Barcelona, Spain Is Uniquely Beautiful

  • Saturday, May 4, 2024
  • Scott S. Smith and Sandra Wells

As travel writers, we have relied on free press trips, but could never get cooperation from Spain, since it has had no trouble attracting visitors. In 2023, it had 72 million, second only to France's 80 million and ahead of the third-place U.S. with 51 million. We finally decided it was way past time to find out what we were missing and chose Barcelona on its Mediterranean coast, which can be reached on nonstop 12-hour flights from and to LAX on Iberia Lineas Aereas. We went in April 2024 because of the good weather (similar to May, September, and October).

We had lots of help from Barcelona Turisma, which has offices around the city to help visitors and a website in multiple languages https://www.barcelonaturisme.com/. We also relied on the Insight Guides' Barcelona City Guide. While some may find areas walk-able, it is hilly in areas, so you may want to use the excellent transit system if you are on a budget and have the time to learn how to use it. Don't rent a car or you will be stuck in traffic, while inexpensive taxis and buses have their own lane (Uber is available, but not Lyft). Tips are appreciated, but not required by custom.

As for where to stay, don't bundle airfare with a cheap hotel as we did. It turned out to be noisy, did not have a functional TV, no breakfast, and the manager refused to plug in our cell phone overnight when we discovered it required a special socket connection (which we bought the next day).

DAY ONE

Thank goodness we spent the first day with The Tour Guy https://thetourguy.com/tours/barcelona, which offers a variety of options to cover the city and includes the ability to skip the long lines at some places. Ours was led by the incredibly well-informed Miguel and we enjoyed chatting with fellow travelers as we walked.

We started at the magnificent Barcelona Cathedral in the Barri Gotic (Gothic Quarter), the oldest part of the city. At the entry point to its narrow streets are remains of the original Roman walls and a variety of renovations on top of those, notably in the medieval period when the state of Catalonia (of which Barcelona was the capital) had some measure of autonomy from what became Spain. An independence movement remains very active, as can be seen by its flags in the government square.

The twisting cobblestoned alleys of the area are full of specialty shops that have often been run by the same family for generations, one that offered every kind of traditional hat and another that designed exclusive leather pieces. One store sold giant posters featuring comical versions of Disney characters whose copyright had recently expired, while at another we were treated to samples of chocolate sweetened by a local honey.

Some remains of the old Jewish Quarter can still be seen within Barri Gotic, which thrived until 1391 when anti-Semitic riots destroyed much of it and resulted in the deaths of about 1,000 Jews. These and later persecutions were often due to jealousy about the wealth and power generated by loans to monarchs.

We then traveled by bus into the hills to visit Park Guell, where Gaudi tried to create a garden community for the rich, with each mansion distinctively designed (see photo). But after building a model home for prospects to tour (in which he eventually lived) and one for his lawyer (whose family still occupies it), as well as several others which never sold, he had to admit failure. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its innovations, ranging from the use of unique structure to bring water to the area to the decoration of the facades with broken glazed ceramic and glass.

We drove back through the "Rodeo Drive" of Barcelona in the enormous central section of Eixample, evidence of its thriving economy, to a marketplace to browse and grab a bite. Then we proceeded to Sagrada Familia, the astonishing cathedral that Gaudi began constructing in 1882 at 30 and when he died in 1926 he had only completed one facade. It receives nearly five million visitors a year and is expected to be finished in 10 years. After pointing out the amazing details on the outside (see photo of towers that rise to nearly 600 feet), Miguel sped up the process of going through the security check and lines to get inside. There is symbolism in every detail, such as the colors of the stained glass ceilings and the carvings of animals, plants, and trees on the pillars (see photo).

DAY TWO

Knowing the lines would be long to get into Casa Batllo https://www.casabatllo.es/en/, having passed by it the day before on the bus in central Eixample, we had advance reservations and arrived early to be at the front for that time. The price comes with an audio guide and there is also a written text available, so you can go at your own pace, but plan one to two hours. It is considered Gaudi's architectural masterpiece (see photo), is a UNESCO World Heritage site, but was not open to the public until recently.

We also had advance (but free) reservations to enter Casa Mila https://www.lapedrera.com/en (aka La Pedrera) nearby. The facade on the outside is a fantastic sculpture with wrought-iron railings that seem to be made of plants. A personal guide, supplemented by an audio-guide at stops, takes small groups through the five-story apartment building constructed by Gaudi for himself. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is best-known for its roof with unusual chimneys ("guardian warriors turned to stone") and spectacular views (see photo). But it is also a museum to the great architect's personal life and his pioneering efforts to create new types of buildings and their interior and exterior decor (this was his last civic project).

There were other Gaudi buildings we could have seen in the area, but it was time to rest up for the evening's flamenco performance, the globally-popular traditional Spanish music and dancing style, at the Theatre City Hall Barcelona https://flamencobarcelonacity.com/ (the one at 2 Rambla Catalunya; there is another theater with a similar name). According to its website, it is "among the 10% of the best attractions in the world," winning the Travelers Choice award, and it does deliver. The hypnotic combination of guitars, castanets, rhythmic stamping, and singing flourished in southern Spain among the Romani/Gitano (gypsy) people, but spread to other cultures and there are modern versions. UNESCO deems it one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. We were enthralled.

If we had spent another day in Barcelona, we would have visited the Montjuic area in the hills, which has interesting museums and historic sites, but even just two days was a truly wonder-filled experience.

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