Ed Leahy rekindles his friendship with an amazing city.
The last time I visited Barcelona, I was 13-years-old. And for all the years that have passed since – of which there have been a few – my only abiding memories were of a statue of Christopher Columbus in the harbour and, more vividly, the Camp Nou, the football stadium of FC Barcelona.
Even still, on my return, I was convinced that the memories would come flooding back as I reintroduced myself to this historic capital city of Catalunya.
So, full of confidence, I set off from the hotel, jumped on the metro and back off again 10 minutes later at Barceloneta, which I gathered was close to the harbour.
The plan was to explore the city on foot to get my bearings, and to stay outdoors as much as possible to enjoy my first blast of proper summer sunshine.
Gauging rather than knowing where I was going, I soon found myself on a sprawling promenade as joggers, skateboarders and roller-bladers whizzed past. A light sea breeze filled the senses and it felt more like a beach holiday than a city break.
And sure enough, a little further along the walkway, I was reacquainted with old Christopher, standing 40 metres above on his plinth pointing out to sea and the New World. Columbus I recognised, but nothing else – understandably, as my last visit was before the city got a major facelift for the 1992 Olympics.
Once you find the Mirador de Colom – to give it its proper title – the options are endless.
Walk towards the water to marvel at the many impressive cruisers and yachts docked in the sprawling harbour; left or right along the wide open boulevard to waltz miles of sandy beaches and beyond to the Parc de Montjuic, or cross the road and enter the Ciutat Vella (Old Town), which is the historic quarter of Barcelona.
Ignoring the call to the beach, I ventured inland and into the belly of the beast along La Rambla, a pretty, tree-lined street that runs for just over a kilometre from the harbour to the Plaça de Catalunya.
La Rambla dissects the Old Town and, along with all its side streets, is known as Las Ramblas, which is the main tourist area of the city.
Until the middle of the 19th century, every development in Barcelona was kept within the old boundary walls, which now make up the Old Town. As a result, the Old Town is absolutely choc a bloc with fascinating buildings, monuments, museums, pretty side streets and meeting places.
And for that reason, the Old Town is a tourist's dream as almost everything that you will want to see in Barcelona is within two or three square kilometres, making it the ideal walking city.
The Old Town is divided into four zones – El Raval, El Born, Barceloneta and The Gothic Quarter, which is the oldest part of the city.
The Gothic Quarter was built over the Roman settlement of Barcino and is dominated by the Catedral de Barcelona, which was started in the 13th century and took 600 years to build. Several walking tours are available allowing you to explore the area's Roman and Gothic past as well as the Jewish Quarter, which thrived from the 11th century for 300 years.
Several days would be required to take in all the historic sites of the Gothic Quarter. La Plaça del Rei is beautiful square dating back to medieval Catalonia, the Palau de la Musica is an amazing example of modernista architecture, which hosts hundreds of concerts every year, while the Temple of Augustus dates back to the 1st century BC when the Romans ruled.
Other attractions include the Carrer Petritxol, where you find the Gothic Church of El Pi, the Casa de l'Ardiaca, Plaça de Sant Jaume and Plaça de Sant Felip Neri.
The Plaça Reial is located just off La Rambla and the ideal place for a spot of lunch and some people watching. The porticoed square is bordered by coffee shops, restaurants and tapas bars and while the square was similar to what you would find in any other classic European city, the prices didn't appear to be bumped up for the privilege of sitting outside. A very tasty bocadillo (ham and cheese roll) and coffee left me with plenty of change out of €10.
Sticking with the food theme, one place not to be missed, just off La Rambla, is La Boqueria, an amazing food market, which is bursting with colour from the extensive range of fruits, flowers, vegetables and meats on offer. Residents of Barcelona are truly spoilt for choice and this would be one place that you would definitely work into your daily routine if you were working or living nearby.
A ready-to-go fruit salad accompanied me on the remainder of my stroll along La Rambla and was the ideal accompaniment as I paused to check out the pavement mosaic by renowned Barcelona-born artist Joan Miro.
The Old Town is also home to one of the world's best Pablo Picasso art collections, located in the aptly named Museu Picasso, but no museum is needed to appreciate Barcelona's most famous son – and I'm not talking about Argentinean footballer Lionel Messi.
An architect by trade, Gaudí is certainly an icon of the art world as his modernista style buildings dotted throughout the city give Barcelona a very unique identity. In fact, Gaudí is still transforming the city today and will continue for a number of years to come as his Sagrada Família is set for completion in 2025.
One of the best ways to appreciate the work and genius of Gaudí is to buy a ticket for the Barcelona Bus Turistic. Such is the size of modern Barcelona, the open-air bus route – of which I am not normally a fan – contains three different routes around the city, all interlinking and allowing you to hop on and off wherever and whenever you like.
The Blue Route takes you from Plaça de Catalunya and away from the Old Town towards Gaudi's dream, the Sagrada Família, passing many more Gaudí and other modernista buildings en route.
The Sagrada Família can easily fill an afternoon as you marvel at Gaudí's work and imagine and enjoy this fairytale-esque, cathedral-like building with tall, tapering towers, complete with coloured ceramics.
But if you want to try and get further inside the head of the great man, make sure to get back on the bus to the truly surreal Park Güell, which was designed to become some sort of utopian housing site inspired by the English garden city movement. To try to describe Güell would do it no justice, so just go, enjoy and dream.
That statue of Christopher Columbus still points out to sea and to the New World – I think it might be better to rotate it and point within to the amazing city of Barcelona that sits within those Old Town boundaries and beyond.
Hotel Diagonal Zero
Barcelona continues to evolve in the Gaudí tradition as the city fills up with spectacular architecture of varying styles. Every modern building appears to place huge emphasis on design and this new architecture is in abundance along the city's four kilometres of beaches that stretch from the harbour out to the Parc del Forum. The Forum Building, at the entrance to Parc del Forum, is one that stands out, while the Diagonal 00 skyscraper, adjacent to the Forum Building, appears to defy the laws of physics, especially when viewed from the side, across the road at the Hotel Diagonal Zero.
I stayed at the Hotel Diagonal Zero, which sits by the coast amongst this visual feast and only a stone's throw from the Llevant and a string of other beaches. While the hotel is located about three kilometres from the city centre, it is well serviced by the Metro, which is within a two-minute walk from the hotel, while the tram stops right outside the hotel.
The food and service in the hotel was excellent, while the outdoor lounge was a great place to chill enjoying a glass of wine or two – even if the same music was looping a little too often. The rooftop pool is a great place to hang out and enjoy the sunshine, while there is an on-site spa available on the ground floor.
Located across the road from the Parc del Forum, Hotel Diagonal Zero is ideal for anyone visiting the annual music festival, Primavera Sound.
For more information, visit: www.hoteldiagonalzero.com.
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