Viva Barcelona!

Vibrant, gutsy and joyous, the real Barcelona is far more rewarding than the sanitized theme park that Woody Allen portrayed in Vicky Christina Barcelona. Michael Webb takes us on a tiki tour of one of his favorite European cities.

Gaudi and Picasso pull in the tourists, especially for the build-out of the unfinished Sagrada Familia Basilica, but there’s a constant sense of renewal in Barcelona. A prosperous independent city in the Middle Ages, it’s determined to regain its former eminence. The influx of visitors has driven up prices, but bargains can still be found. The futuristic Emma Hotel, a member of the hip Room Mate Hotels group, offers a stylish room with great lighting, plus friendly service and a convenient location for around 100 Euros a night. There are a dozen restaurants within an easy stroll, ranging from the funky Balthazar to the sybaritic tapas lounge of the Hotel Omm, and the plain, serious Ponsa for classic Catalan fare.

Las Arenas is a hot new attraction. The original bullring was built in 1900 and abandoned in the 1970s, even though it had hosted rock concerts, the circus and opera as well as bloody fights. Now it’s been transformed into a mixed-use center that’s as different from the standard shopping mall as Hermes is from your neighborhood tailor. Spiky red steel props support the gorgeously restored neo-Moorish brick skin; within the rotunda yellow-steel pylons support an umbrella-like roof. Escalators carry you up past shops and movie theaters to a gym with a running track that encircles the building. At the top you step out onto a viewing terrace lined with restaurants and cafes that stay open until 2am.

Las Arenas Shopping & Entertainment Center

From here you can climb the hill of Montjuic to visit CaixaForum, a bank-sponsored art foundation that occupies an ornate brick factory by a contemporary of Gaudi. There’s always an interesting exhibition and admission is free. Across the street is a reconstruction of the German Pavilion that was designed by Mies van der Rohe for the 1929 World’s Fair. It’s a modernist icon on a travertine podium with richly patterned marble walls; an oasis of serenity. A bus carries you to the top of the hill, passing the site of the 1992 Olympics and the National Museum of Catalonia Art to arrive at the Miro Foundation: cool white galleries full of brilliantly colored paintings and sculpture. The terrace overlooks the city, and a funicular descends to the Parallel metro station.

Another brand-new attraction is the Museu Blau, which tells the story of Earth and the universe, in striking videos, sparkling minerals, and a vast natural history collection. It’s located at the end of the Diagonal, a broad axis that links the old city to the sea. The same Swiss architects who designed the huge triangular Forum building for a 2004 conference, have returned to give it new life, and the exhibits are presented like spotlit actors on a darkened stage. Who knew that rocks and stuffed animals could have such an impact? A globe simulates the evolution of the continents, and millennia race by as a single land mass splits apart to create familiar outlines and then closes up again.

When the summer heat and crowds become overwhelming, you might rent a car and take a 90-minute drive to the idyllic village of Olot in the Catalan Pyrenees, splurging on dinner at Les Cols. This country restaurant boasts two Michelin stars but it has deep roots in the countryside. Everything is locally sourced, from the morels to the rabbit, and chickens run wild outside the dining room. The cuisine is refined but simple, very different from Ferran Adria’s experiments at the now defunct El Bulli, which created headlines for Catalan inventiveness and spawned a short-lived craze for flavored nitrogen foams. A local architect has transformed the old stone farmhouse, adding a glass-walled kitchen, sleek dining rooms with gold-lacquered chairs and tables, and a tent of shimmering polyurethane for weddings and other events. Try to book one of six guest rooms: a surreal enclave of gravel paths, walls of Corten and green glass, and still pools. You may decide you’ve found your private heaven and never want to leave.

Getting to Barcelona is a breeze, thanks to Iberia—one of the few national airlines that is still flourishing in an era of consolidation. There are direct flights to Madrid from five US cities, and Business Plus offers first-class service and an exceptionally comfortable, fully reclining seat at a significantly lower price than other airlines. Coach is an even better deal. You fly into the soaring rainbow of the new Barajas terminal and hop on a train to the parallel domestic terminal for the “Air Bridge” shuttle: 18 hour-long flights a day to Barcelona. If you are staying in Madrid, you could take the 200mph AVE train to cover the same route in under three hours, but be warned: Atocha station is a multi-level, poorly signed maze, a nightmare to navigate.

Emma Hotel: C/ Rosello 205, Ph:  932 385 606, Email: emma@room-matehotels.com
Balthazar Restaurant: C/Rosello 189. Ph: 932 178 250
Omm Hotel: C/Rosello 265, Ph: 934 454 000
Ponsa Restaurant: Enric Granados 89, Ph:  934 543 602
Les Cols Restaurant: La Canya, Olot, Ph:  972 269 209, Email: lescols@lescols.com

Michael Webb

Michael Webb

Michael grew up in London and now lives in a classic modern apartment in Los Angeles. His twin passions are architecture and travel, and he indulges both as often as he can, exploring every continent in search of material and inspiration. His travel memoir, Moving Around: a Lifetime of Wandering (ORO Books, October) recalls memorable experiences of people and places over seven decades. Michael is the author of 28 other books, most recently Architects' Houses. He has written on travel and design for The New York Times, Travel & Leisure, Virtuoso Life, Monocle, Architectural Digest and other publications
around the world.
Michael Webb

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  1. Kailyn Hart on May 18, 2011 at 11:02 am

    whoa O Barcelona is gorgeous. I love the buildings.

  2. Viva Barcelona! - URBANistaURBANista.Co on January 15, 2012 at 8:44 pm

    […] Viva Barcelona! Vibrant, gutsy and joyous, the real Barcelona is far more rewarding than the sanitized theme park that Woody Allen portrayed in Vicky Christina Barcelona. Michael Webb takes us on a tiki tour of one of his favorite European cities. […]

  3. Sofie on November 7, 2012 at 9:56 am

    I just love Barcelona: beach, harbor, old town, culture, architecture and shopping. What else could you want?

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