Barcelona – The Catalan Capital

Along with Las Vegas and Berlin, Barcelona was one of the three cities I was most looking forward to visiting on our travels. Rich in history, but better known as a vibrant modern international city – it certainly has something for everyone. My introduction to the place was via the 1992 Olympics . I remember watching the Spanish archer firing the Olympic flame into the cauldron, and a fascination was born.

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Arriving at the airport and things were off to a good start. Thanks to my degree and career I’m always interested in how global cities present themselves via the architecture and construction of their airport. I haven’t been to Singapore, Dubai or some of the new Chinese super airports, but out of the 40 or so I have been to – Barcelona is a clear winner. Which is handy, cause we would be back here five more times on this trip.

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A melting pot city of 4 million inhabitants is always going to have its undesirable element, but we’d read that things had degenerated significantly since the global financial crisis. With Spain on the brink and unemployment at record highs, Barcelona had become a mecca for petty thieves. A handful of articles and travel guides had referred to it as the ‘Pick-pocket Capital of the World’. Particularly along the famous La Rambla – a long tree-lined street filled with restaurants and bars that links the centre of the city with the beach. Having been to Paris, Madrid and Lisbon before this, we already had the radar jammed at the highest level.

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We had rented an awesome studio apartment in a quiet street close enough to La Rambla, but also far enough away. It was a perfect sanctuary to escape the hustle and bustle at the end of the day, even if we had to climb 120 stairs each time. We took an afternoon walking tour on our first full day to get an introduction to the city and its history. This covered the Old City, Jewish Quarter, Roman remains and introduced us to the two most important things in Barcelona – the State of Catalunya and Antoni Guadi.

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Barcelona is the capital of Catalunya – an historic state and former kingdom in its own right. Before it joined with the western parts of modern day Spain it had been a very prosperous part of Europe for many centuries. It was also known to be a favourite of the Romans due to its sparkling seaside location. Its people were and continue to be very parochial about their patch of land, language and traditions. For most of them, it is Catalunya first and Spain second. This is none more noticeable than the fact that signs for public transport are generally in three languages – Catalan, Spanish and English. With the economic problems facing Spain, this feeling has grown ever-stronger. Catalunya has maintained its status as the wealthiest and most prosperous state and there is a feeling that local tax dollars are being funnelled out to prop up the rest of the country – in particular the ailing capital Madrid. There is a growing percentage of people who want Catalunya to free themselves from Spain and become an independent state. The logistics of this are almost impossible in the current climate, but nonetheless a very interesting situation that I knew nothing about.

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If you haven’t been to Barcelona or completed an Architecture degree then chances are you’ve never heard of Antoni Guadi. But his story and influence are inescapable in Barcelona. Your average walking tour guide will talk about him for about half an hour and take you to a few examples of his work. Failing that you can do the three hour Guadi tour that takes you across the city. We ended up doing both to see what the fuss is about, and it was well worth it.

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Guadi was an eccentric conservative Catholic Architect who lived in Catalunya through the late 19th and early 20th century. He moved to Barcelona and started work for the city’s council designing street lights and small public spaces. This lasted less than three months, before he was sacked for ‘ill-conceived designs’ that were too expensive for the city. Guadi had a love for the quirky, shying away from straight lines and plain facades. Eventually he would find a niche working for wealthy Catalans on private housing projects. Each owner giving him a blank cheque to out-do his previous effort to (hopefully) become the most prominent address in Barcelona.

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But all this was small change leading up to his most outrageous project – La Sagrada Familia Basilica. Not only did Guadi not survive to see its completion (he was hit by a tram in 1926), but there is still an estimated 19 years work remaining today. With no financial backing from the Catholic Church, the project has ebbed and flowed via donations from the city and general public. Guadi himself deemed it a ‘church for the sinners’ because they were the ones paying for it. Words cannot describe this place, so I’ll let the pictures do it. I have no doubt that when it is completed it will be the greatest basilica, church or cathedral on the planet.

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The internal areas are almost complete and provide a stunning visual spectacle for the thousands of tourists who pass through each day. Thankfully we did our research and got onto the online ticket purchase to save the 2 to 3 hour line. It’s amazing how many people must look up the tourist attractions of a city and do absolutely no further reading. We walked up to the priority entry that was empty except for an employee waiting to open the door and scan our tickets. We paid a little extra to take a lift up one of the almighty spires for stunning views across Barcelona.

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The next day we popped down to La Rambla to check out the La Bouqeria Food Markets. Although set up to steal the tourist dollar, it is still an amazing place with just about everything you could want. At the back are a handful of pop-up tapas bars and restaurants that purchase the food from inside the market and cook it up for you. Getting a seat can be tough during the day, but is worth waiting for. We end up back there a couple of times during the week.

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Walking the length of La Rambla to the beach was a huge surprise. Whenever you see Barcelona on TV it is always the Old City or the old Olympic venues. But the beach is amazing considering its proximity to the city centre. It is a hive of activity and with some beautiful Spring weather, the locals are out in force taking advantage of it. And for a notable percentage of those on the sand, that means taking it all off to soak up as much sun as possible. The stunning Spanish women are tempered by 60-something men whose battered skin suggests they’ve done this every year for the last 60.

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From the beach we also take a cable car up to the beautiful Park Guell on one of the surrounding hills. This is famous for being designed by Antoni Guadi as an opulent private estate for wealthy Catalans, but ended up only housing Guadi, his Accountant and one other buyer. Since then the city has turned it into an amazing open space for locals and visitors alike.

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Over the weekend we were lucky enough to be there for Barcelona’s ‘Night of the Museums’ – a Saturday night extravaganza where all museums and art galleries are open to the public for free. One of the better ones we ventured into includes an entire excavated area under the museum where they have managed to dig down and find old Roman streets still intact.

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On the Sunday night Karina and I part ways for the first time on our trip. I hop on the train with the masses and head to Camp Nou, the enormous home ground of Barcelona FC. For about the last decade Barcelona have been the benchmark of world football lead by talisman Lionel Messi – the best player on the planet. They might not be as famous as Manchester United or have the record of Real Madrid, but their overarching footballing philosophy and way they bring through juniors has left everyone scrambling to catch up. Coincidentally in line with Spain’s dominance at international level.

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Camp Nou holds just under 90’000 making it slightly bigger than Sydney’s Olympic Stadium and slightly smaller than the MCG. Unfortunately the heavens open on the way to the ground and a light drizzle pervades for most of the match. Surprisingly this keeps away a big portion of the crowd with a least a third of the stadium empty. It’s a comfortable win for the home side and confirmation that they take back the title from their rivals Real Madrid.  Amazingly through the first half of our trip I’ve managed to catch the Miami Heat, Manchester United and now Barcelona FC on their way to championship glory. Better than I could ever have hoped.

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On our second last night we head out to sample the local nightlife. Barcelona is definitely slanted more towards bars than 4000 capacity superclubs. Winding through the back streets of the Old City, we end up at a gin bar called ‘Rubi Bar’ – currently the Trip Advisor #1 for nightlife. Whilst Trip Advisor is phenomenal at tipping you into quality restaurants or weeding out the ordinary hotels, I don’t usually trust it for nightlife. This section is usually littered with narrow minded people who turn up to the wrong place, with the wrong crowd, and quickly run home to complain about the bartenders, security, price of drinks etc. But on this occasion they are spot on.

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We wander through a quiet lane of the old town arriving fairly early by Spanish standards and take up at the bar. Turns out the bartenders are the joint owners – a couple of Brits who came to Barcelona chasing women and sunshine and never left. Their specialty is the dozen or so home-distilled flavoured gins on the wall behind the bar. These range from your standard fruit flavours to more quirky options like Olive & Cinnamon. Over the ensuing three hours we try the lot, and in the process become gin aficionados.

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Despite the place filling up the owners are more than happy to chat and impart their knowledge about gin, Barcelona and life in general. They don’t hide away from the fact that Australians are their favourite customers – simply because in the tough economic climate Australians are the most likely to come, try something different and empty their wallets. Which is exactly what we have done. I’m not sure if this is a compliment for us helping or continued definition of the drunken Australian stereotype. The opposite end of the spectrum are the locals who will come and sit for hours and sip on their first drink purchase.

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The next morning, complete with gin hangover, we prepare to say farewell to Barcelona by taking in a few more beautiful parks and public spaces. Seven days hasn’t felt like enough and we promise ourselves a return one day in the baking summer months. I had placed big expectations on the city and it had delivered in spades. In another time we might have even packed up and moved here, but life is tough in Spain right now making us appreciate what we have back home.

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Aaron

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