An alternative guide to Barcelona

For those who have already crossed the Sagrada Familia off their bucket list

“Seventy-two roads is closed today,” the taxi driver remarks in his endearingly fumbling English as we trundle down back-alley diversions towards the beating heart of Barcelona. “It’s crazy! There is a – how you say?” I move to fill his linguistic lacuna; he brushes off my attempts. “A – a manifestación in town.” Despite dismissing my Spanish degree as a redundant, £9,000 relic, he has a point. Catalonia’s controversial referendum – which resulted in 90 per cent of voters choosing independence – has sparked a politically fraught moment for the region, leaving it teetering woozily on the brink of autonomy. To better understand the upheavals of the city’s present, we must delve into its past, which is exactly what I did during my Barcelona Premium tour of its lesser-known historical landmarks.

I stayed at the newly opened OD Barcelona, a minimalist haven decorated with geometric shapes and a palette of cool, slate-grey tones, complete with flowing spaces designed for open-plan living. This boutique hotel is situated in the Eixample district – a stone’s throw from the city’s largest shopping street, Passeig de Gràcia – making it the ideal spot from which to explore Barcelona.       

My first agile sidestepping of tourist traps came courtesy of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Europe’s largest opera house, which has presided over the bustling Las Ramblas boulevard since 1847. To the soundtrack of my guide’s well-informed insights, I roamed the magnificent Mirrored Salon, where the plush red velvets and modernismo style of the intimately lit private members’ club gave way to high-gloss marble, dripping crystals and hand-painted ceilings. The walls, which are lined with quotations on the power of music, have recently proved a point of contention among the locals because they are written in Peninsular Spanish, rather than in Catalan. It has even been suggested that this ornate, gold-adorned calligraphy should be removed, since it serves as a reminder of Castilian dominance. In fact, the Liceu has been swept up in the febrile atmosphere of pre-referendum Barcelona, inadvertently setting the stage for a pro-independence rally in its auditorium earlier this month. Tensions are certainly running high.

This iconic cultural centre strives to preserve its legacy while adapting with the times. To this end, the theatre has incorporated 21st-century technology to enhance its viewing experience, fitting every seat with a screen for subtitles in a choice of three languages. Having recognised that, for the uninitiated, opera can feel impenetrable, the Liceu ensures that an employee explains the plot of each production an hour before the performance, thereby encouraging a broader clientele to engage with the art form.  

 

Although most visitors tend to wander Barcelona on foot, chartering a luxury sailboat is the perfect way to gain a new perspective on this popular city-break destination. As night drew in, I abandoned the flag-swathed pathways and headed down to Port Olímpic to see the sun set, in a blaze of flamingo pinks, while bobbing languorously along the Mediterranean. The physical exertion of the skippers’ hauling, straining and knotting translated into our skimming sleekly across the water. Gliding towards the steadily darkening harbour, I watched cruise ships belching out passengers; the Columbus Monument stretching skyward; and Frank Gehry’s 56-metre-long fish sculpture reclining blissfully on the shore.   

And, of course, would it really have been a trip to Barcelona if I didn’t see any Gaudí architecture? To save myself from the backpack-wielding tour groups of the Sagrada Familia, I ventured to the Torre Bellesguard, one of the craftsman’s most underappreciated works, tucked away on a secluded hilltop. The property – which was created to commemorate the last Catalan King – is still inhabited by the Guilera family, who, since 2013, have opened up their home to the public. Gaudí’s meticulous attention to detail is unparalleled. With the building’s façade, for example, the architect dedicated six months to separating rocks by colour in order to achieve the textured, mottled finish he had envisioned. The Moorish-influenced, mosaic-lined Bellesguard (meaning “beautiful views”), bears witness to the three strongest currents in Gaudí’s oeuvre: nature, religion and regionalism – the latter of which led to the maker’s arrest for refusing to speak the required Castilian to a police officer. My guide, Jordi, helpfully deconstructed the building’s pervasive symbols, offering detailed analysis of the significance behind its sharks, eyes and dragons. Pointing at the red and yellow stripes snaking around the tour’s turret, Jordi said, “This Catalan flag was painted grey during Franco’s dictatorship… Depending on the referendum result it may be covered again.”     

At this historic turning point for Barcelona, it feels more important than ever to observe the beauty amid the turbulence, and to understand the brewing conflicts that have, for decades, been gradually severing Catalonia from the rest of the country. Do be aware that, if the central government decides that yesterday's referendum result was in fact constitutional, the city may no longer be a part of Spain by the time you set off…

OD Barcelona (+34 93 215 0899; www.odbarcelona.com), from about £154 a room a night B&B, depending on room type and season.

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