Over two thousand years, Barcelona has created a rich, unique and vibrant culture. As Spain’s undisputed second city, both ambitious and cosmopolitan, it has forged its identity as a dynamic European metropolis. Paradoxically, its cutting-edge self-image rests in equal measure on its dreams for the future and celebration of its glorious past. Its Catalan character is both mediaeval and daringly modern – and Catalonia has always played off that mythic tension between ‘seny’ and ‘rauxa’ – sober common-sense and explosive energy. The breathtaking grace of Sta Maria del Mar’s gothic tracery, spare and elegant, acts as a perfect foil for Jean Nouvel’s proud high-rise cucumber or the twin communication towers of the starchitects Foster and Calatrava that punctuate the skyline while Gaudi’s outrageously ambitious Sagrada Familia inevitably steals the show.
In the cobbled streets and blind alleys of the Barri Gòtic – Europe’s best preserved Gothic quarter – antiquarians and atmospheric cafes sit side by side a recently discovered tenth-century synagogue and the splendid fourteenth-century palaces built when Barcelona was capital of kingdom of Aragon and the great trading entrepôt of the Mediterranean. The wealth and colour of the Gothic retablos that filled the trade guild churches are upstaged only, in perfect displays at the National Museum of Catalan Art, by the fresco cycles of six Romanesque churches, brought down in their entirety from villages high up in the nearby Pyrenees.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Barcelona was allowed to break out of its restrictive mediaeval walls. Its new Eixample – ‘extension’ – exploded with creative energy, the Modernista style becoming all the rage as it still is today, transforming the city into the design capital of Europe. At the end of the century, rapid industrialisation based on the textile boom, and trade with Cuba, brought with it social tensions and the fabulous wealth of the ‘Indiano’ millionaires and chocolate barons, who had their exuberant palaces built by architects of the calibre of Gaudí, Domenech and the great historian of the Gothic, Puig I Cadafalch.
This is the city that provided the creative energy for the extraordinary talents of Picasso, Ramon Casas and Santiago Rusiñol at the legendary bohemian Els Quatre Gats, still perfectly preserved today. A city in which Gaudí would become its architectural pope, as lesser known artists, such as Joaquin Mir and Isidre Nonell, laid the ground for revolutionary masters of the avant-garde like Joan Miró and Antoni Tapies.
Again and again Barcelona has reinvented itself. It is a city in constant dynamic flux, where state of the art museums appear perfectly at home alongside glorious restaurants serving traditional Catalan food sourced from its splendid nineteenth-century markets, where the revolutionary genius of Ferran Adrià is but the most recent chapter in its creative search and yearning for the new. Meanwhile, its secret, seductive world is still to be found around every corner and through the only partially closed door.
Fly at 10.45am from London Heathrow to Barcelona (British Airways). Explore Las Ramblas and neighbouring streets, squares and churches: Richard Meier’s sleek Museum of Contemporary Art, jewels of the Modernista-Art Nouveau style including La Boquería, the most beautiful market in the world, and the arcaded Plaça Reial.
Mediaeval Barcelona. The Barri Gòtic is a marvellously well-preserved mediaeval quarter. Visit the magnificent and richly adorned cathedral, with a superb Flamboyant cloister. Soaring Santa Maria del Mar is the finest Gothic church in Catalonia. The Museum of the City of Barcelona is housed in the Chapel of St Agatha and Royal Palace with fascinating Roman and Visigothic remains. In the afternoon walk to the Picasso Museum which, installed in neighbouring mansions, ranks second only to Paris for the size and quality of its collection.
Modernista Barcelona. Begin at Casa Vicens, one of Gaudí’s earliest commissions in multi-coloured Moorish style, re-opening in 2018 after restoration. Drive to his Parc Güell, the incomplete ‘garden suburb’ with sinuous ceramic-clad tiles and the house Gaudí lived in for 20 years, now a museum. The Monestir de Pedralbes is a 14th-century monastery complex with exquisite cloister arcades and frescoes. In the afternoon drive to the Sagrada Familia, Gaudí’s extraordinary church, still years from completion, and finish the day with a rooftop walk of La Pedrera.
Montjuïc. On the Montjuïc hill visit the Miró Foundation, a huge collection of works by the Barcelona artist. The National Museum of Catalan Art, with altarpieces and detached frescoes from all over the region, is one of the finest collections of mediaeval art anywhere. Free afternoon for independent exploration.
Pedralbes. Walk to some outstanding modernist buildings and decoration starting with Domènech i Montaner’s sumptuous Palau de la Música Catalana (concert hall). The grid-plan 19th-century Eixample is lined with houses and offices of unusual and disputable beauty such as Gaudí’s Casa Batlló, Casa Amatller and Palau Montaner. End the tour at the crypt of the Colònia Güell, Gaudí’s greatest work. Take the early-evening flight to London Heathrow, arriving c. 7.45pm.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £2,170 or £1,920 without flights. Single occupancy: £2,490 or £2,240 without flights.
Air travel (Euro Traveller) on scheduled British Airways flights (Airbus 320); travel by private coach and some use of metro; hotel accommodation as described below; breakfasts, 1 lunch and 3 dinners with wine, water and coffee; all admission charges; all tips for waiters and drivers; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
Hotel Condes de Barcelona: 4-star hotel, very well placed for buildings by Gaudí; rooms are modern and comfortable. Single rooms are doubles for sole use.
The tour involves a lot of walking in Barcelona – some of it over uneven paving – where vehicular access is restricted, and should not be attempted by anyone who has diffculty with everyday walking and stairclimbing. There is also use of the Metro. Dinners are later in Spain than you may be used to. Average distance by coach per day: 15 miles.
Are you fit enough to join the tour?
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCDO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting.