There’s a city in Spain that is renowned for its football club and world class architecture. As someone who’s in awe of Gaudi’s monuments but unfamiliar with the charms of the beautiful game of football, I wondered what this city had in store for me. When I think of cities I want to live in, Mumbai, New York, and Paris come to mind easily. While London, San Francisco, and Sydney, are first class global cities, they never ignite in me, the desire to stay some more and make them home base. Barcelona quite frankly did. The stunning architecture of various buildings, the energetic people bustling about their days, Gaudi’s monuments, Camp Nou, the Mediterranean Sea, the beaches, the amazing nightlife, the Gothic Quarters, the museums, the Palau de la Música Catalana, the Castell de Montjuïc with beautiful views of the city – I can totally see myself living in this city. What joy it is to walk along the streets of Ciutat Vella or Eixample!
Barcelona is the third most visited city in Europe, and the 10th most city in the world. The city itself has a storied history. The mythical version has the mighty Hercules himself as founder of the city. The earthlier version ascribes the foundation to Hamilcar Barca, the father of Hannibal. What is certain however is that the Romans were here for very long time and there are visible remnants from the time of this great empire, scattered through the city.
Barcelona has a beautiful location framed as it is by the mountain and sea. It is on the coast of the Iberian Peninsula facing the Mediterranean Sea. The city is blessed with small hills that give their name to the neighborhood that are built upon them. Some of these hills also offer spectacular views of the city. Barcelona also has a lovely Mediterranean climate. In the coldest month of January, the temperatures in the day time hover around 10 to 18°C, while the summer temperatures range from 27 to 31°C. It’s one of those cities in Europe where temperate clearly is not a constraint to visiting in any month!
The famed writer Hans Christen Andersen on his visit to the city called it the “Paris of Spain”. While he meant it as a compliment to the rich culture and the beautiful architecture of this city, Barcelona has so much of its own character that comparisons to any other city are unfair at best. At the heart of the city is the Gothic Quarter – a maze of narrow roads that lead to spectacular medieval buildings. I visited the cathedral, episcopal palace and some of the churches and admired their renaissance architecture.
There is much to also admire in the more modern cityscape of Barcelona. There is little that can compare to the work of Antoni Gaudí. I’ve admired his work in pictures but seeing it in person was a whole different experience. The Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family (Sagrada Família) has become his signature work in the city. His woks are scattered around in the buildings of Casa Batlló, Casa Milá (La Pedrera), and Güell Park.
I found Casa Milà particularly intriguing. After passing the ticket booth, you will immediately come across an ordinary modern elevator that leads you to the spiral staircase and takes you up to the roof. On the roof, you can see some famous sculptural figures, at the same time acting as ventilation shafts. Casa Milà was called the alive house, because its appearance and architecture meanders, bends and swims, which makes it look exactly like a living organism. Little wonder then that Barcelona is the first and only city that received a Royal Gold Medal for architecture in 1999 for its influence on many contemporary architects around the world.
I spent hours walking in the Gothic Quarter. I was captivated by the Bishop’s Bridge at Carrer del Bisbe! I also walked down the ‘Las Ramblas’ which is exceptionally popular with tourists both during the day and night and overflowing with restaurants and tourist shops. It ends with the statute of Christopher Columbus pointing out to the sea – a reminder that the great explorer came back to this city to report his discovery of the new world. This street also is a never-ending tapestry of live street artists who regale the tourists that walk by, even as the street traders hawk all kinds of wares from flowers to ornaments. A kilometer walk, that could go on till infinity!
My kind hosts in Barcelona also had a surprise for me. Tickets to watch FC Barcelona in action against Atlético Madrid at Camp Nou for the Championship League! I donned the now familiar FC Barcelona stripes and cheered with the crowd each time they roared. While I’m no expert when it comes to understanding football, the electric atmosphere within was enough to bring me to my feet each time Messi dribbled the ball into the opposition half. Although my knowledge of football may not have necessarily been enhanced that day, I did take home a hoarse throat from all the cheering as Barcelona won the game in home territory! I also made the mistake of announcing my presence at Camp Nou on my family WhatsApp groups, and ended up with a shopping list for club memorabilia. Incidentally the FC Barcelona museum is the most visited museum in all of Barcelona. I was the envy of all my football loving cousins and friends in India that day.
One of my evenings was spent at the shores of the Mediterranean. I discovered a shocking fact that there were no beaches in Barcelona until 1992 and that most of the beaches were artificial. I’m sure both the locals and the tourists would be thankful for the Olympics and the changes to this city. The 4 km or so long beach also hosts concerts in the summer. My hosts recommended several far prettier beaches a short train ride away out of Barcelona. However, I made my peace at ‘Wet bar’, located on the terrace of W Hotel, sipping my drink and enjoying the marvelous views of the sea and the city.
This brings me to the food. Barcelona falls in Catalunya, which has its own distinctive Catalan food. As a vegetarian, I could not dip into the meat and seafood which are local specialties. However, there is enough for the vegetarian and vegan plate in the Catalan cuisine. Escalivada–roasted eggplant and red peppers – taste great with everything, and worked well with toasted pa de pagès (farmer’s bread) with a variety of toppings on it. I also enjoyed the fusta de formatges catalans (catalan cheeses), a side of pa amb tomaquet (bread with tomato). Espinacs amb panses i pinyons which consists of sautéed spinach, pine nuts and raisins really appealed to my taste buds. And although spring onions is a regular staple of Indian food, I was intrigued by Calçots which are a type of long stemmed green onions which are barbequed to perfection and seasoned with Romesco sauce made up of garlic, tomatoes, and almond. And if tapas is your thing, make sure you’ve check out the place before hand to ensure you’ve got a selection to choose from. With a lively food scene, you’ll find restaurants serving various cuisines including Indian, Italian, Chinese etc. A local vegetarian restaurant that caught my fancy was Sesamo in El Raval; the tasting menus here are to die for!
Barcelona is an enticing shopping destination. The beautiful architecture must certainly be the inspiration for the style and élan that that seem to run through the veins of the handicrafts, antiques accessories and clothes. I felt myself right at home in L’Eixample and the streets surrounding the iconic Passeig de Gràcia. Here there were boutiques by the big Spanish designers alongside respected local heavyweight Catalan designers, such as the Armand Basi and Custo Dalmau. Barcelona’s old city – the Barri Gòtic, La Ribera and El Raval – are also great places to go shopping for the more traditional wares of the region. These include antiques, quirky local crafts or retro furnishings. Also, not to be forgotten in the shopping list from Barcelona is stopping by gourmet food shops and stocking up on farmhouse cheeses and artisanal chocolates.
If I had to pick a city in Spain where I could live for a few months, it would be Barcelona. Living amidst Gaudi’s monuments. Surfing and sailing in the Mediterranean Sea. Learning the nuances of football and watching more games. Spending time at Palau de la Música Catalana for different performances. Exploring Costa Brava over weekends. Learning to cook Spanish food. Siestas on lazy afternoons post lunch. This my dear friends is, la buena vida!