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Barcelona, one step at a time

With guided walking tours, entrancing architecture and inviting shops, this city is made for hoofing.

May 04, 2008|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

BARCELONA, SPAIN — People who like to walk will never be lonely in Barcelona. This city -- with its rich history, Roman ruins, Gothic cathedrals, Art Nouveau-inspired apartment buildings and hyper-modern hotels -- invites the closer look that you can get only on foot.

In fact, several of Barcelona's most popular neighborhoods are for pedestrians only. Cars often are off-limits -- or only grudgingly accommodated.

My favorite memories of other cities -- Paris, of course, and New York -- are made of the hours I spent on foot, stopping in front of every store window that caught my attention, following the winding streets to see where they led. So when I visited Barcelona for the first time in January, I decided to walk my way through it.

The Barcelona Office of Tourism makes exploring on foot easy, offering four guided walking tours that start at the Placa de Catalunya, the large city square at the top of La Rambla, one of the most popular walking streets in town. I signed up for a tour (with an English-speaking guide) of the Barri Gotic, the Gothic quarter that still has the flavor of its medieval roots. Some of the quarter's streets are named for the guilds that once flourished here, including bookbinders, sword makers and others.

But before I took the tour, I spent two days taking in La Rambla on my own. My hotel on Carrer Santa Ana was just off the concourse. The street comes to life around noon, and by 7 p.m., it's crowded with locals stopping on their way home to meet friends or do errands. (Cars are limited to narrow lanes on each side of the pedestrian mall.)

I noticed new things each time I wandered down La Rambla, with its magazine stands, flower stalls and bird cages filled with parakeets and canaries. I passed tapas bars serving eggplant frittata, salted almonds, shrimp in olive oil and potato salad.

Well-known pastry shop Escriba Patisseries is a haven for chocolate lovers. You almost can't miss the restaurant, at 83 La Rambla, housed in a Modernisme-style building, akin to French Art Nouveau architecture, and decorated with a green-and-violet floral pattern on the facade.

Halfway down La Rambla, heading from Placa de Catalunya toward the seaport, is one of the most popular meeting places in the neighborhood, Mercat de la Boqueria, the local market. The food hall is cavernous, filled with restaurants, fresh produce, fish, meat and other local products, including almonds, figs, olives and ground spices. Even on a cold January day, I saw clementines, lady pears, fava beans, leeks and winter root vegetables in the stalls.

One stand specializes in organ meats, and the day I was there, I got a full view of a sheep's head and a cow's stomach, digestive tubes still attached, displayed among the tripe, pigs' feet, sweetbreads and brains.

At Pinotxo, one of the busiest of the market's restaurants, people stood three deep behind each of six or so stools and a counter, waiting their turn. With so many locals ready to pounce on the next available seat, I didn't enter the fray.

La Rambla is not only a social scene and a shopping district but also the city's unofficial performance space. Mimes and living sculptures add to the street-fair atmosphere, day and night. I saw white-face angels with shimmering wings, a cowboy painted gold and a monocyclist holding a skeleton and a red devil. Some hold their pose for so long that you wonder if they are made of wax. Then, someone takes a photograph or drops coins into the box and a wink or smile from the sculpture gives it away.

The old meets the new

All this was entertaining, but for me, the narrow side streets that wend from La Rambla into Barri Gotic were far more appealing. So I signed up for a $23 walking tour of the neighborhood. At 10:30 a.m., I joined two tourists from Australia and three from England. Our guide, a Barcelona native who was fluent in English and the history of her city, gave us a generous two-hour tour.

Our group set out from the Placa de Catalunya onto Avenida de la Portal de l'Angel, a walking street where tapas bars were tucked between clothing boutiques. Wearing the wide tile facade of a doctor's clinic, a shop called Happy Pills showcased spicy jelly beans in bins. Purchases were packed in medicine bottles.

We passed the remains of a Roman wall dating from the 4th century and on to the Gothic-style Holy Cross Cathedral, started in the 14th century and completed in the 19th. Palm trees rustle and geese roam in its interior courtyard.

Its tall, narrow spires recall the taller, narrower spires of the Sagrada Familia, a half-hour walk away. The church by architect Antonio Gaudi -- an icon of Modernisme architecture -- is still under construction, although Gaudi died in 1926.

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