Barcelona: The crowds are gone in December - and the locals like it that way

It was an exhilarating and faintly surreal sensation. Suspended in mid-air over Barcelona last week, I gazed down over the tops of palm trees and across an expansive panorama of cityscape, green hills and sea. The morning air was so remarkably crisp and clear that, among the tangle of urban life far below, I could pick out two striking modern landmarks: the Sagrada Familia, Gaudí's great unfinished cathedral; and the Torre Agbar, a funky and phallic office tower that was built in 2004 as the gateway to the city's revamped Poblenou neighbourhood and which looks not dissimilar to London's Gherkin. From the vantage point of my cable car, I felt as if I were king of Europe's most flamboyantly stylish city.

I also felt utterly alone. Eerily so.

I was the sole passenger not only in my wide-windowed cabin but on the entire Montjuïc cable system, newly renovated last year and running up and down the vertiginous district in the west of the city. Here and elsewhere in the ancient and ebullient capital of Catalonia, Barcelona as touristland was serenely empty.

At the Miró art gallery, near the cable-car station on Avinguda de Miramar, I saw five other visitors, and a good half-dozen attendants. On previous spring and summer trips, I had jostled for standing room in front of the engagingly playful abstract art of one of Barcelona's most famously creative sons. Now I revelled in the space, walking twice round some rooms for the sheer heck of it, and retracing my steps to favourite paintings. There was scope, as well, to appreciate the clever, light-filled building by Josep Lluís Sert, who was also the architect of Joá*Miro's own villa at Palma on Mallorca.

Moving down towards the centre of town, I made tracks to Gaudí's iconic Sagrada Familia, started in 1882 and currently with a projected completion date if 2026, the 100th anniversary of the architect's death (although many locals regard this as an extremely optimistic target). The cathedral's huge spindle-shaped towers were etched out against a perfect blue sky, while the barrage of construction cranes beside them attained a graceful elegance in the extraordinary light that morning. As I strode past the admission barriers, the long queues of previous visits seemed an unlikely memory. In the uncrowded, scaffolding-clad interior I could wander at will, with plenty of room to take in the amazing forest of columns, the astonishing vaulting and the kaleidoscope of stained glass now in place. And as I stepped out to the celebrated east façade, only a handful of visitors was standing in front of the weird and wonderfully carved stonework of Gaudí's nativity scene.

Meanwhile, the sun shone. By lunchtime, the temperature felt positively balmy. I made for one of the cafés that are dotted along Avinguda de Gaudí, just beyond the cathedral, and sat outside enjoying a plate of tortilla de patatas and watching the world go by. Why had I never before visited Barcelona in winter? The light is fantastic and the weather supremely pleasant, with slightly chilly mornings giving way to mild and sunny afternoons (although life cools suddenly and dramatically after sunset). What's more, this is a city best explored on foot, yet for much of the year, it is simply too hot to do so.

Heading south, it was now a pleasure to stroll along the boulevards of the Eixample district, the city's elegant, late-19th-century extension, which contains a wealth of Barcelona's distinctive Modernist architecture. Josep Puig i Cadafalch's ornate Palau del Baro de Quadres is at Avinguda Diagonal 373; Lluis Domenech i Montaner's splendid Casa Fuster (now the Casa Fuster Hotel) graces Passeig de Gracia at number 132. Gaudí's seminal apartment block La Pedrera is just down the road at Passeig de Gracia 92, while his fantastical and finely restored Casa Batllo, looking as if it has been magicked in from a fairy tale, nestles between other architectural gems at Passeig de Gracia 43.

Modernist to medieval: I had reserved the riches of Barcelona's old district for my last day. First off, I made for El Born, the trading centre of the city in the Middle Ages. Yet for all El Born's historic origins, a group of its most striking merchants' mansions now houses one of the city's most compelling modern art collections. The Picasso Museum opened in 1963 with the agreement and subsequent donations of the artist himself, whose family had moved to Barcelona in 1895, when Picasso was 14 years old.

I arrived on the dot of opening time and, for a pin-quiet half-hour, had the collection entirely to myself. Footsteps echoing, I felt a sense of ownership as I took in the highlight of the museum, the Las Meninas gallery, showing most of the 58 studies Picasso made of the well-known painting by Velázquez. I even found myself grimacing in irritation at the distant sound of voices along the corridor.

Shops were just starting to open as I took a short walk west to the ancient heart of the city, the Barri Gotic. Outside the Gothic cathedral (currently shrouded due to the ongoing renovation work), Barcelona's Christmas market was getting into full swing. Beside stalls selling poinsettias and bunches of mistletoe, there were booths heaped with logs that had been decorated with smiling faces. The "caga tio", a stallholder explained, is, in literal translation, a "pooping log" – traditionally kids beat the log with sticks and it poops out presents for them (subtly produced by the adults).

He laughed at my evident surprise and took me over to the market section selling nativity scenes. There, among the shelves stocked with cribs, kings, donkeys and more, he pointed out row upon row of little squatting men, in the act of defecation, with their trousers down around their ankles. That's the caganer, he said: the pooping man who always features somewhere in Catalan nativity scenes. We love our earthy traditions here, he explained, adding that the market is not really an event for visitors – it's a very Catalan fair.

At this time of year, he said proudly, Barcelona is reclaimed by its residents.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Lane Del Rey performing on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury 2014
people... but none of them helped me get a record deal, insists Lana Del Rey
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules
filmReview: The Rock is a muscular Davy Crockett in this preposterous film, says Geoffrey Macnab
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
British author Howard Jacobson has been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize
books
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Sport
Louis van Gaal watches over Nani
transfers
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
Sport
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
transfersColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Travel
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn