My friends can’t believe it. When they ask me how to get a complete vision of Barcelona, I tell them to catch the bus. They gape at me, their eyes wide open. The bus, in the city of modernism and design? The bus.
Barcelona is a big city. But just as other major cities appear tense, disintegrated, with opposing parts to them, Barcelona has a singular harmony. The people behave in a polite, European fashion. And this is palpable on the bus. The urban landscape passes by as you ride the bus. Everything transmits the impression of a complex city. But one which works. And in this way, the different landscapes are paraded past the windows, like frames in the same film. This is how the different Barcelonas are integrated with each other. In a near-perfect union.
I like to start at the maritime area, with the Barceloneta neighbourhood and its terraces. The Olympic Port, the boats, the bars and restaurants, the sandy beaches, the original figure of the W Barcelona, known as the Vela (sail) hotel. Whenever I can, I go to this end of town. Where the agglomeration, the traffic, the buildings are suddenly transmuted into a horizon of sea and azure. You can breathe here. You can hear the deep, heavy sounds of the port. You can dream. And you can have a beer at the Bar Jordi, where actor Pepe Rubianes used to order his aperitif of vermouth and anchovies.
From here, you take the bus to the old town. And this is a different story. The medieval Barcelona, with its dark, narrow alleyways. With Gothic palaces, like the one that houses the Picasso Museum, the steps of Plaça del Rei, the ancient Roman walls, the Born neighbourhood, the nooks and crannies of Raval. This Barcelona has the flavour of Eduardo Mendoza’s novels and even though its centre has been promoted as the “Gothic quarter” for some time now, most of its monuments are Neo-Gothic, and date from the 19th century.
A Barcelona of shadows and mysteries. If I can make it, I don’t miss a trip to the Marès Sculpture Museum. It’s never crowded. And you can silently speak to those magnificent sculptures. Those motionless gazes. Characters from the past you would say understand you perfectly.
Another bus, and you hop off in the Eixample district. The masterpiece of urban planner Ildefons Cerdà, who designed it as a regular, ordered grid. Barcelona’s Ensanche, or expansion district, is handsome and monumental. It contains the majority of the great Modernist monuments. Above all, the works of Gaudí: the Sagrada Familia church, the Batlló house, the Pedrera. The elegance of Lluís Doménech i Muntaner in the Lleó Morera house. The magic of Josep Puig i Cadafalch in Les Punxes. There is something very interior in this movement. Something that explains the character of Barcelona to perfection.
Modernism includes historicist architectural motifs, but combines them with bold decorations, imaginations, oneiric irrationalisms, organic forms. It forces lines, plays on volumes, reaches extremes that would formerly have been deemed impossible. And in doing so, it integrates many things into a single one. Just as Barcelona combines its different realities in a superior one.
The same bus will take you to the neighbourhood of Gràcia, Barcelon’as ‘Village’. This was once a neighbouring town that was swallowed up by the city. It is the fashionable area, where you can find anything from bars with cats to vegan establishments, vintage stores, boutiques, bookshops, co-working spaces, swing schools, hipster barber shops, banks occupied by squatters... Meanwhile, people move along its streets by bike, scooter or using some curious two-wheeled contraptions. Gràcia, the nightlife Mecca, is also a little New York of nationalities, styles, races and lifestyles. Another example of co-existence and fusion. I am a fan of the Plaça de la Revolució. Gràcia’s street life parades through it – the music, the families with children, the indies, the elderly folks who have lived here all their life... You feel like you are in a different city, without leaving the city.
It’s a good idea to go up to the rooftop of Barcelona from here. And again, the bus will drop you off on the doorstep. The city grew up surrounded by little hills, which have now become excellent viewing platforms. You cannot miss the Park Güell, with its spectacular design by Gaudí. It spreads all over the mountain. One part is only accessible upon payment of an entry fee. But there is also a large area to which entry is free.
Whenever I can, I walk up one of its paths to the hilltop of Turó de las Tres Creus. A rustic monument with crosses stands here, facing the horizon of Barcelona. The city lies at your feet like a carpet. A painting. You observe that panoramic chessboard, recognising the streets, the monuments, the neighbourhoods and the pewter sea in the background. You spot toy-like planes and boats. As you take delight in the view, an American plays a few blues songs on his dobro.
Barcelona seen from up here is coherent, beautiful. A Mediterranean fusion. This is its spirit.
A bar's cosmos
For those who love bars and cafés, as I do, Barcelona is endless. The variety is infinite. Neighbourhood bars abound. Small, cramped, with a huge TV. Not very interesting aesthetically speaking, but fascinating in terms of the regulars. A faithful, sentimental clientele who spend half their life propped up on the bar. And then there are the designer bars. Futuristic, minimalistic. The Eixample is full of them. You are seizes by a kind of artistic euphoria here, as though you were part of the set. In Raval and Ribera, the bars can be rather wicked. With somebody playing music in the background, dimly lit, smelling of beer and with a film-like atmosphere. In Gràcia, there are bars that are almost like museums. They vary depending on fashion. Gin and tonic bars, ingeniously-named and with a well-clipped beard. It is impossible to finish all of Barcelona’s bars. But since you have to choose at least one, I would plump for the Velódromo in Calle Muntaner. A large, traditional café that has been very well restored.
The Romanesque view
The architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch believed that Romanesque was the style that best defined the Catalan soul. It adapted Roman canons, impregnating them with the Christian spirit. With such efficiency of form and ingenuity, that all these centuries later, it still seems strangely “modern”. Ever since I was very young, I have visited the Romanesque collection of what is now the National Art Museum of Catalonia, in Montjuïc palace. The elegance of the master of Boí, with its stylised figures, its bright colours, its Pantocrator, touches your soul. And in the same space, one can enjoy Gothic and modern art collections. To enjoy the interaction of art and urban landscape - Pedralbes. This little-known corner of Barcelona seems displaced in time. Its name comes from the medieval fields, meaning “white stones”. And it still conserves a zephyr of ancient times. And you can get here by bus too.