Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Destination: Christmas in Barcelona



Last December I bicycled down elegant shopping avenues draped in white lights and wandered through Christmas markets selling hand carved nativities and jamon serrano in cosmopolitan Barcelona. Yuletide festivities in the Catalan metropolis are less commercial than those stateside – no Santas, no sales, and far fewer carols and decorations. And no one’s dreaming of a white Christmas in a city located on the Mediterranean coast with an average December temperature of 54 degrees. During the holiday season it’s too cold to swim at the city’s (somewhat gritty) beaches but still warm enough to go exploring on the public bicycle sharing system Bicing or sip cava outside on a terraza

High fashion storefronts such as Caroline Herrera, Hermés, and Valentino along with chic cafes and tapas bars line posh Passeig de Gracia, the Champs-Élysées of Barcelona. Around Christmas the street turns positively magical at night, bustling with shoppers and decked out in colorful blinking snowflakes and swooped strands of lights. La Pedrera and Casa Batlló, two of renowned modernisme genius Gaudi’s whimsical mansions, have addresses on the grand avenue. 

I’d opt to walk the 30 minutes down this gorgeous street instead of taking the metro to the city center. The window-shopping is second only to the people watching -- Weekend afternoons are best. That’s when the beautiful residents go out for a stroll dressed to impress. The next street over, Rambla de Catalunya, was my second favorite evening stroll option for its inviting holiday window displays. 

Passeig de Gracia ends at Plaça Catalunya, where Barri Gotic, the gothic quarter, begins. Outside the La Seu cathedral is the Fira de Santa Llúcia Christmas market, which dates back to 1786. Vendors set up stalls for their artisanal nativities and ornaments as well as Christmas trees, mistletoe, poinsettias, and candies. Close by in the Plaça Sant Jaume children play around a life size nativity scene with palm trees. On the weekends I’d let myself get lost in the maze of this medieval neighborhood. When a street violinist plays “Oh Come all ye Faithful” under the gargoyles the setting turns ethereal.

Nearby off the infamous Las Ramblas is La Boqueria, Europe’s largest open-air food market, worth a visit any time of year. I’d occasionally stop in for a snack or just take lots of pictures of the artfully arranged heaps of nuts, vegetables, and fruits. I found the (slimy, sometimes shark-toothed, and often still wiggling) seafood selection in the back particularly exotic. 

Outside La Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece and Europe’s most fascinating building, is another Christmas market. And the adjacent Avenida de Gaudi is another atmospheric walk.


For more drama I’d head to Montjuic for the glamorous Font Magica fountain light show accompanied by Christmas music outside the Palau Nacional on Fridays and Saturdays from 7-9 p.m. Before or after the show I’d make time for a visit to the CaixaForum, the impressive cultural center in a converted modernista factory space. It hosts temporary exhibitions, serves sandwiches and desserts at a sleek rooftop café, and offers some of the city’s most generous visiting hours, staying open until 10 p.m. on Saturdays and 8 p.m. on Sundays.

On rainy or nippy weekends I’d take refuge in the Museu Picasso in a gothic palace deep in El Born district. The soft, warm lighting makes the medieval space downright cozy. When I was alone I’d put in my iPod earphones for a soundtrack to the hundreds of works illustrating Picasso’s lifetime of artistic development. I’d usually go on the first Sunday of the month when admission is free. Sometimes I’d stick around in the neighborhood to check out the trendy boutiques, bars, and restaurants or visit the Santa Maria del Mar cathedral.  

Other neighborhoods for holiday shopping and nightlife are Gracia and Raval. Above Avenida de Diagonal, Gracia has both a small town and bohemian feel, with butcher shops, bookstores, and bars. Even in December it’s often warm enough to opt for outdoor seating on the many terrazas. Down in the center is Raval, the gritty, arty, ethnic neighborhood with lots of vintage stores and two modern art museums. (Be on your guard at night.) 
 
Further uptown is Gaudi’s Park Güell, a fairytale architectural garden like no other with panoramic city-sea views. Even further up on a hill overlooking the city is Tibidabo, site of a landmark church and a theme park that’s much less crowded in the winter. The cable car and art deco funicular train ride up are worth it for  the ultimate the views of Barcelona and the surrounding mountains and ocean. 

Back in the city, the government hosts a New Year’s concert series in December and January. I saw the Parisian/Argentine electronic tango group GoTan Project in the stunning Palau de Musica concert hall. Visit www.barcelona.cat for current event listings and news. 

Last year I complained that Barcelona couldn’t compete with the constant soundtrack of carols, giant trees, and cheesy movies we have in the United States. Far away from home I couldn’t appreciate the city’s sophisticated, understated approach to the holidays. But now I realize a December visit to Barcelona offers breathing room from the masses of summer tourists along with a dash of Christmas spirit.

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