What's Catalan for brilliant?

Bowled over by its architecture, and lively beaches, Pascale de Lacoudraye Harter pays homage to Barcelona

You would have a hard time believing that this prosperous and cosmopolitan city was once the anarchic hotbed that George Orwell wrote of in Homage to Catalonia in 1938. Barcelona has become a shoppers' Mecca and smart young things will swish past you on the street leaving you feeling scruffy. The rest of Spain chides the Catalans for being jobsworths who don't know how to have a good time. It is a reputation the Catalans dismiss and yet revel in at the same time, preferring to see themselves as very much distinct from the stereotype of the lazy and inefficient Spanish. Don't believe a word of it.

When to go

Barcelona is one of those rare places that combines such a multitude of things - beach, sights, architecture, history and nightlife - that it has something to offer at any time. However, if it's a taste of "real" Barcelona and the local culture that you're after, it is worth remembering that it ups and goes on holiday for August, leaving many places shut and the streets overrun with holidaying Americans.

June and July are perfect if it's Barcelona's beach culture you want to sample, although seekers of white sands and open spaces should stay away - Barcelona's beach was man-made and is such a social hang-out you are unlikely to find a square inch which isn't occupied by Catalan families and half of their kitchen equipment.

The lead up to Christmas starts much later in Spain, but when it does the squares become filled with Christmas markets selling traditional red- leaved plants and models of the dubious shitting man which forms a part of the Catalan nativity scene.

A romantic city all year around, Barcelona is most amorous around Dia Sant Jordi (23 April), the Catalan equivalent of St Valentine's Day when girls give their lovers books and receive a rose in return.

Getting there

There is a Euroline coach (tel: 01582 404511) which goes direct from Victoria station to Barcelona. But unless you have an inordinate amount of luggage, this 23-hour journey is not advisable. With Go (tel: 0845 606 4321) and easyJet (tel: 0870 6000 000) competing with each other over this route, there are cheap deals to be had. EasyJet flies once a day from Liverpool and twice from Luton with fares starting from pounds 70 return, including tax. Go flies from Stansted twice daily for pounds 75 return, including tax.

Scheduled return flights are available with British Airways (tel: 0345 222 111) starting at pounds 140 from Heathrow and pounds 154 from Birmingham, and with Iberia (tel: 0171-830 0011) starting at pounds 120 from Heathrow and pounds 178 from Manchester.

Arriving in Barcelona is a dream - a bus leaves from outside the airport and goes straight to Placa Catalunya. Buses leave every 15 minutes and tickets are bought on the bus for around pounds 2. Trains leave every half- hour from Placa Catalunya.

Where to stay

The best deal is undoubtedly the Hotel Jardi, Placa Sant Josep Oriol (tel: 0034 93 305900). For Pta6,800 (pounds 27) you get a basic but charming double room overlooking the lovely Place del Pi. Perfectly situated for the centre of town, it is popular so it is best to book months in advance.

Barcelona is a favourite location for international trade fairs and conferences which means it is not unusual to find literally every hotel booked up even mid-week. If this is the case, the little-known and slightly out of the way Hotel Apartamentos Avenida Victoria, Carrer Beltran i Rozpide (tel: 0034 93 280 1515), is a good bet. Although it has the kind of decor that can't have passed for luxurious chic since 1978, it is a four-star hotel with doubles for Pta21,000 and singles for Pta19,000 (seven per cent tax is added to all prices).

If it is luxury you want, then the five-star Hotel Arts, Carrer de la Marina (tel: 0034 93 221 1000), cannot be beaten. It has carpets you could lose a small child in and showers that come at you from three sides. The rooms vary in price according to the views. A view right out to sea is the most expensive at Pta60,000. The Hotel Arts puts itself within reach of mere mortals after December when it offers some specials worth checking out.

Hotel San Agusti, Placa San Agusti (tel: 0034 93 317 2928), is situated just off La Rambla, and has great facilities while being a bit twee in decor. If a hotel nowhere other than on La Rambla will do, then Hotel Rivoli Ramblas, 128 La Rambla, (tel: 0034 93 412 0988) is a very comfortable four-star hotel with windows that block out much of the noise. A double costs Pta31,000 and a single Pta25,000, plus seven per cent tax.

What to see and do

Barcelona's most visited museum is the Picasso Museum, Carrer Montcada (tel: 319 6310). There is very little to see in terms of the unique style that Picasso was famous for, but he spent part of his youth in the city and Barcelona is certainly cashing in. At Pta600 entry fee, it is only worth a visit if you are fascinated by his early classical work or just to visit the charming building of the museum itself, followed by a glass of cava in the Xampanyet (tel: 319 7003).

In stark contrast, anything by Catalonia's champion architect Antonio Gaudi is well worth a visit. The Church of the Sagrada Familia is still undergoing its controversial completion, and however you feel about it, it cannot fail to impress. Often overlooked by tourists is the Palau Guell, Carrer Nou de le Ramble (tel: 317 5198), Gaudi's palatial construction for the Guell family. His first major work, it is incredibly stylish and darkly atmospheric, crowned by a roof terrace with views over the old town. Tours of 30 visitors maximum are allowed every half-hour and you can usually buy a ticket half an hour in advance for a mere Pta400.

Alternatively, a multi-ticket for Pta600, which offers half-price access to the interiors of some of the 50 locations on the "Modernista route", is available from Casa Amatller, 41 Passeig de Gracia (tel: 488 0139).

One of the city's most neglected museums (which only works to its advantage) is the Maritime Museum, Carrer Drassanes (tel: 342 9920). A 13th-century building designed for the construction of Catalonia's seafaring vessels, the museum is both a wonderfully calming environment and houses interactive features such as a moving deck and storm-simulator, which should keep the children entertained. Entry is Pta800.

If it is a trip to the park you fancy, opt for la Ciutadella rather than Parque Guell, which is decidedly scrub-like. La Ciutadella is a lovely relaxing place with fountains and a cafe in a botanical greenhouse.

The Museum of Contemporary Art, Placa des Angels (tel: 412 0810), may be a breathtaking building and a valiant attempt at rejuvenating a rundown area, but inside there is very little. Much better to marvel at its airy structure from the outside. Better still, go to the Museu d'Historia de la Ciutat, Placa del Rei (tel: 315 1111), which explores the origins of the city. It happens to be beside the fine Gothic cathedral.

Food and drink

Although not recommended as a place to dine out, the Rambla is littered with cafes where you can have a coffee and watch the world go by. The most popular is Cafe de L'Opera (tel: 317 7585). More of an institution, famous for its faded glamour and brusque waiters, this cafe is where people used to meet before going to the Liceu Opera House,which has just reopened.

Taverna Basca Irati, 17 Carrer Cardenal Casanyas (tel: 302 3084), has an extensive selection of Basque pinchos (like tapas) at the bar to which you help yourself and at the end are charged according to the number of toothpicks on your plate (the absence of toothpicks on the floor shows how honest people are). For sit-down meals during the day there is a great selection of menus.

Cafe de l'Academia, Carrer dels Liedo, offers a great, typically Catalan menu for Pta1,500, but it is wise to get there at 1.30pm when it starts serving lunch, as it is very popular with locals.

A typical Catalan dish is butifarra sausage served with white beans in garlic and pan con tomate (bread rubbed with garlic, tomato, salt, pepper and olive oil) - and there is nowhere that does it better than El Glop, 17 Carrer St Lluis (tel: 213 7058). A three-course meal for two with wine should set you back about Pta10,000.

It would be foolish to come to Barcelona and neglect the fine tradition of seafood feasting. The Olympic Port has a huge variety of swanky seafood restaurants but the best (and happily more reasonably priced) is La Barca del Salamanca, 13-14 Moll de Gregal (tel: 221 1837). A paella for one will set you back about Pta1,500, and the lobsters taste so good you don't mind having to see them in their tank beforehand.

If it's rustic you want, EI Portalon, Carrer Banys Nous, is a wonderful place in the Spanish bodega (wine cellar) tradition where rasping old men sit hunched over their brandies, and the cured ham is just sensational.

A high proportion of Barcelona's coolest bars are to be found in the Born area. Take almost any street off Passeig del Born and you will come across a chic, understated bar such as the Gimlet Cocktail Bar, 46 Santalo (tel: 201 5306), or the Kafka, 7 Fusina (tel: 310 2185).

Out of town

Sitges is a pretty seaside town renowned for its exuberant nightlife and transvestites that would make Lily Savage look dowdy. Only 40 minutes away by train from Sants Estacio, it's a great place to go for the day. And if it's clubbing you are after, the train starts running again at 4.49am and there is enough to keep you occupied until then.

Alternatively, the regional tourist office, 107 Passeig de Gracia (tel: 0034 93 23 84000), can put you in touch with local vineyards to arrange tours and wine-tastings. For example, the cava-maker Freixenet (tel: 0034 93 891 7000) runs free tours throughout the day at its vineyards in the village of Sant Sadurni D'Anoia, which is about 40 minutes by train from Sants Estacio or Placa Catalunya.

Further information

Barcelona's main tourist office is in Placa Catalunya (tel: 0034 906 301282). It supplies an up-to-date list of hotel vacancies if you go along at about 11am.

In the UK, more information is available from the Spanish Tourist Board, 22-23 Manchester Square, London W1M 5AP (tel: 0171-486 8077).

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