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There are many reasons to visit Barcelona — great food and art, urban chic with old city quarters, nearby mountains and beaches — but for my wife and me, seeing Antoni Gaudi’s amazing buildings was reason enough. The Catalonian architect died in 1932 and left behind beautiful work such as the Casa Batll�, a six-story residence on the busy boulevard Passeig de Gracia. It’s organic and artificial and mystical at the same time, with delicate archways reminiscent of an animal’s rib cage. On its roof are tiles meant to invoke a dragon’s skin. Its intricately carved wooden doors and banisters caused us to wonder where in the world Gaudi got the wood, let alone the woodcarvers. Gaudi’s most famous building, the immense Sagrada Familia (the holy family) cathedral, hasn’t even been completed. It was started in 1882, and when I last visited in 1988, it was a quiet scene: just myself, a few other visitors, and two workers idling over a block of concrete. This will take forever — literally — I figured. But the pace has picked up and today, flocks of tourists now pay to wander inside this stunning construction site. The cathedral may be completed around 2030. Visit then and you should see 18 spires stretching upwards, the tallest 550 feet high. But today you’ll see eight completed spires, with intricate tips adorned in pink and orange tiles. There’s the nativity fa�ade, with its frogs, cows, dead babies, geese, and a turtle holding up a column, and the recently finished passion fa�ade with austere sculptures — including an emaciated Christ tied to the pillar for his flagellation — that some find sublime and others think awful. NARROW WALKWAYS But Gaudi is certainly not the only reason to wander through Barcelona. From the narrow walkways of the Born and Gothic districts, the city opens up into wider boulevards. A good European boulevard means wide sidewalks dotted with cafes and kiosks, rows of leafy trees, bike lanes and benches, access to underground parking, and all sorts of human activity in between, including gangs of men furtively selling counterfeit luxury handbags in front of the stores selling the real ones. The best-known avenue in Barcelona is the pedestrian walkway La Rambla. It’s lively but swamped with tourists, T-shirt vendors, and the same street performers as anywhere else. Yet it’s worth traversing just to visit the La Boqueria food market, where vendors sell fruits and vegetables, cured meats and cheeses, bread, wine, and sweets. We procured our best meal in the city there and consumed it later at a bench overlooking the beach. We also had our share of tapas — the small dishes Spain is known for. Due to its coastal location, many of Barcelona’s tapas feature seafood. Bars typically display the tapas on shelves and under counters. For the linguistically challenged, that’s convenient: Just survey and point to what you want. We rented a car, and after admiring the absence of ugly above-ground garages in downtown Barcelona, I now couldn’t find anywhere to park. Eventually, I found a space up on Montjuic mountain, which overlooks the city center, but to be sure it was legal I asked a local. A man chatting on his cell while his kids played glanced over and nodded, but I wasn’t convinced. He then pulled his car out of a clearly legal spot, let me park there, and double-parked his own. After my embarrassed thanks, he shrugged a good-natured “de nada” response. PERCHED ON MONTSERRAT The terrain outside of Barcelona is dry, harsh, and beautiful. On the road from Barcelona to the Pyrenees, the must-see destination is the steep and serrated mountain, Montserrat. Perched up on the cliffs is a Benedictine monastery that is accessible by car, gondola, rail, and whatever means Napoleon’s troops used in 1811 when they destroyed the monastery and massacred the monks. By 1844, the monastery was reconstructed, but trouble returned with the 1930s Spanish Civil War. The leftist forces supporting the Republic opposed the church, and this time 23 monks were killed. (George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia vividly describes his stint as a soldier and his injuries in this war.) From Montserrat, small highways trace the path north through the hills. The Pyrenees rise up, arid on this southern side, then increasingly verdant further north. We stayed in Vielha, a town in the Val d’Aran, a steep valley slicing through Spain and France. Surrounding by mountain peaks and national parks, it’s a playground for hikers, cyclists, and, in the winter, skiers. We hiked on a trail that took us through a forested side-valley, across slopes covered with wildflowers to a series of mountain lakes. Our return flight from Barcelona, with Air France via Paris, was late and we ran through Charles DeGaulle Airport trying to make our connection. A change in gates ensured our failure. But the result was an unexpected evening in Paris, complete with a walk along the Seine and a sampling of crepes and pastries. The next morning, I saw many travelers doing the DeGaulle dash through the terminal. Slow down, I muttered.
Gunnar Birgisson, counsel with Bracewell & Giuliani, will next fly with Alitalia via Rome, no matter where he’s actually going.

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