The friendliest city in Europe is one that opens its arms to all–to the creative wanderers who come to enjoy its fine cuisine and outstanding architecture, to the artists and visionaries who call it home, and to the proud Catalan people who consider themselves something apart from the rest of Spain. Yes, the friendliest city in Spain, indeed all of Europe, is Barcelona.
In Barcelona, an individual can be who he or she wants. Why such tolerance? One suggested reason is that the Catalonians themselves have had to fight for many years to preserve their native culture and identity from the overwhelming forces of the Spanish government and the Catholic Church. With a long history of oppression and hardship, the Catalonians are making up for lost time, and as a result, there is a degree of openness and creativity not found in other cities.
The city and its people are no doubt best summed up by art critic Robert Hughes who characterizes the people as those with an intermixture of “seny” (common sense) and “rauxa” (uncontrolled emotion).
Antoni Gaudi and His Influence
Perhaps no other architect is so identified with a city and its wild possibilities as Antoni Gaudi, whose legendary cathedral, Sagrada Familia, is a fairy tale castle drawing more than 2 million visitors a year. Never completed (despite more than 40 years’ work by Gaudi), its elaborate Nativity façade, for example, features more than 80 types of plants in its detail.
Other architectural works of Gaudi’s worth seeking out include Casa Batllo, a house designed by the maestro, whose exterior is an homage to the patron saint of Barcelona, St. George. Slayer of the famous dragon, St. George’s story is interwoven in the undulating scaly roof, and the columns, which emanate bones. The interior is a liquid world of rounded windows and doors, with aqua tiles that make one feel nearly under the sea.
Casa Mila is Gaudi’s surrealistic apartment building with cave-like features and serpentine balconies. Topped with an unusual roof deck dotted with white chimneys and ventilators so unusual in looks, it is said they were inspiration for the Darth Vader mask in “Star Wars.”
Gaudi is not the only artist to grace the city. This is a city of Picasso, Miro, and Salvador Dali, too. And, strangely enough, Mies van der Rohe whose Barcelona Pavilion (also called the German Pavilion) is a serene counterpoint to Gaudi’s effervescence.
City of Las Ramblas
Barcelona is a city designed for walking, strolling, interacting with people, enjoying a respite with some tapas and drinks when tired from all that walking. So important is strolling, chatting, and being seen (an inherent part of the culture) that Las Ramblas is an institution in the city, a pedestrian promenade that connects a series of streets from Plaza de Catalunya to the statue of Christopher Columbus. Evenings and Sundays are the time for leisurely strolls by Catalans, and everyone else is welcome as well.
Dotted with palm trees, plazas with fountains and benches, and lots of open air cafes, Barcelona is a city designed to encourage people to go out into the community where they will interact, not remain hidden away at home behind closed doors. There are also plenty of open-air markets, like Boqueria, with its fresh fish, vegetables and fruit, as well as plenty of parks and plazas.
Moreover, the city’s importance as a port has lent it a natural excuse to welcome people to its shores, whether it’s returning explorers like Columbus in 1493 or sailors on leave while their ships dock.
Innovation and New Cuisine
Today, Barcelona and Catalan cuisine have taken center stage on the culinary landscape. Arguably one of the world’s most famous chefs is superstar Ferran Adria, whose restaurant El Bulli, requires reservations must be booked years in advance.
Not to worry, there are plenty of alternate dining options from tapas in local bars to Barceloneta, an elegant seaside restaurant featuring fresh Mediterranean catch. Senyor Parallada near El Barri is another good choice, with its roasted lamb and creamy potatoes. Or for an innovative take on local dishes, try another good choice, El Jardi, a café tucked among orange trees in the courtyard of a once-famous hospital.
Where to Stay in Barcelona
Among the endless possibilities, Hotel Arts Barcelona is an excellent choice for staying in the city. It is close to attractions such as the Picasso Museum, Las Ramblas, and plenty of nightlife. With stunning views of the city or the sea (depending on the room), this is the good life, Barcelona-style. Another great choice is Neri Hotel in the Gothic Quarter. Located in a refurbished building from long ago, the hotel is a mixture of ancient and avant gard, and very luxurious. Even for those traveling the pension/B&B circuit (as in my own early travel days to Barcelona), there are plenty of choices with Barcelona charm. Pension Dali in the Gothic Quarter, not far from Gaudi’s Palau Guell, is a good choice for those with more limited accommodation funds.
No matter where a traveler stays, eats, or rambles, there is one thing of which he or she can be certain, Barcelona will welcome them with open arms. It’s a vibrant city, full of energy and openness, a place designed for going out and enjoying all the charm the city has to offer.