x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Sensory overload in Barcelona

My kind of place The author Jason Webster loses himself in one of the most absorbing cities of the Mediterranean.

The labyrinth of medieval streets is perfect for aimless wandering.
The labyrinth of medieval streets is perfect for aimless wandering.

The author Jason Webster loses himself in one of the most absorbing cities of the Mediterranean.

Because Barcelona is the jewel of the western Mediterranean. Other locations may have atmosphere, beautiful buildings, sea views and great food, but Barcelona has all of these and more, and has combined them to create the most sophisticated city in Spain. Madrid may have great museums and a reputation for the best nightlife in Europe, but Barcelona has much more to offer: it is a place to wander, to get lost as you stroll down meandering medieval lanes, discover boutique shops a world away from the high-street chains, stare in awe at the futuristic visions of the architect Gaudí, and eat freshly prepared paella in the sunshine as you watch the boats coming and going from the harbour. Whenever I need a boost of energy, to feel enthusiastic and engaged with the world, I simply let my feet take me to the Born district, the Barri Gòtic and down to the Barceloneta fishermen's quarter, and let my spirit soar.

The trendiest place to stay is the Hotel Arts Barcelona on Carrer de la Marina (www.ritzcarlton.com; 0034 93 221 1000). Housed in a skyscraper next to the port built for the 1992 Olympic Games, it has a swimming pool and luxury health spa, as well as 450 rooms with magnificent views over both the Mediterranean and the old city. Options include duplex apartments complete with butler service, or even a penthouse "Royal Suite". Prices for double rooms start at US$504 (Dh1,853) including taxes.

If you're looking for something in the old quarter, the Hotel Colón is right opposite the cathedral, placing you at the very heart of the Barri Gòtic, the medieval city (www.hotelcolon.es; 0034 93 301 1404). The square below is teeming with buskers and entertainers, while on Sunday mornings the people of Barcelona congregate here to perform their national dance - the Sardana. The hotel has an impressive guest list: the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Jane Fonda and Francis Ford Coppola have stayed here over the years. A double room costs from $114 (Dh460) including taxes.

Start in the Plaça de Catalunya and head down Las Ramblas - a long, tree-lined avenue and the most famous street in the city. Take your time - Barcelona is best appreciated at a slower pace, as your senses adapt to the bright Mediterranean light, the delicious smells issuing from restaurants, and the sounds of a proud, self-assured city going about its business. Las Ramblas is home to a bird market, as well as the best street performers in Spain. Take a right down the Carrer de la Boqueria and dive into the labyrinth of the Barri Gòtic, coming out at the Plaça Sant Jaume, the Catalan seat of government and focus for Catalan nationalism. Then head north to the Cathedral, known as La Seu, not forgetting to visit the magnificent Cloister, with its 13 resident geese.

Cross the Via Laietana and roam the passageways of the Born district - for my money the most beautiful part of the old city. The Basilica Santa María del Mar is a perfect example of Catalan Gothic architecture, being built in just 55 years in the 14th century. The excellent acoustics mean that concerts are often held here. Visit the Picasso Museum nearby on Carrer Montcada before catching the Metro to Vallcarca to marvel at the genius of Gaudí's sculpture in the Parc Güell.

Often overlooked by tourists (not least because there's so much else to visit) the Parc de la Ciutadella lies to the east of the Born district, and is a favourite place for Barcelonians to take a stroll, particularly with the children on a Sunday morning. With a couple of lakes and plenty of shady trees for protection in the hotter months, it's an ideal spot for whiling an afternoon away.

For a more edgy, energetic experience, simply pace up and down the streets of the Eixample district, with its colourful and exotic art nouveau buildings (the most famous by Gaudí). This is perfect tapas territory, with restaurants on almost every street corner. Try the Plaça del Sol and the Plaça de la Virreina, where the terrace cafes are always brimming. Grab a table, sit back and watch the people wander by.

Barcelona regards itself as a world centre for all that is fashionable and avant garde (that Gaudí influence again), and this is reflected in many of its quirky shops. At 96 Passeig de Gràcia you'll find Vinçon (www.vincon.com), a massive store filled with designer furniture and household goods straight out of a sci-fi or fantasy movie, with everything from transparent mop buckets to "goat-head" bicycle seat covers.

Meanwhile on the same street, at No. 76, Dom looks like the kind of place that the film director Pedro Almodóvar goes to buy items for his colourful film sets, with gloriously tacky and often useless gadgets and gift ideas. Back in the older part of the city, the Herbolari El Manantial de Salud has shops on the Carrer Xuclá and Carrer del Mercaders. Stepping inside these traditional herbalist stores is like travelling back in time. Brightly painted wooden cupboards are stuffed with medicinal plants and herbs from all over the world, while the staff can prepare perfumed oils and healing potions while you wait.

The best rice dishes in the city can be found at Antiga Casa Solé (Can Solé) on Carrer Sant Carles, in the Barceloneta fishermen's quarter (0034 93 221 5012). You will need to book, as this is a favourite both with locals and visitors. Try the arroç negre - a kind of black paella made with squid ink ($23; Dh84). Or if you want something special, the rice with lobster - bogavante ($40; Dh148). It is pricey but well worth it (one of my favourites for a celebration). The writer Vázquez Montalbán was often seen at the Casa Leopoldo on the Carrer de Sant Rafael in the Barri Xino (0034 93 441 6942; booking essential). The seafood at this small, family-run establishment is second to none, while the atmosphere is intimate and authentically Barcelonian. A set menu including dessert and drinks costs $68 (Dh248).

Gaudí fans will shoot me for saying this, but the Sagrada Familia cathedral is overrated and not worth the entrance fee. You can catch a glimpse of its spires from many points in the city, while the main façade can be appreciated well enough from the street. The problem is that not all of it was designed by Gaudí: the least said about the "Passion" façade by Subirachs, the better.

La Boqueria market on Las Ramblas may have become a tourist attraction but it still has enough of the raw, authentic Mediterranean spirit about it to put it at the top of your list. Wander around the food stalls - and let your senses lead the way. Jason Webster is the author of five books on Spain, including Duende: A Journey in Search of Flamenco. See www.jasonwebster.net

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