“It looks like one of the seven hills of San Francisco,” I exhaled as we stood at the western entrance to Park Güell. The plan was to have a romantic sunset picnic at Barcelona’s iconic municipal garden, but now I was starting to quietly praise myself for bringing flat shoes. It took a moment for us to realise that the huge slope had thoughtfully been equipped with escalators, and as they carried us to the top, we saw the city open up before us. Whether you think Gaudi is gaudy or an architectural genius, there is no denying Park Güell is a mosaic wonderland. Built at the turn of the last century, it is a combination of expansive kaleidoscopic tiles, huge stone columns and hardy gardens that only just withstand the baking afternoon sun. Entry to the park is €8, or free for locals. We’d brought with us a picnic dinner, with proper cava and a rug, but opted for a spot on the Plaça de la Natura, where the colourful rippling terrace strangely reminded me of the teacup ride at Disneyland, or perhaps just gave off a similarly hallucinogenic vibe. The broad space with its sandy floor is edged with seats built into the tiled facade, and these were filled with happy, hot families meeting for evening soirees and tourists hanging over the edges capturing the scenic views on their camera phones.
When you’re stuck in your home city every day, sunsets are rarely events that you actually witness. So, fuelled by cava, I was intent on climbing to the highest peak in the park to see this one. We set off up the winding pathway, which leads you out of Park Güell itself, and turned into a road snaking up the northeastern hill. We were wary of the disappearing light, and charged up just in time, a little out of breath but delighted by what we saw. To the West, a glowing evening sun was edging towards the horizon, highlighting the spectacular Mount Tibidabo in the distance, with its vintage amusement park and gorgeous church, the Temple de Sagrat Cor. To the East was an incredible view of the whole of Barcelona, all the way out to the sea with Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia rising out of the centre of the city. A breath-taking view, and not another tourist in sight. We had this delicious sunset all to ourselves.
Of course, once it was dark we quickly realised the park would soon close, and we definitely did not want to be stuck on a hill with no way out. We opted to give the epic sloping entrance that originally greeted us as a miss and head down into the city of which we had just viewed the panorama. The buildings that guarded this entrance to Park Güell were freakishly reminiscent of the gingerbread house from Hansel and Gretel. My partner, however, had a surprisingly different impression of the exit. “I’m sure I’ve seen an old porn film shot here,” he remarked cheekily as we made our way out. Surely not, I thought, casting my eyes back over the unpleasantly sandy terrain.
The district nestled at the base of the park is Gràcia, which was once a separate village outside of Barcelona until the city grew out and swallowed it. It still retains its village feel and a hip, fiercely political edge, with streets and squares bearing names like the Plaza de la Revolucion de Septiembre de 1868. As we wandered down into its streets we were suddenly bombarded with an array of colourful decorations. Almost every street we turned into had its own explosion of handcrafted ornaments and lights, hanging from netting stretched between the buildings. Having just come from the psychedelically designed Park Güell, this strange and wonderful experience felt like we had fallen further down the rabbit hole. As we happened upon Plaza Virreina, the square was alive with music and all kinds of people milling everywhere. Street vendor signs were dotted about exclaiming “mojitos €4” and whilst buying myself one, the bartender informed me we had stumbled upon Festes de Gràcia, a riotous week-long festival that happens every August. The extraordinary street decorations were part of a competition, which was obviously taken very seriously by locals, and every night there would be music and celebrations in the streets.
Taking our drinks with us, we followed the stream of people moving from street to street, square to square, marvelling at the vibrant energy of the district. Hearing the familiar sound of a samba band approaching, we only had moments to jump onto a park bench as it met us at corner, nearly swallowing us whole with the cacophony of over 30 people beating drums. Wandering down another alleyway, we found ourselves suddenly in the middle of a fireworks fight. Teenagers were appearing out of nowhere, with hair and clothing of that distinctive Spanarchist style, throwing lit fireworks at each other, which would explode and bounce off the walls around us. Terrified, my partner and I gripped each other tightly in a doorway as rockets screamed past us, and I started to wonder if we’d accidentally stumbled into a war zone. As the jubilant fight paraded out of our alleyway and into another, we bolted in the opposite direction. Up another, quieter street we happened upon a street bar where topless women were serving beer and spliffs under a sign announcing that they were the “Catalan Gay Liberation Front”.
After a few more mojitos than were probably advisable, our picnic dinner was a distant memory and we went in search of some late night supper. At the Pizzeria Lucania II on Calle de Terol we discovered a little family run gem. Huge slices of pizza were sold by the slice for €2-€3 a piece. Every table was crowded with locals in search of similar sustenance to us, chattering away in the hazy light. Buzzing from our crazy night, my partner and I laughed about how our plans for a romantic sunset picnic had turned into the ultimate block party adventure. Yet, I had the feeling that this was just another summer’s night in Barcelona.
This article was written in 2014 after my trip to Barcelona. Check out my full Barcelona city guide here!
Above image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.