Dreaming of Barcelona
Homage to Catalonia … Barcelona's Park Güell was designed by the city's most famous son, Antoni Gaudí. Photo: Getty Images
Paris has its avenues, Amsterdam its canals, St Petersburg its palaces, but Barcelona – ah, Barcelona is different. Perhaps more than any other European city, Barcelona resists the picture-postcard approach. Antoni Gaudí's sublime Sagrada Família cathedral may be internationally renowned, but the city itself is too diverse to be captured in one snapshot.
In Barcelona, each neighbourhood has its own identity. There are the medieval alleys of the Barri Gòtic, twisting into odd angles and sudden turns; the elegance of the Eixample, with its beautiful buildings done in modernista, or Catalan art nouveau, style; the raucous seafood taverns by the port; and the eclectic El Raval, where centuries-old tapas outlets clad in original ceramic tiles perch next to back-lit cocktail bars.
What unites this diverse city is an energy – a youthful, exuberant buzz that pervades all parts of town. Barcelona doesn't do stuffy. Even in the classy Eixample - home to luxury labels and discreet, up-market art galleries – a touch of Catalan anarchy remains. Among the landmarks on the area's opulent main drag, the Passeig de Gràcia, are some of Gaudí's most delightfully bizarre buildings, where the rooftops have undulating floors and chimneys act as sentinels.
Barcelona also doesn't do solemn. The oldest part of town, the Barri Gòtic, has none of the heavy dignity that characterises the historic centres of many Italian towns. The quarter's rich selection of Roman ruins and medieval squares is linked by a labyrinth of narrow streets that turn every stroll into a journey of discovery, as you round a corner to find yourself somewhere utterly unexpected.
Perhaps the best time to explore the area is in the evening, when golden light spills out of narrow doorways tucked into ancient stone walls. A bewildering array of tapas bars, cafes and taverns tempt you to step inside for just one drink – inevitably, the first step on a trail that will find you wedged into someone's living room at 4am, drinking red wine and talking philosophy or art. That seems to be what happens when you go out in Barcelona.
Then of course there's Las Ramblas, one of the world's most remarkable streets. A pedestrian boulevard lined with traffic lanes, flipping the traditional pattern on its head, it's also known for being one of the few thoroughfares anywhere in the world that's as busy at 3am as it is at 3pm.
In truth, between the hordes of tourists and the crush of locals, plus the din of the traffic, Las Ramblas can be overwhelming. However, if you go slow, there is plenty to discover, from the caged birds that sing on the Rambla dels Ocells (Rambla of the Birds) to the irresistible Escribà – a chocolateria with an exquisite modernista design that is as gorgeous as the confections on display. La Boqueria market – a modernista gem that also happens to be the city's best food retailer – is another highlight.
Even away from the tourist hot spots, every one of Barcelona's barri contains the odd exuberant surprise. Amid Montjuïc's lush parks and gardens you'll find the Fundació Joan Miró, which houses a gorgeous collection of works by this Catalan artist in a beautiful building by Josep Lluís Sert. And in the otherwise straight-laced La Ribera district is the riotous Palau de la Música Catalana, one of the city's most extravagant buildings with its stained-glass skylight, mosaic columns and flamboyant facade. And perhaps that's the best way to to sum up Barcelona: the city that couldn't do straight if it tried.
And if you have to sum up Barcelona, that's perhaps the best way to do it: the city that couldn't do straight if it tried.