Barcelona keeps its cool

The influx of tourists have done nothing to curb the quality of this stunning city

Cities are like rock stars. You discover them, you love them, you tell your mates about them, the whole world jumps on board, then suddenly you are not as keen as you once were. It happened 30 years ago with Supertramp and it has happened lately with Barcelona.

I first found my way to Barcelona when Columbus was knee-high to a periscope. Next thing you know, you cannot move for camera clicking cathedral gazers.

Barcelona’s magnificent 700-year old Cathedral is a rare treat. So rare, in fact, that no-one can see it, not from the front anyway, and it has been that way for almost three years now, the façade shrouded in scaffolding and what looks like Spain’s 1,000 largest dust sheets. It is an unholy mess and it disfigures an otherwise appealing plaza, though the rear aspect on Carrer De La Pietat remains a miracle of grace, serenity and unfettered beauty.

As cathedrals go this is the good news. Anton Gaudi’s more than faintly absurd Sagrada Familia, the symbol of Barcelona, is still not complete 125 years since the extravagant architect’s first line of cement was smoothed into place to a design so exacting that today’s workforce have little idea how to finish it off. It has been that way since Gaudi died in 1926.

Gaudi was a visionary; Europe’s own Frank Lloyd Wright. His rooftops are something else, the one atop the Casa Mila apartment building is like a coral reef, all slithering sea creatures, slinking mermaids and elaborate ironwork that resembles floating swathes of seaweed. Across the road, his Casa Battilo looks like a dragon with windows.

Gaudi is like Marmite; you love him or you loathe him, but no-one sits on the fence with the guy… Not that he ever designed a fence, though if he did he would have surely placed it in his blithely surreal Parc Guell, a colourful and imaginative explosion of gardening, gazebos and garishness. Suffice to say, when a gigantic ceramic dragon slithers down the stairway towards the entrance, guarded either side by a pair of gingerbread houses from which serpentine paths snake uphill to a vast city-view terrace bounded by a sinuously meandering patchwork balustrade-cum-bench, well, you know you’re not in Hendon.

So yes, I like Gaudi, and never mind the Sagrada saga, the Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony of property development and still several decades short of a finale.

Barcelona majors in parks and gardens and king of the hill is Montjuic, Barcelona’s local mountain, a rising sprawl of parkland, iconic stadiums and world class museums, amongst which the white-walled Fundacio Joan Miro stands in sublime contrast to the neighbouring colossus that is the Palau Nacional.

Never did two such strikingly different structures so gloriously dominate a mountain. With Montjuic’s arts and parks behind you, hop on one of the mountaintop cable cars and swing down to Port Vell on the city’s burgeoning waterfront.

From here you walk: Barcelona is one of the great walking cities of Europe, and anyone who says otherwise is talking out of his tapas. You can easily spend a whole day walking the backstreets of the Gothic Quarter and not once encounter a car, a bus or, for that matter, daylight.

The little backstreets of the city’s old quarter are implausibly narrow and atmospheric, and among them is the tiny Calle Marlet, where you will find the city’s ancient synagogue, discovered just 13 years ago and the oldest in Spain if not in Europe. From there, head to the tiny Placa Del Pi, which nestles peacefully by the side of the cloistered old Santa Mari Del Pi, another of Barcelona’s churches notable above all else for that heady melange of austerity and scaffolding.

Barely 100 yards east lies the seething and relentlessly touristy thoroughfare known as La Rambla.

Better by far to stay rooted to one of the comfy silver-blue chairs outside the Bar Del Pi, a fine place to sit and impose on the hospitality of the bar owner while nursing the one cappuccino through an entire afternoon under a sun that filters and flickers through overhanging branches and church roof gargoyles.

The joy of finding something new — new to me anyway — in a city you know well is incalculable.

This time in Barcelona I discovered Poble Espanyol, a vaguely pointless yet rather enchanting re-creation of much of Spain’s regional architecture, from the granite edifices of rain-swept Galicia to the sunny patios and orange trees of Andalucia, all contained within a facsimile of the walls and towers of the Avila Gate, and all of this in an area not much greater than an five-a-side football pitch.

My best discovery though was the newly opened and tastefully restrained Hotel AC Miramar. Goodness me, it’s a long time since I so enjoyed a hotel. The Miramar is way out on its own, literally.

It sits alone and aloof, high up Montjuic with a 360-degree cityscape view, a vista without equal in all of Barcelona, and one afforded every one of the hotel’s 75 individually designed rooms and suites.

The hotel is breathtaking, all muted colours and soft lighting, a gorgeous central atrium, an even more gorgeous spa (complete with Turkish bath), bedrooms you don’t want to leave, a huge bath, a walk-in monsoon shower and a hi-fi set-up that transforms your room into Carnegie-Hall-with-pillows.

Outside, every room has a private terrace complete with hot-tub and that drop-dead city view, while the back of the hotel has sculpted gardens, a seriously funky pool with the cutest recliners you ever saw, and a handsome colonnaded period façade to which has been welded an uber-cool modern extension.

The AC Miramar is a triumph, and its modest size and peaceful hillside setting ensures blissful respite from the hyper-active thrum of the city itself, the centre of which can be reached at gentle walking pace in around 20 minutes.


Jewish Barcelona

A prosperous and Jewish community lived in the city in the 13th century. The synagogue at 5 Calle Marlet can be visited on weekdays

Some 3,000 Jews live in Barcelona today.

There are Orthodox and Progressive synagogues, a mikveh, a Chabad-run kosher food service, Jewish community centres and a Jewish Travel Agency (0034 932 460 300).

Walks of the Jewish Quarter and to view Montjuic’s ancient Jewish burial sites can be arranged through Urban Cultours Project (0034 934 171 191; www.urbancultours.com)

    Last updated: 1:43pm, September 10 2008