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Bewitching Barcelona

| Sunday, Oct. 29, 2006

Last June, banners on every Catalonian highway overpass and numerous billboards urged citizens to vote "Catalunya Si!" They did -- approving a new constitution that gives greater autonomy to this Spanish region. Now travelers should opt in for this area's attractions.

Regional pride is everywhere in Spain, but in this northeast corner of the country, citizens identify first as Catalan, then as Spanish. The local lingua references French, reflecting close historical ties between the two regions. Road signs and restaurant menus are distinctly bilingual: Catalan and Spanish.

For most of its history, the region struggled through ping-pong politics, imposing external domination. In between strife, though, came periods of prosperity that shaped a rich cultural identity. Today, Catalonia and its vibrant capital, Barcelona, are hot!

Benefiting from a strong industrial and commercial base, Barcelona combines its modern urban dynamic with a relaxed, "old world" grace, playfulness and style.

Numerous landmark buildings dot the city -- a treasure trove of Art Nouveau-inspired architecture, most notably Antoni Gaudi's masterworks. Since 1975, especially in the years of preparation for the 1992 Olympic Games, the city polished its assets -- ancient, medieval, Art Nouveau and 21st century. The result: radiant sophistication.

What to do

Stroll, mingle with crowds on the main thoroughfares, wander the winding lanes of the old city, window shop, nibble on tapas, sip coffee, beer or wine, visit museums, explore amazing architecture.

What's there

Medieval Barcelona emerges in the area surrounding the Cathedral. Its facade wasn't completed until the 19th century, but engaging chapels surround a fine medieval cloister, with resident white geese said to bring good fortune. Traces of Roman walls can be seen nearby.

Adjacent El Born, near the original port, was once a residential area for the city's working sailors and longshoremen. Old buildings shade the narrow streets, but gentrification adds trendy boutiques, restaurants and hotels, as well as the Picasso Museum.

City highlights

Parc Ciutadella: Traditional and modern sculptures punctuate an extensive open space with beautiful gardens and lakes. The 1888 Universal Exhibition filled the park, although only three Expo buildings remain. The Parc also houses the zoo and features an impressive arc de triomf -- the original Exhibition entrance.

La Rambla is Barcelona's best-known thoroughfare. Fronted by several fine Modernista (aka Art Nouveau) buildings, it extends from the huge Placa Catalunya to the harbor and its grand monument to Christopher Columbus (who departed from and returned here on his first voyage to the new world). This broad pedestrian thoroughfare famously gives venue to "living statues," other street performers, flower stalls, cramped-caged birds and also pick-pockets. A short distance away, cafes ring the large, handsome Placa Royale .

Antoni Gaudi: His amazing structures express the Catalonian soul. Sign up for an organized tour, or study self-guide routes to experience the best of his extant works.

Oddly, two of his most impressive ventures could be classified as failures.

Parc Guell, intended to be a housing community, realized only one of its planned homes. Still it ranks as an amazing public park. On a steep hillside, overlooking Barcelona, the fantastical environment rolls out inventive embellishment and whimsical forms. Multi-colored, patterned tile fragments envelop every surface. The house where Gaudi lived while working on the park is a museum dedicated to his life and works.

For La Sagrada Famiglia, the project to which he devoted the last 16 years of his life, he achieved only the graceful east end Nativity tower complex. After his death, work on this masterpiece stalled through Spain's 1930s Civil War. Today, the modern effort to complete construction, lacking sensitivity and craftsmanship, violates Gaudi's vision. But find in the east facade a celestial experience.

Great markets and shopping

Along La Rambla, La Boqueria is the quintessential covered market. Gawking tourists press elbow-to-elbow with locals shopping for food. To get the best ingredients, savvy restaurateurs arrive at 4 a.m. From breakfast to early evening, the market provides tapas and snacking options galore.

Beginning at the Placa Catalunya, Passeig de Gracia, a broad avenue lined with benches, offers serious high-end shopping. Get an annotated street map to identify the best architectural gems along this route.

The stylish Avenue Diagonal west of the Passeig houses more fine shops and boutiques.

Marvelous museums

The Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya provides an overdose of regional art and architecture. Instead, visit the more intimate Musee Picasso. Picasso spent some early years in the city, and the collection here includes mostly works from that period. Also, atop Montjuic, the Fundacion Joan Miro occupies a fine modern building housing a brilliant tribute to the vibrant works Miro, a native son.

Monjuic is a great area to explore. Stop by the replica of the 1929-built Pavello Mies van der Rohe to admire the famous Barcelona Chair.

The Fundacion Tapies pays tribute to another native son, Antoni Tapies. His large, whimsical wire sculpture--a chair amid clouds--adorns the roof.

Several of Gaudi's buildings can be toured, most notably Casa Mila and Casa Batllo.

Beach break

Adjacent to Barceloneta, the city's port section, is Port Olympic, built for the aquatic events of the 1992 games. From here a sandy beach stretches several kilometers to the east, interspersing quiet spots and animated areas of densely packed cabanas, beach beds, umbrellas, food concessions and crowds of sun worshippers.

Fabulous food

In Catalonia, eating deliciously well is guaranteed. From Michelin-starred restaurants to modest tapas bars, the food sings.

Chef Carles Gaig is widely considered the father of modern Catalan cuisine. At his namesake, Gaig Restaurant , one Michelin-starred restaurant, he works magic with lighter sauces, fresh regional ingredients, pristine fish and plenty of offal -- stuffed pig's feet, tripe

For more traditional Catalan food, try Ca L'Isidre , long-favored by Spanish royalty. Owner Isidre Girons, called "the Prince of the Boqueria," changes his menu daily based on the market's best offerings.

Chef Cesar Pastor owns elegant Colibri , hummingbird in Spanish, a name referencing the restaurant's original tiny space. Now in sleek spacious quarters, Pastor executes a contemporary, high-flavor menu featuring fabulous seafood, plus memorable steak tartare, foie gras-stuffed pig's trotters and boned pigeon.

Tapas bars are everywhere. Long lines form for the well-known ones--El Quim and Bar Pinoxto, in Le Boqueria; Cal Pep. Several cluster on the Passeig near Placa Catalunya.

The idea: find a concentration of them, so you can hop--taking a tapa and a drink at one, then moving on to another. Note that sitting outside at a sidewalk table bumps up the price.

New restaurants, with relaxed menus, such as Habaluc , are springing up throughout the city. Ask a local to steer you to these neighborhood spots.

Other recommended dining destinations: Alkimia, Arola, Cinc Sentits, Commerc 24, Hisop, Moo, Neichel and Sauc. You'll surely run out of meal times before restaurant choices.

Nearby notables

Catalonia's world-renowned restaurant, the revolutionary El Bulli, is a several hours drive from Barcelona and impossible to reserve. But two Michelin three-star establishments, not to be missed, are within around 30 miles.

Chef Santi Santimaria and his restaurant director/spouse Angels Serra have operated Can Fabes , in St. Celoni for more than 25 years. With a second restaurant in Madrid and a stunning new one just opened in Barcelona, this husband and wife team could easily be distracted. But, still based in Santi's home town, they've remodeled and expanded Can Fabes.

The smart dining room and show kitchen positively sparkle. The addition of five luxury rooms accommodates overnight guests. Seasonal menus include game and specialty seafood like langostines and octopus. The rabbit is local, but the pigeon comes from Gascony because Santi thinks it's the best in the world.

The small seaside town of St. Pol de Mar is home to Restaurant Saint Pau . Extraordinary chef Carme Ruscalleda heads the kitchen, while husband Toni Ballain meticulously presides over a handsome interior. Recent remodeling and expansion of the kitchen provides the chefs with a view of the charming garden and the sea just beyond, across the railroad tracks at the back of the beach. Frequent trains from Barcelona get you here in less than an hour.

The only female chef in Spain to have three Michelin stars -- there are only four in the world -- Carme is passionate about her food. She combines modern and traditional concepts to produce an incomparably delicious dining experience. Plate presentations reflect her artistic talent. Some of her culinary creations actually derive from specific works of art.

Expect adventurous flavor, temperature and texture combinations, fabulous fresh seafood, baby lamb with ethereal seasonings and an ever changing selection of cheeses. Enjoy pre-dessert and dessert courses in the garden in season.

If you go: Barcelona

USAirways offers a daily direct flight from Philadelphia to Barcelona only between May and October. Other times, connect to another carrier in Madrid. Iberia Air and several major U.S. carriers depart from Boston and New York year round.

From Barcelona airport, take a 20-minute, 40-Euro taxi ride to city center. Or, Eurobus offers bus service to Placa Catalunya. The Metro is another option. Car rental agencies have offices in the city and at the airport, but, unless you intend to tour the countryside, don't rent a car: Parking is difficult and expensive.

Touring the city

It's best done on foot. If needed, cabs are plentiful. The efficient Metro system crisscrosses the city quickly, but beware of pick-pockets. Two tourist bus routes, with a wide range of ticketing options, start from Placa Catalunya.

Where to stay

Design Hotels , a Germany-based hotel group has no less than eight properties in the city, including Hotel Cram, convenient to the Placa Catalunya and Passeig, although some rooms are small. Their Grand Hotel Central and Neri H&R are in El Born and Casa Camper in the city centre. NH Hotels , a European chain catering to the business traveler, offers several locations. The Hotel Arts, operated by Ritz Carlton , is an imposing high-class, high-rise in Barceloneta--not the most convenient location. The Hilton also is distant from the center but close to a Metro station and shopping on the Diagonal.

Notes

The currency is the Euro. ATMs are readily available, and most establishments accept major credit cards. Note that ATM withdrawals will incur a transaction fee of about $4.50 and a "foreign currency" fee of about 2 percent.

Many shops still observe "siesta," closing between 1 and 4 or 5 p.m. Lunch traditionally starts around 2:30 p.m. Sophisticated locals eat dinner after 10 p.m. Fortunately, though, as Barcelona adapts to more foreign visitors, some restaurants open for lunch closer to noon, and dinner as early as 8 p.m. is possible.

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