Sunday, 7 August 2011

Prefiero morir como un león que vivir como un borrego

“I would rather die like a lion than live like a sheep.” Never has a saying so aptly summed up a city as this when applied to the extraordinary Mediterranean metropolis that is Barcelona. The city’s fighting spirit is evident everywhere; from the protest camp and plethora of political graffiti adorning Plaça de Catalunya, the city’s central hub, to the Estadio de Lluís Companys, Reial Club Deportiu Espanyol de Barcelona’s football stadium, named after the fearless Catalan leader murdered in 1940 on the orders of General Francisco Franco. Whilst I do not wish to enter into the political minefield that is the status of Catalonia – since 1977 a fully-autonomous region of Spain – Barcelona feels like a capital city.

In no way is it a poor relation to the royalist, conservative Spanish capital Madrid, itself a beautiful city boasting all the activities, amenities and wonders you would expect. Yet Barcelona has something that Madrid, along with other European capitals such as Berlin, Paris, Rome, Lisbon, simply don’t. That is its 4.5 kilometres of pristine coastline, straddling the heavily redeveloped antique Port Vell and the more traditional Barceloneta area, which coexist easily alongside each other. The sandy beaches provide a unique, and most importantly free, distraction from the drastically more active nature of tourism in Barcelona. For the city is a walkers’ paradise, providing picturesque views of the city from the uniquely ornate Parc Güell, itself a challenge to reach let alone traverse, the sprawling hills of Montjuïc, or the luscious tranquillity of Parc de la Ciutadella.

Further to this, Barcelona abounds with hidden gems, beautiful squares, excellent museums and, for sports fans, the indisputable current leaders of world football, F.C. Barcelona. For those who baulk at the prospect of spending almost 20 euros on a stadium tour – which is admittedly very interesting – just surveying the cathedral of magnificence that is the Camp Nou is enough to get a flavour of Los Culés current success, and their glorious history. Some of you might even be lucky enough to be able to attend a match, if visiting during the football season (late August-early June), but don’t count on it; tickets range from 40 to 100 euros per match, Barcelona as a club has over 100,000 members, and a 98,000-seater stadium thus becomes rather easy to fill. They don’t even confine themselves to football, either; Barcelona has an extremely successful basketball team, so fans of that particular sport will be well-catered for in this city of sporting winners.

If football doesn’t float your boat, then the re-enlivened Port Vell surely will. Now a hub of Barcelona nightlife, this relatively subdued daytime area comes alive after about 10pm, but most clubs don’t open until much later, unlike their British counterparts. Beware though; as appealing as the pseudo-Irish bars and stylish drinking establishments may appear, they are excruciatingly expensive. Expect to pay around five euros for a good old English pint of lager, and even more for a spirit and mixer concoction, albeit one with the notorious ‘Spanish measurement’ i.e. double the single level permitted in pubs in the United Kingdom.

Away from the thriving seaside, be sure to check out the bizarrely homely booze hole known as the Michael Collins’ Irish Bar, named obviously after the legendary Irish revolutionary leader. The merciful sound of English not being patronisingly applied by Spanish waiters who have clocked that you are from said country and obviously entirely ignorant and mono-linguistic will greet you from the smokers gathered outside. On the inside you will be greeted by memorabilia, photographs and paintings, alongside a signed Republic of Ireland football shirt. By the end of the evening, once a few typically expensive pints of Guinness have been drunk, be sure to keep an eye out for the Spaniards’ hilarious attempts at Irish dancing.

Barcelona, despite the lusciousness of its location, and the innate beauty the city holds, is not an especially expensive destination. Culinary-wise, the cuisine in Barcelona is excellent, consisting largely of seafood, rich, dark meats and obviously, tapas. It would be rather lazy of me to simply recommend paella as a potential stomach-filler, so I’ll offer a rather more specialised potential menu for your delectation. I am not sure if these dishes are unique to Barcelona, but for me they are definitely worth trying if you are in or around the region. The first is paella con arroz negro, a normal seafood paella turned jet black courtesy of its immersion in squid ink. The ink shrouds this normally ubiquitous dish in some sort of mystery, whilst injecting it with a salty taste, with perhaps a little too much garlic prior to a romantic evening.

The second is Fiduea, a relatively standard paella dish in terms of taste, but formed, not of rice, but of small noodles. Unquestionably worth a go, although beware; if the portions applied to said dish are the same as given over to normal paella, if your physique is even slightly similar to that of myself, you will struggle to finish. Now for somebody usually capable of eating far beyond socially acceptable limits as dictated by the particular restaurant or dish, this proves just how filling Fiduea is. As a final salvo on the food front, the delectable Patatas Bravas are a firm favourite as well. Yet the area where my expertise can really be applied, is in terms of liquid accompaniment.

Beer is a must in Barcelona, as with every city. Yet with the searing heat, and the perspiration and thirst generated by the requirement to walk everywhere in this beautiful metropolis, it cannot be avoided in Barcelona. Now the primary local lagers are Estrella Damm – sponsors of FC Barcelona and easily available everywhere – as well as San Miguel, Spain’s entry to the mass market of European lagers. Estrella is slightly stronger at 5.5%, and therefore nicer in my opinion, but San Miguel is pleasant enough. Far more refreshing and palatable than swill such as Carling, Fosters, it weighs in at an extremely reasonable 5%, so the same as beers such as Kronenbourg and Stella, yet without the latter’s potential to wreak domestic violence.

On my particular trip I was lucky enough to stay in a hotel with a magnificent selection of German beers, albeit at extortionate prices, but for those looking for something more local and less common than Estrella, I was unable to find much. Disappointingly, having put some research in following the trip, I found two beers – Moritz and San Miguel sister beer Voll-Damm – the latter a strong, German-style darker beer, which will be worth trying on any subsequent visits. Yet on this subject my advice would be, for those on a budget, avoid the sea front’s extortionate prices and head for a beer in the Universitat district or l’Eixample, where cafes open until the early hours will sell you a cold Estrella or San Miguel for a Euro.

Back to the more cultured aspects of tourist life in Barcelona. Museum-wise, there is a lot on offer, including the Joan Miro museum in the hills of Montjuïc, but by far the best of all the museums in Barcelona, in my view, is the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. With regularly revolving exhibitions and a broad, impressively detailed display of art, as well as one of the most picturesque locations in the city, which is no mean feat, it is worth a few hours of your time. Furthermore, with the addition of yet another useful piece of local knowledge, entry can be yours for free. This can only occur with the purchase of a Barcelona Card. When booked on its own, said card costs 45 euros, but as part of my holiday booking it was just over 30.

Yet what the Barcelona Card offers is free travel on all transport within the city itself, and huge discounts on certain attractions, moderate discounts on others, and free entry onto/into yet more. The Monument a Colom, for instance, becomes free with the Barcelona Card, and despite lacking the incredible vistas of Mount Tibidabo, it offers a formidable view of the city and port area from the incredibly narrow viewing platform at the top. Furthermore, the Barcelona Card allows for discounts in restaurants, bars and a free ride on one of the Golondrinas, which sail around the harbour and port area, a refreshing break from the stifling heat of the city centre.

Naturally, no trip to Barcelona would be complete without a visit to the world-famous Rambla, or Sagrada Familia Cathedral, which has undergone huge refurbishment work since I last visited, and now has all the trappings of the working church which Gaudi presumably envisaged when he began his key work all those years ago. Whether the Sagrada Familia ought to have undergone continued construction or not is a huge bone of contention, but I happen to think the developers and cultural committees who rule on such questions have found the correct solution. The Sagrada Familia was always meant as a testament to nature, and the incredible power of the mind of one individual, Antonio Gaudi. Yet it was meant to be an extraordinary place of worship, and at this moment in time, it is close to fulfilling this purpose.

La Rambla, meanwhile, extending from the port area around Drassanes Metro to Plaça de Catalunya, typically cannot be missed either in the day or at night time. With a motley crew of entertainers, street sellers, mime artists and seemingly every tourist in Barcelona, La Rambla at night is an experience indeed. Yet whilst a visit is definitely worthwhile, even for just a brief stroll, don’t feel you have to eat here. La Rambla’s international reputation means the prices are extortionate on either side of this wide, pedestrianized boulevard, unless you pick the right place. Furthermore, there can be something slightly off-putting when a street seller approaches you during your main course trying to sell you a luminous piece of plastic. So the best bet is to find a restaurant in upmarket Gracia or l’Eixample, and then head down to La Rambla before, if you’re that way inclined, a night on the tiles at Port Vell.

The area to the left of La Rambla, El Raval, is perhaps the most traditional and, dare I say, ‘authentic’ in all of Barcelona. Home to around 200,000 people, it is built around windy, narrow streets and feels extremely different to the vast majority of the city. Traditionally a home for new immigrants to Barcelona, and notorious for its nightlife as well as its crime and prostitution, don’t be surprised to see varyingly clad ladies standing on most street corners in the Raval, and keep an eye on your valuables. Obviously crime can happen anywhere, and you’re probably no more likely to be robbed in El Raval than on La Rambla, where pickpockets are active, Raval has the feel of a place you ought not to spend too much time in. Having said that, with the quality of some of the merchandise being flogged from nearly every building along La Rambla, you’d perhaps not feel too short changed if your money were stolen from you rather than wasted on certain ‘gifts’.

Having said all this, Barcelona feels safe. There is crime in every city, even squeaky-clean Vienna, so this is not a measure of anything at all, merely a fact worth noting wherever you travel. It is an inviting, attractive and homely city, with all you could ever want within a few square miles. Further to this, I believe, it is a deeply underrated holiday destination, with sufficient longevity and the range of attractions to keep you coming back. It is reasonable to get to, eat in, stay in, and there is plenty to be done for free. It is perhaps the only other city in the world I could see myself living in, which is a testament to Barcelona, in my opinion the crown jewel of the Iberian Peninsula.

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