It was the Olympics, 25 years ago, that transformed Barcelona into one of the world’s great destinations. The city emerged proud and self-assured, unveiling a formidable cultural landscape: one of the best-preserved medieval quarters in Europe; eclectic and art nouveau (‘modernista’) architecture stamped by genius; the Ramblas, a broad boulevard to rival those in Paris; a football team that’s the envy of all Europe; and a nightlife that’s entered clubbing folklore. Of course, this was too good to last without some consequences. Barcelona, like London, Paris and New York, has become a victim of its own success; tourists can overwhelm the Ramblas, and iconic landmarks, like Casa Milà, have turned into extravagant backdrops for hordes of travellers to congregate in front of and take selfies. However, it’s the mark of a great city that there are always new places to discover.
Orwell and Picasso thought his work was ‘hideous’, but with eight of his buildings declared UNESCO World Heritage sites, Antoni Gaudí is having the last laugh. Each year a whopping 3.7 million tourists visit his unfinished masterpiece, the Sagrada Família, with donations funding work to complete the cathedral by the centenary of Gaudí’s death in 2026. Another 2.7 million visit Park Güell’s dreamlike kaleidoscope of parabolic arches, and hallucinatory ceramic decorations.
Park Güell is located in the district of Gràcia, which was a village before its absorption by Barcelona in 1897. Today it’s a mixture of traditional barrio and bohemian hub. I explore the network of plazas with Alejandro, on a vermouth tour, an aperitif that’s making a comeback in Barcelona’s nightspots. He works for EtapaTapa conducting tours that combine culture, gastronomy and history, outside the city’s mainstream tourist core. We meet at Bodega Marín, a tiny bar with no fewer than 24 varieties of artisanal vermouth on draught. A soda siphon is brought in with our glasses, allowing us to water down the drink to our desired taste.
No such watering down at Quimet, a craft beer bar whose genial 1950s decor has been preserved intact. It’s popular with students who gravitate to Gràcia for its affordability. A ‘fork breakfast’ (what we call ‘English’) costs just €4 (£3.50) at Mercat Abaceria, an 1890s brick-and-steel market with an oval roof, while lunch at Gasch opposite is €8 (£7) for the three-course daily menu.
Bar-hopping reveals each of Gràcia’s squares to be more enchanting than the next: the Plaça del Sol dense with buzzing cafes; the tree-lined Plaça de la Revolució offering welcome shade; and the imposing Plaça de la Vila de Gràcia with its 108ft-high clock tower. We end up at Casa Palet, a bar/charcuterie, where wine bottles are racked high and cuts of meat dominate the tapas. We can try a glass of any bottle of wine for €5 (£4), and looking back — although my memory is a little hazy — we may well have tasted the complete west wall.
When Torre Glòries — a 38-storey skyscraper nicknamed ‘The Suppository’ — was inaugurated, as Torre Agbar, in 2005 in Poblenou, it was touted as another city symbol. Yet, it’s still a building looking for a purpose. Originally the headquarters of Barcelona’s water company, it’s been empty since 2013 when it was sold, to be transformed into a hotel. Since then, the project has been frozen by the authorities and Torre Glòries can’t be visited, disappointing the passengers of Barcelona’s hop-on hop-off bus that stops outside. It looks good at night, though, lit with fairy lights like a phallic Christmas tree.
The transition of Poblenou from ignoble industrial slum to futuristic skyscraper suburb is recounted to me by architect/historian, Ariel Cavilli. This end of Avinguda Diagonal feels more akin to parts of Zurich or Frankfurt than Barcelona. But, as I venture further in, following the pedestrianised Rambla de Poblenou, the more varied the cityscape becomes. There are palms and plane trees shading the al fresco chairs of swanky cafes; modernista houses with undulating balcony railings and gabled roofs. There are signifiers of its textile manufacturing past too: chimneys strewn between the sheet-and-glass giants and red-brick buildings — which are described, rather flatteringly, by Ariel as ‘Manchester-style’ — converted to flats, galleries or museums. You can glimpse a relic of that past in Monopol, a spacious former working men’s club that serves lunch at low prices.
At the end of the Rambla, there’s Bogatell Beach, favourite haunt of Barcelona’s millennials who are jogging, cycling and rollerskating in fashion-forward protective gear. I’ve been walking for an hour and haven’t seen a single tourist, but this may be about to change. I’ve reached the area’s cult attraction, Poblenou Cemetery; its museum of funerary art. There’s the tomb of local boy, ‘El Santet’, venerated as a miracle-worker, but I’ve come for its marble tour de force: The Kiss of Death by Jaume Barba. This remarkable sculpture, said to have inspired Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, depicts a winged skeleton kissing a dead, part-naked youth; both horrifying and strangely erotic.
I was wrong though. No tourists here. Yet.
The movement around me is constant but hushed. On my left, fishermen unload crates of fresh catch onto a conveyer belt that moves them to an automatic scale. There they stop, are weighed by a supervisor, and move on in front of a mute crowd of 21 men and three women who stare at the merchandise, each holding a buzzer. Every time a box arrives in front of them, a large digital screen flashes, starting at a high number that drops rapidly, until a buzz stops it at a certain value. That is the price of the box, for this is the subasta, Barcelona’s fish auction, conducted twice a day, Monday to Friday, in the port of Barceloneta.
Given everything else Barcelona has to offer, it’s easy to overlook the city’s port, the reason for its earlier prosperity and later industrial revolution. But if you do, you’ll miss out on Barceloneta’s glorious shoreline — arguably the best urban beach in the Mediterranean — its sand the colour and consistency of demerara sugar. Rather than simply wandering the wide avenues of the Eixample, why not instead explore the claustrophobic grid of Barceloneta’s narrow streets, where washing hanging on clotheslines gives the district a quasi-Neapolitan air? Social housing blocks here are so disproportionately high that there must be corners at street level that haven’t seen the sun’s rays for centuries.
Up until 2009 the port was relatively neglected and its singular charm remained undefiled. Then, the W Barcelona skyscraper was built — in the shape of a sail — and the waterfront began its transformation, Docklands-style. Previously, you could discern its famous clock tower from the bottom of the Ramblas. It had always been such a landmark that it was even used as a reference point for the famous French astronomer, Pierre Méchain, to calculate the Earth’s circumference and thus define the standard metre. Today, however, the clock tower is buried among a marina, a shopping centre and a nautical research institute.
Yet life in Barcelona’s port goes on and now there’s a chance to observe it closely with a brilliantly conceived tour. First, enjoy a three-course menu of the day’s catch at restaurant 3 Nusos and then learn how that fish arrived at your table. Watch rederos mend fishing nets with nylon strings as the boats come in and have their cargo unloaded. Finally, sample the mysteries of the fish auction. Then the realisation will dawn; although the means may have become modernised, the elemental process remains wonderfully unaltered.
When in Barcelona
A mark of Catalan identity: human towers up to 10-tiers tall. Castells clubs are open for public participation — welcoming visitors and observers to join or watch them train — several evenings a week.
Catalonia’s answer to the chorizo, the botifarra, is an essential ingredient in many dishes. The white variety is traditionally eaten at Lent; black ranges from black pudding to a red-pink version that tastes more like salami.
The world’s only sports theme park, in the formerly underused 1992 Olympic stadium, has a 360-degree football training cube and a Yamaha motorcycle simulation used by professionals.
Food as art: each course here is served with a different psychedelic wall projection and digital tablecloth display: menus from €38 (£32).
Just 40 minutes from Barcelona, the Penedès Valley is home to 20 cava wineries within walking distance of its capital, Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, including the biggies, Codorníu and Freixenet. Bespoke tours are available from Cava Emotions.
Kirker Holidays offers three nights at the Silken Gran Hotel Havana from £648 per person, for two sharing, B&B, including British Airways flights from Gatwick, private airport transfers, guide notes, concierge assistance and Sagrada Família tickets.
Barcelona port tour.
Catalonia: A Cultural History by Michael Eaude. RRP: £12 (Signal Books Ltd)
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. RRP: £9.99 (Penguin Classics)
Homage to Barcelona by Colm Tóibín. RRP: £9.99 (Picador). Set 60 years after Orwell’s — the two make for complementary reading.
Published in the Jul/Aug 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)