Richard Baker visited the Catalan city and seaport, and saw the best and the worst it has to offer - including a near mugging!
All cities have their good and bad sides – and Barcelona is no exception.
The upsides are many and obvious in this great Catalan Mediterranean seaport – hundreds of excellent restaurants, a vibrant clubbing scene and eye-catching – if sometimes quirky – architecture to name just a few.
But the bad side can’t be ignored either, and it is rampant, low-level street crime which plagues significant areas of this otherwise attractive city, and with which my wife and I had an uncomfortably close encounter.
But let’s start with the good things about Barcelona, and they are on public display as soon as you set foot in the place. Long, arrow-straight avenues criss-cross the city which is designed on a grid system. If walking’s your thing you can explore to your heart’s content armed with a reliable street map – but use it unobtrusively, as I shall explain later.
Points of interest include the work of the modernista architects. A century ago, Barcelona’s bourgeoisie vied with each other in commissioning evermore extravagant apartment blocks. The most extraordinary of these ornament the aptly named Manzana de la Discordia (Block of Discord) on Passeig de Gracia. These buildings wouldn’t look out of place in a Disney movie and add a surreal charm to the city.
Of course, no visit to Barcelona would be complete without a good look round the Nou Camp. For non-soccer lovers, this is FC Barcelona’s breathtaking, 98,000-seat stadium. Under the terraces a museum features some of the club’s trophies and film footage of magic football moments.
Talking of museums, Barcelona has exhibitions on everything from perfume to natural sciences to art, including one dedicated to Picasso. He came to live in Barcelona at the age of 14 and was a frequent visitor to the city until the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) saw him flee to exile in France.
When you’ve had enough culture to work up an appetite, you’re spoilt for choice on where to eat. There really is something to suit every taste, and your biggest problem will be where to go.
In hotels, breakfast may be included in the plan, otherwise, head for a bar or cafe. Most locals go for a cafe con leche (milky coffee) and croissant for their first bite of the day, but flautas (French bread sticks) filled with cheese and charcuterie are nearly always available. But for a Catalan take on a good old British fry up, order platos combinados, which are combinations of fried eggs with bacon, sausages and tomatoes.
Lunch, the main meal of the day in these parts, is served between 2pm and 4pm. Most restaurants serve a fixed-price, menu of the day, which is often excellent value.
Dinner starts after 9pm and continues until midnight, though tourist-orientated restaurants open as early as 8pm.
We were on a short visit, so our personal experience is limited to just a handful of restaurants, but I would recommend L’Amora, a friendly, reasonably priced Catalan eatery on Avinguda del Para-lel, and Libentia on Corgega, which offers superbly-cooked, international cuisine.
There are many more, and if you like seafood head for Port Vell, which has been transferred from a run-down industrial dock area into a waterside pleasure zone with enough bars and restaurants to keep even the most demanding of hedonists happy.
A good way to get a panoramic view of the port area is to take a cable car up to La Castell de Manjuic, which is now a military museum. My wife and I did it the hard way, on foot, but it was worth the effort for the fantastic vista spread out beneath us.
Even better is the view from the slopes of Tibidabo, the huge peak towering behind the city, from where there are views over the whole of Barcelona.
After dark, the city becomes a clubbers’ paradise, with frequent visits by internationally famous DJs, as well as plenty of homegrown talent and a constantly evolving scene. Clubs and bars open and close frequently, so look out for flyers and check the listings in local guides and newspapers.
Sooner or later, most people head for Las Rambla. During the day, Barcelona’s famous promenade hosts a busy market and scores of street entertainers, but at night becomes the ideal place for a leisurely stroll before settling down at a pavement cafe for a drink to watch the world go by.
However, it’s also a magnet for pickpockets, and as a tourist you’ll be their number one attraction. Also, stay on the main road as the side streets off Las Rambla are notorious for thefts and muggings.
And this is very much the bad side of Barcelona, as I could personally testify within 10 seconds of setting foot in the city.
On arriving, we took a bus from the airport to Placa d’Espania which was near hotel where we were staying. I got off at our stop carrying two suitcases – and might as well have had a sign on my forehead saying "tourist”. One of the local sleazebags immediately saw me and fell in behind us, before spitting – yes spitting – on my shoulder. At first I thought it was bird droppings, but then my wife , who had seen him do it, told me what had happened. Seeing I’d rumbled him, the guy cleared off.
It seems this is a common trick. The idea is to get the victim to stop to clean off the bird mess. Then the thief comes up and “helps”. In reality, of course, he’ll be helping himself to your money, passport or anything else he can get his sticky hands on.
Anyway, we didn’t fall for it, and found our way to the four-star Hotel Fira Palace Barcelona in the Montjuic district. It was a decent, if rather expensive place to stay. The restaurant was average at best, although it did boast a good basement spa complete with a well-equipped gym and a swimming pool.
However, there is accommodation to suit all pockets in Barcelona, ranging from self-catering holiday apartments, to hostels and right up to luxury hotels, such as the Gran Hotel La Florida. A good 20 minutes out of town, this place just oozes class, from its designer suites, outdoor lap pool and stunning city views.
So we’ve looked at the good and the bad of Barcelona; how about the ugly? Well, there’s only one candidate for this rather dubious honour in my opinion, and it’s the Sagradi Familia, architect Antoni Gaudi’s grand temple of the Holy Family.
To say this bizarre structure isn’t to everyone’s taste is something of an understatement. For instance, the writer George Orwell thought it one of the ugliest buildings he’d ever seen, and wondered why the anarchists hadn’t wrecked it during the civil war. Personally, I’m with George on this one.
To sum up, Barcelona has something for everyone – but watch your wallet.