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A Karen Brown Recommended Itinerary

Barcelona Highlights

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Barcelona is Spain's second-largest city, but its distinct history and regional culture make it anything but a small-scale Madrid. Its personality, architecture, customs, proximity to France, and long-term importance as a Mediterranean seaport make it a sophisticated and cosmopolitan city. The whole region of Catalonia, especially its capital city of Barcelona, has long resisted absorption by Castile-dominated central authority. Catalans pride themselves on their industriousness and prosperity, both immediately evident to the visitor. Barcelona is a fascinating, bustling, and charming city that will enchant you.

RECOMMENDED PACING: Barcelona is a vivacious city that blends the historic structures of the old town with the scores of buildings left by the upsurge of modernism. Plan on staying three nights to explore fully the delights the city has to offer.

As in most large and unfamiliar cities, a good way to start your visit is by taking advantage of an organized bus tour, which will orient you and give you a more enlightened idea of how and where to concentrate your time. There are a variety of tours available in English-ask the hotel concierge to arrange one for you.

Street signs (and maps) are often in the Catalan language. In Barcelona, you see carrer instead of calle for street, passeig instead of paseo for passage, avinguda instead of avenida for avenue, and placa instead of plaza for town square. The nerve center of the city is the large Plaza de Catalonia on the border between the old city and the new. It is singularly impressive, with many fine monuments and sculptures. Beneath it is the hub of the subway system and the shopping arcades along the underground Avenida de las Luces (lights).

All of the downtown sights are within walking distance of the plaza, including the festive Ramblas. Ramblas (a cosmopolitan, stone-paved promenade running generally south from the plaza to the waterfront) comes from the Arabic word for riverbed, which is what this once was. Now it is a chic and shady street, lined with shops and hotels and frequented by anyone and everyone visiting Barcelona. At the plaza end are kiosks selling newspapers and books in many languages. From there, a bird market takes over and the street is adorned with cages full of colorful birds. Next are lovely flower stalls, then a series of tree-shaded cafés, perfect for people watching. On the right side of the street (as you walk toward the waterfront) and just before you reach the flower stalls, you find a busy public market where it is fun to stroll, enjoying the amazing variety of produce and fresh fish that Barcelonans have to choose from.

At the waterfront end of Ramblas is a monument to Christopher Columbus and a re-creation of his famous ship, the Santa María. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella were holding court here when Columbus returned from his first voyage and announced the incredible news of his discovery of a route to the Orient (he still thought this is what he had found). Visit the Santa María and try to imagine what it would be like to set out into unknown waters on a two-month voyage, as Columbus did in this tiny ship in 1492. You can also take boat rides around the harbor from here.

A few blocks east of the Ramblas is the colorful Gothic Quarter (Barrio Gótico), a virtual maze of old buildings, streets, and alleyways. A marvelous 15th-century cathedral dominates the area, which also contains the city hall (ayuntamiento) with its lovely sculptures, paintings, and beautifully decorated chambers and halls. There is a rich selection of atmospheric tapa bars and chic shops, including some interesting antique stores, in this lively area.

Still farther east is the famed Calle Montcada, lined with handsome, old mansions. Two of these contain the Picasso Museum with an impressive display of virtually every period of the famous painter's work. Although born in Málaga, Picasso spent much of his life (especially during his formative years) in Barcelona. His most famous paintings are not housed here, but the museum does contain many examples of his early work.

Even more intriguing are the works of another famous Barcelona artist, Antonio Gaudí (1852-1926), the avant-garde architect. HisHoly Family (Sagrada Familia) Church is the city's most famous landmark, its perforated spires visible from various points around the city. You'll certainly want to take a closer look at this marvelous, unfinished building with its intricately carved façades and molten-rock textures (best reached by subway). Many of Gaudí's imaginative creations resemble life-size gingerbread houses. Numerous examples of his work can be found in the city: the Casa Batlló, Casa Mila, and the Pedrera are on the Paseo de Gracia, and the Palacio Guell is just off the Ramblas. They all attest to the apparent rejection of the straight line as a design element in the highly individualistic style of this innovative artist. Because they cannot be moved from Barcelona, they are more an integral part of the city's personality than the paintings of Picasso or Miró, which can be seen in art museums all over the world.

An area not to be missed is Montjuich, occupying a tree-shaded hill in the south of the city and best reached by the metro (Plaça d' Espanya). It's an excellent vantage point and was originally the site of a 17th-century defensive fort (which now contains a military museum). A number of interesting public buildings were erected here for the 1929 exposition. The Museum of Catalan Art is in the Palacio Nacional and contains fine Gothic and Romanesque sections, featuring wonderful examples of religious art that have been rescued from abandoned churches all over the region. These are magnificently displayed, often as complete church interiors.

Also in Montjuich is the Pueblo Español (Spanish town) which is an entire little village constructed for the 1929 exposition, utilizing the varied architectural styles of Spain. Some of the structures are re-creations of actual buildings, and some simply imitate regional styles. The entrance, for example, is a reconstruction of the towers of the city wall of Ávila. It is an impressive achievement and is now essentially a shopping area featuring artesanía (arts and crafts) from the different regions. If you have been to other areas of Spain, you will be struck by the unique juxtaposition of the various architectural styles.

Montjuich is also the setting of one of the most wonderful of all the sights in Barcelona-the beautiful Dancing Fountains (fuentes). For a truly unforgettable experience, ask at your hotel for the days of the week and the time at night they are augmented with lights and music. Music from classical to contemporary accompanies the multicolored, ever-changing water sprays in a symphonic, sensory experience. If you go an hour early and are prepared to wile away the time watching the Barcelonans stroll around the park, you should be able to secure a seat in front of the palace.

Be sure to visit the Fundación Joan Miró, with several hundred examples of this native son's bold and colorful paintings, along with works by other contemporary artists-definitely worth a visit if you are a modern art devotee.

There is ample nightlife in Barcelona. The best approach is to ask your hotel concierge, since shows change constantly. One permanent offering, however, is the Scala, an international, Las Vegas-style review, which is very professionally presented and is enjoyable even if you do not have an understanding of the Spanish language. There is a dinner show (the food is only passable) and a later show at midnight without dinner. You need to ask your hotel concierge to make reservations for the Scala, since it is highly popular both with locals and tourists.

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