc ("Mount of the Jews"), has always been a show-off. Ages ago it had an impressive fortress. In 1929, it hosted an international fair, from which most of today's sights originated. And in 1992, the Summer Olympics directed the world's attention to this pincushion of attractions. Montjuïc's fountains, coordinated with music and color, make a tremendous splash on summer nights. Also tops on this hilltop are two museums devoted to Catalunyan art: the Catalan Art Museum, which showcases the work of Catalunyan artists in general and the other devoted solely to the modern Catalunyan artist Joan Miró.
The local language and culture are on a roll in Spain's most cosmopolitan corner. Although Spanish is understood, Barcelona speaks Catalan. The essential Catalunyan phrases are:
|Please||Si us plau (see oos plow)|
|Thank you||Gracies (GRAH-see-es)|
|Long live Catalunya!||¡Visca Catalunya!