A one-mile stroll along La Rambla from Placa de Catalunya to the Monument a Colom takes less than an hour but the surprises and attractions that spring along the way make lingering around necessary if one wishes to relish the experience and get more than a general overview.
My first stopover was at the Palau de la Virreina, a baroque and neoclassical mansion that similar to other buildings in the area succeeded in thriving through more than two centuries of weathering and environmental pollution. The building’s exterior though majestic and enchanting is presently black and dirty and is urgently asking for a facelift. But this should in no way deter you from setting foot inside (entry is free) to see what this bustling cultural centre has to offer. Devoted mostly to temporary art exhibitions, it is the place to visit if you wish to come face to face with a diversity of contemporary Catalan works of art, predominantly on aspects of Barcelona. Still photography is well represented maybe to a greater extent than other forms of art, but paintings by prominent contemporary Catalan artists, projection of videos and films produced by amateur Spanish film makers, new book publications and other audiovisual creations are given a fair share as well. An excellent gift shop and cultural information point on the ground floor are additional conveniences.
A stone’s throw further south just off La Rambla is Barcelona’s legendary indoor food market and maybe Spain’s most colourful and exquisite assemblage of fruit, vegetable and fish retail stalls. This amazing ground floor metal-roofed space of generous dimensions is officially known as the Mercat de Sant Josep de la Boqueria as is clearly manifest from the colourful plaque that hangs above the main doorway. But in ten days I spent in Barcelona, I have never heard anybody referring to the place with its full name but rather more conveniently as La Boqueria.
Wandering through the passageways between rows of stalls amidst crowds of locals and the smell of fresh fish, freshly-baked bread and wholesome cuts of meat is an experience that food lovers will cherish with delight. Stopping in front of a stall to choose a seafood platter, a fresh-fruit bowl, a cup of exotic dried fruit or a plate of soaring tapas is an indulgence in the yummiest titbits Barcelona offers. The endless alleys of stalls at La Boqueria embrace incredible displays of all the appetizing goodies one may ever crave for. La Boqueria’s riot of colour and the neat orderly presentation of the products on display are unquestionably a feast for the eyes. Some enthusiastic visitors claim as well that the displays are in addition a work of art put up by arty vendors in a competitive attempt to attract the largest number of buyers possible.
Once the craving for typical Barcelona gastronomy was satisfied with enticing nibbles of good food and inventive snacks from La Boqueria, I walked further south with map in hand in an attempt to locate Barcelona’s Opera House. The Gran Teatre del Liceu, as Barcelona’s Opera House is known has a basic commonplace front elevation devoid of architectural ornamentation. With such an unpretentious façade, definitely undeserving for the main theatre of Catalonia’s capital, it is easy to give it a miss and leave it out of one’s itinerary. But a compensation for this shortage of exterior splendour is unquestionably provided inside. The huge horseshoe-shaped five-tier auditorium which one can admire from the stalls on the fourth floor is a gaudy gilded display of no-expense-spared extravaganza comprising more than two thousand metal-cast seats wrapped in elegant deep red drapery. A spectacular more-gold archway supported on Corinthian columns right in front of the stage and eight circular panelled roof paintings depicting landscape scenes add to the opulence of the place. In addition to the auditorium, another special attraction inside is the Hall of Mirrors, a sumptuous baroque hall with gilded stucco, ceiling frescoes, pictures of prominent musicians and well … a lot of glittering mirrors.
Even if you can’t afford a night of opera at the Liceu (tickets for any performance cost at least 60 Euro), you can still visit the place either on a twenty-minute unguided tour (daily at 11:30 am, noon, 12:30 pm, 1:00 pm) or on a seventy-minute guided tour (daily at 10:00 am). Before you leave, try your luck to locate the room (it’s right behind the souvenir shop) where an informative documentary about the history of the theatre and the equipment that goes into staging a production is screened from time to time.
After soaking up the solemn ambience of Barcelona’s Opera House, it is time to look for something more undemanding and frivolous. Nowhere within the city is better for a chill-out break in an ambience of palm trees and arched passageways than Placa Reial. Only steps away from the Liceu and just off La Rambla’s alternative boulevard, this is a spot where a plethora of eateries, bars and outdoor dining spaces abound. Finding a table here and starting a conversation with local hang-abouts is as easy as ABC even if your Spanish does not go beyond ‘si’ or ‘hola’. Any Barcelona resident one meets here seems to be a Gaudi enthusiast, flattering the architect’s collection of decorative lamps on the square beyond justification.
Back on the opposite side of La Rambla and only a few steps further south is Barcelona FC clubhouse. Merely a miniature substitute for the huge fully-equipped club at Camp Nou, it is not reserved solely for members but welcomes anybody whose interest in football goes beyond knowing the difference between a throw-in and a corner kick. In actual fact, the place is more than anything else a colourful sports bar, obviously with Barcelona FC as its main centre of attraction. Having been here when the Barcelona team was on the field was an exciting experience I had never cherished before. Supporters raised glasses and cheered whenever Lionel Messi or Gerard Pique or any other venerated player on the field hit the ball or tackled an opponent. This great place is needless to say not a stadium but the giant TV screens and the atmosphere provide the best alternative to the real thing. Breakfast specials are served daily from 6:00 am onwards while piled plates of tapas accompanied with beer on tap are on hand soon after. Do not bid farewell to the party of enthusiastic supporters before you choose a memento of the Barcelona team from the distinctive range available. For a reason one can easily make out, this seems to be expected of anybody who visits the place.
Further south as the sixty-metre high Colombus Monument comes into view, La Rambla becomes wider and grander mutating into a seaside resort that offers extensive views of Port Vell. For an impressive bird’s-eye view over the harbour, one can take the narrow elevator to the small viewing platform at the top of the Colombus Monument. Using a pair of binoculars from this vantage point is tantamount to getting an advantageous orientation of the harbour in view of rendering a stroll along the piers easy and painless.
A walk along Moll de les Drassanes and its continuation Moll de la Fusta is synonymous with absorbing the lively atmosphere that prevails on Barcelona’s harbour quays. Popular with visitors and locals alike, this spacious shoreline promenade is graced with benches that afford easy moments of comfort with a view. Endless rows of colourful boats and yachts moored to the piers provide enough spots of observation to keep sightseers occupied for hours. Keep an eye out for the Transbordador Aeri, the cable car stretched across the harbour from the Sant Sebastia Tower to the Montjuic Hill southwest of the city centre.
Before resuming your tour of the harbour shoreline, make a brief stop halfway along Moll de la Fusta to see the schooner Santa Eulalia. Moored to the Fusta quayside since 1998 when its restoration was faithfully and fully completed, Santa Eulalia is a unique example of a three-masted schooner that is still operative after almost two centuries sailing the waters. Adapted to take thirty passengers on half-day excursions, it does not use wind power any longer although masts, sails and rigging are fully in place and in running order. You can climb on board to explore the secrets of sailing and tons of maritime memorabilia.
If your visit of the harbour area happens to be on a Saturday or a Sunday, you have one extra point of interest to look into. On weekends from 11:00 am to 9:00 pm, the pier in front of the Colombus Monument is transformed into a lively arena of stalls where vendors display a random assortment of antiques and collector’s items. Known as the Brocanters del Port Vell, it is the place to come if you want to purchase vintage china figurines, brass ornaments, old watches and military paraphernalia. Striking a bargain is easy; wandering around amidst flocks of local punters is equally exciting and pleasurable.