The magic of Barcelona
A drink in the forest of the fairies and a brush with a dead man in rags are both part of the city's attraction, writes Róisín Ingle
LAS RAMBLAS has a lot to answer for. Wandering down the iconic stretch of road in Barcelona, weaving between flower sellers and souvenir merchants, you discover why what passes for busking in Dublin these days is a man or woman standing stock still while covered in body paint and dressed as, say, that well-known street performer Che Guevara.
Still, at least these are a superior breed of street performer, and while you wouldn't want to stop for food along Las Ramblas - it's never a good idea to dine where the menu features photographs of paella - it's this bustling artery that leads you into city's beating heart.
The neighbourhoods on either side of the street, which rambles down to the port, offer the most interesting night spots in the city and a chance, during the day, to get lost among the gargoyles, cathedrals and shabbily stunning squares that reveal themselves at every turn. Once-seedy areas such as El Raval and El Born are coming into their own and the Gothic Quarter is as popular as ever.
If you are somebody who only knows the city from Manuel in Fawlty Towers ("he's from Barcelona"), it's a place that will surprise and delight. Walking past the Wax Museum off Las Ramblas, you wander into a bar that seems to have been designed by a character in a dark nursery rhyme. El Bosc de les Fades (the forest of the fairies) on Pasaje de la Banca is pretty much an indoor forest, with a tinkling river running through it, a cross between Narnia and Neverland. Buy a beer, listen to the fairy forest soundtrack and watch your fellow tourists stumble around the place open-mouthed.
Theme bars aside, Barcelona might just be the perfect place for a city break. Going with the children? The redeveloped port, the aquarium and, of course, the four kilometres of beach should do the trick. Want a cultural feast? You'll be sated by all that modernisme architecture and the Picasso trail. Want to party? Barcelona does too.
There are clubs open around the clock, some even serving breakfast for that bleary-eyed 7am pitstop. People-watching? Try so-cool-it-hurts hotel bars such as Hotel Omm on the Passeig de Gràcia, or those dimly lit bars and clubs down side streets that stink delightfully of rotten cabbage. Speaking of side streets, regular visitors will tell you to hold fast to your belongings as the city has a bit of a reputation as a muggers' paradise, but just be as smart and as careful as you would in any big city.
For me, Barcelona will always be the place where I fell a little bit in love with a dead man who dressed in rags and was the architect of some of the most beautiful and memorable buildings in the world.
The ghost of the man known as "God's architect" seems to hover around the city, in everything from lamp posts to humble benches, while the still-to-be-completed Sagrada Familia is simply breath-taking. No wonder his devotees in Barcelona and around the world are so keen for his beatification.
Reading Gaudí's biography as you tour the city will bring him and his works to life, while the trek to the top of the Gaudí-designed Park Güell is well worth the climb. Looking down on the city, with all his fairy-tale turrets twinkling and twirling in the distance, is a perfect Barcelona moment.
Els Pescadors is a 10-minute taxi ride from Las Ramblas. I only hope you don't get our maniac of a taxi driver, who appeared to be channelling Ayrton Senna. Once safely in the restaurant you ask what's fresh and your polite, handsome waiter stares as though you have suddenly grown an extra head. "Everything in our restaurant is fresh, madam," he says. And so it proves. Great hunks of melt-in-the-mouth sea bass, John Dory cooked with a delicate touch. And while you are waiting for the main courses, munch on the steamed cloves of garlic that have been marinated in vinegar. They soon disappear. Go for the cheeky Rum Baba desert, splash out on a decent bottle of local Cava, down a couple of amarettos with some very good coffee. You won't get much change for €150 euro. But is it worth it? Si, señor. Plaça Prim, 1, Poble Nou.
There are plenty of cheap and cheerful places to eat in the Boqueria food market off Las Ramblas. Everyone recommends Pinxto's as the perfect place to refuel in the morning, while later on, Bar Boqueria is popular with tourists and locals alike. Just point at whatever takes your fancy, stay standing if you like, while you nibble away on great value garlic mussels, tortilla and patatas bravas. The sights and sounds of this busy market provide an atmospheric backdrop.
Restaurant Moo, Hotel Omm. This will do some serious damage to the credit card, but when the tasting menu includes a golden truffled egg, suckling pig and foie gras soup you know what to expect. This diningroom is a modern art lover's paradise, with a different sculpture on each table.
The waiters know their stuff and swish around in incredible uniforms. Best keep this for a real blow-out. And if you have lunch here, be prepared for the fact that you may need to have a lie down in the sunshine on one of Gaudí's curvy benches nearby to recover. Passeig de Gràcia.
Espai Sucre. Even non-Spanish speaking gastronomes will have sussed by the name that this is the only place to be in Barcelona if you have a sweet tooth. For around €25-€35 you'll be offered five sweet dishes. You will not require seconds. C/Princesa, 53.
Can Martí. This is for those times when only a hearty, lengthy brunch will do. Head out of the city and up to the Collserola mountain for a real Catalan treat. A selection of chargrilled meats and lashings of aioli should sort you out while you gaze down on the city, spread out below. (It's tricky to find, so take a taxi.) Ptge de la Font Del Mont, 4.
Located on the other side of the road from Gaudí's La Pedrera and down the road from his Casa Batlló, the Hotel Condes de Barcelona on Passeig de Gràcia is perfect for Gaudí fans. The hotel comprises two 19th century modernist mansions, with a pentagonal foyer and quirky features such as the small pull-down seats on every landing. Prices are high but there's a great view from the small pool on the rooftop.
The design- and budget-conscious will appreciate the minimalist Hotel Banys Orientals located in C/Argenteria, 37, in the trendy El Born part of town. The rooms aren't huge, but dark wood floors, four-poster beds and prices at about €90 make up for that. Insiders say it tends to fill up quickly so book well in advance.
Hostal Goya, a boutique hotel, has a reputation for coolness, cleanliness and calm despite being located only minutes from Las Ramblas. Singles can score a bed for just €65 per night. Pau Claris, 74.
If there's a gang of you heading to Barcelona for a break, it might be worth renting an apartment. Decimononico have a wide selection on offer in Ciutat Vella, right in the heart of the city, just a stroll from the Picasso museum. Some of the apartments can accommodate up to 18 people, which works out at about €50 per night a head.
In a city coming down with hostels, the budget traveller could do worse than seek out Gothic Point, C/Vigatans 5, which has a reputation for being the most sociable youth hostel in the city. By sociable we think they mean noisy - there's a large common area and terrace where guests congregate, so don't expect an oasis of calm.
Don't be put off by the dreadlocked dudes hanging outside with their dogs because Oviso in Placa George Orwell in the Barrio Gotico is a bohemian gem of a coffee spot. Crumbling plasterwork, well-worn flagstones and reggae music provide the atmosphere, while you'll be hard pressed to find a tastier, more purse-friendly bocadillo anywhere in town. Get stuck into the house sambo, great coffee and freshly squeezed juices while you ask the friendly staff to help plot your next move. www.barnawood.com
Go do and see
La Sagrada Familia. After more than 100 years in construction, Gaudí's ultimate monument to his faith is still a building site, but it remains one of the most edifying sights on the Barcelona tourist trail and the most visited monument in Spain.
A walking or bus tour of Gaudí sights will lead you to this extraordinary cathedral, which is expected to take at least another 30 years (probably more like 50) to complete.
Museu Picasso. Located in the heart of the old city on the Carrer Montcada, the museum is spread over a row of five Gothic mansions, which used to be home to the city's aristos, so aesthetically this place is a winner before you've even looked at a painting. This Picasso collection of more than 3,500 works, including ceramics, is mostly made up of paintings from his formative years, while the early stage of his blue period is well represented too.
Camp Nou. This is a must-see for soccer fans, Catalans being at their most passionate and loud - the stadium holds 100,000 people - when cheering on Barca. But if you can't make a match, a tour around the stadium, which takes in everything from the dressing rooms to the presidential box, is almost as good. The nearby Museu del Futbol Club Barcelona is the second most visited museum in the city after the Picasso museum. www.fcbarcelona.es
The Bodies exhibition. Barcelona is the first Spanish city to host this critically acclaimed exhibition, which is travelling the world and has already been shown to six million people in places such as New York, Amsterdam and Lisbon. Find out everything you ever wanted to know about human anatomy, with life-size models that bare all, from the brain to the backbone. This is the human body as you've never seen it before. And it's appropriate for all ages. Runs until March 31st. Reials Drassanes de Barcelona, Av Drassanes, 1, Ciutat Vella.
The Palau de la Musica. Regarded as one of the world's most extraordinary music halls, its facades are a riot of colour and the building is a flamboyant Barcelona landmark. Built between 1906 and 1909 by the Catalan architect, Lluis Domènech i Montaner, this Modernista building was restored between 1983 and 1989. In 1997 it was designated a World Heritage Site. More than half a million people a year attend musical performances in the Palau.
Don't go there
Flamenco isn't really a Barcelona tradition, however tempting it may be to rock up to Tablao El Cordobés on Las Ramblas.
Early signs were not good - when we got there a crowd of well-oiled British tourists were doing the can-can outside, perhaps thinking they were in Paris. A meal and a glass of prosecco is included in the ticket price, but be warned that halfway through the performance you might feel you are in that bar on the quays in Dublin where Riverdance-style entertainment is provided "seven nights a week".
These young, thrusting Flamenco dancers are rigged out in pinstriped suits reinventing the traditional dance, and while they put heart and soul into the performance - sitting too close means dodging flying sweat - it just doesn't feel like an authentic Barcelona experience. La Rambla, 35.
Go to this hot spot
This city heaves from midnight until morning with nightclubs of every kind, and several that defy description - most of these are hidden behind unmarked doors in anonymous back alleys. One of the most popular with both indie types and dance fanatics is Razzmatazz, Carrer dels Almogàvers 122, which is actually five different clubs under one roof.
Find techno pop in the Lolita Room, electronic dance in the Loft, electro rock in the Rex Room, and garage and soul in the Pop Bar, while the Razz Club has live bands almost every night and recently played host to Irish indie boys Delorentos. www.salarazzmatazz.com
Barcelona is shopping heaven. Get lost and slightly frazzled traversing the many floors of massive department store El Corte Inglés on the Plaça de Catalunya, window shop the smart designer stores on Passeig de Gràcia or simply stumble across an antiques market in a cathedral square and find the silver candelabra of your dreams. The city is a mecca for specialist shopping too.
There are loads of shops that sell only hats or gloves or doll houses or chocolate. Lailo, C/Riera Baixa, 20, has circus clothes and bull fighter jackets, just the thing for the more imaginative vintage-clothes fiend. For gifts to bring home, forget the tat on Las Ramblas and head to Kopp, Avinyo 37, where kitsch and colourful is the name of the game, whether you are seeking clocks, kitchenware or knick-knacks.
It won't be for everyone, but Beatles fans can't fail but be impressed by La Garrafa dels Beatles, the Beatles-themed pub run for the past 30 years by mop-top mad mates Joan and Ricky. Stuffed with memorabilia including a copy of Lennon's marriage certificate, brick dust from the Cavern, and Joan's ticket stub from a Beatles gig in Barcelona back in the day, the pub is well worth the taxi ride out to this quiet area away from the tourist trail.
If you are lucky, when you arrive they'll be on stage belting out Beatles tunes in Spanish accents. "Theeez boy wants you back again" or "Eeef I needed someone". Fab. C/Joan Guell, 150.
Around this time of year, expect cloudy and slightly cool weather. Temperatures will be anywhere between 12 and 17 degrees. Although you could be lucky and get a splash of sunshine.
For extra enjoyment bring a copy of Homage to Barcelona by Colm Tóibín, his personal non-fiction tribute to the city which featured in his acclaimed novel The South.
Go get there
Aer Lingus flies every day to Barcelona. Iberia flies two days a week direct, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and other days via Madrid. Clickair flies two days a week too, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Flight schedules will probably increase after the end of this month, when the summer timetable begins. Ryanair flies daily to Girona, about 60km from Barcelona. It takes an hour to transfer to the city.