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Homage to Catalonia

Barcelona, Spain

Barcelona is the capital city of Catalonia, in north eastern Spain. It’s great beauty – and convenient location on the Mediterranean coast – make it one of the most popular destinations on Mediterranean cruise itineraries.

Panorama of Barcelona

It’s not quite like the rest of Spain, either: not quite so laid back and relaxed. There’s always a buzz about the place. Perhaps that’s because the people aren’t like proper Spaniards. Most of them would describe themselves as Catalan rather than Spanish, and it’s best to be careful exactly how you would refer to them in public in case you cause offence. The situation is rather like that which exists between Scotland and England: not many natives of Edinburgh would thank you for calling them English. In political terms, the comparison is less apt. Barcelona and Catalonia in general have less political independence from Spain than Scotland does from England, and, although the Catalans don’t cause as much trouble for the government in Madrid as do the notoriously restive Basques further to the north and west, they are still very much their own people with their own culture and identity.

Barcelona Harbor
Barcelona Harbor A major part of that identity is shaped by the sea. Many outsiders forget that Barcelona is a major seaside resort with some exceptional beaches and water sports facilities that were redeveloped during the 1992 Olympics. But if you’re calling in as part of a cruise you probably want to do more than simply lounge around – there are plenty of opportunities to do that on board ship!

Barcelona is an interesting mix of the ancient and modern. If you’re interested in visiting the gothic heart of the medieval city you really should check out La Rambla and Barri Gotica. Not only are these areas fully of winding, atmospheric streets of medieval buildings, they’re really lively too: street entertainers and buskers contend for an audience in La Rambla, particularly, and a whole morning’s entertainment is sometimes to be had simply walking down one street. Not all of this part of Barcelona is so pleasant, however: if you have kids you might like to avoid the area of La Rambla past Plaça Reial where the quarter degenerates into a red light district with all of the seediness of Amsterdam or London’s Soho, but none of the charm.

La Sagrada Familia There’s much else to see though. The unfinished cathedral of La Sagrada Familia is one of the defining symbols of Barcelona: the spires of this amazing piece of modernist/gothic/baroque architecture are an unforgettable sight. The building is also an apt symbol of some of the quarrelsomeness of the Catalans. Work began in the early twentieth century – and the place still isn’t finished. The original architect, the great Antoni Gaudi, died in the 1920s not long after which a hiatus was imposed by the coming of the vicious and bloody Spanish Civil War. When work started again the various groups involved couldn’t agree how Gaudi would have wanted the Cathedral to be finished. Today, some sort of consensus seems to have been reached – although the city authorities are still rather vague when people ask about the expected date of completion. One popular local theory has it that the La Sagrada Familia is deliberately being kept in an unfinished state because the modern legends that have grown up around its building are worth more tourist dollars than a completed church!

The other major highlight of Barcelona – especially if you feel like getting away from the oppressive heat of the midday – is the Picasso Museum. It’s not too far from where your cruise ship will probably be docked in the city’s port. The place is part museum and part art gallery. Even if art isn’t usually your thing you’ll probably find that some of the major works on show – many are from the artist’s famous ‘Blue Period’ – are arresting and impression-forming.

Streets of Barcelona
Streets of Barcelona If you’re staying in town for lunch or even for an evening meal, you’ll find Barcelona has some wonderful cafés and restaurants. Bear in mind that the locals tend not to eat their evening meal until around 9pm. If you can’t wait that long, there are plenty of places that cater for the eating habits of Americans – but be warned that you’re not likely to enjoy the same quality of food and service as you would in a more authentic Catalan eatery. The local cuisine is worth trying - especially the kind of “surf and turf” combined seafood and meat dishes for which Catalonia is famous. The meat or fish is usually served in some sort of highly flavored and piquant sauce and washed down with local beer or red wine.

In many senses, Barcelona is the most Mediterranean of Mediterranean seaports. If you have not cruised this sea before, it is a perfect first port of call to get an introduction to southern European lifestyles, cuisines and manners.

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