The medieval and risque Barri Gotic is the heart of Barcelona. No where in Europe can you find such a concentration of Gothic buildings in such a small space and it needs at least an afternoon of sightseeing to do it justice. The great sights of La Seu and the Picasso museum draw in the crowds who share the narrow medieval streets with Catalans who have lived here for generations. This is the authentic Barcelona whose age-old inhabitants stare from balconies at tourists making their way from sight to sight and whose character changes immediately that night falls.
To reach it is easy as it forms a narrow maze of alleys and streets stretching from La Ramblas in the west to the Parc de Citudella in the west. From the north it can be reached from Placa de Catalunya and the Porta del Angel (with its small market) and from the south where it touches the port at Rambla del Mar. This is the most seedy part of the Barri Gotic called the Barri Xines and is infested with petty crime and prostitution. Catalan nationalism is at its most fervent here with most balconies draped with the red and yellow flag of Catalonia. But to me it is the most authentic with apartment blocks going back to the time of Charles V built on streets so narrow they are nearly touching each other.
Most tourists head straight for La Seu - the great gothic cathedral. Coated with the grime of age the iglesia is squeezed between narrow alleys and is only its facade is only visible from the Placa de Sant Jaume. Inside it is impressive with a great soaring knave and statues of the saints that light up when money is deposited. An arcaded cloister with a tropical garden is in its centre and contains a pond with a gaggle of honking geese. But to me the highlight was at the front of La Seu where on the Placa de Sant Jaume the semana, the national dance of Catalunya, was being performed. This expression of catalan pride was banned under Franco and now tourists can join in with locals as they hold hands and dance to the music.
Nearby along Carrer Boqueria (where a lot of cheap hostales are based) is the exqusite Placa Reial. This is the most beautiful square in Barcelona - a 19th century Italianate plaza dotted with fountains, palm trees and and iron lamposts (designed by Gaudi)When we were there a coin market was being held and tourists and locals milled around watched over by the Guardia Civil. The restaurants on Placa Real was fabulous and we enjoyed garlic bread, fresh olives and pollo paella in the sunshine for a very reasonable price.
The Barri Gotic continues eastwards until it hits the Parc du Citudellla. The eastern half is a little less touristy and seedy and contains the Museu Picasso. I had had my fill of art in Madrid so I didn't go in but the narrow lane that houses it - the Carrer Montcala was very atmospheric. If you need a breath of fresh air when touring the Barri Gotic then head for Parc du Citudella. A great Catalan Arc de Triomphe stands at its northen edge or you can simply lay down by the boating lake and listen to the finches chirrup in the palm trees above you...