“It is,” as Spain’s best-selling novelist Carlos Ruiz Zafón said, “like a haunted house. The Spanish Civil War is still hanging there. It’s like a smell that’s fading away but when I was a kid, even in the 1970s, even if you didn’t know anything about it, there was a feeling: ‘What the hell happened here?’ It’s something in the air,” he said, inhaling deeply. “It’s like going to Berlin.”
His novel The Shadow of the Wind is an ideal companion to bring with you on a visit to the city. Its pages reek of the Gothic Quarter and the other labyrinthine streets which make up the old part of Barcelona, whose architecture includes Roman ruins amidst its defining medieval splendour.
Mention the words ‘architecture’ and ‘Barcelona’ and one name, of course, looms large: Antoni Gaudí. Unesco, for instance, has listed seven of his works in the city; the organisation has only earmarked three sites on the island of Ireland.
The most famous of his surreal projects is the Sagrada Família, his unfinished church (which, word has it, might conclude construction in 2026, a century after his death). Apparently whenever he was asked when his pauper’s bible, conceived to tell God’s story in stone, would be finished, he responded: “My client is not in a hurry.” Its eight spires peek towards the sky like antennae.
Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, which was a dominant, independent force in Europe — with a democratic parliament older than Westminster — until the 15th century. It gradually ceded sovereignty to a Madrid-based court, a fate copper-fastened when it backed a loser, the Archduke Charles of Austria, in a succession race for the crown at the start of the 18th century. A bloody siege of Barcelona ensued, an invasion that culminated in defeat on Sept 11, 1714, significantly the day that Catalonia celebrates as its national day. Repression followed. Barcelona’s university was closed. Catalan books were burned and its language was banned.
Catalonia’s separatist history is not unlike Ireland’s. Indeed, the two regions drew sustenance from each other; both sprouted cultural renaissances at the turn of the last century and each side supported the other’s political struggles. When, for example, Terence MacSwiney, the Lord Mayor of Cork, died after hunger strike in 1920, 500 irate Catalans stoned the British Consulate-General in Barcelona in outrage.
The pervasiveness of the Catalan language in Barcelona is the most striking feature of life in the city for an outsider. It is more similar to French than to Castilian Spanish. Seven million people speak Catalan; Barcelona’s street names are in Catalan only; the language reaches into southern France, Valencia, the Balearic Islands and Sardinia.
Sardanes, the national dance of Catalonia, was outlawed by General Franco, who ruled Spain following its civil war until his death in 1975. You’ll often see people dancing sardanes outside Barcelona’s gothic cathedral in the morning and evenings. It’s a sedate dance, where people of all ages hold hands in a circle, as the tempo gradually rises.
Barcelona has an anti-clerical bent. It became particularly bloody during the Anarchists’ year “in the saddle”, to borrow George Orwell’s phrase, for their political reign during the Spanish Civil War. The city, however, is blessed with the most amazing churches, including its cathedral, which has a cloister that has had geese wandering around on its stone floors for the last 400 years. The city’s most impressive church is possibly Santa María del Mar, a vast slab of gothic concrete in the Born district. If you can, try to spot the FC Barcelona crest in its stain-glass windows high up in the front, right-hand side of the church.
You cannot escape the presence of the world’s greatest soccer team in the city. Wandering around downtown Barcelona is like being in a Barça bazaar. Its museum, in the grounds of Camp Nou, is the most visited in Barcelona, even attracting more foot traffic than the Museu Picasso. If you’re a fan, make sure to pay homage to the tiny Canaletes fountain, at the top of Las Ramblas. It’s where Barça fans celebrate the team’s victories.
You can’t leave Barcelona without walking along Las Ramblas, the long, tree-lined boulevard which runs through the city towards the port area.
It’s full of kiosks and stalls hawking, among other things, birds. Unfortunately, Barcelona’s pickpockets also tend to do most business along Las Ramblas and in the city’s metro.
At the port end of Las Ramblas, there is a lovely long promenade walk bringing you towards the beach. If, during the day, you want to soak up some sun in the sand, better to jump on a train at Plaça Catalunya to take you to quieter, more pleasing beaches in half an hour like Mataro and Sant Pol de Mar, which has some great eateries, too. Lionel Messi, the world’s finest soccer player, lives in the vicinity.
At night-time, the dank and noisy Gothic Quarter is the trendiest spot where you have a choice of bars, ranging from the quintessentially Catalan, Bar la Plata, where Bono spent a night drinking unmolested while in Barcelona rehearsing in 2009 and, close by, Dusk (duskbarcelona.com), a hip, honeycomb-shaped cocktail bar; if you need to catch a match, Dunne’s (dunnesirishbar.com) is just around the corner on Via Laietana.
For nightclubbing, the neo-classical Plaça Reial, off Las Ramblas, has a good selection of small clubs and its palm trees in the square, which hang over lamps designed by Gaudí, offer temporary shade when you emerge later on into early morning sunshine.
And it’s nearly always sunny in Barcelona.
Aer Lingus (www.aerlingus.com) and Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) fly from Cork, Dublin and Knock into Barcelona City and two outlying airports, Reus and Girona, which are 90 minutes by coach from Barcelona. If you fly into Girona, book an overnight stay in the small city which has a Jewish quarter that would rival any of Europe’s architectural jewels.
The cleverest thing to do if you’re heading to Barcelona as a couple/family or with friends is to rent an apartment for your stay, as the city’s hotels are pricey, and you can score some amazing, roomy apartments with a terrazzo. Try, among others, Rent4Days (www.rent4days.com) or Apartments Ramblas (www.apartmentsramblas.com).
There are over 10,000 restaurants to choose from. Ciudad Condal, which is the old name for Barcelona, is a popular spot for tapas and is located a few minutes’ walk from the top of Las Ramblas at 9 Rambla de Catalunya; Bun Bo (www.bunbovietnam.com) which has kitschy fittings and a leafy terrace that opens out towards the gothic cathedral, provides excellent, fresh Vietnamese food for very reasonable prices.
Take a funicular over the city, which gives an excellent view of the port and Barcelona’s bay, which is the fifth largest in the world for cruise ships. Head up to Monjuïc, the mountain which overlooks the city, and take a dip in the world’s most spectacular swimming pool, which attracted world attention for its city skyline backdrop during the diving competition at the 1992 Olympics. Book tickets for a concert — Barcelona has the most incredible open-air venues, including Palau Sant Jordi on Monjuïc.
There are two main areas to go shopping: the long, wide avenue, Passeig de Gracia, which is home to high-end department stores; and the Born district, which is peppered with boutique outlets, including Nunita’s (www.nunitabcn.com).