Travel: A short stay in... Barcelona

Whether you fancy immersing yourself in Gaud and Picasso, joining 120,000 screaming fans on the terraces, sampling a fish stew recommended by Hitler or just sipping on a cafe con leche, this deeply hip city really has got the lot. By Gareth Lloyd .
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The Independent Travel
WHY go there?

With Barcelona just an hour and a half away by air, in no time at all you could be sitting enjoying a coffee on Spain's most famous street, gawping at a Gaud masterpiece, or chanting "BARCELONA! BARCELONA!" from the famous Camp Nou terraces. If none of those sounds very tempting, what about enjoying a plate of fish stew in a restaurant recommended by Hitler, coming face-to-face with a hungry shark, or even slurping narcotic drinks in a bohemian bar? With your pounds 1 now getting you around 250 Ptas, Barcelona has become an inexpensive destination once again. The best times to visit are either now or the autumn, when the weather and the city are at their finest.

HOW TO GET THERE

The quickest, easiest and cheapest way to get to Barcelona is to fly. Iberia (0171 830 0011), Spain's national airline, offers the widest range of direct scheduled flights from Manchester and London, starting at pounds 274 and pounds 138 return respectively. The cheapest charter flight carriers are EasyJet (01582 702 9000) which flies from Luton to Barcelona for around pounds 128 return. The train from London takes around 14 hours and costs from around pounds 166 return. For further details call European Rail Travel on 0990 848848.

GETTING AROUND

Barcelona's airport is linked to the city by regular trains and buses. The train (5.30am-11pm; 310Ptas; 30 mins) runs every half hour between the airport and Placa de Catalunya (for the Barri Gtic and La Rambla). The Aerobus (5.30am-12pm; 475Ptas; 30 mins) runs every 15 minutes between the airport and Placa de Catalunya.

Once in the city, you can take advantage of the excellent train and bus network - pick up a free public transport map at any of the tourist offices (see Information). There are many different travel passes available which allow users some hefty savings, such as the T-Dia, which gives unlimited travel on the city's buses and metro and costs 575Ptas for one day or 1,350Ptas for three days.

WHERE TO STAY

For a short stay you should ideally base yourself in or close to the atmospheric Barri Gtic (Gothic quarter) and bustling La Rambla, both of which are within easy walking distance of some of the main sights.

Alberg Juvenil Palau, c/del Palau 6 (412 5080). Apart from being conveniently located and having a good kitchen and a friendly common room, at just 1,300Ptas for a bunk bed with breakfast, this is one the cheapest places in town. No hostel card necessary. (Metro: Liceu).

Hostal Fontanella, Via Laietana 71 (317 5943). A spotlessly clean and welcoming little place with just 10 singles/doubles costing from 2700/6,000Ptas. (Metro: Urquinaona)

Hotel Continental, La Rambla 138, (301 2570. Has a host of well decorated rooms overlooking La Rambla. Singles/doubles cost from 7,000/9,000Ptas with breakfast. (Metro Catalunya).

Rivoli Ramblas, La Rambla 128 (302 6643). Despite its Art Deco interior, this is a hi-tech hotel with all mod cons. Front facing rooms overlook La Rambla. A variety of rooms go from 8,000-12,000Ptas, depending upon the time of year. (Metro: Catalunya).

Hotel Coln, Avda. Catedral 7, (301 1404. This swanky hotel has a piano bar and splendid restaurant, but it's major plus is the views across to the cathedral from the front-facing balconies. Elegant rooms cost from 17,000-24,000ptas. (Metro: Jaume 1).

FOOD & DRINK

Barcelona is packed with loads of great places to savour the excellent Catalan food like sarsueles (Catalan fish stews) and botifarra amb mongetes (Catalan sausage with white beans). The bast wine to accompany any main meal is the vi de la casa (house wine); it can vary from absolutely revelationary to absolutely revolting, but its invariably cheap and is guaranteed to have a distinctly local flavour. Catalans take lunch between 1 and 3pm, and start to think about dinner at around 9 or 10pm.

Cafe Opera, La Rambla 74. The elegant 1920's decor, combined with the attentive waiters and the tempting pastries, make this the most interesting and popular cafe on La Rambla. It is also a great place for a cafe con leche in the early hours of the morning (Metro: Liceu).

Cantina Mexicana, c/Encarnaci 51 (210 6805). Delicious Mexican snacks and meals are accompanied by mind-blowing music and cocktails. This is the hottest restaurant in the Gracia area and well worth the journey from the old town. Expect to pay 3,000ptas per person and book ahead if possible. (Metro: Fontana).

Los Caracoles, c/dels Escudellers (302 3185). A fantastically atmospheric place adorned with lots of knick-knacks and photos of the hundreds of celebrities who have come to feast on the caracoles (snails) and fine seafood. Expect to pay around 4,000Ptas per head (Metro: Liceu).

Els Quatre Gats, c/de Montsi (302 4140). The famous Four Cats was first opened by four modernista friends (Casas, Rusinol, Utrillo and Romeu) in 1897 and was a favourite haunt of Picasso. It's now been revamped and restored to become a rather smart restaurant. Expect to pay around 5,000Ptas per head - or just come for a drink (Metro: Catalunya).

Antigua Casa Sole, c/Sant Carles 4 (221 5012). This is the charming harbourside restaurant that invented Catalan fish stew. Hitler dined here in the 1930's and raved about both the seafood and the service - which remain outstanding. Around 6,000Ptas per head. (Metro: Barcelonetta).

WHAT TO SEE

Barcelona's attractions are seemingly never-ending. There are many great sights not mentioned below, such as the Mir and Tapies exhibitions, and Gaud's Parc Guel and Palau Guell. But these will give you an enjoyable overview of the best that Barcelona has to offer. (Most places offer a range of special deals and discounts to children and OAPs.)

La Sagrada Famlia (daily 10am-7pm; 800Ptas). Gaud's amazing, fantasy- like modernista church, with its mosaic turrets and nativity facade, is Barcelona's best-known sight. And in the manner of the great medieval cathedrals it emulates, it's still not finished 100 years after work first began. Ascend the towers by lift or stairs for a vertigo-inducing view of the city.

Barri Gtic is a classic medieval warren of streets and plazas, with many interesting nooks and crannies. It is probably unique amongst Europe's old cities in that few of its fine buildings date from after the early 15th century, so it's a great place for a spot of time travel as you admire the vernacular architecture and flower/washing draped balconies. Ask about the guided walking tours at the tourist office (see Information).

Cathedral (Mon-Fri 8am-1.30pm, 4pm-7.30pm, Sat & Sun 5pm-7.30pm). This magnificent Gothic structure was built on the site of a Moorish mosque, which in turn was built on the site of a Roman Temple. Don't miss the beautiful cloister, with its fountains, trees, and famous flock of geese. At 6.30pm on Saturday and 12am on Sundays the cathedral square becomes the venue for some traditional Catalan Sardana dancing. You can join in - as long as you take it as seriously as the locals.

Museo del Futbol Club Barcelona (Mon-Sat 10am-6.30pm, Sun 10am-2pm; 450Ptas). Any serious football fanatic should come and pay their respects to one of the most famous and best supported clubs in the world (even the Pope is a fan). There are piles of silverware, an audio-visual display of great goals, an English-language photo-history, and a tremendous view of the 120,000 seat Camp Nou stadium from the directors' box.

Museo Picasso (Tues-Sat l0am-8pm, Sun 10am-3pm, closed Mon; 600Ptas). Barcelona's most popular museum is the place to come and admire how the young genius set about mastering a whole spectrum of expression and subjects before developing his own classical style. This is reckoned to have begun with the ballet-inspired Harlequin painting of 1917 (second floor).

La Pedrera (daily 10am-8pm 500Ptas). Formally known as Casa Mila, this Gaud designed modernista apartment block earned its nickname La Pedrera (The Quarry) due to its uneven grey stone facade. The only parts of the building open to visitors are the attic room with its interesting visitors' display, and the fascinating roof with its giant surreal chimney pots (rumoured to have inspired Darth Vader's head-gear).

La Rambla is the most famous street in Spain. It's name derives from the seasonal stream which once ran down here, but today it is a broad tree-lined boulevard crowded with locals and visitors enjoying the many buskers, mimes, cafes, restaurants and exotic bird stalls.

Museo Nacional d'Art de Catalunya (Tues-Sat 10am-7pm, Sun 10am-2.30pm, closed Mon; 800Ptas). Located in the impressive Palau Nacional on Montjuic, this museum contains splendid Gothic paintings by the likes of Huguet and Lluis, as well as one of the world's most important collections of Romanesque art, including stone sculptures, wood carvings and many glorious frescoes that have been meticulously removed from small, abandoned Catalan churches.

FAMILY FUN

When you and the family start suffering from culture fatigue, it is time to switch to the city's top-notch family-orientated attractions.

Parc de la Ciutadella has a monumental fountain, along with plenty of green spaces and shaded spots for a relaxing family picnic. Once you've finished relaxing you might consider a water-fight on the boating lake.

Barcelona's beaches are kept fairly clean and are safe to swim from. There are numerous cafes, showers and ice-cream kiosks, as well as some useful boardwalks, which spare you an uncomfortable dash across the hot sand.

L'Aquarium (daily 9.30am-9pm; adults 1,400Ptas, children 950Ptas) is reputed to be the largest in Europe. More than 20 tanks give a good account of Mediterranean marine life, with the biggest attraction being the rather handsome sharks.

Cable-cars (Tues-Sun 12am-8pm; one-way 1,000Ptas, return 1,200Ptas) travelling to and from Montjuic (good for the fair) and Barcelonetta (good for the beach) offer some hair-raising views of the city.

Parc d'Atraccions de Montjuic (weekends only during winter and spring) has seen better days but still remains a fair to be reckoned with (as long as you're under 12 years of age). The rides include slides, a decent roller coaster and the obligatory big wheel.

Camp Nou is home to the famous Futbol Club Barcelona. Watching them play in front of 120,000 people, especially against arch- rivals FC Madrid, is an experience you'll never forget, regardless of whether you even like football or not (see Information).

Agencia Rita (453 7034) and Serveinen (218 2387) are reputable baby-sitting services charging around 800Ptas to 1300Ptas per hour. English is spoken at both.

FESTIVAL

Barcelona has numerous festivals and events, but the most notable is the famous Festa de la Merce, which is usually held around 24 September. It's worth the trip just to take in the great street music and dancing, the great processions of "giants", the astonishing human pyramid building, and Piro Musical - a breathtaking fireworks display choreographed to music. The main gathering points for spectacles are the Placa de Catalunya and the cathedral square.

NIGHTLIFE

Even with the ever-popular Cafe Zurich closed for refurbishment, Barcelona can still boast of having some of the best nightlife in Europe, whatever your fancy. Wherever you go you won't have any problem finding some action, but for something a bit special try the following:

Tapas bars abound on and around c/Ample, at the southern end of the Barri Gtic. You can wash down a plate of queso manchego (old cheese) or cured meats with a glass of rough and ready wine from between 300Ptas and 700Ptas a time (Metro: Drassanes).

Bar Marsella (open until 1am; c/de Sant Pua, El Raval) is a bohemian bar specialising in an absinthe that is supposedly illegal in France - because of its narcotic qualities. For 700Ptas you get a large shot of absinthe, a fork, some sugar cubes and water. Dissolve the cubes by holding them on your fork over the glass and dripping the water over them, then enjoy! (Metro. Liceu).

Club Havana (open 12pm-5.30am; Maremagnum, Port Vell) is one of a trio of hot and happenin' salsa bars on the waterfront. No one minds how you dress but you'll want to look your best for all the other nimble footed nymphs and Adonises. Entry is free but drinks are a bit pricey.

Otto Zutz (open 12pm-5.30am; c/de Lincoln 15; entry 2,000Ptas) is a three- storey warehouse that has been converted into a nocturnal playground for beautiful people. It has a great atmosphere especially when there's live music, but don't come if you're wearing trainers or have sweat stains, and don't start dancing until after 3am. (Metro: Diagonal)

LANGUAGE

In Barcelona and most of Catalunya, Catala (Catalan), rather than Castillian Spanish, is the local language. When written, it looks like a cross between Spanish and French and those people who speak both should find it easy enough to read but its harsh sound when spoken is far harder to get to grips with. Franco's efforts to stifle Catala failed and it is now spoken by more than 10 million people, which is far more than better known languages like Finnish, Danish and Norwegian. Fortunately, if you can speak half- decent Castillian Spanish, most of the locals should understand you.

DEALS/PACKAGES

Mundi Color (0171 828 6021 or 0161 848 8680) offers two night breaks starting at pounds 267, and City Escapades (0181 563 8959) offers two night breaks which start at pounds 213. Both prices are per person based on two people sharing a room and include flights, taxes and breakfast.

INFORMATION

The Spanish National Tourist Office in London (22 Manchester Square, London W1M 5AP, tel 0171 486 8077) can supply a variety of maps, pamphlets and special interest leaflets on Barcelona. City tourist offices can be found in Barcelona airport (Mon-Sat 9.30am to 3pm), on the Placa de Catalunya (just opposite the Banco de Espana; daily 9am-9pm), with the main office being at the Estaci Sants train station (Mon-Fri 8am-8pm, Sat & Sun 8am- 2pm; tel 491 4431). The weekly Guia del Ocio (available from all good news stands) offers the best information for what's going on in the arts, all types of sport and the gay world, as well as more general city life.

By Telephone

To ring Barcelona from Britain you must dial 00 34 3+ number. To ring Britain from Barcelona you must dial 07 44+ area code minus the first 0+ number.

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