Arriving in a new place after dark can sometimes present problems, but in the case of Barcelona it’s the opposite. The port city seems to have a reawakening of sorts each night, when hordes of tourists, still out from their daytime escapades, are joined by throngs of locals who come out to play when darkness settles.
Barcelona is one of Spain’s most-visited destinations – a vibrant, cultural hub that is home to a diverse range of attractions, a surplus of amazing food choices, and a distinctive Barcelona buzz.
Interestingly, it’s popularity as a tourist epicentre is a relatively recent development. The Catalan language was only officially recognised in the late 1970s, which in turn spurted a revival of Catalan culture. Then, in 1992, Barcelona rose to world fame as that year’s host city for the Olympic Games. In more recent years tourism has boomed to a tremendous level, so much so that at the start of this year a new law was passed to limit tourism numbers. That’s an understandable mission, as it’s estimated that a whopping 32 million people visited Barcelona in 2016.
Of course, Antonio Gaudí is one of Barcelona’s claims to fame. This revolutionary and brilliant architect approached the Art Nouveau movement with gusto in a unique and thought-provoking way, and even today his works are perceived as modern and extraordinary.
I’m here to soak it all up – the culture, energy, the architecture, and, of course, the food. And even though it’s almost midnight by the time my husband and I reach our apartment on Las Ramblas, the night has just begun.
Las Ramblas is Barcelona’s most famous street, stretching for over a kilometre from Plaça Catalunya down to Port Vell. Shops and restaurants are located on both sides of the street, while the central pavement is pedestrian only and crammed with pop-ups, restaurant tables and hawkers peddling their wares.
The restaurants along the stretch are overpriced and they’re for the tourists, but they do make for a great place to gawk at the passing parade. We plop ourselves down at a table so we can do exactly that, enjoying a feast of tapas, followed by a hearty paella, washed down with an oversized glass of Sangria each.
Because everyone stays up late in Barcelona, the mornings offer an opportune time to explore without having to fight the crowds. And it’s worthwhile booking popular attractions in advance online during peak season.
We’ve reserved the first-morning entry at Gaudi’s Casa Batlló, which costs a little extra, but offers a unique perspective of the home with only a handful of people in the property. We join the short queue and are whisked into Gaudí’s surreal ether, leaving the early morning runners to admire the strange curved tiled façade with its bone-like balconies jutting out over the pavement.
Inside, it’s another realm. Gaudí used colours and shapes inspired by the marine world and it’s intriguing to note the gentle curves of waves, the glisten of the deep sea blue tiles, and the meandering staircase that leads up to the roof, where we admire Gaudí’s trademark hyperboloid arches.
By the time we’ve finished studying Gaudí’s intricate masterpiece, the house is packed. The chocolate shop next door, however, entices us with fewer people and… well, excellent chocolate. I don’t usually gorge on sweets before 10am, but everyone knows that calories don’t count on holidays.
We plan for long lunches in the sun between excursions and late-night dinners to fit in with the local crowd. During our stay, we try fresh local seafood at Botafumeiro, enjoy another paella at Can Solé and stop in at casual eateries to sample traditional Catalonian cuisine. I work out my new favourite dish – fideuas – it’s similar to seafood paella, but made with short noodles instead of rice.
Of course, no visit to Barcelona would be complete without an outing to the Temple of the Sagrada Família, Gaudí’s most famous work that, to this day, is still being completed.
Gaudí started work on the Roman Catholic church in 1883 and choose to focus solely on its construction from 1914, but he died a few days after being hit by a tram in Barcelona in 1926, leaving the project unfinished.
Gaudí was a deeply religious man and the extravagant basilica was his creative expression of the profoundness and complexities of the Christian faith. Every minute detail was considered, with countless symbolic intricacies woven into the elaborate and sophisticated design.
We stumble around utterly awed, listening the audio guide and absorbing everything that we possibly can. Gaudí envisaged 18 towers to be built in a tree-shape to support the build, and each one of them has a special significance. Light spills into the church thanks to the way he designed the skylights, and in true Gaudí style, curved lines are used throughout. Intriguingly, Gaudí preferred to work with curves, as he believed that straight lines did not exist in nature.
Eventually, it’s time for us to leave the mesmerising church and head back into the flurry that is Barcelona. There are more Gaudí buildings to explore (and even a park), streets to wander, food specialties to try, and sangrias to sip. Our trip isn’t over, but we’re already discussing when we might return. Perhaps that day will be in 2026 when it’s claimed La Sagrada Família will finally be complete, over 140 years since the first stone was laid.
By Tatyana Leonov