Travel: You could spend a lifetime in Barcelona and still only scratch its surface
OUR trip to Catalonia had been on the cards long before the terrorist attacks on Barcelona and Cambrils back in August. But while shocked by their random savagery, there was no way we were going to let them put us off – that way the baddies win.
And so to Barcelona, the good man and I, to tick one of the world’s most amazing cities off our bucket list. With less than a week in which to explore the entire region of Catalonia, we reckon that one day in its capital city should be enough to get a flavour of the place. Big mistake – you could spend a lifetime in Barcelona and still only scratch its surface.
Older even than Rome, legend has it that Hercules founded the city around 1,100BC; but whatever its origins there’s no denying Barcelona’s architectural primacy, with no fewer than nine Unesco-protected monuments within its limits, perhaps most notably the Sagreda Famalia basilica, still an awe-inspiring work in progress almost a century after the death of its creator ‘God’s Architect’ Antoni Gaudi.
With nine blue -lag beaches fringing its coastline, Barcelona has been listed number one in the world’s 10 best beach cities by National Geographic. Other claims to distinction include its rating as the most visited city in Spain, with the busiest cruise port in Europe. It also boasts the largest metropolitan park in the world with an area of 84.65 km² – that’s 22 times bigger than New York’s Central Park. Not to mention its 20-plus Michelin-starred restaurants, 55 museums, 68 parks... the list of superlatives goes on.
But perhaps Barcelona’s most noteworthy if intangible asset is its atmosphere, with al fresco flower stalls, food markets, street art and outdoor concerts providing a veritable feast for the senses. By Day 3 we’re still soaking it up, even as, just 40 miles distant, the dinosaur colony of my childhood awaits.
Let me explain.
One Christmas morning back in the 1960s, along with the usual toys and sweets there lay under the tree a big, colourful hardback – ‘To Margaret, from Santa’ – crammed with images of the world’s most marvellous mountains. At the time I was severely put out (I’d specifically requested a Bunty annual in my North Pole missive) but I wasn’t long about getting over my annoyance as jagged peaks and steaming craters and soaring, snow-capped summits leaped from its pages, firing my imagination as never before.
But for all the forbidding majesty of Everest and the romance of Mount Olympus, it was the Catalonian mountain range of Montserrat with its huge, serrated peaks reminiscent of a herd of ridge-backed dinosaurs that most captivated my seven-year-old self.
Fast-forward through more than half a century and there on the horizon, looking infinitely more mind-blowing in reality, the prehistoric monster colony of my childhood lies basking in the late summer sunshine.
Located 40 miles north east of Barcelona, an hour is all it takes to get from the centre of a chic 21st century metropolis to a mountain range blasted from the seabed by a seismic shift in the Earth’s tectonic plates some 25 million years ago.
Since then, time and tide have shaped this sedimentary rock into the curved and peaked colossus it is today, with an electromagnetic field so strong as to rank it with the world’s most significant ‘power spots’.
Given its sheer visual impact it’s little wonder Montserrat has been drawing the crowds since time immemorial. In a pre-Christian era the Romans built a temple here to honour their goddess Venus. Centuries later a group of monks founded several hermitages; one of which, in 1025, was expanded to become Montserrat’s first significant Christian settlement, the Santa Maria monastery.
Built around a carved oak statue of the Madonna reputedly found hidden in a cave in 718AD, the monastery soon began attracting pilgrims who subsequently spread the word about miracle cures ascribed to the Virgin of Montserrat. To this day the Black Madonna (so called because the candle smoke of centuries has ebonised its features) continues to pull them in, as evidenced by the crowds spilling daily from cars and tour buses and funicular trains through the heavy wooden doors of the basilica in whose gilded throne room La Moreneto – “the little black lady” – resides.
Twice daily, the monastery’s world-renowned L’Escolania Boys Choir performs in the basilica, maintaining a tradition of Gregorian chant dating back to 1223. With free admission to its grounds, churches and services there’s no doubting the Montserrat Monastery’s appeal. But it is only one of Catalonia’s many attractions.
Having based ourselves in the ancient town of Cardona with its Roman and Gothic temples, ninth century hilltop castle and three-million-year-old salt mountain there is no shortage of sights on our doorstep.
Then there’s the surrounding Penedes region, Catalonia’s very own Bordeaux, where checking out the traditional masia architecture, visiting wineries and cava producers, staying overnight among the vineyards, sampling the local cuisine and exploring the region’s many and varied cultural routes are all part of its tourism package.
Not to mention the spectacular, 21 metre high Torre La Manresana, a 12th century watchtower just down the road which is reputed to have been frequented by King James I back in the day.
But for all the surrounding diversions it’s the mountain itself that keeps on drawing us back. Hiking along its nature trails, through dense vegetation and ancient, ruined hermitages is like stepping back in time to a Christmas morning long ago, and the book full of marvellous mountains that finally led the way here.
Meanwhile, back at the hotel a ream of tourist bumph extolling other Catalonian gems – the golden sands of the Costas Brava and Daurada; the Dali Triangle, a trio of sites showcasing the life and times of surrealist icon Salvador Dali; the historic town of Vic, one of Catalonia’s oldest settlements complete with Roman temple, 11th century bridge and a street market dating all the way back to the Middle Ages – lies unopened. We’ll get around to them. Some other time.
:: Aer Lingus, Ireland’s only 4 Star airline, operates up to two flights daily from Dublin to Barcelona with fares starting from €44.99 one-way including taxes and charges. See aerlingus.com for info and booking