The stories of a couchsurfer

Barcelona: The pick of the Spanish bunch

Plaça de Catalunya

The enticing part of long-term travel is the ability to visit the smaller, lesser known cities. The one’s that haven’t been exposed in the many travel television series or magazines. Ultimately though, the larger, more well traveled cities become part of the itinerary. There’s a reason they’re heavily documented and visited – they have something special that sets them apart from the other cities.

Some of these cities seem to be built almost purely for tourism purposes and they have an incredible amount of sights to see. Think of Rome, New York and Paris.

And then add Barcelona to the list.

Barcelona is, without doubt, the number one tourist city in Spain and, as this article will argue, belongs in the top tier of touristic cities worldwide. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, Barcelona holds a certain allure that makes you want to go there and discover a place. There really is something for almost everybody.

Barcelona, particularly in the summertime, is a bustling city of not just tourists, but of it’s locals too. They seem to be very active and outgoing here, whether it be jogging, visiting a museum or enjoying the local shopping. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is that their city provides plenty of facilities to allow them to do it. From it’s famous beaches to it’s bustling commercial centre to it’s relaxing serene inner city parks to it’s surrounding hills, Barcelona provides loads of activities to do – and this isn’t even considering the tourist attractions.

And there are loads of them.

Loads.

If coming to Barcelona, do not underestimate the length of time it will take you to explore it all. I like to think that I can walk a fair distance in a single day and can therefore see and experience a fair portion of what the city has to offer. After a few days in Barcelona, I left still not having done everything that I had wanted. There really is so much here to see and do.

The thing is that the various touristic sights to see are spread out around all corners of the city and not congregated into the centre like many cities typically have. This means that one can not simply walk between attractions in a simple tour. Luckily, though, the public transport (at least the métro) is remarkable. An extensive network that runs reliably and frequently and has a simple enough, albeit expensive, ticketing scheme for people of all needs. This is certainly the way to travel within and around Barcelona.

Despite it’s loads of people and party reputation, Barcelona manages to remain clean and tidy, with well maintained facilities and buildings. On top of this, it maintains a high level of safety. Locals will undoubtedly tell you that there are some areas to steer clear from, but this is merely conforming to every other large city in the world and not at one moment was there any sense of danger whilst walking the streets. The police are quite vigilant here and they are frequently spotted patrolling the areas diligently.

Barcelona is the heart of the province of Catalonia in Spain and has been the centre of much debate between Catalonia and Spain itself. For Catalonia was conquered by the Spanish a few centuries ago after the province was it’s own self sustaining kingdom for centuries prior to that. The word “conquered” can be loosely used, as although it is part of Spanish territory, the majority of the people here don’t seem convinced and there have been passionate rallies of secession and freedom since. It is fascinating to see this unfolding in the current day and age, but more detail of this matter will be written in a future article.

Perhaps though, it is for this reason that the principle centre square of the city is called the Plaça de Catalunya and the Plaza de España is placed elsewhere. The Plaça de Catalunya is the perfect place to start the exploration of Barcelona. From here, one can follow the world famous La Rambla to the Mediterranean Sea. La Rambla is a principle thoroughfare connecting the city centre to it’s port. Two roads are separated by a large median strip that allows pedestrians to explore and there is certainly more pedestrian traffic than automobile. Alongside the roads are loads of shopping – this is what brings the people here in the first place. Of particular note is the Mercado de la Boqueria.

This market is not the largest but is beautifully presented and provides a wide variety of Spanish foods and goods on offer. Loaded with visitors every day, it cashes in on it’s popularity and location and the prices will be far too expensive, but the tourists don’t seem to mind, packing the small bars that serve food.

For the non shop-a-holic though, a walk through the promenade of La Rambla is the main attraction. Here, you will be greeted by many salesmen attempting to sell some of the most incredibly useless toys and items. It’s here also that you will see some of the best caricaturists in Europe. There are incredible artists here that charge around five or ten euro for a caricature that they guarantee in five minutes. It’s a spectacle in itself just to stand and watch them draw and amazingly talented caricature in under that timeframe.

Continuing La Rambla, eventually you will be greeted by the tall Monument a Colom, paying tribute to Christopher Columbus. Here is where the port begins and it’s been well developed into a shopping and entertainment district. Here, one can not miss the cable car that takes passengers from the port up to the top of Parc Montjuïc.

The cable car may provide fantastic views, but don’t miss the opportunity to just walk up the hill instead – there are loads of slightly graded paths that lead you to the top, where more attractions lay waiting. The view from the top will give you a well rounded picture of the city of Barcelona, although many of the vantage points are obscured by trees of some form.

The best place to have a look is the Castell de Montjuïc. This is more of a fortification castle rather than an extravagant palace type castle, so there isn’t any awe inspiring architecture or lavish interiors to explore, but it still does showcase a snippet of the history of Barcelona, as well as providing stunning views of the city and an area for rest and recharge after climbing the hill on a hot day.

Just behind the castle, you can take a quick stroll to the Olympic area that played host to the 1992 Olympic Games. Surprisingly, this area is a bit dull and there are not many people around, perhaps due to lack of shops or kiosks. Nonetheless, it’s worthwhile for the sports fanatic to take a walk around to see a slice of sporting history.

Besides, it’s on the way to Plaza de España. It’s almost as if it’s within the Spanish constitution for each major city (or perhaps each city period) to have a Plaza de España and so Barcelona reluctantly conformed, placing it somewhat out of the way as opposed to the centrally positioned Plaça de Catalunya, as previously mentioned.

But perhaps it wasn’t so reluctant, as there seems to have been a fair amount of money invested into the area. The highlight is Avenda Reina Maria Cristina, which leads up to the famed Magic Fountain. This fountain looks nice enough during the day, without being spectacular or magic as it claims. But it’s at night that it really takes off, producing a light show amongst the water and a series of sounds that create a musical effect as it protrudes water. The backdrop of this is the National Museu of Art, a magnificent old building in it’s own right that steals the limelight away, particularly glittering at night.

The night is a particularly entertaining period in Barcelona. Take a tour around and many of the buildings or locations that were seen during the day show off something extra. Perhaps its the glowing lighting that illuminates them, or the different colours they appear. It’s almost as if you’re visiting an entirely different city during the night than you did during the day. All of this just means that there’s even more to explore in Barcelona, and it soon becomes apparent that you’re running out of time to do everything that you intended.

Much of Barcelona’s touristic sights are quite modern, and this displays the cities attitude and willingness to move on into the present day and age. That’s not to say that there’s not a fair amount of history here though. The old town remains preserved.

El Barri Gòtic – The Gothic Quarter.

This area alone could take a fair part of a day to explore and houses the main cathedral of Barcelona as well as many other historic artefacts. The cathedral itself is quite massive and impressive, but a cost was incurred to enter. I’ve mentioned previously about my feelings on paying to enter a cathedral and so I refused and instead admired it from the outside.

The Barcelona cathedral is certainly a Gothic design and in this way very different to the cathedrals observed throughout the rest of Spain. This is just one of the examples where it could be observed that the life and the city here was starting to break away from typical Spanish tradition and tending towards that of France. Even the language of Catalunyan is essentially a “Frenchified” version of Spanish. Catalonia is the bridge between Spain and France.

The people here in Barcelona were by far the friendliest encountered in all of Spain. Gone were the days of Spanish hostility and narrow-mindedness. Here there Spanish are very accommodating and helpful. And perhaps that’s because of the increased tourism in the area. The constant exposure to people of different backgrounds has allowed them to become used to the idea of accommodating visitors and being that little bit more patient with them. It also has lead to them obtaining a very good level of English speaking, as the flourishing tourism industry has surely dictated.

Barcelona and the Spanish capital of Madrid hold a rivalry in almost everything. From their football team to the politics to the natural rivalry blossomed out of being the largest two cities of their country.

But Barcelona beats Madrid in almost every area that one can think of. It is more naturally gifted, situated on the Mediterranean and with beautiful beaches and hills behind it. It’s citizens are friendlier. It’s better developed and there are more things to do. But while there was the impression that Madrid was in direct competition with Barcelona, there was never the impression of the opposite. Barcelona thrashes Madrid at just about everything and it’s not even trying. Well it is trying, but it’s simply trying to be the best city it can be for it’s citizens and it’s tourists. It’s not attempting to constantly outdo another.

It’s this innocent progression and pathway that allows Barcelona to excel time and time again. And while it’s books show that it’s economy is in just as bad a state as the rest of Spain, evidence points to the problem being Madrid and the rest of Spain plundering Catalonia for it’s funds.

Barcelona is a world powerhouse and deserves to be recognised as such. There’s little wonder those travel journalist champ at the bit to investigate here.

What a superb way to finish a Spanish adventure.

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