It’s an easy one-hour-and-forty-minute flight to Barcelona. “Please remember to take your children with you, if you don’t pick them up from lost and found we will sell them on Ebay,” says the flight attendant on arrival. “If you enjoyed the flight, please recommend us to your friends. If you didn’t, then recommend us to your enemies.” EasyJet have obviously relaxed their announcement guidelines.
We are met with a pleasant evening sun and a temperature that is ten degrees higher than London. A twenty minute cab ride brings us in past the docks and to the Montecarlo Hotel on La Rambla. It’s a recently converted old bank with modern rooms off grand hallways.
An evening stroll takes us past the cathedral and through the Christmas market full of tacky nativity scenes. The streets narrow in this old part of town, the Barri Gotic. Here in a tiny side street we find an old Catalan restaurant Pla de la Garsa. It has a rustic feel with tiled walls and a circular wrought-iron staircase. The menu translation leaves a little to be desired, offering prickled partridge, strongtastly pate, and veal meetballs (sic) in fermented juice of the drilled variety. But it’s tasty stuff – particularly the Catalan cheese selection.
The hotel jacuzzi instructions “kindly requests us not to switch on the engine until the water covers the six holes in order to avoid the entrance of wind.” I opt for a shower instead. Then it’s onto the bus to visit Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia. Some progress has been made since last seeing it over a decade ago, but not all of it is good. It is no longer possible to view it without cranes in view, and the building remains unfinished, despite significant private donations and entrance money. Some new features clash nastily with the old. The queue to go inside is untenable, so we settle for an outside view. The details are great, but you can’t help thinking they’d be better pulling out now and leaving it as it is.
We move on to the outstanding Park Guell. The famous tiled lizard greets us on the entrance steps, and every view is a multi-coloured tessellation, or a wonky pillar. Hypostyle columns contrast with dripping concrete. The sun comes out as the parakeets chatter overhead, affording a great view over the city.
Past the Pedralbes monastery, the university, the Neu Camp football stadium, along the Avenue Diagonal, and back to La Rambla. In the evening we dine at the renowned Siete Portes (seven doors) restaurant, established in 1836 and since frequented by Orson Welles and Winston Churchill. It’s a classic, well-established venue with worn tiled floors and, for the second time on this trip, ferociously bright lightning. Huge portions of paella dominate proceedings.
The next day is Christmas Day, and we head north of town for 25 minutes to a superb 17th century farmhouse called Can Travi Nou. Arriving at 1.30 we are pretty much the first there, but it fills up around us over the next hour or so, until two floors are filled with 300 people. The doors have been removed from the upstairs rooms to create huge niches, each booked by large family groups spanning all generations. The food comes fast and furious so we have to slow them down. Traditional broth with pasta shells, followed by cannelloni, then steak and a caramel sweet. Red and white wine and cava. It’s enough, and we roll home at 5pm, with a late stroll past the cathedral.
It’s Boxing Day and we’re back on the bus, but this time in blazing sunshine, and taking a westerly route from the Placa de Catalunya. The Estacio de Sants is a lakeside park with curious lighthouse buildings and a giant metal sculpture that doubles a waterslide. Joan Miro’s enormous multi-coloured tile statue is impressive, as is the enormous Place d’Espanya with its Venetian towers, bullring and Jujol monument. This leads uphill to the palatial Museo Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, and its great views over the city from Montjuic Park. The 1992 Olympic area remains impressive, and here you can take the Teleferic to the highest view.
Then it’s all downhill to the harbour, past the World Trade Center, and the Colum-Museu Maritim, where Columbus points authoritatively out to sea from on high. We hop off outside the History museum, which is housed in a renovated harbour warehouse. It’s time to sit in the sun outside the Emperador restaurant, eat seafood, drink the local Estrella Damm, and watch the promenaders – a mix of old women in fur coats, skateboarders, joggers, and dogs in bicycle baskets. We round off with a charming stroll through the tight streets of the old town, contrasting bright sun streaming through shady corners and the shadows cast by street musicians.
That evening we are fortunate to find the magnificent Catedral de Barcelona open. A walk inside reveals hundreds of people, some attending mass in the side chapels devoted to various saints. Here I witness for the first time electronic candles in presentation boxes. The more you pay, the more light up. One saint, Santa Maria, has one lonely light – clearly not that popular. It’s a grand ceiling, all set in a pleasantly clean square, populated by street artists blowing enormous bubbles and hurling fluorescent helicopters high into the night sky. We round off with excellent tapas in the Taverna del Bisbe, stroll round an art gallery, and retire for the night.
Barcelona is a top city. In the summer, one gravitates more to the waterline, but on this trip we have explored deep inland. Highlights include the farmhouse setting of Can Travi Nou, the madness of Gaudi architecture dotted around, Guell Park with its commanding views over the city, wandering around Barri Gotic, and eating seafood on the waterfront in the winter sun. A strong contender for one of the best cities in Europe.