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Barcelona - city of surprises
ThinkSpain , Saturday, September 23, 2006

Madcap mime artists, eccentric painters and wild designers have been drawn to Barcelona like a magnet for many years. Where else will you find anything as surreal as Park Guell, Gaudi’s abandoned attempt at reproducing a residential English garden city? Or where a cathedral is still under construction after 124 years? Then combine such eccentricities with fantastic shopping, fine foods, cutting-edge architecture and a top-flight temple to football. Add to the mix a few crazy street entertainers, cool jazz cellars and frenetic fiestas and what do you get? Welcome to Barcelona.

The city by the sea is a melting pot for talented artists and lovers of all things eclectic. In the late 1980s I visited Barcelona while backpacking around Europe with a street artist. Now it was time for a return visit in a little more style. I went to the official RENFE agent to book first-class train tickets from Valencia to Barcelona - might as well push the boat out! A return ticket, which includes cava or orange juice on arrival, comfy seats with leg room, a snack, more drinks, tea or coffee and yet more drinks, is about 100 euros, depending on which day you travel. The internet proved handy in finding a four-star hotel - Eurostar Gaudi - for 70 euros a night in August.

Before we went, we were given a huge list of things that we had to do in Barcelona. We had to have lunch in the Quatre Gats, where Hemingway was a regular face. We also had to visit the Picasso museum, eat fantastic shellfish by the revamped port area and go designer shopping. We didn't get round to any of them. We were also warned not to stop for a drink on La Rambla - rip-off. We also ignored this advice and had some great tapas - patatas bravas, Serrano jamon and olives - with a couple of beers for less than we would pay in Dénia. It’s also a great place to watch the world go by. Barcelona is such an exciting city with so many things to do, it will lure you back again and again.

This summer turned into a bit of a Gaudi tour. But we have vowed to return for Christmas shopping, football, fine dining, Picasso and Joan Miro tours, and a bit more people watching. We used the open-top tourist bus to get around, which at 17 euros for a day or 21 euros for two days is great value for money. You can get on and off as often as you like, it stops at all the major tourist attractions and includes a book of vouchers with discounts to most museums, boat trips around the harbour and McDonalds (I think this is to keep the American visitors happy!).

We began our Gaudi tour at the Temple Sagrada Familia, the only cathedral in the world which has been under construction since 1882. A year later Antoni Gaudi was appointed project director and he continued working here until he was run over by a tram on his way to work in 1926. It’s a fantastic structure with stone lizards and frogs climbing the pillars and a 170-metre-high central dome in honour of Jesus.We bought our two-day bus pass here and hopped on board to Park Guell, named after Gaudi’s patron, Count Eusebi Guell.

The dream was to reproduce an English garden city with a park, houses which reminded me of Hansel and Gretel’s gingerbread house and a market square. However it provided to be a bit of a flop and Guell handed it to the city council in 1923 for residents and tourists to enjoy. This is a fascinating place for a walk with magnificent views over the city. If Gaudi had pulled it off, it would have made a fun place to live with families making their homes in buildings which would fit into any fairytale.

From here it was back on the bus, past the historic centre, Gothic monastery, Barcelona football club, exclusive shopping district and on to Casa Milà, known as La Pedrera (Catalan for stone quarry), which Gaudi built between 1906 and 1920. This crazy building includes a period apartment and an arduous walk up the stairs to the top where the architecture on the roof will take away any breath you have left. Awesome doesn’t begin to describe the ornate sculptures and fantasic views from the rooftop.

Outside you can catch another tourist bus which takes you around the Olympic Ring where the games were held in 1992, Montjuic hill, the city’s green lung, the old port, the Gothic quarter and the Plaça de Catalunya. From here you can walk to La Rambla for a well-earned cold beer and another chance to watch the eccentries of Barcelona’s daily life being played out before your very eyes.

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