With this week’s hailstones threatening to knock down the roof of my house in North London, the memories of last week’s sunny break in Catalonia seem very far-away. I was very lucky to be the guest of colleagues at the Universitat Rovira e Virgili (Tarragona) for a conference and took the opportunity to see parts of Catalonia that were new to me. It was the week-end before the day of St. George, or Sant Jordi, as they say in Catalonia. To mark the celebration of their patron saint, on 23 April, ‘El Día de Las Rosas’, friends, colleagues and lovers exchange gifts of red roses (for the women) and books (traditionally only for the men, but now the gift of reading is extended to the women!). Last Saturday, ahead of the celebrations at the beginning of this week, in Barcelona the ramblas were beautifully decked out with fragrant parcels of long-stemmed roses and small bouquets wrapped in crepe paper.
But I started off my trip in Tarragona, a charming small city about 80 km south of Barcelona. I stayed in the centre of town, close to the old market, which, I was told, the city has been restoring for four years! The main attraction, beside the remains of the Roman amphitheatre, spectacularly perched on a hill overlooking the sea, must be the old walled town, a real gem of Romanesque and Gothic architecture.
I was shown around by my friend Liz, who has been working in Tarragona for two decades, and who introduced me to some of the best tapas bars in town (check out the Basque place, Txantxangorri, in Plaça de la Font), and the hidden art scene of the city: the quirky mural produced by a Cuban artist on the tunnel leading to one of the city’s underground car-parks was an unexpected treat: not the kind of thing you would find on a travel guide.
The initial part of the train journey north to Barcelona had a similar magical quality: running parallel to the coast, the train appeared to be sailing, or floating, just above the beach and past the green fields and vineyards on the other side of the track.
The weather was very mild for our British standards and my travel companion and I enjoyed drinking, on our first night in Barcelona, on the terrassa outside the Basilica dels Sants Martirs, not far from Placa Sant Jaume and the atmospheric Café de l’Academia, where we sat down for dinner at 11:30pm… Spanish style!
The next morning we returned to the old part of the city, enjoying the contrast between the hustle and bustle of the Plaça Reial and the eerie silence of the dark alleyways. The Barrio Gótico is the home of some quirky shops, a reminder of the city’s tradition in craft and design and I went hat-shopping (I am now the proud owner of a beret Basque from the historical Sombrereria Obach, in the heart of the barrio). If you are into fashion and design, I strongly recommend visiting the stunning jewellery gallery La Basilica Galeria, where, as well as admiring beautifully crafted jewellery, you will see some incredible garments made of petals coated in real gold dust or powder made of semi-precious stones: too heavy to wear, the frocks are artworks in their own right!
A cup of coffee in the acclaimed Mesón del Café replenished our energy levels and we continued on soaking up the chilled atmosphere of the old workshop quarter, La Ribera.
We finished off the evening in Barceloneta, the old fishing quarter of Barcelona; in the past this used to be a fairly run-down area, but has been ‘cleaned-up’ and made more visitor-friendly: walking along the long beach on the palm-shaded wooden board-walk, we had a sense of being elsewhere, away from the city, away from its old buildings and narrow streets, in a new world.
Scattered on the beach are quirky sculptures, whose rusty colours and modern shapes are both suggestive of the city’s marine and modern identities. We had a tasty tapas supper in one of the best known bars of Barceloneta, El Vaso de Oro, a lively establishment, despite Barça’s disappointing performance against Real Madrid.
Returning to Barcelona is always a great pleasure. With less than forty-eight hours to spare, and this being my third visit, I skipped the city’s highlights: any first-time visitor, should, however, at least see the Sagrada Familia and the Palau de la Musica Catalana: two very different examples of what the city’s extraordinary architecture can offer to the visitor. I opted, instead, for one of the lesser known of Antoni Gaudí‘s works, and took a short trip out of town, to visit the Colonia Guëll. This was the utopian lovechild of architect Gaudí and his patron, the industrialist Eusebi Guëll, for whom Gaudí also designed his residence in Barcelona, Palau Guëll, and another housing estate, for which only the famous park (Parc Guëll) was realised. The colonia was an experiment in utopian town-planning; the village, created around Guëll’s textile factory, sought to provide its workers with good housing and a community to live in.
The highlight of the complex would have been the church, designed and built by Gaudí. Only the crypt, the lower part of what would have been a grand design, remains finished today. Well worth a visit for any fans of Gaudí’s work: the interior of the crypt, which features quirky scalloped designs on seating and holy-water fonts (the basins are made of real giant shells), looks like the inside of a whale, its robust structure enhanced by the palm-shaped pillars that support the roof. The darkness of the space is interrupted by the daisy-like windows, realised, as frequently in Gaudí’s work, with stained glass in vibrant colours.
We had an improvised picnic lunch in the colonia’s main square, nibbling on sausage rolls and hazelnut chocolate from the bakery, watching the local children chasing and fighting each other over toys. Back in Barcelona, after a brief visit to the Museu Tèxtil i d’Indumentària for an exhibition on the ‘dressed body’, we headed back to the port area for our farewell dinner in 7 Portes, one of the oldest restaurant in the city, with a string of celebrity guests attached to its name: our receipt revealed we had been dining at the same table as Che Guevara and Pelé! We walked off our escalibada and paella parellada on our way to the metro, before catching our train to the airport with a breath of sea air still in our lungs.