Barcelona . . . say it out loud, and take your time with it. Bar-ce-LOHHH-na. The word lolls around in the mouth, briny and sweet, like salted caramel. It’s an elegant, loopy kind of name for an irregular city, a place of inconsistencies and contradictions. Most people who can read a map think it’s part of Spain, but the Barcelonans who fly the flag of Catalonia steadfastly deny this. It’s a patchwork of small historic neighborhoods but also a sprawling modern city; it’s located on the Mediterranean yet it doesn’t know how to be a seaside town. If Spain is, as Edmund Burke pronounced it, a “great whale stranded on the shores of Europe”—not really a part of it but too big to be shoved back into the sea—maybe Barcelona is some kind of barnacle stuck on the whale. To cite another unexpected and strange source (but why not, for this strange town), Leon Trotsky described Barcelona (in 1916) as a “Big Spanish-French kind of city. Like Nice in a hell of factories. Smoke and flames on the one hand, flowers and fruit on the other.”
In their quest to understand the world through food analogies, MoT staff members approach Barcelona through the metaphor that, by law, must be included in any travel writing about Spain (or this not-Spain part, Catalonia), Barcelona is like paella–but paella that has some nice sausage and shrimp and peppers that you want to pick out and leave the unevenly seasoned rice for somebody else.
What it’s like
Even though like, oh, everything everywhere, Barcelona has a Roman history, it’s not highly in evidence any longer. Its main core down by the sea (which you can completely avoid ever seeing during your stay there; they invented their beach quite recently, for their hosting of the Olympics in 1992) is a mash up of dense medieval quarters cut through by nineteenth-century urban planning, wrapped to the north and east (cardinal points being sort of relative here) by the Eixample, one of nineteenth-century Europe’s stupidest urban planning schemes (more of this below).
In part a result of this messiness, Barcelona has a serious image problem. Pop quiz: what does it look like? That’s a question you can easily answer for other cities with monumental images like Chicago’s skyline seen from the Lake or the plan of Paris as seen from above, and cities with memorable individual landmarks like the Taj Mahal and Colosseum: great monuments of artistic achievement and cultural relevance that show us what has been and/or continues to be significant for a place. The most recognizable thing in Barcelona is an unfinished, weird church that is not celebrated as a center of religious faith but rather for its famous architect who is famous for being kind of weird. That’s the best Barcelona can do in the way of emblems; its vast character is similarly unknowable; kind of a wreck. That barnacle metaphor is looking better to us all the time.
At the same time, Barcelona has some things that are really worth a focused visit (although, given the choice of Spanish cities alone, we’d head down to Andalusia). But, if you must go, here’s how MoT suggests you deal with Barcelona, if your tracks lead you thither.
What to avoid
A lot of cities repay a directionless meander; this is not one of them. At best, it can get skanky fast, at worst, just dangerous (like any big city, Barcelona houses great economic disparity, but—worse—it also tends to draw a sleazy spring-break kind of crowd to some of its neighborhoods). And that’s one thing we don’t like about it: you really need to stick to a map, and are better off shooting under questionable, boring, or noisy parts of it on the metro. Identify the spectacle that you really want/need to see, and ignore the in-between parts (it’s like going to an action movie and avoiding the “dialogue” that connects the scenes with stuff blowing up).
Another thing to avoid: language. Your high school Spanish will help a bit here, but remember that this is Catalonia, not Spain, and Catalan is the preferred “co-official” language here. We’ve heard it said that Catalan sounds like Spanish, French and Klingon rolling around in a concrete mixer. Get used to it, since it is verbally flown like that super-stripey yellow and red flag. Indeed, Catalan is the first language listed on the airport signs, above Spanish and English, in generous service to the Catalan-speaking population of the world, which numbers fewer souls than the population of North Carolina. We get the point. One nice thing about Catalan: no one else in your tour group will be brave enough to try it, so when they frown at your crummy high school Spanish, you can just brush off their criticism: it’s Catalan, idiota.
What to see
If you’ve read this far it’s because you know about the things that are really worth seeing and, as confounded as we are to explain it, the travel department here at MoT can’t deny that they are richer for having waded through the murk of Barcelona to enjoy a few of its real treasures. If you need someone to tell you three things you cannot miss, here they are:
I. The Medieval
Barcelona’s oldest concentrations of good buildings date from the medieval period, and there is some cool stuff in this category, just a little different from the Romanesque and Gothic you see elsewhere in Europe. The Barri Gòtic is a no-brainer, so go there, where you’ll find the cathedral and lots of narrow streets with interesting doorways and sculpture. In the neighborhood: Restaurant Can Culleretes, which is fantastic, marvelous (check them out here). Plan for an early meal so you beat the crowds and can have the extra joy of lingering over your meal while you watch a long queue of people salivating at the door. Go in, put yourself in the hands of the wait staff and order whatever they recommend. If there’s anything served with white beans, get that. Buy as much food as you can afford and leave nothing behind. Do this now, thank us later. Another great wandering area (which are, again, too few and far between in this city) is El Call, the old Jewish Quarter. The more you travel in Spain the more you’ll read history along the lines of “The Jewish population of [city x] was vibrant and healthy prior to the ascension of Isabella and Ferdinand.” You can spend your whole Spanish vacation angry about the riches of Jewish and Muslim culture lost to the machinations of los Reyes Católicos and really only get started. And this is not wasted time: better to growl along the picturesque and narrow streets of this sad quarter than to simmer about it at home.
Find your way to the fourteenth-century Santa Maria del Pi, which is one of several medieval churches in the city that reveal the unique characteristics of Catalan Gothic. In general, these churches tend to be taller across their whole width, with big rounded naves. Without a clerestory, they are somewhat dark and murky, and the apparent lack of a cleaning regimen for a few centuries only enhances that character. Santa Maria del Pi is surrounded by several oddly-shaped and nicely-scaled plazas full of restaurants, shops and people. Markets are held here pretty frequently, allowing you to buy unexpected and spiffy things you didn’t know you needed. But you will be better off with a set of those hand-carved paella spoons, trust us. A bigger church from the same period, Santa Maria del Mar, hovers over the Ribera district. Incredibly tall and broad, the exterior looks mural and boxy; interior is totally different: unified, vast ad exceptionally lofty—the vault height is consistent across this transept-free church. Outside is the Fossar de les Moreres, a monument to the dead of the War of Spanish Succession of 1714 and thus is another reminder of the independent spirit of Catalonia.
Cutting back across town, you’ll run the sensory assault of the Ramblas, made worth the effort by two things. FIRST: the Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria is one of our favorite things in Barcelona. The history of La Boqueria runs back to the thirteenth century (and thus the way we can justify your stop here during your consideration of “medieval Barcelona”); the current structure dates to the mid-nineteenth. Stall after gorgeous stall of fruits, nuts, spices and all manner of take-away treats make an easy and fun lunch on your feet. Several restaurants offer a place to sit and enjoy great stuff too. La Boqueria is the redemption of Las Ramblas. SECOND: make your way through an admittedly dingy neighborhood to a site which was, as the church’s name implies, in the field beyond the city gates: Sant Pau del Camp, a wonderful little gem, is the oldest church in Barcelona. The core of the small Greek-cross church building is Romanesque with heavy, strong, dark vaults, awkward domes and squinches. It’s stark, cool, serious and quiet. A later cloister is lighter with foliated arches and great capital sculptures. You can sit for a long, long time without seeing another soul. Keep in mind that this under-visited church means a lack of tourists and tourist amenities in this area; you will walk through real-people Barcelona to get there so have your act together and don’t expect to fall into a sangria and tapas fest on the way out. In the neighborhood: If you are so inclined, on your way back to Las Ramblas you can stumble upon the Palau Güell, built by Gaudi for his great patron in 1890 (More on him below.) When we were there in 2010 it was under renovation and thus open for free, which seems just about right (details here).
Resonating with that medieval vibe? Or just need a breather out of the city? Work out the trains (it’s not hard, really) and take a day trip to the Monastery of Santa Maria de Montserrat. You’ll find some impressive architecture, moving spiritual devotions, and a landscape that is unique in the world. We tend to be city people rather than nature travelers, but this was amazing even to us. (See some of it here.)
II. The Modernisme
Art Nouveau was a wonderful movement: across Europe, architects and artists strove to develop an intentionally modern style rooted in the culture of their region. In general, it was a legible, readable development of regional customs into a self-conscious modernity. The fabulousness of Art Nouveau reached Barcelona during the Renaixença, or “Catalan Renaissance,” one of the many efforts to re-establish political independence from Spain. Art Nouveau, then, developed with more political oomph in Barcelona than it did in many other European capitals where it was not more than an aesthetic movement alone. Even if you’re not an architecture person you’ve probably learned about Antoni Gaudí, Barcelona’s most famous architect and designer of some of the city’s most famous buildings. Gaudí: the name sounds to us like the sound our dog makes when she yawns. Of all the versions of Art Nouveau across Europe, his is the one we understand and admire the least. It has none of the elegance of Victor Horta in Brussels, nor the classical clarity of Otto Wagner in Vienna, nor the whimsy of Ödön Lechner in Budapest. It is lumpy, irregular, and like the language that Gaudí himself celebrated, pretty unintelligible to most people. Remember the Palau Güell we mentioned above? At street level, two large catenary arched openings are filled in with dark, gruesome ironwork that may have been on H. R. Giger’s mind when he started work on Aliens. Images of seaweed and snakeheads lurk about. On the top are some of those ceramic doodles of Gaudi’s that are more palatable—but they are way up high, destined for the enjoyment of the birds, not us.
If you go to Barcelona for the architecture, you can’t ignore Gaudi’s monuments, so why not see them: the perpetually under-construction Sagrada Familia (warning: its district is horribly congested and noisy; we wonder how it might have impressed Trotsky); the Parc Güell with its admittedly cute lizards (but not cute enough to make up for the nightmares inspired by the Palau Güell); the Casa Vicens, which has all the elegance subtlety of a giant pile of Legos; and the Casa Batlló which charms us a little with its painterly façade. Several of the Gaudí monuments are open to the public, most at exceptionally inflated ticket prices (currently 17.50 euro, or $24.84, to get into the Casa Batlló, which he only renovated!!! You can do all of Versailles for that!!!). Of them, we can recommend the Casa Milà, which offers quite a lot for the entry fee. There is one large suite of rooms open for visit and decorated in the continental Art Nouveau; it is very elegant and quite nice (you could almost forget you’re in Barcelona). The attic space reveals the bizarre, wafer-brick arched construction of the building, and is fitted out as a big museum to Gaudí. There you can see some very interesting and beautiful models of Gaudí buildings and their structural designs, as well as a lot of that unfortunate Gaudí furniture (neither interesting nor beautiful). The big fun is on the roof, where you can walk all over the undulating moonscape of the building. That’s pretty neat. (More info here.)
And, of course, the bonus of being in a Gaudí building is that you look out at something else. Sadly, in this case, it’s Barcelona, and one of the most tiresome parts of it: the Eixample (a Catalan term that loosely translates as “monotunfriendly”). From above, it looks like there was a fire sale on chamfered squares. The designer did this, on purpose, to increase visibility and light and air while expressing political equality, blah blah blah. It’s brutal (not to mention boring) for pedestrians: to negotiate these weird big intersections one must walk, and walk, and walk to get to the crossing, and then it’s still not very safe since the cars have started turning onto your street and have picked up speed long before they see you. It is a relentless grid of a development with sameness celebrated in the cause of egalitarianism. No boulevards pointing at important cultural markers here (as was done in contemporaneous developments in Paris, Vienna and elsewhere); the Eixample is all about endless sameness that allows no one to stand out: it’s urban planning’s version of the whole little league team getting the same trophies to celebrate Excellence In Participation. Perhaps because of this utterly boring setting, the late nineteenth-century architects in the vast development were inspired to go nuts in elevation. Sure there are a few Gaudí buildings, but he was not the only architect in Barcelona during the Fin de Siècle. Very near to Casa Mila is the Illa de la Discòrdia (“Block of Discord”), where Gaudi’s Casa Battlo is cheek-by-jowl with interesting buildings by his lesser-known peers Lluís Domènech i Montaner, Josep Puig i Cadafalch and Enric Sagnier. In fact you can spend a few hours wandering through this neighborhood and see a lot of architecture from this period. This link and this map will help you find your way.
But if you really want to celebrate Barcelona’s Modernisme, take the metro back to La Ribera, where you will find the building that in our estimation is Barcelona’s best: the Palau de la Música Catalana, a music hall designed in 1905 by Domènech i Montaner. It is a brilliant, exuberant building on a tricky site. The building is hemmed in on all sides yet through its decorative tile work and most importantly amazing sculpture on the corner (by Miguel Blay) commands attention while manifesting the great independent spirit of the music that the building was designed to celebrate. Definitely get a tour of this building; go see whatever show is playing while you are in town so you can spend time here. Note: the folks who run this joint are really picky about photos inside; you will get hollered at if you try to sneak one. Better to just play by the rules, buy some postcards in the shop and splurge a bit on the pastries and tapas in the café, which is a wonderland of ceramic tile. You’re paying a surcharge for the environment but really, here, it’s worth it.
III. The Modernist
Of course, Barcelona was not done in 1914, and some interesting, and important, things lurk about, if you are so inclined. (We would be more inclined to write about them if we weren’t exhausted from writing about Gaudí.) There’s the Jean Nouvel Lite-Brite tower—but figure out the schedule before hiking up to see it since it’s not glittery every night. There is the giant Santiago Calatrava tower that looks like the world’s most elegant and biggest elevator lobby ashtray. And then there’s MIES.
Way away in a tucked-away corner of the city, displayed with all the care given to a wedding gift you didn’t really want but can’t give away without offending a rich family member, stands the German Pavilion by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Built as a temporary structure, it was dismantled after the close of the 1929 International Exposition and rebuilt in 1986. Go early for the great fun of watching the crew climb gingerly all over this thing to make it look as pristine as Mies intended. Close up, this is an extraordinary collection of materials: everything is sumptuous, rich, gorgeous, detailed to the last beinahe nichts. If you are the kind of person who is sometimes tempted to lick chrome, proceed with extreme caution.
IV. A few more things
“Smoke and flames on the one hand, flowers and fruit on the other.” That’s pretty much it—although in our experience, it was more like flowers and fruit, few and far between, in the midst of a sea of smoke and flames. One more very nice island in the midst of sea of smoke is the Museu de la Xocolata. It’s educational and delicious! And maybe the best museum ever, just starting with the fact that your ticket is a BAR OF CHOCOLATE and 50% of the merchandise in the gift shop is edible. (Get more here.)
Not really a barnacle, Barcelona is a string of islands: Santa Maria del Mar, la Boqueria, Sant Pau del Camp, Palau de la Música Catalana and the German Pavilion are all worth your visit; we’re very glad to have seen them. It can’t be all bad or the Plastiscines never would have extended their invitation to us to get down in the Catalan capital. Even the in-between parts are not all bad: scuttling under the surface of the city, we enjoyed lots of strolling musicians in the metros. Dodging gaggles of art majors and questionable characters on the street we hunted churros and admired the awesomely well-behaved Dogs of Spain. And we really loved the tidy, speedy, overnight train to Granada.