A thriving Mediterranean port since antiquity, Barcelona is culturally rich, tolerant, hospitable and stylish. Besides the Summer Olympics, which will be held there July 25 to Aug. 9, there are other sites and activities for visitors to see and do.
It's a city for eating, dancing, shopping -- and above all, a great place to take a walk. As much as any city in Europe, Barcelona rewards the walker with sights worth staring at. There are sumptuous buildings from many eras, richly adorned with wrought iron, stained glass and statues; a wide array of shops, food and artifacts; and a handsome population passionately involved in its own days and nights.
You can begin on Montjuic, "Mountain of the Jews," where the Olympic stadium is. (The name derives from the Middle Ages, when Moors, Jew and Christian shared Spain, and the Jews had their shops on the mountain.) Within walking distance is the Spanish Village, a display village that features the architectural styles of Spain, as well as shops that sell arts and crafts from all over the country, and many restaurants and nightclubs. Because the Spanish dinner hour is late -- typically from 9 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. or so -- you can see flamenco dancing over a late dinner and still have time to go to a jazz club from midnight till 3 a.m.
The Miro Museum is nearby, too. Unlike Picasso and Pablo Casals, the other great modern artists from the area, Miro remained in Barcelona through the Civil War and the Franco regime that followed and bequeathed a treasure trove of his art to his hometown. It is displayed with pride in a handsome building on Montjuic, well worth a visit.
Get a map, head for port
The best way to begin seeing the rest of Barcelona is to buy a city map, take a bus down the mountain to the Plaza Espanya, then ride the underground Metro to the port. Fast, dependable, clean and cheap, the underground train system is easy to understand: Just follow the route maps that are in every station ++ stop. One admission takes you wherever you want to go; transfer as many times as you like. Coupled with the bus system, which is equally efficient, it makes getting anywhere in Barcelona easy and fun.
At the port, of course, you must first see the Columbus statue, which is commanding on its high pedestal, insistently pointing to America. From Columbus, walk up the wide Ramblas toward the center of town. Most Barcelonans come here on Sundays and holidays to shop at the many stalls selling flowers, birds and crafts. Mixed with sailors and tourists, they create a crowd scene worth watching.
Usually, there will be a mime or two; a couple of street musicians and a few artists doing portraits; Moroccans selling belts, purses and scarves off a blanket; at least one reader of Tarot cards telling fortunes at a table; some Gypsies hawking posies for your buttonhole; and perhaps a serape-clad guitar-and-bongos band from Peru.
Then visit the Gothic Quarter
After you've strolled through this lively scene for three or four blocks, as far as, say, Calle Ferran, turn right and head for the Gothic Quarter. If you miss Ferran, take the next street, or the next -- just go to your right through a busy warren of increasingly narrow and jumbled streets.
The glory of Barcelona's Gothic section is that it's not a museum, a reconstruction or a display, but simply very old buildings, many built between the 13th and 15th centuries and continuously in use to this day. Some streets are almost as narrow as paths, with three- and four-story buildings towering vertiginously over them. Shops are often not much bigger than closets, piled to the ceiling with an odd assortment of goods: pastry and wine, bakery goods and dolls. Laundry flaps overhead on a cat's cradle of lines strung between windows. Restaurants often have three stools and four or five tables, one of which is on the sidewalk. The food and wine will be different in each, most of it very good.
Every street has its own pattern of cobblestones, or a row of ornate street lamps unlike any others in town. Students, musicians and artists live there for the cheaper rents -- for the same reason, garment, jewelry and textile wholesalers are there. There are several fascinating museums: Frederic Mares' collection of Catholic artifacts, a Picasso collection of mostly early work and the City Museum of History, under which is an excavated remnant of the Roman town that was once there.
If you can, visit this section on a Sunday; follow the crowds to the many-spired cathedral about 10:30 a.m., and watch the dancing in front of the church. They always dance the Sardana, the traditional dance of the Catalan region, of which Barcelona is the capital. People make a pile of whatever possessions they're carrying, then form a circle around the pike, holding hands. A brass band begins to play, and they dance a hopping, repetitive pattern with hands raised high.
Take the Metro and trolley