48 HOURS IN BARCELONA

by Edward Wilkinson Latham

National Post Travel Section

Confident and progressive, Barcelona is a modern city with a medieval heart, exuding an energy that makes many of its rival European cities seem placid and dull by comparison. No wonder the capital of Catalonia was recently voted number one city in Europe for a weekend break. So pack your swimsuit, art history books and some comfortable shoes.

Day One

The city has an abundance of hotels, catering to all tastes and budgets, it seems to be full year round, so booking in advance is advisable. The El Raval district, near The Museum of Modern Art is one going through an exciting renovation: Narrow lanes are now home to stylish new stores and funky hotels. Camper Shoes has opened its own hotel designed with the same palette of innovation that made its footwear famous. A renovated 19th-century convent, the interior is a modern alchemy of luxurious simplicity and whimsical flourishes. Hire a Camper bike to tour the city or hang around to feel spoilt by the staff. $290-$375 a night. (Casa Camper, Elisabets 11, El Raval, Barcelona, tel: 34.933 426 280. www.camper.com)

Out your first morning in the city, you soon realize that very strong coffee is the lifeblood of a city that has to remind itself to get some sleep. Breakfast in Barcelona happens late and by 10am residents are feeling the effects of the first cup of the day. A primer: cafè sol or café, is a strong black coffee, tallat, the same but with a little milk; or cafè amb llet made with just milk. Like some well seasoned locals, you might want to kick start your morning with a carajillo, which is a short, black coffee with a dash of brandy or cognac. Many cafés along the attractive Gracia and Eixample boulevards offer sunny tables outside where you watch the city come to life. The secret to attracting a waiter can at times be elusive task, but a politely uttered escolti, (similar to garçon) usually does the trick.

Once properly fuelled, the visitor faces countless enjoyable hours of getting lost. For those who prefer guided tours, a variety of walks are available through information centers downtown, focusing on Gothic, Modernist, Picasso and Gourmet themes. The ‘Barcelona Bus Turistic’ is a day pass ( about $26) that allows you to hop on and of local buses. Tickets can be bought from the Barcelona tourist information centers and at Sants Station.

The Barri Gòtic or Gothic Quarter is the core of the Medieval City, once bounded by fortified walls. The twisting narrow passages are packed with a concentration of beautiful medieval Gothic buildings and churches, with museums, shops, street markets and restaurants interspersed between attractive squares with fountains and orange trees growing amongst the cobblestones.

By contrast the urban planning "Enlargement" project undertaken for the 1888 World's Fair, catapulted Barcelona into a massive architectural and cultural transformation. Wide tree lined boulevards of Passeig de Gràcia and Eixample were created as a grand backdrop for radical modernist architecture much of it designed by Barcelona’s golden boy, Antoni Guidi. The Modernista walking route takes the visitor through 50 of the most outstanding and important sights. Tickets for the tour can be purchased at Casa Amatler on Passeig De Gracia.

It wont be long before your taste need tending. Eating Tapas and having a drink with friends defines the city’s habit of dining out. Ir de copas - going out for a drink, is a daily exercise for many Catalonians, but the extensive proliferation of cafés and bars across the city says less about the endless habit of grazing and drinking than the love of social ritual.

Tapas were originally free snacks served on top of the drinking glass (tapa means lid). Any bar will have something it can offer as tapas even the standard pig leg, jamón Serrano. A good tapas bar will offer an endless selection of seafood, meats and cold-cuts, with cheeses, vegetables and tortilla - a cake like omelet made with eggs, onions and potatoes. Sureny (Plaça de la Revolució) is a gastronomic Eden when it comes to tapas. As well the staple delights, there is shrimp and crab stuffed peppers, duck foie gras with redcurrant sauce, tuna marinated in ginger and soy and seasoned partridge and venison are among the many temptations. The Plaça de la Revolució is reached from the Metro Fontana or Joanic.

Barcelona is also a shopper’s paradise, with a style of mixing elegant and traditional with daring innovation. Catalans love to look good and there are more stores here, per capita than any other city in Europe. For major labels try the outlets on Passeig de Gràcia and for smaller labels and boutiques the rejuvenated old village of Gracia north of Diagonal is worth a visit. Shoemaker Camper has boomed across Europe and especially in Barcelona where there are 4 or 5 stores alone.

As part of Barcelona’s Year of the Book and the 400th anniversary of the publication of Don Quixote, La Pedrera is exhibiting the work of eight artists who have been inspired by the Cervantes story. Classic drawings by Gustave Doré and caricatures by William Hogarth, contrast with the paintings of Dalí, Joan Ponç, Roberto Matta and Picasso’s 1950 emblematic Man from La Mancha. La Pedrera, also known as Casa Mila, is one of Gaudi’s finest and most ambitious creations. Metro Passeig de Gràcia.

At the end of a busy first day, a great way to see the entire city is to visit one of the many lookouts. Perhaps the most spectacular is at the top of the Sangrada Familia. Designed by Guidi, construction began in 1882 and is expected to be fully completed in 2015. For ten euros you can climb one of the towers with picture postcard views over the city skyline, the mountains and coast.

If you have energy remaining, Barcelona’s world-renowned nightlife is very rewarding. Nothing gets going before 1am and whether you are looking for grunge rock or a pumping techno foam party, chances are you’ll have so much fun you will be out until the birds start chirping. Pick up a copy of Guia del Ocio is available at newsstands and details all the city’s listings.

DAY TWO

Barcelona is a wonderful city to observe in the waking hours. The Els Encants is a huge flea market and attracts all sorts of characters, who come to hawk oodles of antiques and bric-á-brac at bargain prices. You never know what you might find here from valuable paintings to old leather couches, stamps or chandeliers. (Open Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. Metro Glòries).

During the warmer months Barcelona becomes a hive of festivals. The annual Barcelona Guitar Festival, now in its 16th year, attracts some of the best flamenco, classical, rock, blues ad samba musicians from around the world. The event, which runs for nine weeks, wraps ups on June 18th (www.theproject.net).

The Festes de la Mercè is perhaps Barcelona's most popular festival and the last big bash of summer. Celebrating the city's patron saint- Catalunian Princess La Merced's, the lunacy kicks off around the 24 September with procession of paper mâché devils and dragons, who throw out lit fire works at the crowd like confetti. Bands line many streets and encourage late night dancing. For the macho, there are casteller competitions (human castles) and a swimming race across the harbour.

By mid- afternoon it is the sweet tooth that needs pleasuring and many cafés devote themselves to satisfy this. Known as granjes, these old cafés serve afternoon cake and mugs of creamy hot chocolate with sprinkles of cinnamon or spicy chilli on top. Churros, sweet, doughnut-like tubes coated with sugar are great for dipping. La Granja C/Banys Nous. Metro Liceu.

Montjuïc hill looms over the city, southwest of the Barrio Chino and is the city’s largest green area. A cable car ferries passengers to and from the summit (it can be hiked). Since the International Exhibition of 1929, Montjuïc has been one of the city’s greatest cultural attractions, with five museums, various outstanding gardens and the famous Poble Espanyol (Spanish Village). From 6 July to 5 August 2005, a giant screen is erected in the park for Sala Montjuïc, showing 35 mm films in their original version, as well as a number of orchestral and jazz performances.

And if the music and the Mediterranean sunshine lulls you to sleep, don’t worry. You’ll be well rested for your Barcelona evening out.

EWL©