The Catalan capital is one of Europe’s great all-rounders, a city as pretty as it is cultured, with an appetite for letting its hair down. Here’s our pick of original experiences in the ‘Rio of the Med’
1. Take a night tour of a masterpiece
‘Welcome to the greatest rooftop in the world,’ says curator Silvia Vilarroya, stepping out into the sultry Barcelona evening. Stone structures coated in ceramic mosaics rise from the highest points, linked by undulating pathways around the courtyards, along which knight-like sculptures protrude like periscopes. The effect is part medieval battle scene, part futuristic chessboard. ‘All of these are chimneys or ventilation pipes’, says Silvia. ‘Antoni Gaudi was provocative – but he was also functional.’
La Pedrera was the final residential building that the Catalan architect took on, a commission from the wealthy Milà family. It polarised opinion when it opened in 1912; people either hated it or really hated it. But since then it has become much-loved – and visited. Night tours strip away the crowds, enabling small groups to linger in the Milàs’ recreated apartment and admire design flourishes, such as ceilings in which trees have seemingly taken root. Out on the roof, the embers of the day start to cool. A whisper of a breeze carries the occasional sound from the Passeig de Gràcia below, but otherwise all is quiet.
2. Hit the roof
In the lobby of Hotel Majestic, a woman clutching a Chihuahua hails a bellboy with her eyebrows. Staff buzz about, obsequious.
Up on the 10th floor things are altogether less stuffy. Bathers absorb rays and cocktails around the pool, while smiling waitresses attend to those marooned in the deep sofas. There are reminders of the rarified atmosphere – a £2,400 bottle of Remy Martin Louis XIII Cognac is barely out of place on the drinks menu – but as long as you’re happy to pay a little more for your rose, a slice of the high life can be yours.
It’s an appropriate democratisation. The tale of Barcelona is very much one of its rooftops. Meagre rain keeps them flat; the constant battle for space keeps them busy.
A few blocks west of the Majestic is Hotel Pulitzer’s rooftop oasis, its wood furniture, trellises and pot plants bringing to mind a Home Counties garden. Here, a bow-tied waiter serves a bottle of white to a group of friends, as cool jazz swirls around the deck.
3. Ham it up with jamón
Master slicer Juan Pairo is standing beside racks of ham in an upstairs tasting room just off La Rambla. Through the window, the celebrated street is characteristically frenzied but here, within glass walls, it’s all refinement and precision.
Juan glides his knife across the marbled, ruby-red meat and frees a paper-thin slice of Jamón Iberico de Bellota. It’s sweet and intensely nutty. Other cuts follow, Juan distributing morsels to the tasters, all amateurs in the art of ham appreciation. The parallels to a wine tasting are pronounced: the obscure vernacular, the tasting notes, the strangely sombre air for something so pleasurable. If jamón is Spain’s wine, then Jamón Iberico de Bellota is its champagne.
As the Jamón Experience’s introduction explains, its sought-after flavour is the result of the Iberian pig’s free-range lifestyle roaming oak groves in southern Spain. During this time it will consume around 750kg of acorns (bellotas). The jamóns, the back legs, are cured in salt for three years in a practice that has barely changed in thousands of years. And when the results are this good, why should it?
4. Channel Willy Wonka
Inside the Museu de la Xocolata’s classroom a group of visitors in chef s hats are playing with industrial quantities of chocolate. Littering the worktops are strawberries, lollipops and moulds oozing with silky molten goo. These short classes offer a hands-on appreciation of the versatility of chocolate; next door, in a temperature-controlled exhibition space, it’s a case of look but don’t touch.
Everything from La Sagrada Familia to the Terracotta Warriors has been immortalised in chocolate; intricate artworks that are a testament to the skill (and self-denial) – of their creator.
5. Join a Human Tower
Late evening in the suburb of Clot finds a group gathering outside a nondescript building. They chat amicably, sharing jokes and greetings. In 15 minutes’ time they’ll be walking all over one another.
This is the headquarters of the Castellers de Barcelona, one of the city’s human tower clubs. This curious mix of gymnastics and human Jenga has been a feature of Catalan fiestas for 200 years, and groups have started to invite visitors to join in and add their arms to the supportive base of the tower.
The castellers range from school children to septuagenarians, and everyone has a crucial role. The ranks of the base – la pinya, or pineapple – come together, arms locked, heads tucked in. Once set, the first bare-footed climbers clamber into position. Further storeys take shape. The last to climb is the anxaneta, the child who must raise a hand from the top to ‘crown’ the castle.
Eduard Paris’s days as an anxaneta are behind him. At 39, he’s commonly near the base, enduring the weight of up to six people on his shoulders. ‘You cannot see it but when you hear the cheers as the child reaches the top, you are pleased and you are thinking of the group,’ he says. ‘They’re helping you, you are helping them. Together the tower is complete.’