Barcelona and Catalunya
The creative spirit of Spain's Catalunya — the land of Picasso, Gaudí, and Salvador Dalí — is on a roll. We'll get caught up in the festivity of Barcelona, enjoying the vibrant street scenes, tasty tapas, and pedestrian-friendly Gothic Quarter. Then we'll take a scenic side trip to mountaintop Montserrat, and finish with an artist’s pilgrimage along the Costa Brava to Salvador Dalí country. In seaside Cadaqués, we’ll visit Dalí's home, and in nearby Figueres, we'll experience his playfully surreal mausoleum/museum.
This lively market hall is an explosion of chicken legs, bags of live snails, stiff fish, delicious oranges, and odd odors. The best day for a visit is Saturday, when the market is thriving. It's closed on Sundays.
Since as far back as 1200, Barcelonans have bought their animal parts here. The market was originally located just outside the walled city's entrance, as many medieval markets were (since it was more expensive to trade within the walls). It later expanded into the colonnaded courtyard of a now-gone monastery before being covered with a colorful arcade in 1850.
Just inside the market, animated Juan and his family are always busy feeding shoppers at this bar. Getting Juan to crack a huge smile and a thumbs-up for your camera makes a great shot…and he loves it. The stools nearby are a fine perch for enjoying both your coffee and the people-watching.
Pablo Picasso may have made his career in Paris, but the years he spent in Barcelona — from ages 14 through 23 — were among the most formative of his life. It was here that young Pablo mastered the realistic painting style of his artistic forebears — and it was also here that he first felt the freedom that allowed him to leave that all behind and give in to his creative, experimental urges. When he left Barcelona, Picasso headed for Paris…and revolutionized art forever.
The pieces in this excellent museum capture that priceless moment just before this bold young thinker changed the world. While you won't find Picasso's famous, later Cubist works here, you will enjoy a representative sweep of his early years, from the careful crafting of art-school pieces to the gloomy hues of his Blue Period. You'll also see works from his twilight years, including dozens of wild improvisations inspired by Diego Velázquez's seminal Las Meninas, as well as a roomful of works that reflect the childlike exuberance of an old man playing like a young kid on the French Riviera. It's the top collection of Picassos here in his native country and the best anywhere of his early years.
For many visitors, Modernista architecture is Barcelona’s main draw. And at the heart of the Modernista movement was the Eixample, a carefully planned "new town," just beyond the Old City, with wide sidewalks, hardy shade trees, and a rigid grid plan cropped at the corners to create space and lightness at each intersection. Conveniently, all of this new construction provided a generation of Modernista architects with a blank canvas for creating boldly experimental designs.
For the best Eixample example, ramble Rambla de Catalunya (unrelated to the more famous Ramblas) and pass along Passeig de Gràcia. While you could simply walk around and see what Modernista masterpieces you stumble upon, most visitors make a beeline to Gaudí's La Pedrera (Metro: Diagonal) and the Block of Discord, where three Modernista greats jockey for your attention (Metro: Passeig de Gràcia). By the way, if you're tempted to snap photos from the middle of the street, be careful — Gaudí died after being struck by a streetcar.
One of Gaudí's trademark works, this house — built between 1906 and 1912 — is an icon of Modernisme. The wealthy industrialist Pere Milà i Camps commissioned it, and while some still call it "Casa Milà," most take one look at its jagged, rocky facade and opt for the more colorful nickname, La Pedrera — "The Quarry." While it's fun to ogle from the outside, it's also worth going inside, as it's arguable the purest Gaudí interior in the city. And buying a ticket also gets you access to the delightful rooftop, with its forest of tiled chimneys (note that the roof may close when it rains).
Architect Antoni Gaudí's most famous and awe-inspiring work is this unfinished, super-sized church. With its cake-in-the-rain facade and otherworldly spires, the church is not only an icon of Barcelona and its trademark Modernista style, but also a symbol of this period's greatest practitioner. As an architect, Gaudí's foundations were classics, nature, and religion. The church represents all three.
Gaudí labored on the Sagrada Família for 43 years, from 1883 until his death in 1926. Nearly a century after his death, people continue to toil to bring Gaudí's designs to life. The progress of this remarkable building is a testament to the generations of architects, sculptors, stonecutters, fund-raisers, and donors who've been caught up in the audacity of Gaudí's astonishing vision.
Gaudí fans enjoy the artist's magic in this colorful park, located on the outskirts of town. While it takes a bit of effort to get here, Park Güell (Catalans pronounce it "gway") offers a unique look at Gaudí's style in a natural rather than urban context. Designed as an upscale housing development for early-20th-century urbanites, the park's Monumental Zone is home to some of Barcelona's most famous symbols, including a whimsical staircase guarded by a dragon and a wavy bench with a view — all of it slathered with fragments of vivid tile. It also features a panoramic terrace supported by a forest of columns. Even without its Gaudí connection, Park Güell is simply a fine place to enjoy a break from a busy city, where green space is relatively rare.
Montserrat rockets dramatically up from the valley floor northwest of Barcelona. With its unique rock formations, a dramatic mountaintop monastery (also called Montserrat), and spiritual connection with the Catalan people and their struggles, it's a popular day trip. This has been Catalunya's most important pilgrimage site for a thousand years.
Barcelona is connected to the valley below Montserrat by a convenient train; from there, a cable car or rack railway (your choice) takes you up to the mountaintop. Both options are similar in cost and take about the same amount of time (hourly trains, 1.5 hours each way from downtown Barcelona to the monastery).
The museum fills a former theater and is the artist's mausoleum (his tomb is in the crypt below center stage). Dalí personally conceptualized, designed, decorated, and painted the museum to showcase his life's work. Even the building's exterior — painted pink, studded with golden loaves of bread, and topped with monumental eggs and a geodesic dome — exudes the artist's outrageous public persona. The Dalí Theater-Museum is called the largest Surrealist object in the world.
There's no logical order for a visit (that would be un-Surrealistic), and the museum can be mobbed at times. Naturally, there's no audioguide. Dalí said there are two kinds of visitors: those who don't need a description, and those who aren't worth a description.
Once Dalí's home, this house gives fans a chance to explore his labyrinthine compound. The ambience, both inside and out, is perfect for a Surrealist hanging out with his creative playmate. The interior is left almost precisely as it was in 1982, when Gala died and Dalí moved out. Like Dalí's art, his home is offbeat, provocative, and fun.
You must reserve in advance — call (+34 972-251-015), go online, or email with specifics on the day and time you want to visit. In summer, book at least a week in advance. You must arrive 30 minutes early to pick up your ticket, or they'll sell it.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick’s guidebooks.
Bon día, I’m Rick Steves back with more of the Best of Europe. This time we’re in the land of Picasso, Gaudí, Salvador Dalí, and café 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, Catalunya’s independent and creative spirit is on a roll. Many visitors find this to be Spain’s most vibrant and cosmopolitan corner.
We’ll have some fun on the Ramblas, experience Picasso’s ever-changing art, sample the city’s tapas and then go on a tour of Modernista architecture culminating in Gaudí’s unfinished masterpiece. All this before venturing to the sky-high monastery of Montserrat, and finishing on the Costa Brava with the always provocative Salvador Dalí.
Spain fills most of the Iberian Peninsula. The northeast corner is Catalunya. We’ll explore its leading city, Barcelona, before side-tripping to Montserrat, Figueres, and Cadaqués.
Barcelona has a rich history: Roman colony, Dark Age Visigothic capital, and 14th-century maritime power. And beyond all its great sights be sure to appreciate its elegant sense of style and its Mediterranean knack for good living.
The city’s main square, Plaça 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 flags on government buildings…and all alone from their apartments.
Catalunya has often been at odds with the central Spanish government in Madrid. During the 1930s this area was one of the last pockets of resistance against the Fascist dictator Francisco Franco. When he finally took power he punished the region with four decades of repression. During this period, the people were forbidden to fly the Catalunyan flag. Instead to show their national spirit, they flew this — the flag of the Barcelona soccer team.
Catalans consider themselves not part of a “region” — that’s what Spain calls them — but a “nation without a state.”
Kids: Viva Catalunya!
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 Boqueria, just steps off the busy boulevard, is Barcelona’s lively fish and produce market. Locals shop in the morning for the best and freshest selection. They say if you can’t find it at the Boqueria…it’s not worth eating.
Where ever I travel, I enjoy the cafés 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 actually shifted the focus of European trade away from here on the Mediterranean and out to the Atlantic…and in doing so, actually contributed to the downfall of this city 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 wasteland. 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 cafés and bars and all are laced together by inviting promenades — much appreciated by strollers, joggers, and bikers.
Surprisingly nearby is Barcelona’s gritty 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 fourth 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 art anywhere. By seeing his youthful, realistic art, it’s easier to appreciate his artistic genius and his later, 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…a kid who, I imagine, was a handfull 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.
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 the lifeless hand, it seems Pablo wants to show that death is inevitable.
In his early 20s Picasso went to turn-of-the-century Paris — a city filled with light and life and love. He went bohemian — made friends with 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-lifes 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 Blue Period. He produced 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 prosperity 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 caña — 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. The key here: variety.
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 vision of the Eixample was to have everything equally accessible to everyone. Each district of about 20 square blocks would have its own market, hospital, schools, parks, and daycare.
While the original vision was an egalitarian one where each zone was equal, the Eixample became an architectural showcase for its wealthy residents. While adhering to height and width limitations, they built as they pleased — often in the trendy style of the day: 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 here 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 Milà is open to the public. It shows how the organic sensitivities of Modernista architecture flowed into the domestic world. This apartment would have been rented by a wealthy businessman. 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 Família. He worked on it for over 40 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 Gaudí’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 facade has a different, yet complementary, style. In the soaring nave, Gaudí’s columns blossom with life. Gaudí 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 fee is funding.
Like the construction of great churches through the ages, this project takes many lifetimes. Gaudí 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 550-foot tower of Jesus will rise above all this. It’ll dwarf everything we see today. The vision: to shine like a spiritual lighthouse visible even from out at sea. If there’s one building on earth I’d like to see, it’s the Sagrada Família…finished.
For a more playful dose of Gaudí’s architectural genius, we’re heading out to his colorful Park Güell.
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. Gaudí 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 that 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 decor 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 Gaudí fantasy. And, on such a beautiful day, you’d sit a spell on Gaudí’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 téléphérique zooms visitors up to the dramatically situated monastery of Montserrat. Montserrat means “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 of things religious, medieval, and nationalistic. They rebuilt the place and Montserrat became, once again, 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 up here.
The Benedictines welcome visitors — both pilgrims and tourists — in hopes that they’ll experience the spiritual power of Montserrat.
Montserrat’s top attraction is La Moreneta, a 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 Catalunya, 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 to this day.
The best-known of the Surrealists, Dalí 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. She 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 Gala and Dalí as they reach for the heavens. Dalí’s drawers are wide open and empty, indicating he gave everything to his art.
Dalí enjoyed his most creative years nearby in the fishing village of Cadaqués, 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.
Dalí’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 travelin’. Adéu.
This time we’re in the land of Picasso, Gaudí, Salvador Dalí, and coffee con leche, Barcelona.
…Salvador Dalí and coffee con leche, Barcelona!
Juan: [Thumbs up]
The vision of the Eixample was to have everything equally acceptable [horn honk] to everyone.