Saturday, August 8, 2009

Barcelona - from the Bus Turístic and beyond

I already wrote here that I went to Spain last month for a short holiday to visit our son and his partner in Malgrat de Mar, a beach resort town on the Costa Maresme (which I always thought was the Costa Brava but is technically one town away from the start of the Costa Brava which goes all the way from Blanes up to the French border near Dalí's house in Cadaqués at Port Lligat). While there we met up with an old friend from my nursing days and her two teenage girls, and spent two days with them in Barcelona, doing the whole tourist thing.

Barcelona is a beautiful city with a great history and heritage. Artistically and architecturally it is probably unsurpassed in Spain, with its Gaudí buildings and the links with Miró and Picasso, and its pride in hosting the 1992 Olympic Games. I had been to Sagrada Familia, Gaudí's iconic and unfinished cathedral, and Casa Batllo and La Pedrera in a previous visit so was happy to visit new places this time. As I went to Camp Nou, the home of Barcelona Football (soccer) Club, with the kids in 2004, I didn't return this time.

We had both been intrepid travellers in the past, having backpacked all over the Subcontinent (India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka) between 1978 and 1980 when we lived and worked in Bangladesh, as well as doing Europe on Inter-Rail in our student days. So this was our first opportunity to do some sightseeing and it took us right back to our hippie trail days! As we had done all the major Indian and European cities at breakneck speed and packed in every major must-see sight in a few days back then, we didn't see why this time should be any different in Barcelona. Hence our plan to pack in as much as possible in the few days we had together.

To see Barcelona when time is limited, there is probably no better way than to take the ubiquitous Bus Turístic, the open-topped buses that ply the streets from morning to night. There are 3 colour-coded routes, red, blue and green, and at €27 for a 2-day ticket it is pretty good value. We both spent about 5 hours going on a recce on all 3 routes just to get a feel for the city and a sense of orientation, flagging what we would revisit over the few days.

We spent an afternoon at Tibidabo, the mountain to the north of Barcelona that makes a natural city boundary, and tried out some of the various rides in the amusement park. This park is not at all glitzy or Disney-esque, but has been around for years and has simple carousel rides and a 1929 white-knuckle ride - sedate by todays' rollercoaster standards - on a plane that goes out over the clifftop, a thrill at the time when airtravel was not the everyday cattletruck experience that it has become. We went to the top of the church of Sagrat Cor (Sacred Heart) where for €2 a lift takes you to the roof and you can walk further up to the statue on the top. The views were spectacular and I could see Montserrat where I had been a few times in previous years. That is a monastery atop a rocky outcrop - the serrated mountain or Montserrat - and is another great day trip about an hour from Barcelona.

To get to Tibidabo you have to get the Tramvia Blau (a lovely old wooden tram) and a funicular railway to the top. These are always good fun, although the funicular at Montserrat is much steeper and vertigo-inducing. Tibidabo features in the film Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which I have yet to see, and the city is capitalising on the connections. My first encounter with Tibidabo was in The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón where a lot of the action takes place, and as that is set in the pre-Civil War days it shows how long the park has been a Barcelona attraction, pre-dating tourism and somehow making it more real than theme parks and interpretive centres.

We spent a pleasant few hours in El Poble Espanyol, a Folk Park that was built for the 1929 international exhibition and should have been dismantled but was left there as it was so popular. It showcases house types from all over Spain, and is a really tranquil oasis in Montjuic, the mountain on the coastal side of Barcelona, which also housed the Olympic Stadium, now the home of Espanyol football club, Barca's nemesis. We took a short cable car ride to Castell Montjuic, a fortress where Catalans were executed during the Civil War for opposing Franco, now housing a military museum, which has amazing views over the port, and we took another cable car across the bay, from Miramar on Montjuic, over the port and harbour, to the Blue Flag beach of San Sebastian. This is my kind of scary ride, as I don't do white-knuckle park rides, and being suspended in a glass box 80 metres above ground and sea is quite enough thrill for me.

This cable car also features in the climactic closing sequence of The Angel's Game, Carlos Ruiz Zafón's new book, which I read on this holiday. His books are a bit too much magical realism for me, but they evoke Barcelona beautifully, and for this they are perfect location books. I have read Antony Beevor's seminal History of the Spanish Civil War and Giles Tremlett's The Ghosts of Spain on previous Spanish holidays. These books, along with George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia are must-reads for anyone interested in some background history on Barcelona and Catalan nationalism and where it all fits in today's Spain.

Another wonderful place is Parc Guell, which Gaudí also built but like the Sagrada Familia, never finished. While Gaudí is loved now as an incredibly talented maverick artist, he was probably too avant-garde for most of his patrons or their wives. This may be why Casa Mila (La Pedrera) was controversial for having no right angles or corners as well as breaching city planning laws, and along with Parc Guell has more curves than a Hollywood starlet. We wandered all over the park and posed on the famous curvilinear tiled bench atop the doric columned hall, which was to be the market.

Placa Catalunya
at the top of the Ramblas, the tree-lined main drag in Barcelona, is a good jumping off spot for soaking up the atmosphere of the city. We wandered around there both evenings, went shopping in La Boqueria market, and the old city or Barri Gotic, enjoying the nocturnal buzz of street jugglers and mime artists and onto the Rambla de Mar, the Boardwalk on the waterfront. The Ramblas is notorious for pickpockets and inflated prices, which we found out when a mediocre meal of tapas and paella on a terrace there cost twice what we had expected or would have paid back on the Costa.

Two days was nowhere near enough to do justice to Barcelona but it was terrific to spend some time with an old friend and catch up on the years, and the Bus Turístic was the way to go; definitely to be recommended to anyone planning a break in this lovely Mediterranean city.

To see all the photos from my holiday, click on the Picasa slide show on the sidebar - Spain 2009 - and enjoy the journey with me!


Jeannette StG said...

You have a real adventurous spirit- backpacking in so many places of the earth - no wonder you married a Dutchman! (just kidding). I really would like to see Casa Mila (La Pedrera) - must be a real treat artistically! Thanks for sharing Barcelona with us:)

Irene said...

Well, you've certainly made me curious about Barcelona and now I know I need to go there if my finances ever permit it. Thank you for the very good description of everything. It was a pleasure to read.

Rudee said...

What a lovely tour. The photos are beautiful.

Peggy said...

Hi Catherine, what better way to spend a wet Irish Sunday afternoon than reading about sunny Barcelona.I have never been there but your post will be a great guide when I do.

David Coffey said...

Hi Catherine,

Great Blog!

I work for the Centre for enterprise at WIT. I've been involved in setting up a blog which celebrates the enterprising past of Waterford and the South East. We hope that by showing people entrepreneurs form the past more current innovators may be encouraged.


Unknown said...

Nice post. The Picasso Museum has many works of art. Camp Nou is a must visit as it is the biggest stadium. You can see huge display of cups won, photographs of players in Barcelona FC Museum. Cathedral de la Santa Creu church is the most splendid and awe-inspiring church in the city. Definitive example of the modernity and sanguinity of Barcelona is Agbar Tower. You can enjoy many water sport activities in Port Vell. For more details refer Camp Nou Stadium