The chic, meandering capital of proud Catalonia is best known for the hallucinatory architectural visions of Gaudí, but it’s the great food and amiability of the locals that make it one of Europe’s great cities.
Author CHRIS WRIGHT
DAY THREE | The Mandarin Oriental, the second hotel of your stay, also opts for elegance over exuberance. The color scheme comprises several dozen shades of brown, and the hotel’s corridors are infused with a subtle floral aroma. After breakfast at the on-site brasserie Blanc — crushed duck egg over roasted potato, a side of chistorra sausage — you take to the Metro once more for the final Gaudí extravaganza of your stay: Güell Park, which manages to take the weirdness up another notch.
Güell isn’t so much a park as a mad fairy tale, a squiggle of pathways, grottos and toadstool-roofed pavilions, most of which is sheathed in riotous ceramic mosaics — heightening the sense that the place isn’t quite real. At the heart of it all is a large plaza packed with vendors, musicians and out-of-towners. Güell sits atop a punishing hill — but the view of the city alone is worth the pain.
For lunch, head to La Rambla, the busy avenue that is home to La Boqueria, a produce market that makes the Rio Carnival look dull. As you enter, you dodge an onrushing pedestrian and run face-first into a bushel of peppers, nearly careen into a hanging ham and only narrowly avoid a nearby nuthill. Aromas hang in the air: a spicy, citrusy, cheesy funk, and above it all the insistent tang of fish.
For serious shopping, cut back to Passeig de Gràcia, which offers everything from Bulgari to Zara. Things get more interesting in Gràcia, the kind of district where you’ll find a funky gift shop abutting a store that sells beans by the scoop. You pick up a novelty T-shirt, pass a few coins to a man playing “Strangers in the Night” on a trumpet, and head to the hotel to prepare yourself for a more formal musical performance.
Classical concerts aren’t the only reason to visit Palau de la Música Catalana. Its designer, Lluís Domènech i Montaner, subjected every square inch to some sort of flourish: heroic statuary, wreaths and roses, explosively patterned stained glass. Seated in the hall, violins washing over you, your eyes flitting over the faces popping from the burnt-orange backdrop, you feel dreamy and pleasantly detached. And then you fall asleep.
Roused by the bravos, you head outside and catch a cab to the El Raval district for a late supper at Betty Ford’s, one of Barcelona’s hottest eateries and, you’ve been told, the repository of the best burgers in town. The Texas Burger is very good: thick and juicy, slopping with BBQ sauce. The lighting is low. The crowd is chatty. Yet your bed beckons.
Back at the hotel, you step out onto the balcony of your room and watch the street below. A few taxis glide by. Young couples walk arm in arm. One woman is saying something to her lover in Spanish, almost singing the words. She seems happy to be here — with this person, in this place.
In a town full of tours, World RT, run by Robert Thai, offers something different: bespoke. Just tell him your tastes and how long you’ll be in town, and he’ll map out your trip. If you want, he will even come with you. So how good is he? Asked to devise a quirky and surprising 10-minute tour of the Gothic District, he doesn’t skip a beat. “Look,” he says, pointing to a small carved skull overhead. You look at it. “They say if you stare into its face, you’ll get one year of bad luck.” You thank him for that. Next it’s off to a dingy, nondescript courtyard. Here, standing alone in the half-light, is a cluster of Roman columns. It might just be the most beautiful sight in all of Barcelona. The last stop is a little stone turtle jutting from a wall. “Rub that,” Thai says, helpfully, “and you break the curse of the skull.”
Until recently, vermouth was something your yaya drank after church, a libation to be sipped while discussing the price of sardines. The drink, which is basically inferior wine that has been fortified and flavored to make it palatable, has never been thought of as fashionable. Until now: Barcelona, it seems, is in the midst of a vermouth revival. Old, family-run bars like Cala del Vermut are seeing an influx of young people. And there are relatively new vermouth joints cropping up, such as Bar Calders, that are among the trendiest in town. During the so-called hora del vermut — the hour leading up to lunch — the terrace at Bar Calders is overflowing with enthusiasts, without a pair of false teeth in sight.
ARTIST, DOLAR TATTOO
There’s a little park I like to go to in Ciutat Vella. People go there to sit on the grass and play music — I play guitar. It’s an artist’s park, a place for young people, people who live here. I could walk there right now and find some friends.
CHIEF METEOROLOGIST, TELEVISIÓ DE CATALUNYA
People forget we have musicals here, like Broadway. My favorite place is Teatre Musical, which used to be a sports pavilion. It is huge, so it puts on big productions. The last one I saw was Mamma Mia! I liked it very much.
What I enjoy most about Barcelona is the incredibly well-preserved Modernist buildings. I love their stained glass windows, which are like kaleidoscopes. Sometimes I dream about Casa Batlló coming to life as a dragon.
CHRIS WRIGHT lives on Spain’s Costa Blanca. His friends are getting tired of hearing how great Barcelona is.
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