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The Catalan experience

My latest travels took me to Barcelona, the capital city of Catalonia in Spain. And what a city is, the place to me is a brilliant reminder of the incredible diversity of character in western Europe.

Las Ramblas

I was based not far from Las Ramblas, one of the most famous shopping parades in the world and bustling with tourists right from the 1 mile strip from the sea into the heart of the city.

Off the busy street, the real gem is all the small side-streets tucked away off Las Ramblas, some of which are incredibly narrow and weave their way out endlessly like branches from a tree trunk. Around these parts, it’s proper old style Barcelona. The highlight for me was the Gothic area located south east of the parade,  filed with unique craft shops embedded in  several hundred year old architecture. The streets become so narrow that it was clearly a pain to drive or even walk without knocking into someone. My best memory was hiring an electric bike and flinging it around the cobbled roads one afternoon dodging pedestrians, though given the age of the place it felt un-natural to ride anything that didn’t have four legs and a saddle.

Las Ramblas and Barcelona in general has a bad reputation for pickpocketing, so keeping all possessions tucked away was a must. Common sense had to prevail here, you might as well wear a T-shirt saying “Mug me” than doing things such as looking confused reading a map on a street or wearing shorts & hats. I didn’t do either of these but there were plenty who did, and so plenty who have probably gone home with lighter trouser pockets.

Gaudi

There’s a lot more to Barcelona than shopping in Las Ramblas. The city is steeped in history and it has a rich architectural heritage and there are many unique monuments scattered around the city, many of which designed by a man called Antonio Gaudi in the 19th century. His style is distinctive and strangely  contemporary, his buildings are quirky and very much inspired by nature. His most famous design is still under construction – some 150 years after it broke ground, and is of course La Sagrada Familia, a huge cathedral which is truly remarkable inside and out. Everything is great about this place (though not the queue size, glad I bought the ticket online), from the stained glass windows and the intricacy and size of  the interior pillars and artwork on the roof.

Barcelona (41 of 112)

Park Guell is, as the name suggests, a park to the west of the city which is dedicated to showcasing the works of Gaudi. If I’m honest, although the park itself is a beautiful and peaceful retreat from the Barcelona metropolis, there aren’t great number of monuments to see, but I’d go back there again in a heartbeat just to relive that gorgeous view over the whole city which you can get by climbing all the way to the top of the park.

Barcelona (25 of 112)

 

Exploring Catalonia

Getting out of Barcelona was something I was keen on doing to check out everything Catalonia has to offer outside the tourist realm.

Montseratt

Montseratt is one of the most famous and historic sites in Catalonia. It’s a monastery located high up in an oddly out-of-place mountain range about half an hour out of Barcelona.

Barcelona (68 of 112)

The Monastery is ancient (at least 800 years old) and although nothing really remarkable to look at, the location high up in the mountains does set it apart from anything else I’ve ever seen. The monastery is only accessible via cable car or mountain railway and the views far reaching to the Pyrenees mountains was a really great sight. A memorable moment at Montseratt was the young choir come and sing some hymns inside which was a great experience and took me back to my own hymn singing days!

The unique geography of Montseratt tempted me to go for a hike around the mountain for a couple of hours before heading back to the city, and I would highly suggest any visitor to do the same (depending on physical ability of course, it got me pretty sweaty to say the least!)

Girona

You can think of Girona as a little charming Barcelona. Because that’s exactly what it is, a real undiscovered treasure at it’s centre.

Barcelona (104 of 112)

 

The city has a river that snakes it’s way through the historic centre with an array of multi-coloured buildings lining it’s way. The streets are narrow but not bustling like in Barcelona, instead with the church bells ringing it has more of an eery feeling though still friendly and welcoming. Much like it’s sister city it still has a vast array of patisseries which I bet would be really enjoyable on a hot summer’s day!

Final Thoughts

Barcelona is one unique place. It’s not a cheap city, nor does it have the most number of attractions around, but I don’t think that matters.The place bursting with character and has it’s own charm which you can get a sense of by exploring the city off the tourist trail. Exploring the city on foot is easy and more enjoyable, and the efficiency and comfort of the transport systems – like the rest of Europe –  is impressive, so getting out into the countryside or day-tripping other cities is painless. The locals are approachable everywhere, and although only a minority speak English outside the city generally they try their best to communicate (even if conversations consist mainly of sign-language!)

I also have to give special mention to a fantastic restaurant called Teresa Carles, which offers a fully vegetarian multi-cuisine menu all with a unique Catalan twist. Not only was the food unlike anything I’ve tasted before (especially the Lasagna and Seitan Burger), but the ambience and location of the place – just off Las Ramblas – was great and I ended up eating there everyday. I’d recommend this restaurant even to the most hardcore carnivore.

Overall, Barcelona is absolutely a must visit, and it should be on the top of your city-break list if you spare the time to venture out of the city to get the full Catalan experience.

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