With several UNESCO World Heritage Sites and a buzzing night life, Barcelona is the perfect concoction of art and heritage, says Kalpana Sunder
I have centuries of history beneath my feet. I am standing at Conjunt Monumental de la Plaça del Rei, the Gothic architectural ensemble that narrates tales of Barcelona’s medieval past. It is believed it was here that King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella greeted Christopher Columbus after he arrived from his first voyage to the New World. Around me rise magnificent medieval monuments, the most majestic being the 11th-century Palau Comtal, or the Count’s Palace, now known as the Palau Reial Major, with its imposing Great Hall.
My eyes pan the surroundings, taking in the 14th-century Chapel of Santa Àgata; the 16th-century Palau del Lloctinent or Lieutenant’s Palace, with a beautiful Renaissance courtyard, which is currently home to the Archive of the Crown of Aragon; and the Casa Clariana-Padellàs, which houses a museum, the Museu d’Història de la Ciutat de Barcelona, displaying archaeological remains of Roman Barcelona. I could have time travelled to medieval Spain if it weren’t for a boisterous group of children on a field trip!
After having travelled across Spain, sunny Barcelona, with its Mediterranean coastline and Mount Tibidabo’s stunning views, had captured my heart the moment I arrived. The city, boasting several UNESCO World Heritage Sites, seamlessly juxtaposes history and modernity. I start with the past. A few minutes away from Placa Del Rei stands Plaça Sant Jaume, the city’s political centre almost since its inception. Today, the square is an open space in the middle of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter and the site of the most important buildings: City Hall and the Palau de la Generalitat.
I step off the square and into the main artery of the city. As I walk down the narrow, cobbled street flanked by medieval buildings, I lose all sense of time. My guide stops me under a stunning bridge, locally known as Bishop’s Bridge, linking the buildings on either side. I stare at the bridge’s exquisite architecture but my guide eggs me on. According to local lore, the bridge’s architect fell out of favour with the court. Disappointed, he secretly carved a skull with a dagger into the structure. My guide whispers that anyone who crosses the bridge and spots the hidden skull falls prey to an evil spell! But then, aren’t the baleful gargoyles staring down from the building tops keeping an eye on me? History and legends lurk in every corner of the Gothic Quarter – in its narrow maze of streets, wrought iron window grids, ornate embellishments, small family-run shops and professional emblems carved on door lintels.
My walk ends at the bustling Boqueria Market, which brings me back from antiquity to the modern day. This is part of the daily lives of the locals. I weave my way between the stalls, filling up my basket with chocolates and cheese, tasting some delicious chocolate-coated churros along the way.
Many forget that besides its urban charm, Barcelona has miles of beaches too. I spend a relaxed afternoon lazing on a deckchair on the sands of Barceloneta – a crescentshaped patch of sand with a palm tree-lined promenade dotted with eateries. I enjoy the slow pace of the afternoon – watching vigorous games of volleyball and children building sand castles. My day ends with a cable car ride to the top of Montjuïc, Barcelona’s most historic mountain, where I get a bird’s-eye view of the city from the Montjuïc Castle. It is from the mountain’s top that I spot my
next morning’s first stop: the flamboyant works of art by the city’s most famous son, Antoni Gaudí i Cornet, who spent most of his life in Barcelona creating iconic structures with cast iron, mosaic and glass – from stunning lamp posts to a church and a landscaped park! I follow his architectural footprints across town to the stunning Park Güell, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, filled with organic shapes and sculptures flowing seamlessly – including ceramic benches carved like serpents and dragons, and twisted columns rising into the sky.
My next stop is the Basilica of la Sagrada Família, with its flying buttresses and twisted turrets. Kaleidoscopic swirls of sunlight stream through the stained- glass windows, and I am awestruck by the church’s sheer scale and intricate details.
I step into a small curio stall adjacent to the basilica to pick up souvenirs, and find myself face to face with the city’s football DNA ! FC Barcelona (Futbol Club Barcelona) jerseys are on sale everywhere, and streets and parks are filled with people engaged in the sport. And a visit to Barcelona is not complete till you have been to the iconic Camp Nou stadium, the hallowed ground of the FC Barcelona team. Locals are fiercely proud of their team and I can feel it as my guide takes me around the gigantic stadium, which has a seating capacity of 99,000! It’s not tough to imagine the pulsating, rhythmic chant of “Barça, Barça!” echoing through the stadium.
My trip to Barcelona finally ends at a tapas bar, where I make friends with a group of local residents. There are also concerts, flamenco performances, musical fountains and illuminated public buildings that will keep you entertained. After all, this Spanish city never really sleeps!
The author is a senior journalist and the views expressed in the article are her own