Barcelona, Spain: a cultural city guide

Lucinda Baring offers an essential cultural guide to Barcelona, the capital – and crown jewel – of Catalonia.

imageLike George Orwell before me, I don’t find it hard to pay homage to Catalonia. The landscape of the north-eastern Spanish region moves from the mountains of the Pyrenees to the rugged coastline of the Costa Brava and on to Barcelona, Catalonia’s capital and glittering crown jewel.

Described as “the flower among the beautiful cities of the world” by Cervantes in Don Quixote, Barcelona has since been championed and immortalised by many – in the literature of Laurie Lee and Carlos Ruiz Zafón, by the architecture of Antoni Gaudí and more recently in the music by Freddie Mercury.

To me though, this was the scruffy city where I learnt Spanish and taught children English for a year and where I now return on an annual pilgrimage to check not much has changed.

The main difference is that a decade ago my friends and I clamoured to live in the atmospheric Old Town, where the labyrinthine cobbled alleyways are so narrow you can see into the apartments opposite; where a man walks the streets calling butano!, peddling the canisters of butane still used to fuel most households, which then have to be lugged up endless flights of winding stairs. Now the same friends mostly live uptown, where the wide tree-lined avenues, swanky shops and hotels are more reminiscent of Madrid.

Over the past decade I have become fairly well versed in Gaudí, the eccentric architect who has become the city’s most celebrated son, but you can get a pretty good crash course in a matter of days. His cathedral remains, of course, an unfinished masterpiece and though it is worth a visit, perhaps more illuminating are his two houses on Passeig de Gràcia, Casa Batlló and La Pedrera.

Once you are familiar with his style you’ll notice he left traces of it everywhere, like footprints across the city.

Of Barcelona’s many galleries and museums, most visitors prioritise the Museu Picasso and Fundació Joan Miró, but I have a soft spot for the CaixaForum. A former textile factory, the building now houses a wonderful contemporary art gallery. I time my visits so that as evening approaches, I can climb the steps of the imposing Palau Nacional and watch the magnificent Magic Fountain come to life in a display of light and water set to music.

Of the city’s churches, the cathedral is laudable, despite its perpetual shroud of scaffolding. But I never leave without nipping into the less heralded Santa Maria del Mar, where the elaborate façade belies a less decorative interior made more glorious by its slightly crumbling and dilapidated air and its magnificent, soaring columns.

It’s only open during Mass, and I find a moment’s peace and quiet here is the perfect foil to the Old Town’s busy El Born outside, which, as perhaps the nicest barrio in Barcelona, is the ideal place for a café con leche or glass of wine in the evening sunshine.

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