What makes a city a great place to visit? A vibrant cultural life, interesting museums, great local food, exciting nightlife – sure, all of these things are important, but so are the moments away from the bustling life of a city. Barcelona is wonderfully alive and colorful, with excitement to be found at almost every corner. But it’s good to take a break from the urban whirlwind every once in a while. We might rent a holiday apartment in Barcelona, a home away from home to return to at the end of the day. And we might seek out a bit of nature, an escape into the green for a breath of fresh air and the chance to relax and recharge before diving back into city life.
Barcelona’s largest park is Collserola, an expanse of forest and hiking trails that begins at the foot of the Tibidabo Hill and stretches beyond the city limits. The park is home to a hilltop amusement park (prominently featured in Woody Allen’s film Vicky Cristina Barcelona), a classic observatory, and several beautiful art nouveau villas nestled amidst the trees. Despite these clear signs of civilization, the park has areas that are quite wild and natural, full of thick pine forest and paths marked by the nocturnal romps of wild boar (yes, night hiking is not recommended!)
High above the city lies the Labyrinth Park of Horta. The park is often forgotten, perhaps because its location is a little out of the way, but it is unusually lovely and well worth a visit. The historic garden in the district of Horta-Guinardó was the caprice of a wealthy marquis, who designed his neoclassical garden as a celebration of love, with terraces, fountains, even a labyrinth! The park is a garden-museum and appeared in Tom Tykwer’s film The Perfume.
A little further into town, but still overlooking the city, is Park Güell, originally designed by Antoni Gaudí as a residential community for his patron Eusebi Güell. The majority of the houses were never completed and the project ended up as a park, but Gaudí’s whimsical organic style is visible everywhere, from the colorful mosaics along the main staircase to the forest of towering columns supporting the upper terrace. The park is undoubtedly one of the architect’s most unique and enchanting creations as well as an exquisite example of Mediterranean flora.
Montjuic Park, Barcelona’s second largest park, stretches across a hill in the Sants-Montjuic district. The hillsides are full of sculpted gardens, including two interesting Botanical Gardens, that are ideal for strolls, exercising, picnics or a relaxing read on a Sunday morning. The gardens around the Teatre Grec, a Greek-style amphitheater used for summer concerts, are particularly charming. The hill is full of landmarks: the Olympic stadium, the National Art Museum of Catalunya, the 1929 International Exhibition fairgrounds, the castle atop the hill with stunning views…and the areas in between are covered by beautiful gardens – each one different from the next – making this a decidedly green sightseeing trip.
Right outside the Gothic Quarter, and a short walk from the beach, lies the Ciutadela Park, designed for the World Fair in 1888. A classically European park with floral arrangements, lawn areas, a lake with rowboats and a gilded fountain (the work of a very young Gaudí), the Ciutadela is extremely popular amongst locals and visitors alike, especially in the spring and summer when people meet for picnics, frisbee games, concerts in the park and other social events.
Sometimes we might need a little breather in the middle of our Barcelona city tour, a brief relaxing interlude rather than a full day in the park. Barcelona is home to many hidden courtyards and plazas that provide exactly that – a moment’s respite from the city life playing out around us.
Right in the heart of the Raval neighborhood, in the very center of the Old Town, is a courtyard that still retains its medieval charm. Ancient stone walls and orange trees create a tiny refuge between Carrer Hospital and Carrer Carme. The National Library of Catalunya stretches along one side of the courtyard, and the other once housed the Hospital de la Santa Creu, where Antoni Gaudí died in 1926.
The Cathedral complex, built over several centuries, makes up the heart of the Gothic Quarter. In addition to its impressive examples of Gothic and Romanesque architecture, the Cathedral has several beautiful cloisters, including one dedicated to Barcelona’s original patron saint, Santa Eulalia. The courtyard has some curious residents: 13 geese, one for each year of Eulalia’s life, who died a martyr during the Roman Empire. The courtyard of the Frederic Marés Museum inside the old Royal Palace of the Counts of Barcelona is another wonderfully secluded spot to get away from the busy streets of the Gothic Quarter for a while.
Spending an afternoon in the woods, meeting friends for a picnic in the park, relaxing in a garden with a good book, exploring history through landscaping or simply sitting in a quiet courtyard for a while and enjoying a bit of tranquility…these interludes make experiencing the exciting life of a city all the more enjoyable.
Hildy Snow writes the BCNinternet Blog about culture, leisure and tourism in Barcelona.