The day we touched down in Barcelona preceded one of the most highly-charged days in the city’s calendar. Emotions were running high.
Barcelona were due to face their old rivals Real Madrid at the Nou Camp on the Sunday evening —an football match known as El Clasico.
The already colourful streets were peppered with maroon and blue shirts, Catalan flags were draped on every street vendor’s stall.
Barcelona has always been the scene of high drama. It was at the head of La Rambla, the city’s most famous tourist-heavy boulevard, packed with street performers and souvenir stands, that the opening shots rang out to start the Spanish Civil War in July 1936. The city was besieged by Franco until it fell in 1939.
Catalan nationalism still rages, the same opposition to traditionalism and bourgeois values is not just evident in the people you speak to, but in the city’s architecture, its art and the designers who flock here.
Design and architecture in Barcelona — exemplified by its most famous son Antoni Gaudi — is the external demonstration of the city’s personality. To understand how this legacy influences the modern bohemian Barcelona, tourists have to go deeper into the city than La Rambla.
The Gaudi trail is famous for his mosaics, drooping curves, orientalist influences and neo-gothic designs. In fact, Gaudi is the figurehead of Catalan Modernism. Those wanting to take in some of his masterpieces can begin at the Place Real, just off La Rambla, to see Gaudi’s eerie wrought-iron lampposts. Walk north to the Passeig de Gracia to see the awe-inspiring Casa Batilo, with its apple-shaped window sinking into concrete, and further along is La Pedrera,the apartment building with its soft grey concrete and twisted iron balconies. Many arrive at the Passeig de Gracia to see the Gaudi masterpieces and move on, perhaps to see his magnum opus, the still unfinished cathedral Sagrada Familia, or the serene, colourful Park Guell to spy his famous mosaic salamander.
But for those who stay around the Passeig de Gracia, there’s much to learn and buy, if you know where to go. Suzanne Wales, a local resident, describes the city as “one of the few where you really do wish you could pop that park bench or pot plant into your hand luggage”.
A design consultant and writer, Suzanne leads two-hour “Made In Barcelona” tours, explaining the technical skill of local designers, but also the Catalan inspiration and creativity. Highlights include a tour of Barcelona’s first design hotel, and a weaving walk around its surroundings, showing visitors the area’s art galleries and ateliers and some of the traditional hangouts of the Gauche Divine, the city’s post-Franco artistic movement that produced such-famous designers as Javier Mariscal and Oscar Tusquets.
At the design department store Vincon, “young designers queue round the block once a week to show their designs to Vincon,” Suzanna explained. The store has become famous for its bizarre window designs — at the time we visited it was a crazy display of men’s underwear shaped to look like Gaudi-style balconies. But inside is an Aladdin’s cave of exquisite lamps, furniture and kitchenware, all achingly modern and beautiful.
The building was once home of painter Ramón Casas, and spying his outdoor studio (now a gallery) is part of the appeal of visiting Vincon.
Across the street is Lladro, a Barcelona design institution whose hand-crafted porcelain figurines look like something your grandmother might have inherited from her grandmother. Ornamental pastoral scenes of shepherdesses and swans are not to everyone’s taste, something the masterminds at Lladro have caught on to, commissioning designer Jaime Hayon to create searingly modern and brightly coloured clowns, queens-of-hearts and fantasy creatures.
Nanimarquina is one of Barcelona’s most celebrated modern textile designers. Her store sells handcrafted rugs in a renovated parking garage close to the Passeig de Gracia. Designs include rubs made from tiny hand-crafted soft felt leaves in deep red or dark green and the exuberantly colourful Kala rug, developed using the drawings of Indian school children.
Barcelona Vintage Dream is another tour company which ferries visitors around the city in restored vintage cars. We began at the dizzy heights of our hotel, Hotel Miramar, perched on a hill above the city with breathtaking panoramas. With the wind in our hair and the sun glinting off the car’s polished chrome and lacquered paintwork, we whipped down into the city, stopping to take in the Olympic Stadium, built in 1929, but because of the tiny matter of the Spanish Civil War, the Games didn’t reach the city until 1992. The other sporting palace on our route was the Nou Camp, where fans were already gathering in the early morning sunshine, hoping to catch a glimpse of their teams, or even nab an El Clasico ticket off a tout for an inflated price.
We settle down for lunch at the Moritz brewery in the centre of the city, surrounded by brewing equipment behind glass panels, tucking into olives, manchego cheese and flammkuchens, thin Swiss-style pizzas.
As we drained our glasses and picked up our bags to head for the airport, it seemed like the city was close to fever pitch. But we missed the game.
This time, neither Barcelona nor Real Madrid came out on top, drawing 1-1. Next time, perhaps the Catalan masters will triumph.