Perfect 10

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 July, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 July, 2004, 12:00am

1 Bus Turistic


The easiest way to get an overview of Barcelona is from the top deck of the brilliant Bus Turistic, which trundles happily along three citywide routes, with red-jacketed guides on board to answer your questions. You can get on and off as often as you want at 40 landmark stops and five transfer stops: 16 euros (HK$153) gets you a one-day ticket and 20 euros a two-day pass, plus information about each of the stops and a booklet of discount vouchers for a large number of attractions. Buy tickets at the Tourist Office in Plaza Catalunya, the airport, Sants railway station or on the bus, or from the Tourist Board website at www.barcelonaturisme.com


2 Passeig de Gracia/Rambla Catalunya


Escape Plaza Catalunya to stroll up the stylish Passeig de Gracia with its broad powder-blue pavements (Gaudi's hexagonal tiles), gorgeous wrought-iron lamp posts and pavement cafes. Dubbed Barcelona's Fifth Avenue by an overexcited local press when top-end international names such as Cartier, Armani and Chanel moved in, the Passeig is also home to some mind-blowing modernista buildings. Antonio Gaudi was a genius, and his Casa Batllo and Casa Mila (better known as La Pedrera) don't just live up to the hype, they surpass it. The fairy-tale Batllo (at No45), with its glittering facade, carnival-mask balconies and flowing forms, was built between 1905 and 1907, and opened to the public in 2002. If you do nothing else in Barcelona, pay your 10 euros to visit the interior (excellent audioguide provided). But you'll need more than one visit to take it all in: modernisme, the Catalan art nouveau, embraced all the decorative arts, and every detail of the Casa Batllo is a mini masterpiece. And go back at night: illuminated, it really does look as if it's sprinkled with stardust.


3 La Pedrera and Rambla Catalunya


Further up Passeig de Gracia is La Pedrera, Gaudi's amazing creation with its chess-set chimney pots, a World Heritage site. Built originally as an apartment building between 1906 and 1910, it was bought in 1986 by the Fundacio Caixa Catalunya and lovingly restored to its pristine state. You can visit the roof, the Gaudi exhibition (Espai Gaudi) in the top-floor rooms, and the Pedrera Apartment, a replica of a modernista apartment of the period. In summer, the roof metamorphoses at night into a terrace bar with music: a fusion of traditional, reggae and jazz. Cool, in all senses of the word. Book online at www.telentrada.com. Return downtown along the leafy Rambla Catalunya, pavement-cafe territory par excellence. The Colmado Quilez grocery store at No63 is a monument in itself: walls lined from floor to ceiling with cans and bottles from the five continents, hams, cheeses, wine, and cava ... with personal service from men in striped smocks.


4 The Old City


Being one of the world's most famous streets, the Rambla has unfortunately become an overcrowded, overpriced and tacky tourist trap. Better to get lost in the cobbled alleys and lively squares of the Gothic Quarter, taking in the Cathedral (lovely cool cloister with geese), the Roman remains and the quirky Frederic Mares Museum (Sant Iu, 5-6), where you can stop for refreshment in its delightful courtyard cafe. One of the most fascinating things about the Gothic Quarter is the survival of traditional, family-owned speciality shops among the ethnic boutiques, fast- food eateries and backpacker hostels. Be prepared to splurge on, say, hats (Sombrereria Obach at Call 2). Or have traditional rope-soled espadrilles made to measure (La Manual Alpargateria at Avinyo 7). Another institution is the Casa Gispert (Sombrerers 33), which sells nuts and coffee in sacks (the aroma is divine). You must hit the Rambla, however, for the great Boqueria market, where camera-toting tourists, gourmets and local shoppers happily mingle. The heaped stalls close to the entrance are a feast for all the senses, but restrain yourself and venture into the depths where prices are lower.


5 La Ribera


First stop, World Heritage site Palau de la Musica Catalana (Sant Francesc de Paula, 2). Definitely opt for a guided visit (7 euros from the ticket office). You will be stunned. Towards the sea, on the left-hand side of Via Laietana, is La Ribera, the medieval maritime and commercial district where prosperous merchants built lovely Gothic mansions, two of which house the Picasso Museum (Montcada, 15-23). Before smashing moulds, Picasso had a strictly classical training, as this exhaustive collection of his early works shows. Notes, scribbles and doodles, representational paintings, Blue Period, Pink Period and some cubist and neoclassical works give a fascinating insight into his formative years. La Ribera's other must-see - or rather must-experience - stop is the soaring Catalan-Gothic church of Santa Maria del Mar. Linger and recharge in the peace of its exquisitely simple interior (its baroque trappings were burned during the Spanish civil war). Opposite the facade, La Vinya del Se?or is perfect for a glass of wine and excellent tapas.


6 Sagrada Familia and Hospital de Sant Pau


The still-unfinished Sagrada Familia must be one of the most crowded tourist sites on the planet. And you must see it. The foundation stone was laid in 1882 and Gaudi worked on the building for more than 40 years. After a long hiatus, the work continues. Now one of the city's symbols par excellence, the Sagrada Familia defies analysis or description. Models and other information can be viewed in the museum in the crypt - if you are prepared to queue for hours. The better option is to get away from the crowds and head up the extremely pleasant Avinguda Gaudi, stopping at each intersection to look back upon a magnificent perspective of the Sagrada Familia. Ahead, you will see the entrance to a fabulously colourful hospital, an ensemble of modernista buildings designed in the late 19th century by Lluis Domenech i Montaner. The Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau (another World Heritage site) is a unique synthesis of the arts and crafts that also satisfied the strictest standards of hygiene of its time.


7 Park Guell and Gracia


Gaudi's World Heritage park, recently painstakingly restored, was originally planned as a garden city but only a few buildings were completed, including the gingerbread gatehouse. Here are some of Barcelona's most famous visual symbols: Gaudi's mosaic dragon or lizard, the monumental plaza with its colourful serpentine bench made in trencadis (bits of ceramic), and fabulous views over the city. The park stretches up the hill, with quieter, twisting paths through Mediterranean woods. All the architectural elements such as the viaducts blend effortlessly with nature. Instead of going straight back into town, walk down to the Gracia neighbourhood. One feature contributing to Barcelona's liveliness is that its art and architecture, monuments and culture are all jumbled together. Turn into the unprepossessing Carolines Street, past grocers and electrical suppliers, and tucked away at the end is Gaudi's first building. Green and white, tiled and turreted, with the flicker of a TV visible through the blinds, and a motorbike parked in the tiny courtyard, it is still lived in by the family of the original owners.


8 The Waterfront


Barcelona is proud of its waterfront and 4km of beaches. Little more than a decade ago a wasteland of derelict factories, warehouses and railway lines, it was redeveloped for the 1992 Olympics. Start your walk at the handsome Museu de la Historia de Catalunya, past the sparkling Old Port. The criss-cross of narrow streets on the other side is Barceloneta, the traditional fishermen's district and home to the best seafood restaurants in town. Follow the locals - ignore the touts - and eat at El Suquet de l'Almirall (No65) or Can Costa (No70). Continue left to the Olympic Village and the restaurant, bar, and disco-jammed Olympic Port. Here you can bike, skate, sunbathe and swim. And you can walk all the way along the beach to the new (but disappointing) Diagonal Mar development and the Forum 2004 exhibition.


9 Montjuic


What a pleasure it is to glide up into the fragrant pines of Montjuic Hill on the escalators from Placa Espanya and see Barcelona spread out below. The largest green area in the city, Montjuic is a city in itself: a castle, five museums, parks and botanical gardens, amusement park, the Spanish Village, the Olympic Stadium and the Palau Sant Jordi sports pavilion, swimming pools ... Eat at the Restaurante de la Fundacio Joan Miro and enjoy some contemporary sculpture, mostly by Miro, in the adjoining garden.


10 Catalan Cuisine


The food is eminently Mediterranean, based on nuts, garlic, olive oil, tomatoes and herbs. One of the simplest and yet most delicious dishes is pa amb tomaquet: a large slice of fresh country bread (toasted or not) rubbed with tomato, drizzled with virgin olive oil and topped with Iberian ham, cheese, anchovies, or whatever you're eating. Fresh ingredients are quintessential, as are unexpected combinations such as squid with chocolate or goose with pears. Now Barcelona is the capital of the most innovative cuisine in recent years, spearheaded by Ferran Adria, the man Gourmet magazine called the Salvador Dali of the kitchen. While you might wait years to get a table at his Costa Brava shrine, his influence has trickled down to more affordable places. A great place to savour creative Mediterranean is La Semproniana (Rossello, 148). The whimsical furnishings of this former printworks make a change from Barcelona's extreme design consciousness. Don't shirk the marinaded garlic they bring as a tapa. And leave room for the pure chocolate dessert called Delirium Tremens.