BARCELONA, Spain — This city, the capital of Catalonia, is the country's Paris, London, Munich and San Francisco all rolled into one.
Catalans think of their land as the domain and protector of a culture that other Spaniards are not fortunate enough to have shared. Even their language, like that of the Basques at the other end of the Pyrenees, is less a regional dialect than a separate tongue, one that was officially forbidden during the Franco regime.
Catalonia's cultural determinism is also expressed by the publication of almost as many books for the 3 million readers of Catalan as those in Spanish for 30 million readers.
And while the Iberian Peninsula was largely cut off from the rest of Europe by the Pyrenees until the mid-19th Century, trade-conscious Catalans have always sailed the Mediterranean, so much so that today's dialect in Venice and much of Sardinia is largely Catalan.
Cervantes called Barcelona a "haven for strangers;" it will be the site of the 1992 Summer Olympics. Indeed, the city's art, architecture, opera, cultural activities and fine dining is an exciting lure. It is a cosmopolitan, vibrant and very pretty metropolis.
Here to there: Iberia flies nonstop to Madrid, then on to Barcelona. TWA, British Airways and KLM will also get you to Madrid with changes.
How long/how much? Give the town at least three days, perhaps another for a day-trip to legendary Montserrat Monastery. While Spain is no longer a bargain country, lodging and dining in Barcelona are still reasonably moderate.
A few fast facts: Spain's peseta recently traded at 116 to the dollar. Visit any time of year. It's a bit nippy in the dead of winter, but the summers are free from the heat of inland Spain.
Getting settled in: Regencia Colon (Calle Sagristans 13; $61 B&B double) is a longtime favorite of ours. It's by the beautiful 13th-Century cathedral and within steps of the Barrio Gotico, the city's original medieval quarter. Decor is traditional, rooms air-conditioned. You can get a room without private bath for about $10 less.
Hotel Colon (Avenida Catedral 7; $84 double) is across the street from the cathedral, with some balcony rooms having a perfect view of the facade and Sunday morning dancers who perform Catalonia's national dance, the sardana . Colon, a sister of the Regencia, is first-class in every respect, with handsome rooms, a restaurant, a small bar and most amenities.
Hotel Regente (Rambla de Cataluna 76; $84 double), in the newer "upper town" north of Plaza Cataluna, is near many fine restaurants and the town's best shopping. It's a traditional building and lobby, with contemporary rooms, a pool, a solarium, a pleasant restaurant and bar and a rooftop cafe.
Regional food and drink: Start the day with a Catalan breakfast of pa amb tomaquet (bread and tomatoes), a Spanish tortilla of eggs, potatoes and onions, local sausage and a small chato of red wine.
Spaniards call it zarzuela , a little "operetta" fish stew, while in Catalan it's suquet de peix . Whatever the name, it's delicious. Also the esqueixada (codfish salad); escalivada (eggplant and peppers) and pollastre amb gambes (chicken with shrimp). Escudella is the local version of Madrid's cocido , a chickpea stew with numerous meats, while the butifarra Catalan sausage is much favored hereabouts with white beans.
Catalonia has several very acceptable red and white wines, while the pastries are so good that eating them in a cafe after Mass on Sundays is a family tradition.
Good dining: Agut d'Avignon (Calle de la Trinidad 3) in the Barrio Gotico prints its menu in both Catalan and Spanish. At this lovely and elegant restaurant you'll find pollastre amb gambes (chicken with shrimp), snails with shrimp, roast goose with poached pears and marvelous liver with zucchini blossoms. A varied selection of Spanish wines.
La Dida (Roger de Flor 230) is the humorous and rather earthy name for this restaurant of considerable charm and Catalan decor. You'll find the menu filled with Spanish and Catalan specialties, a sprinkling of classic international dishes.
Siete Portes (Paseo Isabel 14) has been tucked under arcades right on the port since 1836. It's an old-fashioned place noted for its seafood and loyal customers. Try the chilled garlic soup Malaguena and perhaps the shellfish crepes with a shrimp sauce. Its paneled rooms have the patina of a 19th-Century private club.
Another traditional Catalan place at the heart of Barrio Gotico, La Cuineta (Calle Paradis 4), is a 17th-Century cellar of rustic elegance with a marvelous kitchen. And several good seafood places with friendly prices are in the little port area of Barcelonette. Try Casa Costa, Cal Pinxo next door or Can Majo, none of which have memorable decor, just good food.
On your own: Two Barcelona structures, five centuries apart in their genesis, best exemplify the city's acceptance of things new and perhaps unusual.