The darkest days of the year can narrow your horizons far too easily sometimes, and in Britain we often have grey, gloomy weeks that stretch from the brooding storms of Autumn to the murky depths of winter. There’s no wonder we so often dream of warmer shores, seemingly scattered across the mainland all basking in sunshine and gentle sea breezes – they offer an alleviation from these seasonal blues. Take Barcelona, only two hours flight from London – and realistically only a few degrees more temperate – but proof that a few days away with a change of scenery can rejuvenate your summer self. From the salty ocean air through labyrinthine streets, to the teeming tapas bars and Gaudí treats, the city sweeps you into an embrace with its delectable feast - of sights, scents, tastes and beats.
During out stay, my girlfriend and I based ourselves in the bustling Barri Gòtic, often referred to as the ‘old quarter’ of Barcelona. This was ideal for location, as we were bordered by a stone’s throw to the west by La Rambla, the ever-popular boulevard-esque thoroughfare running from the Plaça de Catalunya down to the shoreline at Port Vell. Crammed with squawking street-sellers, over-priced café’s and countless market stalls, a meander along here is not to be missed – especially if you can squeeze your way into the pulsating Mercat de la Boquiera. Host to perhaps the city’s most popular selection of fresh fruit, vegetables, fish, meat, tapas, chocolates, pastries and more, the vibrant collision of sounds and smells produces a chaotic yet colourful atmosphere. Further down La Rambla lies Plaça Reial, a reasonably small but delightful plaza centred around a humble fountain, and awash with bars and restaurants – an ideal retreat to return to for a late afternoon mojito. For some lighter relief we also visited L’Aquarium, located over the harbour towards Barceloneta, which houses an impressive collection as well as slightly anomalous group of Humboldt penguins.
Further to the west of the city centre, a pleasant day out can be spent atop of Montjuïc, a hill that plays host to range of sights. For those – like us – that didn’t find the ascent by foot too appealing, the Metro runs a short funicular service that takes care of the initial climb. From the upper station it’s then possible to ride the Telefèric de Montjuïc – a cable car – to the summit, from where you can explore the 18th century fortress, or delve into the maze of paths that lead to museums, monuments and the Olympic stadium that was the centre of the 1992 Games. The variety of well-kept gardens provide numerous sun-traps, ideal for a picnic and a couple of hours spent lazing away.
We found ourselves also often heading east from Barri Gotic, into the district known as La Ribera. One area in particular, El Born, had a wonderful range of authentic, charismatic bars and eateries, most of them in orbit of the Passeig del Born, the central boulevard. Over the course of a few visits we thoroughly enjoyed organic Catalonian tapas, numerous crêpes, and as many perfectly-mixed mojitos. The walk returning from El Born also passes the Iglesia de Santa Maria del Mar, an immense Gothic construction that seemed best visited late evening – flickering candles and hushed silence abounded. Although La Catedral, another towering architectural accomplishment located in Barri Gotic, is worth the visit, I would personally recommend the former – the crowds are far less plentiful.
Undoubtedly, no visit to Barcelona would be complete without at least one foray into the fantastical world of Antoni Gaudí. His extravagant yet elegant creations are scattered across the city, ranging from his first commission of designing the lamp posts in the modest Plaça Reial, to his extraordinary, unfinished masterpiece, that of La Sagrada Familia. For those that wish to venture into perhaps the most spectacular place of worship in the country, it would appear to be a major advantage to book online as we did, and skip the snaking queues. The few extra euros to ascend the towers is also money well spent, as you’re rewarded with extensive views across the rooftops and spires of Barcelona, and an additional perspective on Gaudí’s divine and detailed designs. We followed the Sagrada by moving up into the hills, and spent the afternoon exploring perhaps his most other renowned conception, Park Güell. Originally constructed as a gated community for the city’s elite, it is nowadays anything but, with the winding paths and whimsical creations combining to form a playground for all ages. Be sure not to miss the magnificent kaleidoscopic mosaics, inlaying everything from curvaceous benches to the celebrated salamander, or ‘El Drac’ as he is sometimes known.
Although the weather during our stay in Barcelona was at times as glib as back home, being abroad makes you feel far more resilient. With such a fantastic selection of cuisine, culture, cocktails and curiosities, the dark days took a back seat – and when the skies are balmy blue and the sun shines through, spring truly doesn’t seem so far away. Salut!