Barcelona

As the northern hemisphere erupts into a long awaited summer, here’s a series over the next few weeks which look at some of the most spectacular destinations in Europe to try out during the summer months.

Barcelona.

A city with a metropolis population of four and a half million which very successfully hosted the 1992 Olympics, Barcelona has now firmly staked its claim as one of the premier attractions of Europe, to the point that it often overshadows the Spanish capital Madrid. Attractions are many; the food is splendid if you avoid the fast food restaurants, and the weather is tolerable in the winter, uncomfortably hot in high summer but excellent for the rest of the year.

The city was originally founded by the Romans at the end of the first century BC. Originally known as Barcino, it was surrounded by a wall, parts of which can still be seen in the old town. For 200 years it was under Muslim rule and grew steadily, but after the Christians took it back it further jumped in size and from the 13th to the 15th centuries Barcelona dominated the West Mediterranean both economically and politically. The good times didn’t last indefinitely; until the end of the 18th century it struggled to maintain its independence and in 1714 fell to the Bourbon troops.

By the mid 19th century, Barcelona joined the industrial revolution sweeping Europe and textiles became a key industry in the region. At the same time, Catalan also became the dominant language once again. At the beginning of the 20th century, a major urban regeneration project started giving birth to the Eixample district, one of the worlds most unusual urban spaces. Today Barcelona is a modern and cosmopolitan city and its history has left it with one of the richest cultural mixes of any European city; The Palau de la Música Catalanam, Hospital de Sant Pau, Parque Güell, Palacio Güell and Casa Mila all enjoy UNESCO world heritage status.

Districts to check out

Barri Gòtic is the charming gothic centre of old Barcelona, a labyrinth of alleys full of cafes and bars. This area is also where many of the hostels are based for those on the budget. Even if you have money to burn for your accommodation, the centre should not be missed. The quarter is centred on the Plaça de Sant Jaume, the site of a busy market. Two of the city's most significant buildings are here, the Ajuntament (city hall) and the Palau de la Generalitat (the seat of the Catalan government). Carrer del Bisbe takes you to the Cathedral (left) which is one of the most important gothic cathedrals in Europe.
Barcelona Cathedral.
Work started on the cathedral in the 13th century, ending 600 years later. Go early; this is Barcelona’s most visited attraction. Plaça del Pi is also nearby, an enchanting square where the church of Santa Maria del Pi (14th-century Gothic) is located. On Sundays, artists and painters converge on the square to exhibit their works.

Barcelona’s Eixample district is the result of the city’s expansion project drawn up by Ildefons Cerdà and begun in 1860. It is one of the world’s most unusual urban spaces and Barcelona’s personality lies, to a great extent, in the unique layout of this district. The modernista hallmark is centred around a relatively small area, the central hub of the Passeig de Gràcia. Known as the Quadrat d'Or, or Golden Square, is bounded by Carrer Aribau and the Passeig de Sant Joan, the Rondes and the Avinguda Diagonal.

La Rambla is a tree-lined pedestrian boulevard with street artists and various shops. The second block of La Rambla has a bird market which is worth looking at, although most airlines will have issues if you try and bring home any thing that you buy there. Nearby is the Mercat de la Boqueria, which is an excellent produce market containing anything that a backpacker would want for dinner later.

Moving on down the boulevard, the next section of La Rambla contains the Gran Teatre del Liceu, which is a 19th-century opera house. The official Barcelona tourist literature won’t point it out, but just after the opera house the mood of the boulevard takes a distinctly red light flavour, although it has nothing on Amsterdam there’s a definite seedy feel to it. It terminates at the lofty Monument a Colom (Monument to Columbus) and the harbour. You can ascend the monument by lift.

Just west of the monument, on Avinguda de les Drassanes are the Reials Drassanes (Royal Shipyards), which has the fascinating and recommended Museu Marítim. The name is a giveaway as to what it’s about; using the latest technology it has displays on artistic, historical and scientific issues relating to seafaring including some 16th century galleys.

Montjuïc overlooks the city from the southwest. It has some fine art galleries, leisure attractions, particularly good parks plus this was where most of the 1992 Olympics venues were. Nearby, the Palau Nacional contains the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, which has an sizeable collection of Romanesque art. One of the highlights of a visit to Barcelona (which is also happily free) is just below. Stretching up a series of terraces just below the Palau Nacional are fountains which come alive with a free light and music show on summer evenings. The main Olympic ring is also close by and is open to the public when sporting events or concerts are not being held. Again, this is one of the most popular attractions in the city, so bear this in mind if planning a visit there.

Eating out.

If you’re feeling adventurous and want to try the local cuisine (and why not, there are no less than nine Michelin stars attached to Barcelona restaurants), Catalan cuisine is mainly based on products from the land which change with the seasons. Olive oil, aromatic herbs, fruit and fresh produce such as fish, meat and vegetables are the basis of the style.

The Boqueria market, on La Rambla, is the city's flagship food market. Its colourful stalls, with their abundance of fruit, vegetables and fresh fish, are well worth stopping to admire. Catalan cuisine is one of the most auspicious expressions of the Mediterranean diet and consists of carefully prepared dishes using natural produce most of which are nutritious, healthy and flavoursome. The city is currently running a food festival until March 2006 to promote the local food.

If money is no object, consider either Botafumeiro – one of Barcelona’s best seafood restaurants, Neichel which has a Michelin star for treats including Consommé of black truffles, deer in red wine and honey and lavender ice cream, or Via Veneto which used to be one of Dali’s regular haunts – it still has a mirror signed by him on display.

If like me you’re on a budget most of the time, have no fear. Restaurants under €20 per head include Arrel del Born which specialises in seafood, Café Salambo which specialises in vegetarian, Mediterranean and Tapas, or the curiously named DAF Restaurant which also specialises in Mediterranean and Tapas.

Accommodation.

The usual five star suspects – Hilton, Marriot and so on lie in wait to snap up business expense account wielding holidaymakers. www.venere.com has numerous options from the five star Hotel Majestic at around 230 euros a night all the way down to the one star hotel Lyon which is around 65 euros a night.

At the other end of the accommodation scale, numerous hostels are available. Click here to book; recommended options include Pension Fernando, Gothic Point as well as if you want a young crowd with a party mood, Kabul.

Getting there.

Barcelona is served by three airports - Barcelona, Barcelona Girona and Barcelona Reus. The latter two are used by many of the low budget airlines. Bear in mind that both are some distance away - Girona to Barcelona centre is 45 min by car and Reus to Barcelona centre is about an hour so Barcelona airport itself would be much more preferable if prices are similar. Check under Search Airlines on this website to find routes from your local region, Barcelona is one of the most heavily covered budget airline destinations in the world and all regions are covered.