Boulevard reflects Barcelona's magic

Sunday, May 19, 2002

BARCELONA, Spain -- Strolling down Las Ramblas is like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. The city is reduced to one slightly out-of-whack focal point, and all that makes up Barcelona is squashed into a thin line that runs from the city center to the sea.

The Catalan capital's favorite street is a pedestrian boulevard that cuts through the heart of the old quarter and is alive with activity day and night.

Elderly men out for a walk are joined by kids on scooters, mothers with toddlers, immigrants headed to work and, of course, the throngs of camera-toting tourists trying to digest the sensory overload without getting their wallets stolen.

I love to stroll down Las Ramblas, and I do so whenever I can to remember what a varied, lively and fun city I live in.

At the top of the street, close to the Plaza Catalunya and outlets of Spain's ubiquitous department store, El Corte Ingles, a green-faced mime stops me in mid-stride. She puts her face up to mine and blinks energetically, but I just smile.

Farther down, beside a sidewalk mosaic by surreal artist Joan Miro, a crowd gathers around a man who has tied himself to a lamp post and put a bird cage over his head to earn a few coins. People laugh, snap his picture and move on.

Across the way, a one-legged man sits beside a newspaper stand and plays mournful ballads on his guitar. He's actually pretty good, but his voice gets drowned out by the shrill motorbikes passing on the street.

A human statue of Barry White (he's painted all white and has a name tag) stands still until someone drops a coin in his mug and he strikes a new pose. Closer to the sea, an artist showing off charcoal drawings of Penelope Cruz and Melanie Griffith charges about $10 to draw portraits.

Colorful fruit and vegetables practically spill out of La Boqueria, Barcelona's original fresh market that sits off to one side of La Rambla.

I wander inside to peek at the novelties: a goat head, pig's ears and hooves, fish whose names I've never heard of dying on ice shavings.

Back on the main drag, stands offering dyed blue roses, kumquat trees, mice and parrots dot the concrete, sharing space with outdoor cafes and kiosks that sell hot-off-the-press local papers in the wee hours of the morning.

Las Ramblas is a perfect allegory for Barcelona itself -- full of energy and movement, commerce and culture. Barcelona is not the Spain of bullfights and flamenco; for that head south to Andalusia. Barcelona is a working city, busy and ready to embrace whatever is new.

Cosmopolitan city

I have made it my mission to prove this "allegory" theory.

Las Ramblas is an icon of Barcelona, the one must-see thing for each of the 3 million tourists that pass through this port city each year. But does everything represented on it exist in the real Barcelona?

The artists and musicians are easy. That guitar player I mentioned was sitting just in front of El Gran Teatre del Liceu, the emblematic opera house that burned in 1994 and was reopened in all its ornate glory a couple of years ago.

I wouldn't have to go far from Las Ramblas before finding L'Auditori, the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra's modern, acoustically correct home, and the Palau de la Musica Catalana (Palace of Catalan Music), the Modernist work by Lluis Domenech i Montaner that glitters with glasswork and mosaics like a bejeweled woman in a dusty antique store.

The mostly drab streets surrounding the Palau once housed textile factories, but inside the concert hall fantasy takes over. A huge stained glass dome lets natural light inside, and statues of musicians playing violins literally emerge from the tiled wall behind the stage.

I'd trip over museums and galleries proving that art is alive and well in this cosmopolitan city. The street artists on Las Ramblas could have been inspired by one-time denizens Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Joan Miro or Antoni Gaudi.

For its size relatively small size (about 1.5 million people), Barcelona has an impressive cultural agenda, featuring everything from high art to contemporary.

The Picasso Museum in the Ribera district is a dark, damp-feeling building that was once a medieval palace. While its collection of Picasso's isn't the best, the temporary exhibits are usually worth seeing.

Move to modern art

The National Museum of Catalan Art houses a rather mundane collection of Catalan Romanesque and Gothic art and has a prominent spot in the National Palace on a hill overlooking fountains, the lower part of the city and the sea.

But Barcelona's real love affair is with everything contemporary, and more than half the museums in the city are dedicated to modern art.

The Joan Miro Foundation shows the surrealist artist's works in an airy white building on Montjuic, the small mountain on the edge of the city. Temporary exhibits, like the current "Space Concept," illustrating various interpretations of the notion of space, tend to be even more interesting than the permanent collection.

Opened in early March, CaixaForum is the newest exposition space. The museum is an old textile factory that's been transformed into a modern area full of light and tall ceilings. The look is a mixture of the brick Art Nouveau base with 21st-century elements, like a glass ceiling that lets people on the inside look up the skirts of those wandering around outside.

Other performance spaces are scattered throughout the city, with the area around the central avenue Parallel being the closest thing Barcelona has to a theater district. Film is also popular, and Barcelona claims several alternative movie festivals, such as the International Festival of Sitges, which is known for horror flicks and held each year at the beginning of October.

True to my allegory theory, La Boqueria market on Las Ramblas sells just about anything one might need for an authentic Catalan meal. Sparkling cava and strong red wine from the nearby Penedes region? Check. Fresh Hake and salted codfish? Double check. Thick round country bread, garlic, olive oil and tomatoes to make moist "pa amb tomaquet"? Taken care of.

International cuisine is just catching on in Barcelona, but there are enough traditional restaurants to keep any epicurean busy.

The port area is the place to head for seafood and paellas.

Back on Las Ramblas, a three-piece reggae band has replaced the guitar player, and a couple showing off tango moves has added itself to the lineup. The energetic vibe pulsing in the street is as lively.

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