Her hair was pulled back tight. Her face looked for all the world like she was being tortured. Urged on by the clapping of hands, the strumming of guitars and the clacking of clackers, she stomped her feet and swirled her ruffled dress in a colourful blur. Her song was a Spanish classic about a beautiful gypsy girl who brings tragedy to her family. It was flamenco – it was passionate – and I was mesmerised!
Somebody TOLD me later: you don’t watch flamenco – you feel it. And I’ve realised since: that’s not just true of the dance – it’s true of Spain!
We were in Barcelona, on Spain’s Mediterranean coast. Colourful, enchanting and beloved by Spaniards everywhere, Barcelona is one of the most walk-around-able cities I’ve ever walked around. And if you don’t believe me, take a stroll down
This lovely tree-lined pedestrian boulevard is littered with flower stalls, cafés, buskers and (best of all) human statues. You’ll find angels and artists, ballerinas and boys on bikes (it’s only when you toss a coin in the hat that you know for sure they’re alive)! And off to the right, as you wander down La Rambla, is Mercat Sant Josep – a noisy market where shoppers riot over fruit and bread and sausage and cheese.
But people-watching beats shopping every time, I reckon. So we sat ourselves down at an outdoor table, swapped some Euros for a glass of red and a full plate of tapas … and watched!
Right in the middle of old Barcelona is the Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter) – a jumble of streets and alleys crammed with medieval marvels, like the city’s famous Gothic Cathedral. Its soaring nave and exquisite decorations date from the 14th century – although people were worshipping on this hillside as far back as Roman times.
But more awesome still (for my money) is the even famouser unfinished cathedral of Antoni Gaudí: La Sagrada Familia (Holy Family). Architect Gaudí is a clear favourite with Barcelonians – his push-the-limits, fairytale creations are on-show all over the place, and his must-see Sagrada Familia (begun in 1882) has become the city’s symbol.
Look, no exaggeration: I’ve seen plenty of cathedrals in my time, and they all start to look the same. But this towering, inspiring, weirdly-wonderful construction took my breath away. And when I got up close, it gave me a stiff neck!
Gaudí died, sadly, before his vast project was completed. But the work goes on, with each new generation of designers and sculptors adding their own brilliance. The bell-towers already jut more than 100 metres against the sky, and higher towers are still to come. But wait – there’s more: the whole exterior, from the base of the huge columns to the tips of each spire, is encrusted with stunning sculptures – which tell the gospel story and breathe life into this mountain of stone and steel.
And then (wait again!) there’s the inside, which is another world altogether – a kaleidoscope of light and colour and inspiration that defies description.
(Shh: don’t tell anyone, but I’m coming back in 2026 to see the finished thing!)
If you’re pressed for time (as we were) there’s one more sight you’ve got to see before you cry “Adiós Barcelona!” You’ve got to bribe someone to take you 50km out of town to the Monestir de Montserrat – a Benedictine monastery (founded 1025) that’s perched impossibly high up the sheer sides of a teetering rocky massif.
One of Spain’s most popular religious shrines, it contains the legendary Black Madonna – a black wooden carving of the Virgin Mary and Child which (according to dubious tradition) was carved by St Luke, brought to Spain by St Peter, and hidden in a nearby cave, where it was later found by young shepherds. Pilgrims flock here daily to venerate the Black Madonna, and tourists flock here just as daily to photograph the pilgrims.
In earlier times, the monks used to haul each other up to Montserrat in a basket on a rope – we (oh, the disappointment!) got hauled up in a modern cablecar. But the views over the precipice-edge still gave me clammy palms … and the other-world-ly stillness of the place gave me goosebumps.
Ah, yes, Barcelona: you don’t just watch it – you feel it!