Saturday, November 14, 2009


BARCELONA - I feel a bit wistful about leaving this lovely, pretty seaside city after just two nights and a day and a half. It is populated by stylish, quietly self-assured people, as good-looking as the beautiful people I saw in Rome, but seemingly less inclined to use fashion to Make a Statement. The locals are justly proud of the splash their city made while hosting the 1992 Summer Olympic Games, but Barcelona doesn't seem to be resting on its laurels. The place is lively, friendly and very much worth a visit. I just wish I could stretch it out.

Like every visitor to this Catalan metropolis tucked away in the northeast corner of Spain, I made a pilgrimage to see Sagrada Familia, the unfinished cathedral started by the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi. I could see the spires from my hotel, the Hotel Arts. I walked 40 minutes to get there, passing by a childrens' soccer game - er, futbol match - a butcher's shop with beautiful hams hanging in the window, pigs' feet still attached, and innumerable sidewalk cafes. Nearly all the tourists on hand seemed to be on bus tours. Elderly men and a few women played what appeared to be a local version of bocce ball in a vestpocket park facing the cathedral, oblivious to the tourists taking photographs and recording videos.

Although I made this tourist pilgrimage, I am not a true believer in Gaudi (1852-1926), whose name sounds somewhat like the English word "gaudy.' ' Appropriately so. The enormous building (adult admission 11 euros, 15 euros with a guide) is way over the top and way busy as design. Indeed, it theatens to give kitsch a bad name. I know Gaudi is a local hero, and I'd like to like him better, but Gaudi strikes me as an eccentric uncle with a budget.

So, that was a bit underwhelmng. But I loved everything else about Barcelona. The food, for one thing, is outstanding - fresh and flavorful, centered on seafood, sausages, ham and rice. I lucked out with temperate fall weather and dry skies, with days of hazy sunshine. I walked the Rambla Santa Monica and watched locals and visitors consume paella and enormous glass mugs of beer and sangria; they drank the sangria through straws. Mimes and street artists were everywhere, as were hawkers of apparel, keepsakes and artworks. Off on the sidestreets, things occasionally got grotty: a tatoo- and piercing-shop here, a peep show there - but for the most part, it was a fine-looking, popular, relaxed central-city promenade. Along the walkway by the sea, Rambla de Mar, sea breezes cleansed the air and families strolled to the city's aquarium and wandered along the wide, white-sand beach. Across the thrumming boulevard from the beach, big government buildings such the ornate, historic headquarters of the Port of Barcelona dominate the horizon. In the middle distance, rises a cylindrical building that is the spitting image of London's Gherkin. In the warm evenings, people are out late, enjoying the city.

It's an exceptionally fine place, Barcelona. Next time I come here, I hope to stay a good deal longer.

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