Stunning architecture, music, and fine food to boot... George Semler introduces you to Barcelona.
If the Spanish capital Madrid is about paintings, its second city, Barcelona, is about architecture, mainly Gaudí, who left his unmistakable signature throughout the city. A visit to the Temple of the Sagrada Famìlia followed by a quick hop over to the Mediterranean Gothic gem, Santa María del Mar, will leave your senses reeling with the gap between Art Nouveau ornamentation and classical economy and elegance. Even more dramatically, proceed from Domenech i Montaner riotous Palau de la Música to Miës van der Rohes minimalist Barcelona Pavilion: from more and more to less and less.
Gaudis Parc Güell in upper Gràcia; his first house, Casa Vicens, in Gràcia proper; and his Palau Güell off the lower Rambla are all stunning, as is his rippling-around-the-corner Casa Milà, known as La Pedrera, with its roof garden of veiled and hooded warrior-maidens and its Gaudí study center and museum in the attic. Casa Batlló, Gaudís allegory on the Saint George-and-the-dragon theme, and Casa Calvet on Carrer Casp near the Ritz complete Barcelonas collection of major Gaudí works.
As a foil to the citys ample art nouveau fleet, Barcelonas Roman and Medieval legacy is equally as interesting and extensive. The famous Rambla promenade, which Federico García Lorca called the only street in the world that he wished would never end, separates the Gothic Quarter and its Roman core from the Raval, where the medieval hospital and shipyards, and Sant Pau del Camp, Barcelonas oldest church, are the main attractions.
La Boqueria market in the Rambla is the oldest and last still functioning market of its kind in Europe, a colorful cornucopia of produce ranging from apples and pears to partridges, chanterelles and sea snails. As if wandering through this erotic display of raw materials werent enough, there are fine dining opportunities stacked in there, from with Pinotxo, world famous eight-stool counter, to the Kiosco Universal, with more places to sit and excellent fare as well. La Gardunya, at the back of the Boqueria, is the traditional post-opera, onion soup place (in the tradition of the old Parisian Les Halles).
If, as Saint Augustine wrote, music and architecture are twin arts, it should be no surprise that Barcelonas musical offering rivals its architectural output. The Liceo Opera House on the Rambla has just reopened after five years of reconstruction following the 1994 fire that left little more than a gutted shell; the Palau de la Música, with its stampeding cavalry sculptures and stained glass chandelier, is easily a candidate for the worlds most unusual music hall, while the new Auditori Nacional is large and acoustically impeccable, if lacking the warmth of the Palau.
Meanwhile, look for concerts held in the lovely triple-tiered Monasterio de Pedralbes, in the medieval shipyards at Drassanes or in other extraordinary Gothic spaces ranging from Plaça del Rei to the San Felip Neri chapel where you might have a chance to hear Jordi Savall, Europes most prestigious researcher, restorer and performer of early music with his Hesperion XX chorus and orchestra.
Gastronomically, Catalonia is rated stratospherically well with the likes of Ferran Adriàs El Bullí in Roses, Santi Santamarías Racó de Can Fabes, or Fermin Puig and his recently opened Drolma in Barcelonas Hotel Majestic leading the rankings of the most important Spanish restaurants. For tapas, theres Cal Pep, La Estrella de Oro, Quimet i Quimet and a growing legion of Basque bars whose success leave little room for doubt about their quality.
Strong in seafood, Barcelonas top spots range from Gràcias Botafumeiro to Barcelonetas Can Majó to the Olympic Ports Talaia Mar, with many excellent alternatives in between. Tragaluz in Passatge de la Concepció, L'Olivé at Muntaner and Corcega, Can Isidre and Casa Leopoldo in the Raval...the list is endless.
And then there are the painters and their museums and foundations Picasso, Miró, Tàpies not to mention the worlds top soccer club, FC Barcelona, the once-outlying villages of Sarrià and Gràcia, or the fishing quarter and beach at Barceloneta. All in all, Barcelonas nearly too hot to handle in less then a week or ten days.
George Semler is an American journalist based in Spain. His book, Barcelonawalks (Henry Holt and Co.), a highly readable, entertaining and informative guide to the city, is available for $12.95 plus postage. Contact the author directly for information.
Photography by J D Dallet
What readers have said about Barcelonawalks
(Comments from visitors to the amazon.com website)
A reader from Boston, MA , September 17, 1999
"Estupendo! Barcelonawalks is the best guide book I have ever come across. It allows you to explore the old city without the pressures of a tourist guide, introducing you to history that you would never uncover on your own."
A reader from Washington, DC , June 7, 1999
"Find this book! As much as I have enjoyed the other books on Barcelona that I have read, nothing has brought this spectacular city to life in quite the same way as Barcelonawalks. I went on the walks with a native who knows the city so well she can get navigate the labyrinth of the Barri Gotic with her eyes closed. The book was a revelation even to her. George Semler, the author, brings considerable reserves of insight, style and wit to the proceedings. As a book, it's a wonderful confection. As a guidebook (a recipe I don't ordinarily care for since they often do to their subject what the Kraft company does to cheese), it is more like private tour with someone who knows the broad arch of the city's rich history, the character of it's people, as well as baroque quantity of entertaining minutia. Semler's restaurant recommendations alone might be worth the price of admission, as you are likely to find yourself the only tourist in various characteristic and popular neighborhood eateries."
A reader from Brooklyn, N.Y. , January 21, 1999
"Find the heart of Barcelona by walking its streets. George Semler has told as much about the passions of the people of Barcelona as about its buildings. From the medieval splendor of the Gothic Quarter through the ... neighborhood of Gracia to the wildly idiosyncratic buildings of the Catalan Renaissance, each block is revealed not only as a sequence of architectural structures but as the place where the great and the ordinary people of Barcelona fought, dreamed and struggled. I walked every one of its routes with pleasure and a great sense of history. Marvelous!"
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