11. Visit the original vermouth bar
Midday sunlight streams through the claret shutters of Quimet & Quimet to illuminate walls lined with bottles. The clientele is a mix of neighbourhood stalwarts and first timers. Presiding over the bar are Joaquin Perez and his daughter Neus. This is a family business, as it always has been.
The history is only part of the appeal. The bar’s montaditos, or open sandwiches are renowned: salmon and yoghurt drizzled with truffled honey; prawns, baked red pepper and caviar. The artful creations disintegrate with the first bite, but the food is merely the supporting act.
The main event is the vermouth, something the bar has been synonymous with since it opened in 1914. The fortified wine is traditionally taken late morning and early evening in Catalonia. ‘The drink is a Catalan tradition, but look around you – it’s national, international… it’s for everyone,’ says Joaquin.
12. Fly in a vintage icon
‘When this ride opened, flight was a luxury enjoyed only by the very wealthy,’ says Alex Garcia, opening the gate to another line of passengers. ‘People would come here so that they could say they had flown.’ He slips into his booth and flicks a switch. The propeller splutters into life and the vintage plane begins to inch forward on its axis overhead, Barcelona unfurling 500m below.
Bright red L’Avio is a replica of the plane that flew the inaugural flight from Barcelona to Madrid in 1927. It has been the main attraction at Tibidabo Amusement Park, on the summit of the eponymous mountain, for much of the century that the park has been doing business.
The three rotations proceed at a stately pace and there’s little need for seatbelts in an interior lined with armchairs and vintage dials. But peering down at the city through the small window of the juddering cabin, it’s a plausible imitation of flight – even today.
13. Lose yourself in maze-like gardens
When the Neoclassical garden of Parc del Laberint d’Horta were first planted in the late 18th century, the site was a two-hour coach-and-horse ride from central Barcelona. Today, the spot has been caught and consumed by the city’s voracious suburbs, enveloped by apartment buildings and ring roads. Its status as an oasis is all the more prized as a result.
On a humid afternoon, Barcelona’s oldest garden is host to dozens of visitors. They amble along footpaths flecked with pine needles, rest on sun-warmed stone benches and explore the endearingly whimsical jumble of temples, pavilions and sculptures. The decadent tone is set by the crumbling, Havisham-esque palace of the aristocratic
Desvalls family, who once hosted royalty here; this is not one of those in which you worry about creasing the grass. At the centre of the site is the maze for which the park is named. A couple admire the classical frieze at the start – depicting Theseus’s arrival in Crete to kill the labyrinth-dwelling Minotaur – then set off into the decidedly less ominous corridors of fastidiously pruned cypress trees.
14. Go kayaking at dusk
Dusk is greeted on the beach with almost universal indifference. Towels remain on the sand, ball games intensify and conversations grow more exuberant. The odd shout carries 100m offshore to where a fleet of kayakers is paddling through the opaque stillness. The boats are swift and agile; gliding through the gathering darkness with a satisfying speed.
‘This is my favourite part of the day,’ says Alberto Bolsa. The 45-year-old is the veteran of beachfront watersports company Base Nautica, and his familiarity with the city’s coastline is perfectly suited to the dusk tours he leads. The distances are modest, with the speed set by the slowest. He calls a halt, giving everyone the chance to soak up the peace and trail fingers through bath-warm water. Soon, a course is set for home, where kayaks will be pulled on to the sand and a post-paddle spread of octopus, and bottles of beers greedily consumed.
15. Hit the beach on two wheels
‘Dar la espalda al mar’, it used to be said of Barcelona. It had its back to the sea. Not any more. On a sunny afternoon, a stream of runners, skaters and pedestrians flows along the promenade of La Barceloneta. Out on the sand, tanned retirees chat animatedly alongside teens playing volleyball, and sun worshippers yo-yo between the shallows and chiringuitos – the flat-roofed beach bars.
Moving with the promenade current, at the head of a train of green bikes, is Edu Bertrand. Like all the guides with Steel Donkeys, he is local, laid-back and offers customised tours.
Today, he’s focusing on Barcelona’s coastline past and present, moving from the claustrophobic medieval lanes of the land-locked La Ribera district to the reclaimed strip on to which the city’s southernmost beaches are grafted. It’s an armchair ride, with the generously saddled bikes having a hint of the Easy Rider about them. Gently weaving through the crowds, there’s a conspicuous absence of the anti-bike animosity that can mar cycling in some European cities. Barcelona is not a city that sweats the small stuff.
‘The 1992 Olympics changed everything,’ says Edu. The city started to be rebuilt for the people, and the beach is an expression of that. It reflects Barcelona’s dynamism.’