Hanging out in Barcelona
The Catalan capital is fiercely proud of its artistic heritage and, as Willie Dillon found out, bursting with visual delights
How much would you pay for a live caterpillar? Fifty cents? A tenner for a particularly alluring specimen? It is, I agree, a rather odd question. But here we are at a market stall on the Ramblas -- the tree-lined, largely pedestrianised thoroughfare which is the tourist spine of Barcelona -- staring at five fat caterpillars reclining on a generous bed of cabbage leaves.
Visitors can buy all sorts of small living creatures from the street vendors on the Ramblas. Bird sellers stock everything from vividly coloured exotic songbirds to plain, dusty old chickens. There are turtles, rabbits, mice, guinea pigs and, yes, caterpillars. It mightn't be the most orthodox gift to bring home, but it would be remembered always, though possibly not fondly.
What did your other half get you in Barcelona? A caterpillar. Lovely.
But we're not visiting one of Europe's most vibrant and colourful cities to check out the going rate for butterfly futures. The answer, incidentally, is €5. My 18-year-old artist son Cormac and I are here to explore what we have decided to call the Catalan Art Trail.
Barcelona and its environs are where you'll find the work of some of the greatest and, in some cases, most eccentric artists of the 20th century. And the great thing is that you don't have to be an art expert to simply marvel at the spectacle of it all.
Think of Barcelona and you invariably think of Antoni Gaudi, the bounteously talented, endlessly imaginative architect whose work defines the city. The sheer audaciousness of the Sagrada Familia, his iconic cathedral, is breathtaking as you emerge from the nearby metro station and catch your first glimpse of what is Barcelona's most popular tourist attraction. It's also the world's longest-running construction project. When building work began in 1892, the architect famously remarked that his client wasn't in a hurry. The client was God who, a mere 34 years into the project, abruptly pulled the overly relaxed Gaudi off the job; the unfortunate man was fatally injured by a tram.
Fast forward another 84 years and the cranes still hover above the towering majesty of this startlingly original creation. Much of the interior of the building is still a hard-hat construction site. The current estimated completion date is 2025. The finished structure will be beyond breathtaking; it will have no fewer than 18 spires and will be roughly a third higher than it is at present.
Another must-see is Parc Guell, the fantasyland multi-level municipal park where some of Gaudi's most magical and playful visual creations can be found. After passing two whimsically ornate buildings at the entrance, visitors are greeted by a large mosaic lizard doubling as a fountain. There are rock structures designed to resemble trees and, among numerous other delights, a fabulously columned hall on the roof of which sits the world's longest park bench -- a multicoloured tiled fantasy in the shape of a twisted slinking serpent. The park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Though not a native, Picasso spent his formative years in Barcelona.
The Museu Picasso, housed in five adjoining mediaeval palaces, has a huge selection of astonishingly mature portraits and other work painted when he was mostly still a teenager. Here you can also see the first stirrings of his famous Blue Period.
The large, vibrant, abstract fantasies of Joan Miro virtually dance off the walls of the bright modernist Miro Foundation where most of his works are on view. The fervid imagination of these Catalan giants suggests the presence of something very strange in the local water in the early years of the last century. And that's before we visit the strangest most head-bending one of them all -- flamboyantly surreal showman Salvador Dali.
The Teatre-Museu Dalí is situated in his home town, Figueres, about two hours from Barcelona on the train. Prepare to be astonished, entertained and puzzled in roughly equal measure. A large furnished room containing a plump red sofa turns out, when viewed through a very large lens suspended near the wall, to be a portrait of Mae West. The sofa is her lips, the pictures over the fireplace her eyes. A painting of his unclad wife gazing out over the Mediterranean, when the viewer steps back far enough, transforms itself into a portrait of Abraham Lincoln.
The best way to sample Barcelona's wealth of visual attractions is to taken the open-top tourist bus. For €22 a day (€27 for two days), you'll see everything worth seeing at least once. It's the standard hop-on, hop-off arrangement. Among the many good hopping-off points is up at the National Museum of Catalan Art -- and not just for the art.
The panoramic view over Plaça d'Espanya and across the city is one of Barcelona's most spectacular. The Plaça is where 100,000 soccer fans gathered to watch Spain's World Cup success on a giant screen.
Barcelona is a comfortable marriage of the authentically old and the thoroughly modern. But despite the vast numbers of people who come for the landmark Gaudi buildings, the richly atmospheric streets of the Gothic area, the galleries, tapas bars, restaurants and nightspots -- not to mention Europe's largest football stadium and home to many of Spain's soccer heroes, the Nou Camp -- the city rarely loses its natural sense of spaciousness. Some areas do become crowded, however, especially around the Ramblas.
Gaudi provided Barcelona with the basis for a thriving tourist industry. But he also left another hugely influential legacy. The astonishing visual precedent set by his work means the city isn't afraid of cutting-edge modern art. The streets are full of it. Around almost every corner, it seems, is yet another startling piece of sculptural imagery.
A prime example is Canadian architect Frank Gehry's 54m x 35m fish made of stone, steel and glass, which glitters in the evening sun. It's located in the modern and sophisticated Port Olimpic area which underwent major renovations for the 1992 Olympic Games. Nearby, you'll find an entire street filled with angular metal trees. Further down, amid real trees, is the towering El Culo -- literally The Backside -- a pair of bronze legs six metres tall and topped off with, well, a backside. It all makes poor Molly Malone and her folksy wheelbarrow look a little sedate.
"Get the last of the caterpillars. Anyone else now for the caterpillars? Five for 20, the Catalan caterpillars..."
Need to know
Aer Lingus (0818 365 000; aerlingus,com) flies from Dublin to Barcelona El Prat every day. Ryanair (0818 303030; ryanair.com) flies to Girona, north of Barcelona, and Reus to the south. In September, Ryanair will open a new base at El Prat with daily direct flights from Dublin. El Prat is a nifty 22 minutes to the city centre by train. The bus from Girona takes an hour and a quarter. From Reus it’s about 90 minutes.
STAYING THERE :
The spectacular 26-storey W Barcelona (0034 932 952 800; w-barcelona.com), overlooking the harbour, has double rooms from around ¤380. The quaint Hotel Meson Castilla in the Raval area (0034 933 182 182) has high season double rooms from ¤126. Easier on the pocket, the Barcelona Dream hostel (0034 933 991 420; barcelonadream.net) is a little out of the way at the end of the metro line at Pep Ventura, but single beds are from ¤17, and it’s ¤32 for a double room.
FIVE GREAT THINGS TO DO
Check out the human statues on the Ramblas. These stock-still street performers, in their wildly creative costumes, display astonishing concentration skills. Drop a coin in the box and they suddenly come alive. One chap, elaborately kitted out as Edward Scissorhands, looks so uncannily like the film character the thought crosses our minds that it could be Johnny Depp himself having a lark.
If the Miro gallery isn’t to your taste, take a trip to nearby Montjuic, or Jewish Mountain. The imposing fortress of Castell de Montjuic at the summit dates from the 17th century. Numerous political prisoners were held there up to the time of General Franco and there were many executions. Despite its neatly tended lawns and expansive views over city and sea, its grim past can still be imagined. The cable car ride up, over heavily wooded slopes, is an added bonus.
Visit the vast Boqueria food market, off the Ramblas, and check out the delicacies you definitely won’t find in the supermarket back home. On meat counters, skinned goats’ heads stare with wild, accusing eyes. You can buy calf’s brain in a tub. My favourite were the spongy soft cows’ noses, scrubbed clean.
Take the cable car across the harbour. It’s short, a little expensive at ¤9 for a one-way trip and not recommended if you don’t like heights. But on a sunny day you get the most marvellous bird’s-eye view of the city, including the cruise ships docking 70 metres beneath you. Get on at Montjuic or across the harbour close to San Sebastia beach.
Don’t forget beaches. Barcelona has 4.5km of golden sands, all equally attractive, perfectly located on the edge of the city. They’re safe for bathing and accessible by metro. It makes for a wonderful combination of beach holiday and big city break.