Food, fun and Figueres in Barcelona

If it's hip and happening, it's in Barcelona, one of Europe's most dazzling cities, as Jo Wiles discovered on a visit to the Catalonian capital in Spain.

Ole, ole, ole, ole ... it's 1am and the locals — or Barceloneses as the people of Barcelona are known — are just warming up; thrumming their fingers, stamping their heels and emitting the unmistakable yelps of people having fun. We are singing and yelping, too, thanks to a couple of jugs of sangria and the passionate, frenetic rat-tat-tat of a flamenco fusion band whose percussionist sports a T-shirt that reads simply, "BLING".
There's a lot of bling about Barcelona. The city that started life 2000 years ago as a Roman military camp called Barcino and burst on to the world stage as host of the 1992 Olympic Games, is today one of the hippest, most dazzling cities on earth. Art lovers, bar hoppers, backpackers, families and serious students of Dali, Picasso, Miró and the great Modernista architect, Antonio Gaudi, will never be bored in Barcelona.
From the soaring towers of Gaudi's unfinished masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia, to the neon-bright bars of the Barri Gotic in the city's medieval quarter, there is surprise and diversion at every turn. This is a city that rises at 10am, lunches at 2pm, takes a siesta at five and goes to dinner at 9.30pm — then wants to party from midnight until dawn. It's also a city of sublime beauty and unabashed grime, a treasure house of Gothic and Modernista (Art Nouveau) architecture and a place of passionate politics and a fierce pride forged in the fires of Spain's bloody civil war.
Don't even think about driving. Not only is parking impossible, but thieves are known to strip rental cars of their contents. Use the easy, efficient Metro. Five colour-coded lines will get you to all the sights.
*TIP: Buy an orange carte with 10 rides. It can be used by 10 people for one ride or 10 rides for one person.*
First-time tourists can get their bearings by boarding either the blue or green sightseeing bus that departs regularly from the port near Christopher Columbus' statue. This hop-on, hop-off Bus Turistic tour visits the major attractions (Port Olimpic, the zoo, maritime museum, palace, Miró Fundacio) and its ticket price includes discount vouchers that can be used any time for the best ones.
La Sagrada Familia
By all means immerse yourself in the museos of Picasso, Miró and Dali, but if you see only one thing in Barcolona, make sure it's La Sagrada Familia, Antonio Gaudi's astonishing, uplifting cathedral for the common man (and woman). Started in the 1880s and due for completion in 2026, the church is funded completely by public donation and was the life's work of this Modernista genius, a man dubbed "God's architect", and now slated for sainthood. Arrive at 9am and go straight to the lifts for a bird's eye view of heaven and Hosanna and Excelsius written in tiles on the lofty spires. Gaudi is buried below the jackhammers and cranes in a crypt accessible only during Mass celebrated daily at 9am and 7pm. The shop stocks the best Gaudi souvenirs in town.
*TIP: Take an evening picnic to the park across the road. At 10pm precisely, the cathedral is lit up in all its glory. At weekends, watch the men playing boule or the Catalan game of bittles, a form of skittles where players throw a wooden pin and try to knock down five out of six skittles. Top points go to the player who leaves one standing.*
Parc Guell
Escape the heat and hustle of the city with a picnic in this 20ha hilltop oasis. Designed by Gaudi as a refuge for wealthy Barceloneses and named after his patron, Parc Guell contains not only his famous mosaic salamander and panther head fountains, wave seating and extruded rock columns, but also Gaudi’s own house, which you can tour.
*TIP: Take a taxi and arrive at the front gate. If you go by train, you'll have several hundred steps to climb to the top of the park.*
Palau de la Musica Catalana
This extraordinary concert hall with its awe-inspiring stained glass dome, decorative mosaic columns and Catalan imagery of roses and St George is to Barcelona what the Sydney Opera House is to Australia. Inaugurated in 1908 by Modernista master Lluis Domenech i Montaner, it is now a UNESCO world heritage site and choral venue that even the most rabid rock fan will love.
*TIP: Book early for the very popular daily tour in English.*
Santa Maria del Mar
According to art critic Robert Hughes, "There is no grander or more solemn architectural space in Spain" than this gothic church, built over 60 years by the people of Barcelona and completed in 1383. Despite the ravages of the civil war, which stripped most of its baroque decoration, its soaring, vaulted interior remains a place of wonder.
*TIP: Don't miss seeing the exquisitely painted chapel of angels on the right of the nave.*
Casa Batllo
With its dragon tile roof, mask-like balconies and blue-green façade decorated to look like a painting of Monet's waterlilies, this is arguably Antonio Gaudi's most beautiful building and its interior is a marvel of Modernista curves, stained glass and clever engineering. It's on the ritzy shopping strip of the Passeig de Gracia and is open Mon-Sun from 9am-8pm.
*TIP: Buy a paper fan as a souvenir from Casa Batllo's small, but funky shop and stay cool.*
Casa Mila
Also by Gaudi, this is one of the world's most famous apartment buildings. Nicknamed La Pedrera ("the quarry") for its cave-like appearance and sentinel chimney pots, it contains a fully restored apartment and rooftop laundries.
*TIP: Take the English tour daily at 4pm. In summer, follow this with cocktails or a flute of cava, the local champagne, on La Pedrera's rooftop terrace overlooking Barcelona.*
By day, the famous Bar del Pi in the Barri Gotic. By night, there's the Harlem Jazz Club for flamenco fusion, Brazilian and blues, as well as jazz, Al Limón Negro for world music and head to the Gracia district to Zigzag, Bikini or Fonfone for dancing.
*TIP: Nothing starts before midnight.*
Passeig de Gracia for upmarket brand names; The Diagonal and Eixample for homewares; La Rambla for everything from tourist T-shirts to exotic macaws; the Barri Gotic for unusual, chic shops, including La Manual Alpargatera at Carrer d'Avinyo, 7, where Catherine Zeta Jones, Jack Nicholson and the late Pope all bought their espadrilles, and Casa Oliveras, a fourth-generation lace shop in Carrer de Dagueria.
For fast, fresh, fabulous food — think razor fish, prawns, squid, swordfish and tortillas of every type — you can't beat eating at El Quim or one of the licensed bars in the Mercat de la Boqueria Sant Josep, the covered fruit and veggie market, off La Rambla. For coffee and cakes, go to Escriba, a pastry-making dynasty housed in an Art Nouveau showcase on La Rambla. For tapas, try the chorizo in cider, deep-fried olives, or ham and cheese croquettes at Sagardi or any bar in El Born or a pre-club paella at La Concha, in the Barri Gotic. For more upmarket fare and Catalan cuisine try Casa Calvet in its original Gaudi setting, Agut in Carrer d'En Gignas 16, Els Quatre Gats, Restaurant 7 Portes and, for a casa countryside lunch a short taxi ride from town, Can Travi Nou.
If you can stay for a week or are travelling with friends, rent an apartment. An all mod-cons apartment for six people in hip'n'happening El Born costs $340 a night. Book online through www.oh-barcelona.com or www.bcninternet.com. If you're staying only a few nights and are sightseeing from dawn to dusk, choose a hotel close to the sights. One of the cheapest is the Hotel Penisular, Sant Pau 34, off La Rambla in the slightly edgy El Raval area. Clean, friendly and $120 a night.
Trip the light fantastic to Figueres, the birthplace — and final resting place — of Salvador Dali. The great surrealist is buried within his Teatro-Museu Dali, a former theatre decorated with a façade of bread rolls and giant eggs, and showcasing the artist's life's work from eye-popping art and exquisite jewellery to sculptures three storeys high and the artist's skewball take on the Sistine chapel, The Feet of Dali (as opposed to the Hand of God).
Arrive early to beat the crowds. Don't miss seeing the Mae West room and the ruby-studded, beating "royal heart". And treat yourself to a fabulous Dali "melting time" watch in the museum shop.
Next, head along the coast to Cadaques for a lazy lunch on the beach or a dip in the Mediterranean before driving to the tiny fishing village of Port Lligat — a must for devotees of Dali. It is here in a whitewashed jumble of fishermen's huts that Dali and his wife, Gala, lived for 40 years. Only eight people at a time are allowed to tour the house, so book ahead for a wonderfully intimate glimpse into the life — and bedroom, bathroom and studio — of one of 20th century's greatest artists.

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