By Victor Block
A maze of twisted, narrow streets and alleyways is hemmed in by gray, age-worn medieval Gothic buildings with hints of the Roman Empire that once held sway here. Close by, a virtual outdoor museum of fanciful, multihued structures entices the imagination and tickles the funny bone of passersby. Other visitors to the city, who are relaxing on a broad sand beach, hope to achieve a tone of tan from the sun.
If any city offers a banquet for the senses, it is Barcelona. Its location at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea, beguiling mixture of ancient and modern architecture and colorful street life would be more than enough to satisfy the hallmarks of most urban centers. In Barcelona, this is only the start.
How many municipalities can boast of beaches within city limits that invite sunbathers and swimmers from spring to fall? Nine beaches stretch 2.5 miles along Barcelona's Mediterranean coastline. Each section has a different name and character. Some attract the volleyball and bikini crowd; others appeal to a more sedate clientele.
The city's Gothic neighborhood, Bario Gotico, is one of several intriguing areas that beckon visitors to wander through the same streets that people did 800 years ago. During the fourth century, when present-day Barcelona was part of the Roman Empire, this quarter was enclosed by Roman walls. There are reminders of that time nestled among churches and other buildings from the 14th and 15th centuries.
Close to the churches stands the Sinagoga Major de Barcelona, the Ancient synagogue. Archeological estimates of when the synagogue was built on Roman foundations range from the third to sixth centuries. The building has gone through a number of renovations, including one in the 13th century when King Jaume 1 el Conqueridor, (James I the Conqueror), authorized an addition to its height, despite a law that no synagogue could be taller than the smallest church.
Barcelona is also home to world-class museums, including those dedicated to the works of two of the greatest artists of all time. Pablo Picasso moved to Barcelona when his father obtained a job at the School of Arts, where the young artist began to acquire his skills. The Picasso Museum displays works from his life in Barcelona and Paris, including paintings, drawings, etchings, engravings and lithographs.
Joan Miro was born in Barcelona, and the museum dedicated to him holds the largest public collection of his works. Exhibits cover the evolution of his styles, from his earliest artistic awakening to his final creative period.
Many people who don't visit the museum are introduced to a work by Miro, although they may not realize it. A brightly colored, abstract mosaic by the artist is set in the pavement of the popular street called Las Ramblas and goes unnoticed by most people who stroll down the avenue.
Actually, "the Rambles," consists of five streets laid end to end to create a continuous broad avenue. More market than motor vehicle thoroughfare, it's lined with cafes, flower stalls, newspaper kiosks, bird shops and vendors selling a variety of other goods.
Located just off Las Ramblas is a building that was designed by the world-renowned architect whose work is the primary reason many people visit Barcelona. The Palau Guell, an elaborate mansion constructed for a wealthy industrialist in the late 19th century, was designed by Antoni Gaudi, whose fanciful creations explored the interplay between architecture and nature.
Here in Gaudi's creations are swirling turrets, undulating rooflines and other imaginative shapes — all in a whimsical variety of bright colors. Many examples of Gaudi's playful imagination come alive at the Casa Batllo, which many people consider to be his most emblematic work.
The building's wavy stone and glass facade is decorated with fragments of colored glass and ceramic discs. The arched roof, irregular oval windows and sculpted stone adornments suggest that Gaudi's goal was to avoid straight lines completely. Skeletal shaped columns have prompted locals to nickname the building "casa del ossos," or "house of bones."
Among the works by Gaudi that are sprinkled throughout the city like jewels, one stands above all others in its imagination, inspiration and sheer magnitude. If ever there was a work in progress, it is the Sagrada Familia Cathedral, his most celebrated masterpiece, whose construction began in 1882.
The goal now is to have it completed by 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudi's death. Construction of the massive cathedral has progressed under the direction of several architects, who have continued to follow his dramatic vision. When finished, the structure will have 18 towers that will look out over the city below, along with other touches of Gaudi's dream.
A very different architectural treasure welcomes visitors to El Poble Espanyo (the Spanish Village): An open-air museum that offers an introduction to the country's cultures and architectural heritage. Strolling along winding streets and squares occupied by outdoor cafes provides immersion in the atmosphere of a Spanish town, but one that brings together 117 outstanding architectural gems from throughout the country. They range from an exact copy of an entrance gate into an 11th century town to a 15th century house in La Mancha that is adorned by balconies from which the residents once watched bullfights.
The Spanish Village also introduces visitors to typical crafts from around Spain in nearly two dozen workshops where artisans make and sell pottery, textiles, baskets and other wares. Adding to the realistic setting are 21 restaurants and cafes that offer fare that ranges from traditional tapas dishes to diet busting, multicourse meals.
After feasting on the architectural and other riches of Barcelona, what better way to end a day than to dine on cuisine representative of the area where it is located, as well as that of the entire country.
WHEN YOU GO
For more information about a visit to Barcelona, visit www.barcelonaturisme.com.
Victor Block is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.