Destination of the week: Barcelona
Beachcombers, walkers, foodies, architecture buffs and shoppers will find plenty to do in this Spanish city.
Thu, Jun 23, 2011 at 08:41 AM
Barcelona is the capital of the province of Catalonia (Catalunya in Catalan) and the second largest city in Spain. Located along the northeastern coast of the Iberian Peninsula, it is known mainly for its beaches, clean water, pleasant Mediterranean-influenced weather and blend of old and new architecture. With wide, tree-lined pedestrian thoroughfares and plazas, Barcelona is a great city for walking. A metro-wide train network makes it unnecessary to ever have to hail a taxi or get behind the wheel.
Catalonia made headlines and earned praise from animal rights activists and environmentalists with its recent decision to ban the sport of bullfighting throughout the province. One of the main bullfighting arenas has already been turned into a shopping complex. But Barcelona's green scene goes beyond the bullring. Recycling bins stand ready to take waste on streets and in public areas. The city's popular beaches are cleaned often, and a fleet of hydrogen-powered buses ply the streets. It is even possible to get to Barcelona in an eco-friendly way because the city is connected with other parts of Spain by the country's exemplary high-speed rail network.
Life happens outdoors in Barcelona. There are the beaches, of course, but also plenty of open air markets, public parks and gardens. Natural attractions are found in the less urbanized parts of the coast, in the nearby Pyrenees Mountains and even inside the city itself.
The three-line, tourist-oriented Barcelona Bus Turistic operates a fleet of double-decker buses between major tourist attractions in the city. A two-day pass is currently 30 euros ($44). The advantage of this service is that it runs frequently (every five to 20 minutes) and all pass-holders have hop-on, hop-off privileges.
Barcelona's Metro system is a cheaper option. The train lines reach throughout the city, with a fleet of hydrogen-powered buses offering service as well. Fares are relatively cheap, or for 40 euros (that's about $58), the Barcelona Card gives users unlimited rides on all public transportation for five days. The card also qualifies holders for admission discounts at museums and reduced prices on guided tours.
Walking is quite easy in Barcelona. Wide boulevards and pedestrian-friendly promenades mean that the city is accessible on foot. A decent map might prove helpful, although walking in places like Las Ramblas and Catalonia Plaza (see below) is straightforward.
Biking is another feasible green way to sightsee. Rental shops like Biciclot provide bikes, and offer guided tours and design self-guided tours as well.
Barcelona's boutique hotels include some green options for conscientious visitors. The Grand Hotel Central features a renovated building from the 1920s, a restaurant headed by a two-Michelin-star chef and a heavy reliance on natural light. Barcelona's Casa Camper features minimalist design, a hanging garden and an impressive water management system.
Le Meridien Barcelona is a high-end property with a green tint. Practices like the elimination of Styrofoam packaging, plus recycling and energy-saving measures make this hotel a bit greener than many others in its price category. A property-level green council is charged with finding additional ways to make the hotel's operation more Earth-friendly.
Las Ramblas is a three-quarter-mile pedestrian mall lined with trees, buildings and attractions. This space is a major attraction for tourists, with most of the retail venues and shops catering as much to tourists as to locals. Nonetheless, Las Ramblas is one of the most notable examples of the walker-centered nature of Barcelona's public spaces. The Gothic Quarter (Barri Gotic in Catalan) is another area well suited for foot-powered sightseeing. The neighborhood features buildings preserved from as early as medieval times, as well as remnants of a wall built during the Roman Empire's occupation of Spain. The Quarter is characterized by narrow streets, many of which meander around and end in small plazas or squares. Though buses and taxis use some of the streets, many roads in the Gothic Quarter are closed off to general vehicle traffic, making walking an easy and safe undertaking. Catalonia Plaza (Plaça de Catalunya), considered the central plaza of Barcelona, sits on the edge of the Gothic Quarter. The open space is huge and is dotted with monuments and fountains and surrounded by snapshot-worthy buildings. Other pedestrian malls, such as Portal de l'Angel, in the Cuitat Vella District (near both the Gothic Quarter and Las Ramblas), are not quite as touristy as the more-well-known areas mentioned above.
Those seeking a greater concentration of foliage can find it in Barcelona's parks and gardens. Parc del Laberint d'Horta is one such greenspace. Constructed in the late 18th century, it is known for its hedge maze, which is made from cypress trees. A large garden, featuring trees, flowers, statues and pavilions, is surrounded by a heavily forested area. The Botanical Garden of Barcelona is another nature-themed attraction, featuring plants that thrive in Mediterranean climates. A collection of bonsai plants is on display as well. The garden is situated on Montjuic, a mountain (more like a large hill overlooking the city) that is a prominent part of the skyline. Cyclists often hit the roads for uphill and downhill riding, and a tram, funicular railway and gondola also lead to the top from various parts of the city. In addition to the Botanical Garden, other parks, gardens and natural areas sit on Montjuïc's slopes.
Barcelona is also home to the highest concentration of buildings designed by famed architect Antoni Gaudi. One of the best places to see his unmistakable architectural style is at Park Guell, conceived by Gaudi and an investor (who the park is named after) as a “garden city” with living spaces and natural areas. The project failed, but the distinctly styled structures have been preserved.
One of the other notable greenspaces in Barcelona is Ciutadella Park. The 70-acre Ciutadella hosts the city's zoo, a lake and two museums (dedicated to zoology and geology). Walking paths wind through forested areas. Some of the vegetation in the park has been growing untouched for more than a century.
The interior regions of Catalonia are prime destinations for hikers, winter sports enthusiasts and sightseers. Vall de Nuria is a scenic region in the eastern Pyrenees popular with skiers in the winter and sightseers seeking to experience the natural beauty of Spain's most famous mountain range in the summer. A railway runs for seven miles through the valley, offering scenic trips for visitors who don’t want to take to the slopes or hit the trails.
Vegetarian, organic and vegan food is not difficult to find in Barcelona. An extensive menu of vegetarian options makes planning a meatless itinerary a simple exercise. The city's markets are great places to find the freshest foods. Boqueria, a large market selling all sorts of edibles to take away or eat on-site, also is home to a cooking school featuring classes by noted chefs and sommeliers. The market is centrally located near Las Ramblas, making it a tourist favorite. Mercat de Sant Antoni is a larger, less touristy option. A large selection of tapas bars in the neighborhood compliments the huge assortment of goods for sale in the market itself. The Fira Artesana is arguably the best place to find locally made, organic edibles, such as artisanal cheeses and breads.
La Taverna Catalana is an eatery that focuses on serving grilled meats that are free-range and raised without antibiotics or chemicals. This restaurant also has a market and offers an extensive tapas menu in addition to its grilled treats. Another organic standout is Casa Regina, an eatery serving pastas and other dishes made with all-natural ingredients.
Barcelona is a city that is easy to navigate carbon-free. Its urban green scene and blend of modernity and history make it an ideal Mediterranean vacation destination. Even those who come to hit the beach will enjoy the city's commitment to the environment because of the almost spotless (but oft-crowded) stretches of sand and clean waters. However, Barcelona's attractiveness stretches well beyond the beach with parks, promenades, markets and gardens, offering an almost unlimited assortment of eco-friendly attractions.
Related on MNN: Visit our other destinations of the week.
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