City Breaks: 48 hours in the life of ... Barcelona

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The Independent Online
You need a break - and a short cut to the soul of a city. Each week, `The Independent' provides a prescription for

a perfect weekend break. This week,

Simon Calder spends two days in Barcelona.

Why go now?

Because after the summer haze has evaporated, along with most of the tourists, the true, strong colours of the Catalan capital can be properly appreciated. Because the pound has not been so strong against the peseta for a generation. And because yesterday the temperature was 4C higher than in London, 8C more benevolent than in Glasgow.

Beam down

Four airlines line up to take you to Barcelona, but most departures are from the London area. British Airways (0345 222111) flies several times daily from Gatwick and Heathrow (and once a day from Birmingham). Iberia (0171-830 0011) flies from Heathrow and Manchester. From Luton, you can choose between Debonair (0541 500300) and EasyJet (0990 292929).

Bookings for next weekend are heavy if you want to travel out on Friday and back on Sunday. A seat, if you can find one, is likely to cost at least pounds 125.

Get your bearings

Barcelona's fine airport is eight miles south-east of the city, linked by a speedy train (20 minutes, about pounds 1.20) to the Placa de Catalunya. This vast, Trafalgar-like square is the hub around which the city revolves. The broad Rambla lopes off southwards, marking the western boundary of the chaos known as the Barri Gotic, the medieval quarter where you will probably spend much of your time. East lies the even steamier Barri Xines (Chinese quarter). The Rambla ends by the waterfront at a city landmark, the statue of Columbus.

North of Placa de Catalunya is the newer, more organised district known as Eixample - a staid extension to the city which scorns the knotted strands of old Barcelona in favour of rigid squares. Gaud did his best to sabotage the sense of order, which is why some buildings in this area (particularly along the Passeig de Gracia) appear to be melting.

Snaking through this assemblage is a curious underground railway network. Each of the five interlocking Metro lines possesses a U shape, which produces one of the world's more wayward maps.

Check in

The best city-centre bargain in Spain is the Hostal Galerias Malda, a small, friendly and comfortable place above a shopping arcade at Carrer del Pi 5 - 200 yards south west of the cathedral. A double room costs pounds 10; book in advance on 00 34 3 317 3002. For only a little more comfort you pay a lot more cash. Smarter places I've stayed include the two-star Hotel Mare Nostrum (on the west side of the Rambla, half-way along, 00 34 3 318 5340; pounds 33 double, with breakfast at pounds 1.60), and the comfortable three-star Hotel Gran Via, at Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes 642 (00 34 3 318 1900), in the Eixample, pounds 70 double.

Take a ride

The city's aerial tram is under much-needed repair. Instead, ascend on the funicular railway and connecting cable car (both weekends only) from Parallel Metro station up to the summit of Montjuic, the modest mountain that punctuates the south of the city.

Take a hike

Now you're here at altitude, make the most of the morning by winding down from the castle (don't bother with the dreary armaments museum inside), past the Olympic Stadium to the Mir foundation - a fine hillside gallery with spectacular views inside and out.

Lunch on the run

For such a cultured city, Barcelona has a worrying number of burger and kebab takeaways. Instead, nip up to the top-floor cafeteria of El Corte Ingles department store on the Placa de Catalunya, to take in a fine view of Barcelona with your rapid repast.

Cultural afternoon

With almost as many museums in Barcelona as there are pickpockets, the choice could be overwhelming. But if you adopt an artistic motif for your 48 hours, the best option is the Picasso Museum at Montcada 15; just follow the crowds. Pablo Picasso spent some formative years in Barcelona, arriving in his mid-teens and leaving in his early twenties, and donated much work to the city. The collection ranges from pencil sketches to starkly expressive self-portraits.

Window-shopping

The average Barcelona retailer has the measure of the tourist: every other shop in the Barri Gotic is bedecked with splashed colours, curves and corners on the Mir-Gaud axis. Smile along with the sales staff, but save your pesetas for the airport duty-free shop.

An aperitif

Every big Continental city has its Cafe de l'Opera, and Barcelona's (at Rambla 74) is no exception to the EU standardisation rule that the place should be on a main drag, feature dark wood and mirrors, and be crowded but cheerful at dusk and beyond.

De rigueur dinner

Los Caracoles, in the Barri Gotic at Escudellers 14, is touristy but fun - open plan, to the extent of having its kitchen slap in the middle of the dining area. A plate of the snails that provide the name costs pounds 4.

Sunday morning: go to church

The Sagrada Familia, a cathedral which was begun more than a century ago and never finished, is a folly with its own Metro station, a half- built testament to Antoni Gaud. The modernista borrowed ideas from the animal world, and began a giddying construction to the sky. He died in 1926 under the wheels of a tram (while absent-mindedly admiring his handiwork), without leaving exact plans for its completion - just a grand strategy for it to become Europe's tallest church, with 18 spiralling towers. Climb the vertiginous existing towers, and peer down at the cranes which have become entwined in the undergrowth.

Bracing brunch

Conveniently near to the above tourist trap, the Restaurante-Bar Atlantida (Industria 119, closed Sat) is where all the local people gather on a Sunday for endless appetisers. Quite the jolliest place in town.

A walk in the park

Count Eusebi Guell gave Gaud land and cash for the world's weirdest park, full of arbitrary colonnades and mosaics. The house Gaud occupied for 20 years is open to the public; he slept on an Art Nouveau iron bedstead that looks designed to cripple the occupants.

The icing on the cake

Or should that be the icing sugar on the churros, deep-fried spirals of dough to dunk in thick hot chocolate? The best exponent is the Churreria Carders at Carders 46. After one helping you won't need the airline meal; after two, you won't want the flight home.

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