A Playground for the Imagination

Fed by the talents of artistic icons and nestled along a golden Mediterranean shore, Barcelona inspires and rejuvenates
travel, art, culture, lifestyle
Written By Lesley Conn
Image By Matthew Stephan

Older neighborhoods are pedestrian-friendly.

In a cobblestone courtyard one cool summer evening, a man standing spread-eagle in a stainless steel hoop begins to make lazy circles around diners clustered at linen-draped and candlelit café tables.

He rolls past, head up, then feet up, until he maneuvers toward open space, where he begins to spin like a glimmering human gyroscope. Most passersby give the performer a glance; some smile in appreciation, but few stop to admire. This is Barcelona, Spain, after all—a city that nurtured Pablo Picasso, Antoni Gaudí, Salvador Dalí and native son Joan Miró—a place where the avant-garde is displayed and embraced in everyday life.

Yet for all its artistic passion, Barcelona is also a city of simple pleasures, where afternoon is welcomed with the tradition of lunchtime vermouth cocktails, the strongest heat of the day is traded for late meals of tapas and wine, and where city streets are jammed with interesting shops and acclaimed architecture from the ornately Gothic to the more fanciful Catalan Modernism.

Walk the Walk

Image By iStock.com/MasterLu

Casa Batlló

Some of the city’s most celebrated architecture—and the best shopping—is on full display along Passeig de Gràcia, the tree-shaded avenue lined with dozens of couture shops such as Cartier, Escada, Rolex, Prada and Jimmy Choo.

Known as the Luxury Promenade, Gràcia is on par with New York’s Fifth Avenue and Paris’ Champs-Élysées. The road began humbly as the first expansion of the original city in the early 1800s. Before the century was out, it was the place to live for the wealthiest citizens, whose mansions became the canvases for architects of the Modernism movement led by Gaudí. Seven of his creations, including the undulating, militaristic La Pedrera (also known as Casa Milà) and aquarium-like Casa Batlló, both on the avenue, are World Heritage sites. From hand-detailed sidewalk tiles to swirled street lamps and fanciful, vibrant exteriors, Gràcia is a visual but low-key wonderland.

For a more high-tempo experience, venture along Las Ramblas, a series of avenues in the original part of the city. Though it can be quite tourist-heavy, there is much to explore, including the famous Boqueria Market where customers can wander along open-air stalls and enthrall the senses with the smells and tastes of the fresh produce and seafood sold and—in an adjoining restaurant—turned into light, tasty meals. As day turns to evening, sidewalk performers grow in number, many standing as silent statuary, to add another level of entertainment along Las Ramblas.

If Not, Not

Barcelona’s influences come from many directions. Begin with the more than 2 miles of sandy beaches and turquoise water that make up its eastern shore along the Mediterranean Sea; Barcelona’s status as a port city channeled new ideas and new cultures along with new wares into the city, while the water itself provided abundant seafood for local cuisine and a relaxed air of coastal living that still permeates today.

The city’s proximity to Majorca and the rest of the Balearic Islands also makes Barcelona attractive to the yachting crowd. Two superyacht marinas—Vilanova Grand Marina and Marina Port Vell—have undertaken renovations and expansions to serve a growing client base.

Due north lies Spain’s border with France and, a few hundred miles above, the city of Paris, long the radiant nucleus that both attracted and disseminated the latest ideas on art, fashion, food and style in Europe.

This is Barcelona, Spain, after all—a city that nurtured Pablo Picasso, Antoni Gaudí, Salvador Dalí and native son Joan Miró—a place where the avant-garde is displayed and embraced in everyday life.

Image By Matthew Stephan

Bold perspectives on art and life are on display at the Dalí museum.

Located in the far northeast part of the country known as Catalonia, Barcelona is nearer France than it is most of Spain, and that isolation helped set apart the region not only by geography but also ideology. Robert Hughes, author of two books about Barcelona, traces that independent streak back several centuries, perhaps most notably to a 15th century oath of fealty that Catalonians and neighboring Aragonese swore to their monarch: “We, who are as good as you, swear to you, who are no better than us, to accept you as our king and sovereign, provided you observe all our liberties and laws, but if not, not.”

Is it any wonder, then, that some of the most anti-establishment artists of their generation had a connection to Barcelona?

An Artist’s Environment

Together, Gaudí, Picasso, Miró and Dalí dominated the Surrealist, Cubist and Modernism movements, which all endeavored to break from tradition and view the world in new, fluid, multidimensional ways. From the late 1800s to the 1980s, as their lives and careers overlapped, their work redefined art.

From the Basilica of the Sagrada Família to the Passeig de Gràcia, Gaudí’s opulent creations are open to tours that detail his work and his methods. For a more leisurely, immersive experience, enter Park Güell, Gaudí’s most whimsical, Dr. Seuss-like creation. Over sloping hills in west Barcelona, Gaudí spread mosaic-laden buildings, grottoes, walkways and terraces. An oversized salamander, slinking down the center of a grand staircase, has become the iconic symbol of the park, and visitors will queue in long but good-natured lines for a photo next to the grinning reptile. Visitors who go late in the day are invited to stay as long as they like in the park, and many do to watch darkness fall over the city and, miles beyond, the tranquil sea.

Illustration By Brittany Porter

If Gaudí’s works are big and bold, Picasso’s by contrast are intense and intimate. Museu Picasso possesses about 4,500 of the artist’s works and displays about 400 at any one time. Standing before his work, there is an energy that is not experienced when viewing his masterpieces as reprints or web images, and the high-ceilinged, grand ballrooms—once part of 13th century palaces—give the works the space and drama they deserve. One of his earliest works, the brooding “Man in a Beret,” was completed in 1895. Picasso was only 14, and his family had just moved to Barcelona.

The Joan Miró Foundation, the center the artist created for his works, is about a 15-minute drive from Picasso’s museum and offers visitors the opportunity to walk among colorful, oversized sculptures and contemplate his use of line and color on canvas. Lest his pieces be considered child’s play, remember that one of his major works, “Peinture (Étoile Bleue),” sold at London auction in 2012 for more than US$36.9 million, a record price for the artist.

Though it requires about a 90-minute drive from Barcelona, Dalí’s theater and museum in neighboring Figueres is another feast for the eyes. Finding it won’t be too difficult: The exterior of the maroon-and-gold-accented museum is ringed at top with tremendously large white eggs standing on end. Inside, expect artwork, sculpture, even jewels and gold coins that put the artist’s singular style center stage.

Back in Barcelona, other museums offer unusual insights to creativity. Visit the Museu de la Música to see—and sometimes hear—instruments such as serpent-like brass horns and a walking stick that becomes a violin.

Even should you manage to visit all these sites, they represent only a fraction of the museums and places that make Barcelona and the larger Catalonia region so distinctively different. The beauty is that Barcelona will be waiting again should you return.

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