Barcelona's Beauty…And Beyond

BARCELONA, Spain — Right off the top, there are two observations about visiting this Spanish jewel that has been home to  Antoni Gaudi, the Olympic Games, Pablo Picasso and 5.5 million current residents. 

One, you can never be here often enough to tire of Las Ramblas. This is good news for Costa Cruises, among others with ships stopping here. 

Two, there’s more to Catalonia than Barcelona.

Like Sitges and its coastline (above).

Costa’s new flagship, the Diadema, stops by Barcelona to pick up and drop off 3,710 passengers (or so) once every week. The first stop on shore for Diadema’s passengers was RamblasLas Ramblas, the dated and charming part of the city that is a huge magnet for both tourists and locals. In another city, it might be called “Old Town” but Las Ramblas has a nicer sound, at least in English.

You can’t really tell where it begins and ends, only that it does, somewhere on the periphery of the tapas bars, narrow cobblestone streets, great shops, better restaurant and fascinating historical edifices that seem to stand on most corners. You can spend a day there and come back a couple of times, as we have, and spend another day.

And never regret it.

The Las Ramblas area started as a street called La Rambla (the avenue), which of course is still there somewhere in the maze. Virtually every city tour, including Costa’s, includes it along with the Olympic Stadium, another tourism staple. That status also applies to La BarcelonaSagrada Familia. If you haven’t heard of it, you’ve never been to Barcelona, where it reigns as the monument more than any other when they come to Spain. It’s also the world’s largest unfinished church (or smallest), and has been for generations. Antoni Gaudi designed it and gave up building it after 43 years when he was killed by a train.

That was in 1926. Gaudi was 74 when he died and left his handprints all over Barcelona’s buildings. The church’s unfinished state was further devastated by the Spanish Civil War, when arsonists destroyed Gaudi’s studio but not his dream. Its latest scheduled completion date is the centenary of Gaudi’s death, 2026, but nobody’s betting on it. Of the 18 bell towers he designed, eight have been built.

Barcelona’s former bull ring (the sport is banned in Catalonia) is now a shopping mall. The Olympic Stadium, built in 1929 for the World’s Fair and refurbished for the Olympics of 1992, is on Montjuic Hillside, which overlooks this fascinating city and which is now basically a track and field facility that also hosts live concerts.

And then there’s “outside” Barcelona.

Maria NadinaOur second waterfront resort (we’d been at Le Méridien Ra Beach Hotel & Spa on the same area seven years ago) is a half-hour outside the city, and was chosen by the Costa delegation. It was in Sitges (the “g” is soft), or a short walk from Sitges, a lovely artistic town that is sometimes called the Saint-Tropez of Spain. Our hotel — the impressive four-star Hotel Estela Barcelona — was 20 minutes from Sitges as the pedometer goes so we spent close to an hour of the short time (five or six hours) we had there walking the seawall, having arrived too late to visit the museum recommended by a friend in Barcelona, Maria Nadina (right), who is a tour guide par excellence.

The rest of our time was invested in walking through another tight collection ofarchitecture, returning to the hotel and dining at one of the restaurants on the boardwalk Sitgesnearby, Les Fonts. It’s divided by the boardwalk so there’s constant traffic back and forth,  and the most demonstrative (in a nice way) waitress you’re likely to find.

Barcelona cornersSitges is as laid-back as Barcelona is bustling. The contrast is welcome after a busy day in the big city where, incidentally, street corners (or many of them) are not 90 degrees but cut to 45 degrees. That’s to facilitate traffic flow by making more space at intersections, giving it a Parisian look (or maybe Paris has a Barcelonian look). 

In our two previous visits, this is one of the things we never knew. Like we said, you can never make too many trips to Barcelona.

Or Sitges.

In the news…

• Violence cancels Puerto Vallarta stoips for two cruise lines
• Dead whale dragged ashore by cruise ship in Vancouver
• Oceania lowers fares for West Coast cruises this summer

Today at portsandbows.com: Viking Star off to be christened

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Holland America Eurodam
12 nights
June 13, 2015
Copenhagen (return): Kiel, Tallinn, St. Petersburg, Helsinki, Stockholm, Berlin
Inside: $899
Cost per day: $74
www.hollandamerica.com

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