Barcelona is Spain’s second largest city after Madrid and the capital of Catalonia, a sovereign community of Spain. Located directly on the northeastern Mediterranean coast of Spain, the city has a rich history spanning 2,000 years when it gained prominence as a Roman town under its old name, Barcino. Barcelona is very modern, yet exceptionally old, where the new elements work to both preserve and celebrate the ancient.
In 1992, Barcelona gained international recognition by hosting the Olympic Games which created a massive upturn in its tourism industry.
The official languages spoken in Barcelona are Catalan and Spanish, however, most signs are only in Catalan because it is established by law as the official language. In tourist areas, almost all shops and bars have some English speaking staff. People will generally make an effort to try to help you if you speak English.
The city is dotted with outdoor markets, restaurants, shops, museums and churches and is ideally suited for walking. Most shops and shopping malls are closed on Sundays because of law restrictions, but not all. In Ciutat Vella you will find plenty of small fashion and souvenir shops as well as small supermarkets that are open on Sundays.
The multi-peaked Montserrat mountain range lies within an hour and a half away from the city. There is a Benedictine abbey, Santa Maria de Montserrat, in the center of the mountain range where visitors can attend masses. The monastery is Catalonia’s most important religious retreat and groups of young people from all over Catalonia make overnight treks there at least once in their lives to watch the sunrise from the heights of Montserrat.
One of Catalonia’s favorite sons was Antoni Gaudí, an architect and the leader of Catalan Modernism. Gaudí’s works reflect a highly individual and distinctive style and are largely concentrated in Barcelona. Among the sites which can be toured today are the Parc Güell in Gràcia, the La Pedrera, Casa Milà, and La Casa Batlló houses and the Sagrada Família.
La Sagrada Familia, the city’s landmark is one of the most famous and breathtaking locations to visit. The church is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and in November 2010 was consecrated and proclaimed a minor basilica by Pope Benedict XVI.
The construction of the church began nearly a century ago. The height of the church is exactly equal to the height of the largest mountain in the nearby hills because Gaudi felt that no man-made creation should ever rise above God’s natural creations. The height of the church is overwhelming when standing at its base and the inside is even more impressive. Upon entering the church, one is amazed by the height of the ceiling supported by beautiful hand shaped columns, designed to resemble the trunks of trees. Gaudi was a nature lover and strived to include many elements of God’s natural beauty within his work. Toward the center of church beautiful stained glass windows line the walls of the church. During the day these windows produce incredible natural light, Gaudi’s personal favorite that illuminates the inner monastery.
Barcelona’s cuisine is inconsistent in quality but good food does exist at reasonable prices. Seek out cafes and restaurants where the locals frequent. Most restaurants and some bars offer a menú del dia which constitutes a simple two course meal (a salad, a main dish and a drink) for a sensible price.
Official Barcelona Tourism Webpage: http://www.barcelonaturisme.com/
Situated 440 miles from Barcelona is the city of Toledo, located in central Spain. The city is the capital of autonomous community of Castile–La Mancha. It was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986 for its extensive cultural and monumental heritage and place of coexistence of Christian, Muslim and Jewish cultures.
The old city is located on a mountaintop surrounded on three sides by the Tagus River. There are many historical sites worth visiting, including the Alcázar, the cathedral (Primate Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo), and the Plaza de Zocodover.
An alcázar is a type of Spanish castle. The Alcázar of Toledo is a stone fort located in the highest part of Toledo which was once used as a Roman palace.
The cathedral of Toledo is one of the three 13th-century High Gothic cathedrals in Spain whose construction was begun in 1226. The main chapel of the cathedral brings together a wealth of artwork, including important paintings by Luis Medina and Francisco Ricci.
The Plaza de Zocodover is the central point of the city where locals and visitors gather. The main streets of the old part of town start here and lead tourists to the major historical sites. You can also catch the tourist train here for a jaunt around Toledo. Traditional markets, such as the famous “Martes” (Tuesday market) still take place in this square. Great bullfights, fiestas and horrific executions have also taken place here.
Toledo Tourism: http://www.go-toledo.com/
Photographic credits: Moritoshi Inaba, Mika Panzaroni