Barcelona and Catalunya
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Rick Steves' Europe
#503 Barcelona and Catalunya
 Bon dia I'm Rick Steves. We're back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're in the land of Picasso, Gaudi, Salvador Dali and cafe con leche...it's Barcelona!
 Barcelona is Spain's second city and the capital of the proud and distinct region of Catalunya. With Franco's fascism now long gone, Catalan's creative and independent spirit is on a roll. Many visitors find this to be Spain's most cosmopolitan and vibrant corner.
 We'll have some fun on the Ramblas, experience Picasso's ever-changing art, sample the cities tapas and then go on a tour of Modernista architecture culminating in Gaudi's unfinished masterpiece, all before venturing to the sky-high monastery of Montserrat and finishing on the Costa Brava with the always provocative Salvador Dali.
 Spain fills most of the Iberian Peninsula. The northeast corner is Catalunya. We'll explore its leading city, Barcelona, before side tripping to Montserrat, Figures and Cadaques.
 Barcelona has a rich history: Roman colony, a dark age Visigothic capital, and a 14th-century maritime power. And beyond its great sights be sure to appreciate the city's elegant sense of style and Mediterranean knack for good living.
 The city's main square, Plaça de Catalunya, is the center of the world for 7 million Catalan people. It's a lively people scene throughout the day. The square is decorated with statues honoring important Catalans. Catalunya has its own distinct language, history, and flag — which locals fly proudly...next to Spain's on government buildings...and all alone from their apartments.
 Catalunya has often been at odds with the central Spanish government in Madrid. This area was one of the last pockets of resistance against the Fascist dictator Francisco Franco. When Franco finally took power he punished the region with four decades of repression. During that time, locals were prohibited from flying their flag. To show their national spirit, they flew this instead — the flag of the Barcelona soccer team.
 Catalans consider themselves not a "region" — that's what Spain calls them — but a "nation without a state."
 The Catalan language is irrevocably tied to the spirit and history of the Catalan people. Sure, everyone speaks Spanish but these kids speak Catalan first.
 Barcelona's ever-popular strolling boulevard is the Ramblas. While souvenir shops and crowds of tourists have diluted its former elegance, it still offers an entertaining introduction to the city.
 The Ramblas bird market is a hit with kids. Traditionally, children bring their parents here to buy pets. Apartment-dwellers find birds, fish and bunnies easier to handle than dogs and cats.
 La Boquería, just steps off the busy boulevard, is Barcelona's lively produce market. Locals shop in the morning for the best and freshest selection of fish and produce. They say if you can't find it in the Boqueria...it's not worth eating.
 Where ever I travel, I enjoy the cafes and little eateries in the markets. Here at the Pinotxo Bar, even while he and his family are busy feeding shoppers, flamboyant Juan is happy to flash his trademark smile.
 Back on the Ramblas, the carnival of Barcelona life continues. A variety of street entertainers vie creatively for your attention...and your coins.
 The bottom of the Ramblas is marked by the Columbus Monument. It was here in Barcelona that the Spanish king Ferdinand and queen Isabel welcomed Columbus home after his first trip to America.
 It's ironic that Barcelona would honor the man whose discoveries opened up new trade routes that moved the focus of European shipping away from here on the Mediterranean out to the Atlantic. That ultimately contributed to the city's downfall as a great trading power.
 But thriving Barcelona has clearly recovered. Just beyond the Columbus Monument, a modern wave-like extension of the boulevard — called the Rambla del Mar — stretches into the harbor. It leads to a popular mall of shops and eateries.
 A generation ago, Barcelona's waterfront was an industrial waste land. With impetus provided by the 1992 Olympics, it's been completely transformed. The former Olympic village — which now houses locals rather than athletes — is marked by Frank Gehry's eye-catching fish. The man-made beaches — a series of crescents that stretch for miles — are a huge hit. Each comes with lively cafes and bars and all are laced together by inviting promenades — much appreciated by strollers, joggers and bikers.
 Surprisingly nearby is Barcelona's old center — the Gothic Quarter. It's a tangled-yet-inviting grab-bag of charming squares ... rowdy schoolyards, rich cultural treasures and other surprises.
 Street musicians take advantage of the stony acoustics.
 And the old town is truly old. Two bold towers date back to the Roman era. These were part of the old Roman wall that protected the city in ancient times. The big stones at the base were laid in the 4th century. And tucked away in a courtyard — embedded in a non-descript office building is a bit of the temple which once crowned Roman Barcelona still standing tall.
 And nearby, filling five grand-old mansions, is a highlight for many visiting Barcelona: the Picasso Museum.
 Since Pablo Picasso spent his formative teenage years here in Barcelona — this is the best collection of his early works anywhere. By seeing Picasso's youthful, realistic art, you can better appreciate the artist's genius and his later, more abstract art.
 The museum lets you trace the evolution of Picasso's work right back his school boy days Pablo's earliest art is realistic and serious. Even as a 14-year old, his portraits of grizzled peasants show impressive technique and psychological insight. He painted his first teacher — who happened to be his father. In this portrait of his mother, Picasso works on the expression in her cameo-like face.
 At art-school he captured the human anatomy brilliantly. During these years Pablo learned the rules he would later so expertly break. His self-portraits show the self-awareness of a blossoming intellect...and a kid who, I imagine, was a hand-full in junior high school].
 As a 15-year-old, Pablo dutifully entered art-school competitions. This was his debut work — the First Communion. While a religious subject, it's more an excuse to paint his family. Notice his sister's exquisitely painted veil.
[38, '] In "Science and Charity" Picasso, still just a teenager, conveys real feeling. The doctor (Pablo's father again) represents science. The nun represents charity and religion. Judging by her hopeless face and lifeless hand, it seems Pablo wants to show death is inevitable.
 In his early 20s Picasso went to turn-of-the-century Paris — a city full of life, light, and love. He goes bohemian and befriends prostitutes, poets and other artists.
 He dabbled in different styles and was inspired by the leading artists of the age. He painted Impressionist landscapes like Monet, posters like Toulouse-Lautrec, still life's like Cézanne, and garishly-colored Fauvist works like Henri Matisse.
 But later, the suicide of his best friend and his own poverty lead Picasso to his famous "Blue Period." He produces lots of blue paintings...which matched his mood.
 By this point Picasso has developed a distinct style of his own — painting not what he sees but what he feels. Despair, a touching portrait of a mother and child, captures the period well.
 Eventually emerging from his blues, Picasso enjoyed a long, innovative and prolific career as a mature artist freed from boring realism and the constraints of convention.
 All his life, Picasso said, "Paintings are like windows open to the world." These canvases, painted when the artist was in his 80s, show the joys of the sun-splashed French Riviera. To the end, Picasso continued exploring and loving life through his art. As a child, he was taught to paint as an adult. And as an old man, he declared he had learned to paint like a child.
 Barcelona boasts an enticing variety of tapas bars. Some are colorful holes-in-walls giving a glimpse of the crusty Barcelona from before its recent affluence took hold. Each seems to have a specialty — here it's little plates of delicious sardines and glasses of rustic wine straight from the keg — really cheap yet rich with memories.
 Some are from a different region of Spain — like this Basque bar serving delightful little open face sandwiches. Hungry diners grab a stool...make a friend over a cana — that's a glass of local draft beer...and happy succumb to the temptation as fresh platters are paraded out of the kitchen. In these places, just let the toothpicks pile up. When it's time to pay...simply count your toothpicks.
 And, most popular these days, are the modern and trendy tapas bars. Eaters cobble together a tasty meal of little plates. Variety is the key here....
 The 19th century was a boom time for Barcelona. By 1850, the city was busting out of its medieval walls. A new town — called the Eixample or Expansion — was planned to follow a grid-like layout. Wide sidewalks, graceful shade trees, chic shops, and plenty of Art Nouveau frills make the carefully planned Eixample district a refreshing break from the dense Old City. Building corners were snipped off to create light and spacious eight-sided squares at every intersection.
 The Eixample was designed to make everything accessible to everyone. Each 20-block-square district would have its own hospital and large park, markets, schools and day-care centers.
 While the original vision was an egalitarian one where each zone was equal, the Eixample became an architectural show case for wealthy residents. While adhering to height and width limitations, they built as they pleased — often in the trendy new style: Modernisme.
 Modernisme is the Catalan version of Art Nouveau which flourished across Europe in the late 19th century. Barcelona was the capital of Modernisme and, especially in the Eixample, it shimmers with its characteristic colorful, leafy, flowing, and blooming shapes.
 Several of Barcelona's top mansions line the boulevard Passeig de Gràcia. Because the structures look as though they are trying to outdo each other in creative twists, locals nicknamed this stretch the "Block of Discord."
 Barcelona is an architectural scrapbook of the galloping gables and organic curves of the most famous Modernista architect... hometown boy Antoni Gaudí. His Casa Milà is Barcelona's quintessential building from this era.
 Casa Mila is open to the public showing how the organic sensitivities of Modernista architecture flowed into the domestic world. This apartment would have been rented by a wealthy business man. It shows how the affluence of the industrial age was enjoyed on a personal level — at least by the upper class. Now an apartment could be a small palace.
 Gaudí's most famous work is his unfinished Church of the Holy Family or Sagrada Familia. He worked on it for over forty years, until his death in 1926. Work continues on the church which is not expected to be completed for another 50 years.
 The Nativity Facade, the only part of the church essentially finished in Gaudi's lifetime, shows the architect's original vision. Mixing Christian symbolism, images from nature, and the organic flair of Modernisme, it's an impressive example of Gaudí's unmistakable style.
 The more modern Passion façade has a different yet complementary style. In the soaring nave, Gaudi's columns blossom with life. Gaudi was a devout Catholic. Part of his religious vision was a love for nature. He said, "Nothing is invented; for it's written in nature first." His little windows let light filter in like the canopy of a rain forest, creating space for an intimate connection with God.
 Stepping into this monumental construction zone, visitors see the slow-and-steady progress...and what their steep admission is funding.
Like the construction of great churches through the ages, this project takes many lifetimes. Gaudi knew he'd never see it finished, as do the architects working on it today. Yet they all contribute, pushing steadily toward completion.
 Someday a central tower of Jesus will rise 550 feet above all this. It'll dwarf everything we see today. The vision: to shine like a spiritual lighthouse visable even from out at sea. If there's any building on earth I'd like to see, it's the Sagrada Familia...finished.
 For a more playful dose of Gaudi's architectural genius, we're heading out to his colorful Parc Guell.
 While today the grand stairway and its welcoming lizard are overwhelmed by fun-seekers, Gaudí intended this 30-acre garden to be a 60-residence housing project — a kind of gated community. Fanciful viaducts compliment the natural landscape. Gaudi actually lived in this mansion. As a high-end housing development, the project flopped. But a century later, as a park, it's a huge success.
 As you wander, imagine the community succeeded and you were one of its lucky residents. Here at the "Hall of 100 Columns" — the intended produce market — you'd enjoy the fanciful columns and décor while you did a little shopping. Heading home, you'd stroll down the playful arcade — like a surfer's perfect tube, it's another nature-inspired Gaudi fancy. And, on such a beautiful day, you'd sit a spell on Gaudi's ergonomic benches to enjoy a grand view of this grand city.
 An hour inland from Barcelona takes us to a mountain stronghold which many consider the heart of Catalunya. A teleferique zooms visitors up to the dramatically situated Monastery of Montserrat. Montserrat means the "serrated mountain" — and you see why as you approach. Hymns explain how the mountain was carved by little angels with golden saws. Geologists blame nature at work.
With its dramatic mountaintop monastery and spiritual connection with the Catalan people and their struggles, Montserrat is a rewarding day trip from Barcelona. It's been Catalunya's most important pilgrimage site for a thousand years.
 The monastery was destroyed by Napoleon. Then, in the 1850s, the monks returned as part of Catalunya's (and Europe's) renewed Romantic appreciation for things religious, medieval, and nationalistic. The place was reconstructed and Montserrat became, once more, the spiritual and cultural heart of the Catalan people.
A handful of Benedictine monks carry on the monastery's spiritual tradition. Since 1025, the slogan "ora et labora" ("prayer and work") pretty much sums up life for a monk here.
 The Benedictines welcome visitors — both pilgrims and tourists — as they experience the spiritual power of Montserrat.
 Montserrat's top attraction is La Moreneta, the small wood statue of the Black Virgin, discovered here in the 12th century. Legend says she was carved by St. Luke but carbon dating says she's only 800 years old. Pilgrims circulate down a long and ornate passage leading alongside the church for their few moments alone with the virgin. Pilgrims touch the virgin's orb to seek Mary's blessing.
 For a radically different slice of Catalunia, we're heading north up the Costa Brava. The town of Figueres has the Salvador Dalí Museum — the essential Dalí sight. Ever the entertainer and promoter, Dalí personally designed, decorated, and painted it to showcase his life's work. He was buried right here in the floor of this room in 1989 and the museum serves as a mausoleum to the artist's creative spirit.
 When Salvador Dalí was asked, "Are you on drugs?" he replied, "I am the drug... take me." Dalí produced some of the most thought-provoking and trailblazing art of the 20th century. His surrealistic imagery continues to disturb and intrigue today.
 The best-known of the Surrealists, Dali created photorealistic images set in bizarre dreamscapes. His life changed forever in 1929, when he met an older, Russian woman named Gala. She became his wife, muse, model, manager, and emotional compass.
 An audience of golden statues looks down on the museum. Above Dalí's personal 1941 Cadillac hangs the boat enjoyed by Dalí and his soulmate, Gala. When she died he was devastated. Below the boat drip blue tears.
 Squint at the big digital Abraham Lincoln...and he comes into focus. Look closer and you see Abe's facial cheeks are Gala's other cheeks.
 The Homage to Mae West room is a tribute to the sultry seductress. Dalí loved her attitude. Mae West was to conventional morality what he was to conventional art.
Facial features are furniture arranged so that from the intended vantage point everything comes together — Mae West.
 The ceiling of the lounge is a highlight. It shows the feet of Gala and Dalí as they reach for the heavens. Dalí's drawers are wide open and empty, indicating he gave everything to his art.
 Dali enjoyed his most creative years nearby in the fishing village of Cadaques, which has long been a haven for intellectuals and artists alike. Its craggy coastline, sun-drenched colors, and laid-back lifestyle inspired artists from Matisse and Duchamp, to Picasso. For today's tourists, mellow Cadaqués offers a peaceful beach-town escape near Barcelona.
 In the 1920s Salvador Dalí and Gala moved in bringing international fame to this sleepy Catalan port.
 Casa Dalí shows how a home can reflect the creative spirit of an artistic genius and his muse. His studio was equipped with an innovative easel. It cranked up and down to allow the artist to paint while seated, as he did eight hours a day. The bohemian-yet-divine living room comes complete with a mirror to reflect the sunrise onto their bed each morning.
 Like Dalí's art, his home defies convention. And like the artist himself, it's playful and provocative.
 Dali's place is the most enjoyable artist's home I've toured anywhere in Europe. And it's just one more example of the quirky and creative spirit of Catalunya. A spirit that gives Barcelona and this corner of Spain a distinct charm. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on traveling. Adieu.
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.