Monday, 10 March 2014

Barcelona: architecture, apératifs and art

I visited Barcelona in July 2013. Visiting the city of Gaudí has always been on my travel to-do list, and it certainly didn't disappoint. Barcelona is extremely well-connected, with many budget airlines flying into one of the three airports around the outskirts of the city. Looking at accommodation, we were rather overwhelmed by the sheer volume of hotels in the city, and so decided to try out something different - AirBnB. The concept is a website full of people offering up their spare room or their apartment to strangers for a night, a weekend, a week or even longer. Usually the price works out as much cheaper than a hotel or B'n'B, and you usually get the added benefit of access to a kitchen of your own, saving on paying for breakfast at cafés while you're away. If you stay in the spare room of someone's flat, you also get to meet at least one of the locals almost immediately, and they can prove a goldmine of information about the destination. We stayed in the La Ribera district in central Barcelona, near the Palau Música Catalana. This neighbourhood felt very authentic, with its narrow streets, small bars and vibrant squares which really came to life after nightfall. It was also very central and allowed us to avoid using the hot and sticky Barcelona Metro system on most days, opting to walk around the city instead. Highlights of the trip included:

1. Visiting Montjuïc

To the west of the city centre lies Montjuïc, a green hillside with several interesting places to visit. We began with the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya which has an impressive collection of Romanesque wall paintings from Catalonian churches, amongst other stunning pieces. The museum is housed in the Palau Nacional, an impressive building set in lush green surroundings. For fans of Joan Miró, the hill is also home to a museum dedicated to the Catalonian painter and sculptor's work. We skipped the Miró Foundation and climbed the winding road towards the castle, which can be visited for free and offers breathtaking views across the city and the port of Barcelona and out to sea on a clear day. You can even catch the cable car (telefèric) back into the city - it drops you (not literally!) by the port at Barceloneta.

2. In the footsteps of Gaudí

One of Barcelona's most famous residents, Gaudí was known for his unique architectural creations, and we were keen to visit some of his work whilst in the city. Park Güell is very cutesy and an interesting place to explore, with its gingerbread-like house reminiscent of something from Hansel and Gretel, and the famous mozaic lizard sculpture being possibly two of the most-photographed sites in the park. The only drawback is that with the park being one of the most famous visitor attractions in Barcelona, not to mention completely free to visit, you do find yourself surrounded by crowds of other tourists, which can spoil the magical feel a little. La Sagrada Familia is another infamous Barcelona sight; the unfinished church is still under construction after almost 100 years of hard work by Gaudí and his successors. The building is stunning, but may not be completed until at least 2027! Another extremely popular destination, entrance queues surrounded the building when we visited, so we decided regretfully not to go inside, but just admired the sandcastle-like architecture from outside. Make sure to check out the wonderful Nativity façade. My favourite Gaudí masterpiece was probably Casa Batlló, which evoked mermaids and crashing waves with its blue-green colour scheme, shimmering mosaics and sea-monster roof tiles. I was also fascinated by Casa Milà, a building with undulating walls that looks as if it was crafted solely from sand.

3. Tapas by the port

Barceloneta and other areas near the coast are great places to enjoy some of the local seafood or other tapas dishes such as patatas bravas and other favourites. The best thing about tapas is that you can try many different varieties and hop between different bars depending on your mood.

4. Museum of Catalonian History (Museu d'Història de Catalunya)

Located by the port, this museum was impressive. With an interesting portrayal of Catalonian and Spanish history, the museum leads the visitor through history, from early settlers on the Iberian peninsula through the workers' rights movements of the 19th century, the fractious years of dictatorship, civil war and fascism to the current Catalonian struggle for independence. We were also pleasantly diverted by an interesting temporary exhibition on the ground floor dedicated to the Tintin comic books and their creator, Hergé. The museum boasts an excellent rooftop bar with gorgeous views across the harbour and nearby beaches; the perfect place to enjoy an aperitif and a cool drink after an afternoon of culture. Tickets to the museum cost €4.50.

I also enjoyed just strolling around through the streets of the old town, admiring the medieval buildings, taking a dip in the Mediterranean in one or other of the beaches along the coast, sitting in Ciutadella Park in front of the spectacular fountains enjoying an ice cream or a cool glass of Horchata ('orxata' in Catalan), an ice-cold refreshing drink made from almonds.