Emmanuel Tresmontant - 2009-11-20
Since setting off down the avant-garde track in the late 19th century, Barcelona has been a city in constant motion, never finished - like the Sagrada Familia - and much more cosmopolitan than regionalist.
With architects such as Montaner and Gaudí, artists such as Miró and Tàpies, the Universal Exhibition of 1929, the Olympic Games of 1992, and the presence of musicians and writers such as Jordi Savall, Paco Ibáñez and Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, Barcelona has acquired international influence. From Las Ramblas to the Eixample, via the Barri Gòtic and the port - one of the busiest in the Mediterranean -, you will discover an architecture, atmosphere, language and gastronomy that are unique in Spain…
Strolling elevated to an art form
Barcelona can easily be explored on foot. One way to get a feel for the city is to take a walk along the seafront, from the statue of Christopher Columbus on the Plaça del Portal de la Pau, to the edge of the city, passing through the Olympic village. The working-class district of Poblenou, which stretched out behind the Estacio del Nord (north station), and the fishing district of Barcelonata were radically transformed to accommodate facilities for the Olympic Games of 1992, and the Olympic village has since been converted into luxury flats. The factories and working-class restaurants have disappeared and been replaced by green spaces and the tallest skyscrapers in Barcelona. Although controversial, these extensive works have, however, had the merit of really opening the city up to the sea.
From the vast Plaça de Catalunya, lined by department stores, to the Christopher Columbus monument facing the port, Las Ramblas is probably the most popular place in Barcelona. Originally, however, it was just a large, straight pedestrian thoroughfare, planted with plane trees and crossed day and night by a constant stream of passers-by. But the atmosphere here is unique, with its cages full of birds, its tapas bars and little local restaurants with hams hanging above the bar.
To the west of Las Ramblas is another of Barcelona's leading districts, the Barri Gòtic, whose Gothic buildings dating from the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries include the Palau Reial Major, the Capella de Santa Águeda and the Palau del Lloctinent. You will be hard put to find such a concentration of mediaeval buildings as well-preserved as these anywhere else in Europe. Beneath the Plaça del Rei, at the heart of this district, you will be surprised to discover the Roman and Visigothic city from which Barcelona later grew. An amazing underground walk takes you through Roman alleyways that lead to the public baths. Then suddenly you find yourself face to face with one of the greatest masterpieces of modernist Catalan architecture, the Palau de la Música Catalana designed by Lluís Domènech i Montaner (1850-1923), one of Gaudí's contemporaries. This building, with its curves and volutes, is crowned by an extraordinary inverted dome that seems to herald Dali's eccentricity...
The Eixample (which means extension), north of Las Ramblas, is the city's busiest shopping area. Its perfect chessboard pattern, with 20-m (66-ft) wide streets all crossing each other at right angles, was created from 1859 at the instigation of a fast-growing industrial bourgeoisie. The municipality commissioned architect Ildefons Cerdá to free the city from the medieval walls that were impeding its expansion, with a result that was both harmonious and rational. Then, between 1890 and 1920, modernist architecture - the Catalan version of Art Nouveau in France, Modern Style in England and Jugendstil in Germany - developed in the Eixample, with rich patrons enabling young Catalan architects to give free rein to their talent. As for Antoni Gaud (1852-1926), he gave this "new city" three of its most famous creations: La Pedrera, a building with undulating façades reminiscent of the sea*; Parc Güell, an enchanting place commissioned by Gaudí's favourite patron, Eusebi Güell, and originally intended to be a garden city; and, lastly, the Sagrada Familia, begun in 1882 and still under construction.
La Sagrada Familia, symbol of Barcelona
This now legendary cathedral, which Gaudí dedicated to the Holy Family and Saint Joseph, patron saint of workmen, has become the symbol of Barcelona. Although the interior is still in a rather precarious state, the towers are open to the public and offer a fabulous panoramic view. It is perhaps at night, when lit up, that the Sagrada Familia is at its most mysterious…
Work on the Sagrada Familia began in 1882 and is still in progress. Today, the cathedral remains surrounded by cranes and scaffolding, and work is all the more slow on account of the increasing number of visitors. It is estimated that the work, which is financed solely by donations, should be completed in 2020. So, if the cathedral is finished and in keeping with the wishes of its designer, it will surpass all other existing religious buildings in size. 12 lateral steeples, representing the Apostles, will surround a central steeple over 170 metres (558 ft) high. Inside will be a gallery with space for 1,500 singers and 5 organs, with the bells in the spires creating a resounding carillon.
Mealtimes in Spain
Along with Basque cuisine, Catalan cuisine
is probably the best in Spain. Traditional Catalan cuisine relies above all on fresh produce; every day the city's best chefs come to stock up at the colourful and fragrant Mercat de la Boqueria
, a vast modernist-style covered market bordering Las Ramblas. The fruit and vegetable stalls are packed to overflowing, while the fishmongers present the quintessence of the Mediterranean: bream, bass, grouper, anchovy, swordfish, cuttlefish, sea urchins, prawns... Other ingredients favoured by Catalan gastronomy
are mushrooms and snails (which can be eaten in a soup, such as the la sopa de fredolics
, brown-snail soup).
There are hundreds of restaurants in Barcelona, but remember, they all have the same opening hours: lunch is served between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., and dinner from 9.30 p.m. Tapas bars are open throughout the day and evening, the most chic being the Cafè de la Opera founded in 1876 on Las Ramblas, the very retro Cafè Zurich, near the Plaça de Catalunya, or the more popular Bar Marsella in the El Raval district, which specialises in absinthe.
This use of produce from both sea and land results in an original and contrasting cuisine known as mar y montaña; chicken with prawns (pollastre amb ascarmelans), meatballs with cuttlefish (mandonguilles amb sipia), rabbit with crayfish, shrimp with sausage... The masterpiece of this unusual cuisine is called Es niu, "the nest", which Montalbán describes as follows: "It contains soaked cod, so-called "aired" cod, which is air-dried then humidified. But you also have to add thrush, cuttlefish, peas, potatoes and garlic mayonnaise. There is a Castilian word for such a mixture: comistrajo (hotchpotch)."
As for tapas, you must, of course, sample the typical Catalan speciality, pa amb tomaquet, which consists of a slice of bread rubbed with garlic and tomato and sprinkled with olive oil. Under the grill, it becomes a torrada, which can also be served with seafood, ham or baked pepper. And don't forget to try the coca de Greixillons, a sort of pancake garnished with pork scratchings which is served during the matança (pig slaughtering) period, between Christmas and New Year.
* The guided rooftop tour reveals a magnificent view of the whole Eixample district as well as of the fantastically shaped air vents and chimneys.
Catalunya Tourist Information