Rambling through the city that Gaud built

MY ROUGH GUIDE
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The Independent Travel
Best tapas bar

Damn, but there's a lot to choose from - though knowing what you fancy eating is half the battle. In the old town alone, having eliminated La Pulperia (octopus specialist), La Socarrena (goat's cheese and cider) and Irati (Basque-style snacks on sticks), you're left with the undisputed winner, El Xampanayet, a terrific, turn-of-the-century, blue-tiled champagne bar with splendid seafood tapas. Order the anchovies and a glass of cava and reflect on the wisdom of your choice.

Weirdest building

It's difficult not to plump for the Sagrada Familia (see below), but Antoni Gaud - Barcelona's favourite architectural son - visited a full share of weirdness on the city in the 50 years until his death in 1926. LaPedrera ("rock pile" or "stone quarry") is, like so many of his early secular works, an apartment building with a twist: its rippled facade curves around the street corner in one smooth sweep while the apartments themselves, whose balconies of tangled metal drip over the facade, resemble eroded cave dwellings.

Favourite hotel

It's neither special nor fancy, but the Hostal Levante in the old town has been welcoming me back for years now. The owner doesn't speak English, and almost certainly doesn't recognise me, but there's always a smile before he lumbers up the stairs to show the available rooms. There's someone on the desk, day or night, it's a minute from the bar-laden Placa Reial, and if you're lucky you get a balcony room on the top floor where the street noise is down to a dull roar.

Finest street

I'm with playwright and poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who thought the Ramblas "the only street in the world which I wish would never end". It's actually five separate streets strung head to tail where, under the plane trees, you'll find pet canaries, rabbits, tropical fish, newspaper stands and bookstalls. You can buy jewellery from a blanket stretched out on the ground, have your palm read or portrait painted, or watch the human statues - Chaplin to Zeus - going through their paces for a few pesetas.

Most enjoyable bar

As everyone knows, Barcelona is Europe's self-confident style capital, with designer bars to knock you dead housed in mock-medieval castles, indoor fairgrounds and Blade Runner-style warehouses, overseen by the fashion police and open until the crack of dawn and beyond. But I accepted long ago that I was too old, too badly dressed and too grouchy to stay up late enjoying myself, and so instead sink gratefully into a chair at the gracefully ageing Cafe de l'Opera on the Ramblas, sip caustic Spanish brandy and think thank God for that.

Oddest religious

experience

If you go expecting to find a church, then Gaud's Sagrada Familia comes as a bit of a shock - for a start, there's no roof, its spires look like celestial billiard cues, and the rest resembles nothing so much as a building site. Which is what it still is: Gaud left the building unfinished when he died, and 70 years on architects are still arguing about what goes where, a process hampered by the fact that most of the plans were destroyed during the Civil War. Had the anarchists got their act together, it might be in an even more confused state - George Orwell thought they showed bad taste in not blowing up the church when they had the chance in 1936.

Scariest ride

Oh look how attractive the cable car is, swooping across the glistening harbour from Montjuic to Barcelona! See the happy people waving to their friends below. Notice the antique wood panelling of the cable cars and the turn-of-the century wrought ironwork in the metal towers. Muse on the possibility of fraying ropes, wonder what the hell happened to state- of-the-art Barcelona design, shake with fear at the stop-start antics of the serial killer at the controls; at the end of the "ride" refuse to use the lift down to the bottom; drink copious amounts of brandy in the nearest bar.

Best side trip

City-dwellers head for the beach, either to the string of little resorts to the north, or south to gay-friendly Sitges, which has one of the best annual carnivals in Spain. Tourists make for the mountain and monastery of Montserrat, but since this involves another daring cable-car ride, I plump for the wine-growing towns of Sant Sadurni or Vilafranca del Penedes, where they're only too happy to show you around the wine-making process and give you a couple of glasses of fizz.

Jules Brown wrote 'The Rough Guide to Barcelona'. Keep up with the latest developments in travel by subscribing to the free newsletter 'Rough News', published three times yearly. Write to Rough Guides, IoS offer, 1 Mercer Street, London WC2H 9QJ. A free Rough Guide to the first three subscribers each week.

FACT FILE

Where to stay

Hostal Levante, Baixada Sant Miquel 2, just off Placa Sant Jaume (tel: 00-34-3 317 95 65). Around 3500-4500ptas a night for a double room, no breakfast.

Cafes and bars

El Xampanayet, c/de Montcada 22 (tel: 00-34-3 319 70 03; closed Monday & August)

Cafe de I'Opera, Ramblas 74; open daily 9am-3am.

Sights and attractions

La Pedrera (Casa Mila) is at Passeig de Gracia 92 (Metro Diagonal); you can visit the roof and the top rooms, Tues-Sat 10am-8pm, Sun 10am- 3pm, 500ptas.

Sagrada Familia (Metro line 2 or 5); open daily 9am-9pm, 750ptas.

Cable car: operates Tues-Sun noon-7pm; 1000ptas one-way (frankly the only ticket to buy), 1200ptas return

Day trips

Most local trains run from Sants station; it's 30min to Sant Sadurni, 50 min to Vilfranca Freixenet (tel: 00-34-3 818 32 00) at Sant Sadurni is the most famous wine-making company.

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