Walking down La Ramblas, a with its riot of souvenir shops, street vendors, hotels and restaurants, I savoured the overlapping breezes, each bearing the scent of something new. Frying octopus, green sap and a snatch of Armand Basi combining like a batch of cake mixture to produce something intangibly Spanish. Cyclists sped past, mothers clutched the hands of pouting children and black-garbed businessmen bustled past. This, in a nutshell, encapsulates the beauty of doing a new city by foot. Instead of an impartial observer peeping out through the perspex of a car window; on two feet, you’re right in the middle of things. Literally. Quite how literally in the middle, I didn’t realise until I arrived at La Boqueria: a veritable foodie’s paradise. Here, you can find almost anything: fresh fish, brightly coloured fruit and vegetables, and ruby dark wine. We drank freshly made fruit smoothies while immersing ourselves in this centre of Catalan culture. With so many locals around, La Boqueria is a fragrant, if slightly frenetic experience that makes having to push through the teeming masses of people worth it. A little further down La Ramblas, through a small alleyway, is the Plaza Real, or Placa Reial. Gaudi-designed lampposts mingle with bright green palm trees around the edges, while the centre is home to a spectacular fountain.
Further down La Ramblas you’ll come to the seaside and harbour area, just south of the impressive Estatua de Colon, or Statue of Colon. Here you’ll find more classical architectural gems and plenty of seaside dining and shopping spots. Looking out towards the harbour, you can see the cranes that carry the cable cars up towards the mediaeval Montjuic castle, and the crowd of ferries and private boats docked along the wharf. The water is brilliant blue and so clear you can see straight to the bottom: we even caught a crowd being entertained by a mariner feeding a school of large fish. Walking east along the seafront, you’ll eventually come to one of several beaches; as in Rio de Janeiro, the pulsing heart of the city. Although we only stayed for a spot of afternoon sunbathing, locals often stay as late as eight, playing volleyball or Frisbee and enjoying the sea air that makes the beach considerably cooler than inland areas.
If you fancy a challenge, Montjuic, the hill overlooking the city on the south-western side, is for you. There are cable cars to take you to the top, but taking it means missing out on the beautiful parks and museums that dot the slopes. As we made our way to the summit, I passed the Catalan National Art Museum, the Olympic Stadium, and a wealth of gardens packed exotic fauna. For me though, the best part was Montjuic Castle itself. Built in 1640, the fort still retains original features including ramparts, cannons and a grey stone bridge. From the castle, we had a magnificent view of the city and harbour, as well as the countryside surrounding the city to the north and east. Montjuic is also well served by footpaths, so we took a different route down that took us through some of the peaceful parks.
Away from tourist areas such as La Ramblas, La Gracia, a student area, offers a low-key take on the city. The cobbled side streets are filled with shops and tiny tapas bars, as well as numerous small squares packed with locals playing football, having a quiet chat, or just relaxing with a book. One foodie find in the area was the charming Taverna El Glop. I chose local speciality, Pa amb Tomàquet, which included bread with homemade tomato sauce, wild salmon, and a generous portion of organic beef. It was excellent and cost a fraction of what you would pay in London. La Taina, La Vinoteca Torres, and the Nou Candanchu tapas bar are also worth checking out.
Five days wasn’t nearly enough to fully explore Barcelona on foot, although you can make a decent start. The city is packed with works of architectural genius such as Antonio Gaudi’s Sagrada Famillia, La Placa Catalunya and the Barcelona Football Club Museum. While doing the city under your own steam cuts down on the number of sights you can see, the illusion – or reality – of becoming a part of the warp and weft of daily life more than makes up for it, and means you’ve got a better chance of discovering something truly special.
Need to know
Barcelona abounds with eateries, so choosing one can be a daunting task. Taverna El Glop, Ciudad Condal tapas bar and the more upmarket Castro all come highly recommended and rely on locally produced fresh produce. My favourite though, was the Senyor Parellada, where I ate freshly caught and cooked calamari and some terrific organic lamb with fresh garlic and tomato bread.
Located close to the city centre in the Raval district, the Casa Camper is an idiosyncratic outpost of the Camper shoe empire with an emphasis on the eco-friendly. A cosy 25-room establishment, everything is decorated in the Camper colours of red, white and green, and the use of the hotel's bikes and free 'Ten Ten' pies to snack on are included in the price. Green initiatives include a water recycling scheme which has reduced water use in the hotel by 50 per cent, and using solar energy to produce hot water for showers. The on site restaurant, Tentempié, serves fresh, locally-sourced produce only.
As suggested, there’s nothing wrong with your own two feet, but there are several bike rental companies such as Bike Tours Barcelona, Budget Bikes and BornBikes. Since Barcelona has its own bicycle scheme for residents, the city’s drivers and roads are well acquainted with cyclists. There is a very comprehensive and reasonably priced metro system for those days when the weather isn’t cooperating, as well as numerous buses running on compressed natural gas.
Brittany Ferries (www.brittany-ferries.co.uk) run twice weekly services to Bilbao and Santander from Portsmouth and Plymouth. Barcelona is a 600km drive (expect it to take around five and a half hours), but there are inexpensive train and bus options. A return on Brittany Ferries to Bilbao from Portsmouth starts at £324 per person, while the Santander route is slightly cheaper at £300. Buses to Barcelona start at €40 and trains at €70. Other options include taking the Eurostar to Paris where you can join the Joan Miro sleeper train – a daily service that leaves the Gare d'Austerlitz at 20:37. Prices for the sleeper train start at £64 one way. See www.raileurope.co.uk for more information.
Belfast: the green guide
Combining great nightlife and delicious organic food with a fascinating past and friendly locals, Belfast is the perfect place for a British weekend break
Top 10…Euro cities to cycle
Want to see a new city and get fit at the same time? Then try doing it by bike...
Copenhagen: Europe's coolest green city
Cutting edge architecture, miles of cycle routes and green spaces galore have made the Danish capital a hotspot for green travellers. Ruth Styles packed her bags for a weekend in Europe’s greenest capital city
Seoul: on course to be one of the world's greenest cities?
Seoul, host of this year's G20, is well on the way to achieving its goal of becoming one of the world's most eco-friendly cities. But, as Anna Sheldrick reports, there may be room for improvement elsewhere in South Korea
All aboard the Eco Express: five great places to go by train
Whether you fancy a little continental flair, a Cornish pasty or a highland fling, there’s a train to get you there. Best of all, it’s clean, green and fuss-free