Date: June 2006.    Barcelona is a wonderful city, it really is.  The moment you get there, you just heave a sigh of relaxation - the air is fresh, the sunshine is warm and dry, the sea is aqua and the streets are wide and airy. I loved the city; and the feel of it. It has a real personality, and combines such startling contrasts, perhaps more so than any other European city. The atmosphere is vibrant, it's an emotional city. I saw more lovers - young and old - there than I ever saw in Paris. We stayed in a great hotel built over the railway station - not a bit noisy -  soooo handy for the Metro, and open-top tour buses stopped just outside.  It is essentially a maritime capital of a nation of sailors and merchants - a Mediterranean city. We met Maria Albacar, a mature tourism official who exuded warmth and hospitality, and a genuine love for her home city.  She reminded me forcibly of my best friend Margarita, who will hate me because she's Castilian.  Everywhere was in dual language - Catalan and Spanish. I don't think I had quite realised just how separate the two states really are - and then you begin to think back to the different historical kingdoms that now make up a unified Spain - an uneasy alliance, in my opinion.  Their Civil War is still within living memory.  But in Barcelona, it is impossible to think of anything other than enjoying yourself.  

We decided to follow the Modernisme trail which, although being a fairly obvious one, did take us through the parts of the city that we most wanted to see.  You can't visit Barcelona without featuring Gaudi - it just can't be done, however hackneyed it is.  Guell Park (pronounced Shway, which really floored me) is spectacularly strange yet curiously compelling.  Amazing structures and pathways, with some truly lovely ceramic work - I particularly liked the dragon (which looked more like a lizard to me) guarding a staircase. There is a great straggle of craft stalls there, near to the Serpentine benches, which you have to sit on.  It's a photographer's dream - so many different angles that give an entirely different twist to the picture, if you'll pardon the pun. As gaudy (sorry) as it is, you love it, but finding a quiet spot to do a piece to camera link is almost impossible - it's so popular.  

Then you walk out of the park, following the trail down towards the Sagrada Familia, at the northernmost stretch of the wide boulevard called Diagonal, at the end of Avinguda de Gaudi. There isn't that much to see on the way,  and you could actually take a bus, but we didn't know that until we had walked it.  It's true; we really do have to walk every step to find out there isn't much to show, so you don't have to!  The Sagrada is stunning, but I have to wonder just what Gaudi was 'on' when he conceived it.  The facades are amazing - I'm not sure I can say 'beautiful' because they don't fit my idea of beautiful.  To me, some of them look as though they are melting, but the detail is extraordinary.  The interior is interesting but unfinished, so you navigate between huge blocks of cornices, mouldings and scaffolding that are waiting to be used.  I like my architecture to be traditional, but Gaudi just knocks you sideways - and you don't mind.  Dave went up the spiral staircase inside one of the soaring spires, with a fantastic view of all the weird and wonderful features that adorn the outside of the cathedral. At the other end of the Avinguda is the Hospital de Sant Pau, conceived by another Modernist, Domenech i Montaner.  It is not as showy, but is decorated with ceramics and surrounded by gardens, and made it onto the UNESCO world heritage site list.

Strolling through the Eixample district (pronounced 'shamplay'), following the little red modernisme seals in the pavement, you can readily see why Barcelona wasn't devastated by plague like other European cities.  The wide streets were planned with the idea of purifying sea breezes freshening the city, and although built in a grid system, the corners of the buildings are cut off.  In Eixample, you can see on the facades of buildings, and also in doorways and entrances to apartment blocks and shops, lavish Modernist ornamentation which seems an exercise in Brinkmanship.  Along the Passeig de Gracia the pavement slabs are decorated with swirly patterns, and the ornate lamp posts were designed by You Know Who.  I loved Casa Mila - La Pedrera. It is unique and to me beautiful - the curves (representing the sea waves) are totally pleasing to the eye, and the intricately wrought balconies are supposed to be sea weed. On the roof are the most fantastic 'witch scarers'; fantasy shapes encrusted with ceramics and other materials that are lit at night. You can go up to the roof to view these close up, but be warned - the queue is long.  The Passeig runs into Placa de Catalunya, a lovely green space with fountains and flowers.  And across this, you enter the Ramblas.  

You don't care that it is essentially a tourist trap. It's lively, full of stalls selling caged birds and bunnies to flowers and food, and halfway down is the Boqueria covered market - it has an array of colourful familiar and peculiar, apparently edible, wares that rivals the Rialto market in Venice for the vibrancy of colours.  There are a whole host of silent street entertainers - again, I don't think I've ever seen so many in one place - with a variety of performances for the inevitable coin(s) in the tin.  I particularly liked the 'Predator' character, whose long reptilian tongue shot out at unsuspecting tourists having their photo taken with it, and an elderly man dressed uncannily like Charlie Chaplin - I admired him for joining in.  

We struck off here, through a square decorated with more of Gaudi's lamp posts into the old city that was Barcino to the Romans.  Parts of the Roman walls are still visible, part of the fortifications built in the late 3rd and 4th centuries.  Barcino was captured by the Moslems in the 8th century, and then by the Franks in 801 and became an outpost of Charlemagne's empire south of the Pyrenees.  The whole medieval city was surrounded by walls until the mid 19th century, and the central part is known as the Gothic Quarter (Barri Gotic). It's a fabulous place to wander.  I liked the gothic church of Santa Maria del Pi very much; it has a characteristic rose window and a bell tower. The Gothic Cathedral with a gaggle of geese in the centre courtyard, amused me.  We strolled through the narrow streets, and then spent a happy few hours underground - at the Casa Clariana-Padelias, which houses the City History Museum, that has the most impressive Roman and Medieval remains in the city. Nearby is the Palau Reial Major in Placa del Rei, which was the residency of the Counts of Barcelona - it was also the seat of the infamous Inquisition.  This quarter became the political centre of the city, and the counts created the infrastructure that would make Barcelona the capital of the Crown of Aragon.  We forget all this, bathed in the balmy sunlight, but Barcelona is 2,000 years old, as Maria reminds us.

We rejoin the Ramblas, and wander on towards the last stretch before the port - Rambla de Santa Monica.  It begins at the Pla del Teatre, where the old principal theatre is situated.  There are still plenty of silent street entertainers as we pass the 17th century canon foundry to be greeted by the monument to Christopher Columbus, which marks the end of the promenade and the proximity of the sea. You can go up inside the column to the top, but we didn't. This stretch of seafront was not what I expected. There are some wildly modern glass and chrome buildings, with odd gigantic 'works of art' that didn't appeal to me, and a shopping centre which I didn't set foot in (gasp!).  Shopping centres I can find at home. The Drassanes are the former shipyards, which bear witness to the might of the Catalan Navy and merchant fleet of the Middle Ages.  Built in the 14th century, they are the largest and best preserved buildings of their kind in the world.  The vast Gothic halls now house the Maritime Museum, which is next to a stretch of wall and a gateway that are all that remains of the medieval fortifications.  Barcelona is one of the most important and busiest ports on the Med, and wharfs and shipyards occupy much of the sea front. A cable car takes you up to Miramar, affording stunning views of the marinas and fishing port.  We are heading towards Montjuic and the end of our trail.

You can walk up the hill but it is quite a pull, and having come this far, we decided to take the ultramodern cable car to the top.  It's a funny place; it houses the Military Museum (naturally) and is a fortress and not very attractive and a bit weedy, but it has the most wonderful views of the city that can't be beat.  Of course, everyone knows this, so let's hope you don't get there at the same time as a coachload of snap-happy tourists, taking their group photos, all wearing the same shapeless hats.  You can see the outlines of the Olympic city built in 1992, which seems a bit deserted now. Below the slopes is the Place d'Espanya, with it's two large towers inspired by the Campanile in Venice, with an avenue flanked with exhibition halls that culminates at the magnificent 'magic fountain', before the stairs that lead up to the Palau Nacional. If you do nothing else, you have to see the son-et-lumiere show of the fountain, but it is not performed every night, and only at set times, so find out before you go.  It is a Wonder of the World in my opinion.  It truly is magical; water cascades down lighted mini waterfalls from the terrace of the Palau to the foot of the fountain, which erupts in lighted synchronised bursts to a varied musical soundtrack.  Just sit and slurp an ice-cream and get lost in it all.  

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