October 2009 issue

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Fiesta time in Barcelona

As a year-round destination, the Catalonian city of Barcelona is perfect for a weekend city break or a six-month study vacation. While art lovers lap up one of the many Gaudí exhibits, food lovers can sample some of this vibrant city’s spectacular cuisine, not to mention the odd fiesta or two! Nicola Hancox takes a tour.

If you want to learn Spanish in one of the most exciting and beautiful cities in the world, Barcelona is the place for you!” exclaims Demetrio Sànchez, Director of don Quijote Barcelona. He continues, “Barcelona is not only the capital of Catalonia, but it’s also the Spanish centre of fashion, art, architecture and gastronomy.”

With a history spanning some 2,000 years, Barcelona is knee-deep in culture. It is world famous, with its pedestrianised central street, La Ramblas, connecting Plaza de Catalunya with the old port which is buzzing with locals and tourists. Antonio Gaudí – the famous Spanish architect of whom the Catalonians are inherently proud – was responsible for much of Barcelona’s iconic façade. His most ambitious work, the as-yet-unfinished La Sagrada Família, is a gothic style cathedral that dominates the city’s town plaza. Scheduled to be completed in 2026 – the 100th anniversary of the modernist’s death – it affords students the chance to climb up one of the completed towers.

However, Soraya Hodgetts from International House Barcelona suggests students sample some of Gaudí’s other works including La Casa Milà (an Art Nuevo style building often referred to as The Quarry), La Casa Batlló (nicknamed the House of Bones owing to its almost skeletal like design) and Park Güell.

The construction of Park Güell – designed by Gaudí and built in the years 1900 to 1914 – was commissioned by wealthy patron, Eusebi Güell, and was originally earmarked as an exclusive housing estate for Catalan society. Owing to lack of interest, however, the land was transformed into the unusual public park. “It is not to be missed,” says Carlos Martin from ABC Colleges, and he notes that given its high vantage point on Muntanya Pelada (Bald Mountain), the site commands some great views of the city. What’s more, a trip to the site is free, asserts Sànchez. However, for a small fee, students can visit a small dwelling used by Gaudi and his family (now a museum dedicated to the architect’s life and work).

Barcelona has a great selection of museums. “In fact,” notes Sànchez, “there are so many unique museums you’ll be hard-pressed to fit them all in.” One of the most celebrated is the Museu Picasso, which contains 3,800 examples of the renowned artist’s work. The extensive collection also reveals Picasso’s close links with the city, despite being born over 760 kilometres away in Malaga. Meanwhile, the Museu de la Xocolata will appeal to chocolate lovers the world over. Regular tours are conducted and students can choose to take a workshop in confectionery or chocolate tasting!

The region’s strong culinary ties don’t end with chocolate, however, and Sànchez goes so far as to brand Barcelona as the “gastronomical capital of Spain”. Consequently, eating is an activity in itself and students will find a vast number of restaurants dotted around town each serving traditional Catalan fare. Hodgetts suggests novices try Pa amb tomáquet (bread with tomato). Other local dishes include Suquet de Peix, a type of seafood casserole and Esqueixada, a salad comprising of Mediterranean vegetables and desalted cod. Barcelona is also renowned for its innately experimental cooking. Fruit is often thrown in with meat or poultry, vegetable dishes are spruced up with nuts and raisins and Cargols y Conill (snail and rabbit) make an unlikely, yet delicious pairing, apparently!

Meanwhile, students at EF Barcelona can experience authentic Catalan cooking first-hand by taking an associated cookery lesson. “We offer a special class where students learn to make paella, gazpacho and other typical dishes,” notes Moira E Lawlor, Director of the school.

Ordering food in a foreign language can be intimidating, however, and Elisa Frenz from Babylon Idiomas relates that the locals are extremely accommodating should students wish to test their language skills. “The waiters happily step in to give students a hand which often leads to a proud speech about the history of their cousin, how to prepare the different sorts of tapas and how healthy the olive oil is!” she notes.

Festivals are another part of Barcelona’s appeal and between spring and autumn the city hosts some 20 “festas” from international music festivals to traditional street parties. Frenz notes that Festa Major de Gràcia (an eight day street festival held every August) and Grec Barcelona (showcasing around 60 theatre, music, dance and circus acts) are two of the most popular. However, according to Sànchez, Festa de la Mercé is possibly the most important event in the festival calendar and following the death of Dictator, Francisco Franco (thus ending 35 years of repression in the region) the event took on greater meaning. “It celebrates Barcelona’s patroness with four days of free outdoor concerts. From street arts to acrobatics, firework displays, food fairs and much more,” observes Sànchez.

For those who wish to get out of town, Sitges, Tarragona, Montserrat and Girona are all within easy reach. Situated 92 kilometres south of Barcelona, Girona has all the charm of its larger neighbour but with fewer people. “Girona is a must for those who enjoy the coast,” says María José Gelabert at Enforex Barcelona. “It offers a magnificent coastal area, as well as a fine mountain region, which is ideal for both tourism and sports.” Frenz agrees and notes that the closest ski resort is just an hour and a half away from Barcelona: “We organise ski trips for one to two days during the winter season.”

Meanwhile, the mountain retreat of Montserrat is 48 kilometres west of Barcelona. Nestled some 1,236 metres up the mountainside is a fully functional Benedictine monastery complete with its own museum containing the works of Picasso, Dalí and El Greco. Genta Banushi from Camino Barcelona states that it is well worth a visit, if only to see the spectacular sunrise.

Agent viewpoint

“Barcelona is one of our most popular language travel destinations because it simply has everything! Amazing architecture, great food and nightlife, wonderful shopping, a fantastic football team and even a beach! When you learn a language you want to be somewhere you know can offer you plenty to do outside of the classroom, providing lots of opportunities to practise your language skills in everyday situations. There are few cities that can offer the variety that Barcelona can. Many of our male clients, and a good proportion of females too, love the Nou camp stadium especially if they are lucky enough to see a game. Those who are not so keen on sport love the famous Gaudi architecture and our younger students rave about the bars and clubs. I don’t think you can compare Barcelona to any other city on Earth. It’s bilingual and truly international, offering lots in the way of entertainment and the arts. As Spain’s second biggest city, it dates back to Roman times and it’s not likely to give up its place among the must-see cities of the world any time soon!”
Alex Wolfson, Cactus Languages, UK

“After the first visit to Barcelona, everybody falls in love with it and falls in love forever. The city is full of Mediterranean spirit. It is an open and modern city. It is also the capital of modernism, but at the same time, it is a city that respects traditions and the past. Barcelona is the city of walks, the city of rest, the city of love. There are many places of interest including the Museum of Salvador Dali in Figeras, Montserrat and the popular beach resorts, Costa Brava and Costa Dorada.”
Svetlana Vasyukovich, MMC-XXI vek, Russia

“Students like Barcelona because it is an awesome city where they can find culture, great history, many options of entertainment, great food and the nice weather. They enjoy the nightlife and the architecture most. I think that Barcelona is a very unique city and very different from other Spanish cities, and its energy is very popular among the younger clients.”
Jacomo Costa, STB, Brazil

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