In Barcelona, the vibrant culture and culinary attractions never stop


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Everyone should own a couple of Picassos. I bought mine from the Museu Picasso in Barcelona, so I know they’re the real deal. I didn’t pay $US106 million, because a bookmark and a ceramic dish featuring his 1949 Dove of Peace are unlikely to appreciate at quite the same rate as some of the more sought-after originals.

But I can’t resist museum shops: a fragment of the Elgin Marbles from the Acropolis Museum in Athens or a print from the Louvre tends to have a bit more authenticity as a memento than a tea towel from a souvenir shop.

Spain’s favourite artist is reputed to have said, “Give me a museum and I’ll fill it” – and he did, several times over. There are museums devoted to Pablo Picasso in Paris, Antibes, Munster and his Spanish birthplace of Málaga, not to overlook the fact his work hangs in almost every museum of note in the world.

The Museu in the Catalonian capital of Barcelona is dedicated mainly to his early works – more than 4000 of them – and occupies a stunning series of five adjoining medieval palaces in the city’s La Ribera area. The interconnecting buildings, with their baroque additions and open courtyards, are worth a visit in their own right, if only to see how the other half lived a few centuries ago.

Barcelona, like Venice, Dubrovnik and a few other tourist hotspots, is in the midst of a community protest over the number of visitors it attracts. But the city is simply too enticing to ignore.

If you’re planning to stay for a few days or more, then one of the many stylish and affordable apartments in the El Born area or the Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter) is the way to go if you want to “live like a local”. It also offers the opportunity to shop in the renowned food markets; the best known of which is La Boqueria on the most famous street in the old city, Las Ramblas.

Built in 1840, this is a wonderland of colourful produce and a must-visit even if you aren’t planning to cook for yourself. It’s more of a gallery for food merchants, with areas to sit down and eat within the sprawling complex.

Another newer market nearby, the Santa Caterina, has equally varied produce but with the added attraction of one my favourite restaurants attached. The Cuines is a stylish, architect-designed open space with a slightly Scandinavian feel to the décor. Its four distinct kitchens serve different styles of cuisine – Asian, Mediterranean, vegetarian or Italian – and all offer fantastic value and fab casual food.

Indeed, eating is a breeze in Barcelona: this is a city which buzzes all night, with the locals seeming not to bother even thinking about dinner until after 10pm, which mostly makes getting a table at an earlier hour pretty easy. And whatever restaurant, bar or tapas joint you stumble upon, it’s unlikely you’ll be disappointed.

Even in places in so-called tourist traps like Plaça Reial, it’s worth queuing if you arrive at peak hour for lunch. The “royal plaza” draws visitors for a reason – it’s a wonderful, palm-studded, colonnaded square that’s home to a few famous nightclubs and features lamp posts designed by Antoni Gaudí.

Try Les Quinze Nits, an elegant but reasonably priced stayer that spills beneath the colonnades onto the square itself, perfect for people-watching and a lazy post-lunch glass of Rioja. Even the “chain” tapas bars are terrific for both the food and the atmosphere.

Between meals and museums, Barcelona has any number of other attractions. Shopping for the wonderful array of products, from homewares to clothes, shoes to stationery, is as far from your local mall (well, apart from the Zara and Camper shops) as you can get.

Then there’s the architecture – from Roman to contemporary, Gaudí to Mies van der Rohe (he even named a chair after the city). Van der Rohe is the one who said “God is in the details” and, in the case of Barcelona, the details are also in God if its churches are anything to go by.

The most famous is the Sagrada Família, designed by Catalan architect Gaudí and still under construction after 130 years. If you want to see finished examples of his work, try Parc Güell or one of the numerous apartment blocks dotted around the city.

That’s why Barcelona is overwhelmed with tourists: it’s a flamboyant mix of the secular and sacred, the intimate and expansive, the ancient and modern, a pastiche of architectural styles and a melange of the mystical and the manufactured.

It’s style and substance, and catholic in both the doctrinaire and semantic senses. It’s all-embracing and all-involving and never seems to sleep. And that’s just one small corner of the place, so it remains top of my list for a return visit

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