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Joan Miró images in Barcelona

A new exhibition at Tate Modern celebrates the art of Joan Miró, but his creativity is also evident in the streets of his birthplace, says Maya Jaggi

If you've ever walked up the Rambla – the leafy avenue running between the main square and the Mediterranean – you will have trampled on a work of art by the great Spanish surrealist Joan Miró. Midway up, at Plaça de la Boqueria, is a swirling medallion of ceramic paving; its red, yellow and blue shapes edged in black. The Pla de l'Os is one of the eye-catching monumental works created by the Catalan artist for the city of his birth – partly to celebrate its liberation after General Franco's death in 1975. He had opposed the fascist dictator from internal exile in Mallorca, not least through the aggressive freedom of his art.

Ask a typical tourist on the Rambla to name Barcelona's most creative genius and the chances are they will nominate either Picasso (he adopted Catalonia and is celebrated with a wonderful museum) or Gaudí, whose molten buildings melt the hearts of visitors. But Miró belongs in the same class. As London's first major exhibition on the artist in almost 50 years, Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape, opens at Tate Modern tomorrow, I went in search of Miró's Barcelona – from the colourful public monuments of the 1970s and early 1980s, to the secret corners of his youth.

Born in 1893, he spent his first 27 years in the city, summering in the Catalan countryside. He then moved to Paris, but returned for crucial periods. Though he died in Mallorca in 1983, aged 90, he chose to be buried on Barcelona's Montjuïc hill. Montjuïc park is the tranquil setting for the Joan Miró Foundation, where the Tate show transfers in October. The fast way up is the Montjuïc funicular, inside Parallel Metro station. At Montjuïc, turn left for Josep Lluís Sert's 1975 creation.

This white-washed museum smacks of Le Corbusier, but its vaulted spaces also reflect the Mediterranean culture and Catalan revival that nourished Miró's art (hence his Catalan spelling of Juan). The cafe-restaurant has a patio, while sculpture terraces offer views across the city. The director, Rosa Maria Malet, walked me through a collection that gives a chronological overview of the artist and his media, from oils, prints and collages, to terracottas, bronzes and ceramics.

Fond of junk and Catalan peasantry, Miro wove shepherds' umbrellas into tapestries and painted on vineyard sacks. The assemblage was largely donated by Miró and his wife Pilar Juncosa, on condition that space be left to exhibit young artists' work.

It's 15 minutes' walk to the cable car, for a spectacular ride (€9) across the port to Barceloneta – the once-poor fishing quarter where Miró swam. Malet recalls that he took care of himself, the better to work with military discipline. In contrast to Picasso, his senior, Miró was not known for drinking or womanising.

Always dapper, he appeared as a bourgeois in a blue business suit. Yet he did relax in the Boadas coctelería, where Carrer dels Tallers meets the Rambla. In the tiny, triangular bar, I clocked a couple of Miró sketches on the wall, while a bow-tied artist of a different sort fixed me a Miró cocktail – a centennial tribute of gin, Jack Daniel's and Dubonnet, poured from extravagant height over ice. Miró would also repair to Los Tarantos on Plaça Reial – still a tablao flamenco (flamenco club) – perhaps finding inspiration for the witty cork-and-feather collage of his Spanish Dancer.

He grew up in the lanes of the Barri Gòtic. His birthplace at Passatge del Crèdit 4 is in a gated passage next to the Orio oyster bar at number 38 on Carrer de Ferran (then an elegant street where his father was a watchmaker and silversmith). You can eat oysters opposite the twin plaques – one in Castilian, the other in Catalan – flagging Miró's door. His parents' attic later served as his studio, until he sold up in the 1950s. His rooms are now part of the Rialto hotel (Carrer de Ferran 42). He began drawing classes, aged seven, at a private school at Carrer del Regomir 13 – a medieval mansion, which now houses apartments. Heading south from City Hall, past Plaça del Regomir, look for a grand portal on the left, with a tiny courtyard. Further down the street, turn left on the Passeig de Colom to reach La Llotja, the stock exchange building with brass-lion door knockers, which housed the fine art academy where Miró enrolled in 1907 in defiance of his father.

He ate opposite, at 7 Portes (Passatge D'Isabel II 14), now an august eaterie. But I opted for Catalan roast chicken with prunes at 4 Gats (Montsió 3), the artists' tavern where he took life classes in the Cercle Artistic de Sant Lluc (look for the plaque above the menu outside).

Miró had his first solo show nearby, in 1918, at the Dalmau gallery – where his work was ridiculed and defaced. Cubist and surrealist exhibitions from abroad fuelled his impulse to flee what was then a stiflingly conservative city.

When he left for Paris in 1920, he said: "Definitely never again Barcelona. Paris and the countryside until I die." Yet he did return in the 1930s as Spain plunged towards civil war – a catastrophe that marked his art – and again when France was Nazi-occupied and Catalonia under Franco's yoke. War and exile cemented his ties, spurring the 50 lithographs of the Barcelona series of 1944.

After he set up a studio in Mallorca in 1956, he came to work with artisans, often staying at the Hotel Coló* opposite the cathedral. Its cafe on the square is awash with yellow umbrellas.

At the Hotel Majestic on Passeig de Gracia, Miró would gaze from the bar at a melancholy landscape by Modesto Urgell i Inglada, his tutor at La Llotja. Today the painting, with the horizon that obsessed Miró, hangs to the left of the entrance lobby. Nearby, at Consell de Cent 335, look for a ceramic mural (signed in the left corner) on the first-floor balcony, advertising the Orotava restaurant – since displaced by a pizza takeaway.

Better known are Miro's 1970 mural at Barcelona airport and the 22m-high sculpture in the Parc Miró, Woman and Bird – a 1982 homage to Antoni Gaudí's mosaics. Shortly before Miró died, a bronze woman was unveiled in the gothic interior of City Hall (open Sundays 10am-1.30pm).

As skillful at corporate logos as political posters, Miró also left an image on every street – in the bright-blue starfish of La Caixa bank.

His gothic family vault in Montjuïc cemetery faces out to sea over the container port. It's 20 minutes' walk uphill from the entrance, meandering past Art Nouveau angels and tombs stacked like blocks of flats – or you can always drive there. My taxi driver, scouring the terraces at sunset, asked solicitously if this Juan Miró was a relative of mine.

'Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape' is at Tate Modern from tomorrow to 11 September; £15.50 (020-7887 8888; www.tate.org.uk)

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Barcelona is served from a range of UK airports by easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com), Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com), Jet2 (0871 226 1737; www.jet2.com), British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com), Monarch (08719 40 50 40; www.flymonarch.com), Bmibaby (0871 224 0224; www.bmibaby.com)

Staying there

The writer stayed at the U232 Hotel, 232 Comte d'Urgell, Barcelona (00 34 933 224 153; www.u232hotel.com). Doubles start at €79.20, room only.

More information

Barcelona Tourism: 00 33 932 853 834; www.barcelonaturisme.com