A thriving Mediterranean port since antiquity, Barcelona is culturally rich, tolerant, hospitable and stylish. Besides the Summer Olympics, which will be held there July 25 to Aug. 9, there are other sites and activities for visitors to see and do.
It's a city for eating, dancing, shopping -- and above all, a great place to take a walk. As much as any city in Europe, Barcelona rewards the walker with sights worth staring at. There are sumptuous buildings from many eras, richly adorned with wrought iron, stained glass and statues; a wide array of shops, food and artifacts; and a handsome population passionately involved in its own days and nights.
You can begin on Montjuic, "Mountain of the Jews," where the Olympic stadium is. (The name derives from the Middle Ages, when Moors, Jew and Christian shared Spain, and the Jews had their shops on the mountain.) Within walking distance is the Spanish Village, a display village that features the architectural styles of Spain, as well as shops that sell arts and crafts from all over the country, and many restaurants and nightclubs. Because the Spanish dinner hour is late -- typically from 9 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. or so -- you can see flamenco dancing over a late dinner and still have time to go to a jazz club from midnight till 3 a.m.
The Miro Museum is nearby, too. Unlike Picasso and Pablo Casals, the other great modern artists from the area, Miro remained in Barcelona through the Civil War and the Franco regime that followed and bequeathed a treasure trove of his art to his hometown. It is displayed with pride in a handsome building on Montjuic, well worth a visit.
Get a map, head for port
The best way to begin seeing the rest of Barcelona is to buy a city map, take a bus down the mountain to the Plaza Espanya, then ride the underground Metro to the port. Fast, dependable, clean and cheap, the underground train system is easy to understand: Just follow the route maps that are in every station ++ stop. One admission takes you wherever you want to go; transfer as many times as you like. Coupled with the bus system, which is equally efficient, it makes getting anywhere in Barcelona easy and fun.
At the port, of course, you must first see the Columbus statue, which is commanding on its high pedestal, insistently pointing to America. From Columbus, walk up the wide Ramblas toward the center of town. Most Barcelonans come here on Sundays and holidays to shop at the many stalls selling flowers, birds and crafts. Mixed with sailors and tourists, they create a crowd scene worth watching.
Usually, there will be a mime or two; a couple of street musicians and a few artists doing portraits; Moroccans selling belts, purses and scarves off a blanket; at least one reader of Tarot cards telling fortunes at a table; some Gypsies hawking posies for your buttonhole; and perhaps a serape-clad guitar-and-bongos band from Peru.
Then visit the Gothic Quarter
After you've strolled through this lively scene for three or four blocks, as far as, say, Calle Ferran, turn right and head for the Gothic Quarter. If you miss Ferran, take the next street, or the next -- just go to your right through a busy warren of increasingly narrow and jumbled streets.
The glory of Barcelona's Gothic section is that it's not a museum, a reconstruction or a display, but simply very old buildings, many built between the 13th and 15th centuries and continuously in use to this day. Some streets are almost as narrow as paths, with three- and four-story buildings towering vertiginously over them. Shops are often not much bigger than closets, piled to the ceiling with an odd assortment of goods: pastry and wine, bakery goods and dolls. Laundry flaps overhead on a cat's cradle of lines strung between windows. Restaurants often have three stools and four or five tables, one of which is on the sidewalk. The food and wine will be different in each, most of it very good.
Every street has its own pattern of cobblestones, or a row of ornate street lamps unlike any others in town. Students, musicians and artists live there for the cheaper rents -- for the same reason, garment, jewelry and textile wholesalers are there. There are several fascinating museums: Frederic Mares' collection of Catholic artifacts, a Picasso collection of mostly early work and the City Museum of History, under which is an excavated remnant of the Roman town that was once there.
If you can, visit this section on a Sunday; follow the crowds to the many-spired cathedral about 10:30 a.m., and watch the dancing in front of the church. They always dance the Sardana, the traditional dance of the Catalan region, of which Barcelona is the capital. People make a pile of whatever possessions they're carrying, then form a circle around the pike, holding hands. A brass band begins to play, and they dance a hopping, repetitive pattern with hands raised high.
Take the Metro and trolley
Another day, take the Metro to the Plaza de Catalunya, plunge into the chaotic free-for-all of El Corte Ingles, Barcelona's largest department store, then walk west (away from the port, toward the mountain) on Passeig de Gracia, a street of posh shops and stunning architecture, much of it from the turn of the century.
Notice the madly curving bulk of the Casa Mila, nicknamed "La Pedrerea" -- the stone quarry -- and the gloriously ornate wedding-cake ornament that tops the Loewe's building. There are many private art galleries there, where you can browse and see what Spain's foremost artists are currently producing, and in any of the larger bookstores, you'll find a section of English titles. If you walk far enough, you can afford to give in to the temptations of one of the many bakeries that beckon everywhere, or try the treats at a tapas bar. Or rest your feet and enjoy a cafe-con-leche at an outdoor cafe.
Tibidabo, on its mountain overlooking the west side of town, is worth an outing, because getting there is half the fun. Take the Metro at Provencia; at the end of the line, walk across the street to the electric trolley that takes everybody up the hill. When the trolley reaches the end of its line, cross the street once more and take the funicular that crawls steeply to the top.
It's hard to describe what you find at the summit: a Roman church, wedded to a Gothic tower, fronted by a carnival, with a Ferris wheel and other rides that whirl dizzily into space at the edge of the mountain. If you are lucky enough to be there on a clear day, you will get lovely views of Barcelona.
See Gaudi's quirky work
It takes a bit more navigation and map-reading to get to Guell Park; you might be well advised to take a taxi. They're not overpriced; the drivers generally own the cabs and are skilled and careful. The park is filled with odd-shaped buildings and fantastic outdoor sculpture designed by Antoni Gaudi, Barcelona's own quirky genius. It's a favorite place for an afternoon's outing for Barcelona families, so there are baby strollers and toddlers clutching grandparents' hands all around the ceramic towers, other wordly ceramic animals and strangely twisting walks and benches. The place is both homey and weird -- not your average park at all.
If you'd like to see another example of Gaudi's work, taxi to No. 24 Calle les Carolines and gaze at Casa Vicens. Depending on whom you talk to, it is the work of a harmless loony with a passion for ceramic tile and cupolas, or a shrewd use of ornamentation to make a small house look like a castle and turn a small lot into an enchanted garden. Evidently, it works well for some; it has been continually occupied as a private dwelling for more than a century and appears in good shape.
For the consummate expression of this architect's talent, go to the Avenue de Gaudi, just off Diagonal, and see La Sagrada Familia, the Church of the Sacred Family. You will have already seen its picture, ubiquitous on postcards and literature of the city. The pictures usually convey the impression of a finished structure, but Sagrada Familia is barely half finished after a century of building. It has no roof, no windows, no floor; it is a shell. What it does have is several imposing facades, bravely mismatched as taste evolved through the century of its construction, and a set of towers that makes an unforgettable statement about inspiration.
Enjoy music and nightlife
There are several things to do in Barcelona that take a bit more preparation, either through your travel agent or with the help of your hotel. The city boasts two outstanding music houses: the opera house called Gran Teatro Liceo and the visually stunning Palace of Music, where some of the world's best musicians perform. Warning: Barcelona is a music-loving town, so tickets sell out early.
The Monumental bullring presents bullfighting of excellent quality on Sundays and fiestas; join a tour, or buy tickets at the door. And, finally, if you crave a glimpse of Spanish beach life, take the train from the main station at Estacio de Sants, for a half-hour trip to Sitges, a typical Mediterranean beach resort.
The Spanish have a special verb, trasnochar, to stay up all night, because that's what they love to do. You will find plenty of nightlife in Barcelona, including many jazz clubs, nightclubs with rock bands and several bars that feature ballroom dancing. If you're still having fun when they close, go to one of the after-clubs, which go on till dawn. Buy a copy of LaVanguardia, Barcelona's major daily, and consult the advertisements to find out what's going on.
American movies are a huge success in Spain, so if you want to see one, look for those that say "subtitulado"; they have English dialogue with Spanish subtitles.
The most striking feature of life in Barcelona is the civilized way its citizens behave at night. Time after time, my husband and I have walked across the city after a concert or a night on the town at 2 or even 3 in the morning and found ourselves idling happily along with crowds of quietly chatting people. Watch out for your cash in the subway, of course. We are not in heaven, but to an American, the soft Mediterranean ambience of Barcelona seems remarkably benign.
If you go . . .
For information: The National Tourist Office of Spain, 665 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10022; call (212) 759-8822.
Read: The Barcelona section of James Michener's "Iberia."
Buy: At least one guide book. Michelin is good on history and artifacts; Fodor's is detailed about restaurants and hotels; Frommer's is chatty and humane.
Take: An extra pair of comfortable shoes; you're cheating yourself if you don't walk a lot in Barcelona.