Postcard from Party Central

Lisa Maxwell in Barcelona

Lisa in BarcelonaBarcelona is like a virus - infecting all who come into contact with her with the sweetest sense of freedom, abandonment, excitement and anticipation. If I were compiling a list of cities to visit before the proverbial bus hits you, this would be my number one.

Only 3 hours away from the UK, and a million miles away in terms of weather and attitude, Barcelona has everything to offer. It buzzes from dawn till dusk, and every corner throws a new delight in your path. It is a city that screams 'looooooooooooook at me!', and follows it up with a wink, saying 'now taste me…..' And once you try it, you will keep going back for more.

So, what do you see? Events, exhibitions, and other art-focussed happenings which pay tribute to Barcelona's most famous son, the architect Antoni Gaudi. No visit to Barca would be complete without sampling the delights of his most famous works. You simply have to go to La Sagrada Familia - a truly awe-inspiring cathedral where one façade appears to melt before your eyes, and the other has the sharp angular appearance of David Coulthard's jaw line.

Even if heights terrify the living daylights out of you, you must brave the lift that takes you to the top of one of the spires - the views across the city to Montjuic and the Olympic Stadium are worth it.

Parc Guell, on the outskirts of the city, was funded by Gaudi's greatest benefactor, as a haven of peace, tranquillity and colour for city residents to escape to. Gaudi's home is also here, and contains many reminders of the piousness of the man - including a tiny bed, that bows violently in the middle, ensuring that he only rested for short periods and contemplated God in between.

The architectural wonder of Parc Guell is that all the man-made objects - the arches, the seating areas, the pavillion, the gate houses, look as though they have emerged from the hands of Mother Nature herself. Their fluid, colourful forms are straight out of a fairy tale, but seem so natural and at home in the green leafy setting of the park. On a hot or cold day, there really isn't anything better than sitting hand in hand with your loved one on one of Gaudi's swirling benches looking out over the north of the city.

And if, after that, you're not all Gaudi-ed out, you really should stop off at La Pedrera. This extraordinary building started life as a formulaic, and rather uninspiring, apartment block. Then Gaudi got his hands on it and created a façade that looks like layers of whipped cream punctuated with wrought iron balconies, and topped off with Roman-Centurion-looking ice cream cones. You can visit one of the apartments, which contains furniture that would have been found therein when the building was remodelled. Pay particular attention to the doors, door handles, and frames. The door handles fit your hand like a glove, and the beautifully crafted doors ooze the promise of forbidden fruit within.

If art and architecture is your thang you'll find plenty of both in Barcelona. Joan Miro Park is worth a look, and the Dali and Picasso museums are fascinating. The Museum of Modern Art is great too, but, to be honest, the whole of the city is a melee of artistic pleasures - just open your eyes and look around…..

Out of the city

If city life begins to bore you, take a walk, or, if you can't be arsed, a short taxi ride to Barcelonetta. This is the little fishing village, neither picturesque, nor sweet-smelling, parked half way between the two party-central areas of Port Olympic and Maremagnum. Barcelonetta is THE place for authentic, simply prepared seafood at great prices. It also happens to back on to the rather spectacular beach, so, if you've had one too many glasses of Vino Tinto with your mussels, you can always laze in the sun/moon shine to sleep it off.

Port Olympic itself is worth a look too. Two large towers were constructed to house the athletes during the Olympic Games, and have since been turned into highly desirable, and pricey, apartments. During the day, the area really is nothing special, but after 11 pm, it comes to life. There's a strip of clubs and bars neighbouring the apartments, right on the seafront, that cater for everyone's taste in music. They don't charge you to get in, but be prepared to be robbed when you get your bar tab. The atmosphere down there, really does warrant the prices though. It's also the place to meet other backpackers and trendy English-speaking Barcelonans.

Maremagnum, a complex of restaurants, boutique-style gift shops, bars, and the rather fabulous Barcelona Aquarium, is situated on a spit of reclaimed land just off the end of the famous promenade, La Rambla. This is a good place to find the more unusual gift, and there's also a shop that specialises in Barcelona FC merchandise. You can feed the fish from the wooden bridge that links Maremagnum to the mainland, but mind your fingers - they jump pretty high!

Transport

Getting around Barcelona is easy and cheap. There's a good underground system, but, for first-timers, and those of you who want to see more of the city, I'd recommend buying a two-day pass on the Barcelona Tourist buses, which leave every 15 mins from Placa Catalunya at the top of La Rambla, outside El Corte Ingles department store.

The pass will cost you about £15 for two days, and there are two routes - the Red and Blue - one taking you on a tour of the North of the city (which passes the best known Gaudi sights), and the other which travels to the South (taking in the Olympic Stadium, Barcelona FC's Noucamp stadium and Montjuic). You can hop on and off wherever you like, and the buses run from around 9am to 9pm, depending on the time of year. The two-day pass also entitles you to a booklet with discount vouchers for many of the attractions you'll see along the way.

The Gothic Quarter

Barri Gotic, the Gothic Quarter of the city is a mish-mash of twisty, narrow lanes. The magnificent Gothic cathedral dominates, and its long, dark shadows and collection of gargoyles make you feel that you're in a Hammer House of Horror movie. The Gothic Quarter is where the real Barcelonans hang out, and there are lots of trendy, small bars and excellent history-drenched restaurants in this area. It's worth devoting a couple of hours to wandering around this part of town, as the architecture is fascinating, and the locals will almost certainly offer to buy you a drink as you pass. BE CAREFUL though, as this is also a favourite hang out for pickpockets and thieves. Don't wander around here on your own and keep your hand firmly on your bag or wallet. A favourite trick of the pickpocket is to have his friend distract you, while he rifles through your bag. If you keep your wits about you though, you'll be fine.

Where to stay?

Accommodation in Barcelona is plentiful, but can vary dramatically in price. If it's a hotel you're after, try and find one that's not too far from Placa Catalunya or La Rambla, as they're excellent locations from which to explore the city. The Hotel Oriente, situated on La Rambla, is a bit pricey, but full of character. Hotel Alexandra, is also a good option, it's about a 10 minute walk from Placa Catalunya, but is a little more impersonal, and aims to attract the more discerning traveller. My own personal favourite, Hotel Sant Augustin, offers excellent value for money, with a twin or double room costing around £80 per night including breakfast. It's literally a stone's throw from La Rambla, in a beautiful and tranquil square. It's also a two minute walk from the nearest municipal market, where you can buy the best fruit, veg, and cheese in the city.

There are also lots of hostels, called Hosteles or Pensiones, throughout the city. For safety's sake, it's best to opt for one that has private rooms, rather than shared dorms, as personal possessions can have a habit of wandering off. Most are pretty cheap and cheerful, but clean. For lists of hostels and hotels, check out www.bcn.es and go to Tourism - Acommodation. This site will also provide you with up to the minute info about what's happening in the city.

Food and drink

Food and drink is cheap, and excellent. Tapas are usually the order of the day, and I would recommend checking out any Ciudad Condale tapas bar you come across as they are FABULOUS!!!! The house speciality is tapas on toast, which sounds a little odd, but tastes delicious. El Mussol is also excellent for carnivores, and offers traditional meat-drenched Catalan fare without a tourist in sight. Grab a cab and get down there!

Avoid drinking or eating in the outdoor seats on La Rambla - you will pay through the nose, and the food is a let down. As with most places in Spain, Barcelona is not a vegetarians paradise, but you can get by quite comfortably. And remember, there are loads of markets across town, I particularly favour the one just off La Rambla - you can't miss it - where fruit and veg are cheap as, errr, chips!

Well, I hope this has given you a flavour of the wonders that Barca can offer. I go back every year at least once, and usually need a week to recover…. I couldn't possibly describe all the delights of this amazing city in one fell swoop, but if you have any specific questions, email the Ed and I'll respond asap.

Muchos besos,

Lisa


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