Barcelona – Home of the Greats

Picasso painted in it, Gaudi built in it, and Lionel Messi is showed the world how to play football in it... Bernard Johnston visited one of Europe’s great city break destinations 

Artistic great Picasso painted in it. Architectural great Gaudi built in it. And one of the worlds greatest soccer teams, which also bears its name,plays in it – Barcelona!

Lesser known is the fact that its famous central boulevard, the Rambla, was once a Venice style canal running down to the Mediterranean sea – complete with gondolas!

The Tapas phenomenon grew from a habit of putting covers over drinks glasses in hot Barca bars to keep flies at bay – with morsels of FREE food atop for customers to eat.

And then there’s the historic tale of a local lady out to lunch in the most palatial of ecclesiastical of surroundings with the bishop of Barcelona – and his sausage!

A great companion on any visit to the capital of Catalonia is one of the international best-sellers by Barcelona novelist Carlos Ruis Zafon, a great advert for his birth city.

His ‘Shadow Of The Wind’, is a, moving, mysterious and intriguing tale woven into the fabric of Barcelona of the 30s, 40s and 50s, with a backdrop of the Spanish Civil War.

The author says the city is at its best in October when the burning heat of the summer has been replaced with pleasant but still hot autumnal sunshine. He is so right.

Still a short sleeves and sun-tan cream time-of-the-year, it’s an ideal month to set about exploring a city which is a to-be-proud-of jewel in any Mediterranean crown.

That task is made easy by Barcelona’s highly organised network of bus and walking tours. Their expert guides really do let the bus take the fuss andthe walk do the talk.

All the tours leave from the water fountain featuring spectacular Placa de Catalunya, one of the city’s main squares – at the top of the bustling tourism mecca the Rambla.

There are three hop-on-hop-off open top bus routes, the red, blue and green lines, which pass all of the attractions on offer. Day tickets are 21 Euro, two days, 27 Euro.

The ‘Bus Turistic’ quickly has its first close call with the work of one of the most famous architects of all time. A usual initial reaction can be summed up like this. Wow!

The turn-of-the century city’s father of ‘modernisme’, Antoni Gaudi, and the homes he built in a tree lined, ornate street lamped Gracia area leave most people stunned.

One is the Casa Batllo, built for his wealthy patrons the Batllo family. It is almost unfathomable in many ways, that it is a creation of our own stern Edwardian times.

Its rounded rooms, curved corners, crazily coloured chimneys, terrazzo techni-colour and mezzanine magic are more Disney than destined to fit in with the conformist era.

The undulating undertone and wave effect are intended to recreate the world of Jules Verne’s underwater adventurer Captain Nemo – who in fact does feature in Disneyland.

But, if Gaudi grabs attention with his unusual house building skills, his cathedral, which soon comes into view on the tourist trail – leaves the unsuspecting visitor gobsmacked.

The Sagrada Familia shakes any concept of church architecture to its foundations as the collective sharp intake of tourist breath indicates as it looms large over the bus.

Forget Notre Dame, St Peter’s or St Paul’s, this is a structure which sets Barcelona well and truly apart from the great cathedral attractions of Paris, Rome or London.

Heralded as Gaudi’s lifelong dream it is more a dreamlike inspired structure with its amazing collection of incredibly unusual spires reaching for the blue Barcelona sky.

Over 100 years in the making so far, its building continues long after Gaudi’s untimely demise under a tram in 1926, although the interior is scheduled to be finished this year.

Could it be this stuff of Gaudi’s dreams inspired Walt’s theme park centrepiece, the Disney Castle. Missing only is Tinkerbell sprinkling her fairy dust in a night sky above.

Gaudi’s next masterpiece on the tour is the hill-top Park Guell with its incredible views over the vast expanse of the city of Barcelona, its very large port and beaches below.

Intended to herald a new architectural dawn it was planned to be a novel English homes and gardens development but failed miserably and only the showhouse was built.

Its inspiration lived modestly here in the amazingly laid out grounds of the park, in a property which now acts as a museum to Gaudi’s life of architectural achievements.

This home of a ‘modernisme’ great gives way to one of modern greats, sporting ones like Cruyff, Maradona, and Ronaldinho, at the legendary soccer ground – the Camp Nou.

The home of the more than century old world soccer institution, Barcelona, has a trophy room bursting with silverware including the European Champion’s League Cup.

Jealous Man United fans can pose for a photo with the trophy which Barca so easily took from them last year – sadly for them still now adorned with Barca colours.

This 1950s built, 100,000 fan holding theatre of dreams was to be named after a legendary club president but Spain’s dictator Franco forbade it as he was a Protestant!

Barcelona’s bus tours take visitors to a host of attractions, fascinating museums, historic Gothic buildings, the zoo, aquarium, port and beach – the list is almost endless.

Among the other must see destinations are the dizzy heights reached by the Montjuic cable car with the breathtaking views of a city and its cruise liner packed port below.

A glass of beer at the historic hill-top castle offers a break before descending to the city the quick way – down the mountainside funicular railway which links with the Metro.

Another great way to see Barcelona is on foot, with its choice of five informative guided tours, which again leave from the Placa de Catalunya, and cost 12 to 18 Euro.

One ‘Barcelona Walk’ follows in the footsteps of artistic legend, Picasso, and his early bohemian life and times in the city over a nine year period from about 1895 to 1904.

An early treat is a visit to Els Quatre Gats restaurant and bar where the painter socialised with other intellectuals, hosted his first exhibition and drew a famous menu.

The walking tour also takes in Picasso’s only piece of public art in the city, his three friezes about the Mediterranean on the façade of the Architects’ Association building.

But the highlight comes at the end, with a tour of the atmospheric Picasso Museum, which hosts a real treasure trove of incredible work from his youth and later.

It is amazing to think that he was doing important portrait commissions, like those by Renaissance greats like Holbein, da Vincy or Michelangelo – as a young teenager.

An art novice assumes this became too easy and he nurtured his cubist style, with different sides to his subjects, including women whose company he craved – in brothels!

The gourmet tour is very different, taking in the sights, sounds and smells of Barcelona’s historic markets, coffee and sweet shops and, of course, Tapas bars.

The guide speaks perfect English via radio linked headphones, while holding an unusual marker in the air in the hot sun, so no-one loses her in the dense crowds – an umbrella.

An explosion of colour greets the party in the covered Mercat de La Boqueria, off La Rambla, which has been selling almost all types of international food since the 1830s.

People pack into the complex like the proverbial sardines on sale at one of its many stalls. Guide members are treated to a tasty selection of local fruits on a short stop.

Another stop is at one of the city’s famous ‘Granges’ or cafes, specialising in traditional cakes and dairy lines, like thick hot chocolate topped with whipped cream.

In days gone by many of these Granges, like that at Carrer de Petritxol, off La Rambla, had an unusual but useful attraction actually inside their premises – a cow.

Legend says a sweet sausage delicacy, still sold in the city, was created centuries ago by a local bishop’s concerned staff to sicken a solitary lunch guest – a woman!

The tour ends in style with a price inclusive taste bud tantalising lunch in a packed to the doors Tapas bar in the 19th century Mercat der Santa Caterina, an old convent.

Strangers soon chat. ‘We’re the Jacksons from Jacksonville, Florida,’ say one couple. ‘We’re the Johnstons, not from Johnstonville, but Holywood, Ireland,’ reply another.

The Johnstons stay, not in one of the city’s fine hotels but a fraction-of-the-price, hidden jewel apartment in the heart of the city’s old Gothic quarter, off the Rambla.

Overlooking the memorable Placa George Orwell there is nothing 1984 about the free spirited students who pack out its cafes and bars below. Even the ‘winos’ entertain.

In fact impromptu entertainment is never far away. Lunch in the sun in the nearby Placa Reial soon turns into a ringside view of a show – by a troupe of passing acrobats!

As for restaurants, there are thousands to choose from. But you can’t beat a teatime drink in a popular Tapas bar with dozens of amazing snacks to choose from.

It is said that drinking from an antique fountain in the colourful street artist and bird market attracting world famous Rambla guarantees a return to Barcelona.

But visitors will always get a taste for this city and want to sample moreof what it has to offer. With flights from Belfast for as little as £60 return the price is right.

For more information about Barcelona contact the local tourist board, Barcelona Turisme, at