September 2011 issue

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Cultural Barcelona

With the unique architecture of Gaudí, Mediterranean beaches, the world’s best football team and a lively calendar of cultural festivals and events, cosmopolitan Barcelona has much to offer international students. Matthew Knott joins the party.

Barcelona is a vibrant city, full of things to do and places to visit,” enthuses Valeria Sandoná, International Course Coordinator at BCN Languages/Eurocentres Barcelona. “It is an open-air piece of work. When you walk through its streets you perceive a special feeling, you really are part of something beautiful. Every day you find out something you did not notice the day before and you cannot help but think how lucky you are to be in such an amazing city.”

Any guide to Barcelona’s attractions must begin with the unique works of the modernist Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudí. Several of his buildings have been granted Unesco World Heritage status, and undoubtedly the most famous of these is the Sagrada Familia, an elaborate gothic church commenced in 1884, which was consecrated by Pope Benedict XVI last year. Genta Banushi, Marketing Manager at Camino Barcelona, explains, “Sagrada Familia, which our students love, is the most visited place in Spain. Although some of them have visited it before, they would like to see how much it has changed since the last time. This masterpiece is still under construction and is the only cathedral that continues to be constructed just by using donations from people around the world; it has no government help whatsoever.” Sandoná agrees and enthuses, “Sagrada Familia will leave you breathless: from its nave with stained glass windows and tree-like columns to the spire with its incredible view of the city, you will not be disappointed.”

However, Narelle Evans from Babylon Idiomas recommends another of Gaudí’s gems – Parc Güell – as the perfect spot for students, “The Parc contains amazing views of the city and you will find many musicians playing various instruments on the different paths that you can follow. There is a large terrace-like area featuring Gaudí’s iconic curvy mosaic benches where you can perch and enjoy the entertainment that is bound to surround you or read a book and soak up the rays. Underneath the terrace area you will find a pillared shelter with a stunning mosaic ceiling and here there are many street sellers offering fans, scarves and small pieces of memorabilia,” she says.

The architectural highlights are far from restricted to Gaudí though. “Enjoying the splendid Magical Fountain of Montjuic (with its unique combination of water, light and music) is also very popular amongst our students,” says Javier Menéndez, International Sales Executive at Aston Idiomas. The Gothic Quarter, a former Roman village that acts as a central hub of the city, contains a cathedral, museums, bustling squares, street cafés and atmospheric, maze-like narrow streets, and is another much-visited area. Meanwhile, Evans advises that a stroll down Las Ramblas provides a wonderful insight into the city. “It is home to many street performers, an abundance of flower markets, painters and caricaturists, indicative of the arts and crafts culture found in Barcelona,” she says.

As well as the everyday displays, there are several cultural festivals. “One of the main attractions for students is the vibrant and varied culture; there is always something happening in the city, from free musical events to a variety of festival events including correfocs [a Catalan tradition that literally translates as running with fire] and castellers [a human tower building]. With so much to see and do, students will never have a dull moment and one can never tire of the numerous vibrant and unique displays of Spanish and Catalan culture,” says Evans. The correfocs are part of La Merce Festival, Barcelona’s largest street party held in September, and involve devils and dragons roaming the streets and releasing fireworks. Protective clothing for spectators is recommended!

Many schools cater to students’ interest in Barcelona’s history. Cristina Pascual at Esade Executive Language Center, says, “On the Spanish language courses we offer lectures on art, history, literature, cinema, society, cuisine, cultural differences in negotiations with Spanish firms, and popular culture – including pop music and football.”

This interest naturally lends itself to a host of interesting and diverse excursions. “We invite students of all levels to come along to flamenco performances or plays, concerts at the Palau de la Música, guided museum tours, wine tastings, boat trips, human castle building displays [castellers], traditional Catalan spring barbecues [calçotades], and even bullfights,” Pascual enthuses.

“Many students choose to enjoy the art and art history aspects of Barcelona,” explains Evans. “Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and Joan Miro have all lived and worked in the city. There are a number of museums where you can view their work and learn more about their history. One of these is the Picasso museum, which houses a number of Picasso works and also has a temporary gallery that shows work from other artists who influenced him throughout his life.” Evans also advises that many of the city’s galleries are free on certain days and have discounted rates for students.
With all these artistic and cultural delights, it is easy to forget that Barcelona combines city living with a beach lifestyle. “The beach and its bars are in the city centre and a few train stops will lead to quieter places to swim and sunbath,” informs Manuela Silvestri from International House Barcelona. Banushi agrees and adds that, “Barcelona has beautiful beaches and a Mediterranean climate with plenty of sunshine and heat.” Meanwhile, around Barcelona there is plenty for outdoor enthusiasts throughout the year, including skiing and snowboarding. “Barcelona is also relatively near the mountains too, giving the option to students to enjoy different landscapes at the same time,” Silvestri continues.”

Football lovers will find the lure of Camp Nou, the home of FC Barcelona, an irresistible attraction. “El Camp Nou also is among the most popular places our students want to visit, especially if they are Barca fans or really like soccer,” confirms Sandoná. The current European and Spanish champions boast Europe’s largest stadium, a fiercely proud history and a museum. Evans enthusiastically recommends the match day experience. “The atmosphere is incredible and it is impossible not to be impressed by the huge 98,000 capacity stadium. Once you finally settle in to your incredible surroundings, you are then bowled over by some of the most skilful and attractive football in the world today by players such as Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and David Villa. By the end of the match you are certain to be on your feet singing the ‘Barca Barca Baaaaarca!’ song alongside the locals. Barcelona FC says it is ‘mes que un club’, meaning ‘more than a club’ and in Barcelona, football is more than just a sport, it’s a way of life!”

The city is also credited as being welcoming for international students. “Spanish hospitality towards people from abroad is very well-known. Barcelona is also a very cosmopolitan and open city where people are friendly with peoples from different cultures,” advises Menéndez. Students have no trouble settling in, he adds. “Making friends here is very easy for international students. They are enrolled in activities like sports, role plays, and trips to get them involved, so it’s really difficult not to meet new friends!”

Pascual agrees and explains how Esade combines its different language classes to great effect. “The Spanish and English teachers of the Executive Language Centre like to organise language exchange activities between their respective students. They are a way of taking advantage of the international character of the Esade student body, and of building bridges between the Barcelona residents and the people who come from overseas to study our language. Our foreign students are usually very enthusiastic when we tell them that they are going to do an exchange with Spanish students learning English,” she exclaims.

With famous tapas restaurants, fresh seafood and Cava vineyards nearby, food and drink is an integral part of Barcelona’s allure. Banushi points to the increasing global popularity of Spanish food, and says, “Although the cuisine is often experimental and sophisticated, most of the visitors and of course the Spanish people love the traditional dishes like paella, made with rice and vegetables with meat or fish.” However, it is the ubiquitous tapas bars that cause the most excitement. “If you ask anyone who visited Spain what they liked most of the food they will almost certainly answer you with tapas! The variety along with the usual way of having them with wine or beer and good company always make them very popular,” Banushi continues.

Pascual advises that many activities related to local cuisine are very popular: wine tastings, traditional Catalan spring barbeques, informal cooking classes, and going for a meal in famous local restaurants. For foodies, Evans recommends the bustling La Boqueria, a huge colourful market offering fresh fish and local produce.

As well as the fine dining, there are plenty of nightlife options. “After a late dinner there is a huge variety of nightlife to suit all tastes, from local bars, to Irish pubs, and a range of nightclubs, with the more exclusive ones being situated along the beachfront at Port Olympic,” says Evans.

Outside the city there are several destinations within easy reach. “Nearby Barcelona, students usually like to go and visit Girona and the Costa Brava, Figueres (where Dalí lived) and Tarragona, a historical city considered a world heritage site by Unesco,” says Sandoná. The bohemian town of Sitges, 35km south of Barcelona and famed for its beaches, film festival and carnival, is also cited by many as a popular daytrip for students.

Agent viewpoint

“Barcelona is very popular among Italian students because it offers all the attractions of a modern and trendy city combined with a strong presence of history, culture and arts. It’s the ideal destination for studying Spanish and enjoying some of the most known Mediterranean beaches during summer and its mild comfortable climate all year round. Students are attracted by the Ramblas and the exciting nightlife. Moreover, Barcelona is the closest and probably the most easily reachable Spanish city from Italy.”
Gianluigi Rago, Quality Travel, Italy

“Barcelona has always been our students’ favourite destination in Spain. It is certainly because of the weather, the culture, the cuisine or the ‘Auberge Espagnole’ [a film set in Barcelona] way of living. In any case, word-of-mouth on its best secrets has kept on growing for the past years. Barcelona has it all: a large variety of artistic events on offer, bustling activity in the streets, an intense nightlife and an international ambience. In conclusion students love to go to Barcelona because they know for sure they will combine a perfect learning experience with the best time of their life.”
Ludovic Seri, ESL, Switzerland

“Barcelona has always been, and remains one of our most popular destinations. It appeals to students because of its unique culture and architecture, its busy and trendy city beach, its vibrant nightlife, its excellent cuisine and its excellent language schools. Many of our students arrange repeat trips to Barcelona because there’s just too much to see there in a few weeks and they typically tell us how much they have enjoyed Gaudi’s works, strolling down Las Ramblas, or drinking Cava in the Cactus Bar (yes it does exist – but is nothing to do with Cactus Language). They usually end up making new friends from all over the world because Barcelona is such an international city.”
Alex Wolfson, Cactus Language, UK

“Apart from the obvious reason that you must have a good school to offer, an important fact is that more than 30 per cent of our students choose Barcelona becuase they have been recommended the school by other students. Barcelona itself offers a very international atmosphere – you have the fantastic Las Ramblas, one of the most famous streets in Spain, and you have all the Gaudi landmarks. Also you have the beautiful old area Barcelonetta with all the small streets with their bars and cozy restaurants.
Gorm Cramer, Viking Agencies, Denmark

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