There has been an upsurge in Barcelona’s popularity, and the word has been spreading that it is a greater than ever place to visit. And no wonder. The city has its own distinctive personality, reflecting the Catalan tradition and offering a city with a beauty that reminds one to some extent of Paris. Given the influx of tourists, Barcelona has a cosmopolitan feeling, and my wife and I, revisiting it after a substantial lapse since our last trip, were newly enchanted.
The city is ripe for rediscovery. It abounds in good restaurants, fine shops, the ever-fascinating architecture of Antoni Gaudi, the appealing Joan Miró museum and new developments. It is also a convenient spot for sightseeing day trips to major attractions, such as the Salvador Dali museum at Figueres.
It is important to choose a good, strategically located hotel. Our choice, based on a friend’s recommendation, was the Hotel Majestic, located in the popular, elegant Passeig de Gràcia. The accommodations were attractive and comfortable, the hotel personnel were helpful in making reservations and the dining facilities were pleasing. The hotel has a small rooftop pool, and it is possible to lounge there in the afternoons and enjoy the view, or go there for drinks and a nighttime view in the evening.
Just as we left, the hotel was being primed for a month-long renovation. The special cigar bar was temporarily converted to the reception area while the regular reception area was being redone. We also explored other hotel possibilities, such as the luxurious Hotel Palace, also convenient although more expensive, but the main lobby area looked rather staid when we checked it out and had a drink there.
A totally different hotel experience is available at Port Olympic, where the new Hotel Arts exists as an aftermath of the area’s development for the 1992 Olympic Games. It is ultra modern but when we visited it we found that it doesn’t give off the charm one finds at an older hotel, although it has a large pool and other available amenities. When Woody Allen shot a film in Barcelona in 2007, the production used the Hotel Arts, as it was the only place that could conveniently accommodate such a large entourage. But it is inconveniently away from the action in the heart of the city.
So much for where to stay. It is what you see in Barcelona that counts. We were fortunate to have the services of a superb guide made available to us by the Tourist Office of Spain. Monica Sanchez arrived at our lobby at exactly the appointed time, and she proceeded to spend a good part of the day showing us around the city. Foremost are the remarkable structures created by the great visionary architect Gaudi (1852-1926), who was far ahead of his time in design and in blending his creativity with utility. Ms. Sanchez took us to the Gaudi’s renowned Park Guell, and also to the enormous La Sagrada Familia cathedral that he started but didn’t finish before his death.
A construction program has been under way to complete the cathedral according to Gaudi’s plans, but it has been a huge, expensive task. Much progress has been made since our previous visit to Barcelona, and Ms. Sanchez said that present estimates are that it will take about another five years. I wouldn’t hold your breath. While we surveyed the exciting work accomplished so far, the challenge was still evident.
Ms. Sanchez suggested that we go to two Gaudi apartment buildings near our hotel on our own, as those were readily available for exploration at our leisure, and that is what we subsequently did. We marveled at how creative Gaudi was in designing apartment rooms and also roof space for views of the city.
Ms. Sanchez took us to various sections of Barcelona, including Las Ramblas, the long mall lined with various kiosks and shops. One very impressive experience was our visit to a humongous covered market off Las Ramblas, with fresh foods of every variety—fish, meats, vegetables, fruit—and all sorts of snack opportunities. Late morning it was overflowing with people doing their shopping chores.
But I have to say that much of the Ramblas has deteriorated since a previous visit, when we were impressed by all of the bookstalls and an overall more artistic look. Now, it unfortunately resembles a cheap shopping district. Still it is definitely one of the Barcelona areas to experience.
Ms. Sanchez was well-versed in giving us the background of the various parts of Barcelona, including churches, parks, the waterfront, shopping districts—everything one likes to know about a city, and she is as pleasant as she is efficient.
On our own we visited the Picasso Museum, which had quite a tourist line waiting to enter. (We chatted with a newlywed couple visiting Barcelona for the first time and standing in front of us.) The museum is not a huge one, but it contains a remarkable collection of Picasso’s work that gives us an idea of his versatility from an early age. We also visited the Joan Miró Foundation (Fundación Joan Miró), where one can enjoy the painter’s imaginative use of color and shapes.
We went to Barcelona armed with all sorts of restaurant recommendations, more than one could possibly sample in one visit. Near our hotel was Cerveceria Catalana, Carrer Mallorca 236, one of the places renowned for tapas, where we could sample a wide variety of foods in small portions. We found excellent fish at the unpretentious, frequented by locals La Barca del Pescador, Mallora 314, and we dined at Tragaluz, Passage de la Concepcio 5, where the dishes reflected creative ideas in contemporary Spanish cooking. One place we didn’t enjoy was Els Quatre Gats, famous as a past haunt of noted art and literary figures, including Picasso, but now mainly a tourist attraction. It is worth visiting for a drink and a look for its history, but the food was mediocre and doesn’t compare with what’s available elsewhere. We very much enjoyed Els Pescadors, Plaça Prim 1 in the Barceloneta district. By the way, menus are written in Catalonian as the first language, as well as in Spanish, and often in English, French or German.
From the available day tours by bus we chose one that first covered the city of Girona and then moved on to the Dali Museum. The Catalunya Bus Turistic service was comfortable and efficient, and we had a good guide. Girona is a fascinating city, where we explored the historic old town. One of the main attractions is The Monastery of Sant Pere De Galligants, which now houses the Archeological Museum and constitutes a complex that people visit to see an example of Catalan Romanesque architecture.
Other favorite sites in Girona include the so-called Arab Baths, a Romanesque building dating to the 12th century, which had functioned as a public bathhouse, the Church of Sant Nicolau, and The Convent of Sant Domènic, a 13th century building and one of the first Dominican convents founded in Catalonia.
One of the most interesting areas is the old Jewish quarter, which had an important historical function dating to the Middle Ages, when Girona was the center for the study of the Kaballah. Jewish life flourished there prior to the expulsion of Jews from Spain in the 15th century--unless they converted to Catholicism.
From there we proceeded to Dali’s city, Figueres, but not before a long wait for an irresponsible member of the tour who didn’t make it back to the bus at the appointed hour and said he got lost in the town. He never did join us, informing the guide who went looking for him that he was remaining in Girona.
The Dali Theater-Museum contains some of the prized works by the celebrated surrealist artist, and they are displayed appealingly. Dali (1804-1989) is also entombed there in a room one approaches reverentially. Adjacent to the artworks is a building housing the Dali jewel collection, consisting of about 39 original jewels and the drawings or paintings made by Dali for their design.