Monday, March 23, 2009

Sultry Mediterranean City---Barcelona's Gaixample

By Roy Heale
Morning rush hour from 9:30 to 10:30--late lunch with cocktails and wine followed by an afternoon siesta--dinner at about 11pm and partying in the bars or night clubs until 3am, it all sounds like a wonderful gay lifestyle. But actually it's everyday life for most of the 1.5 million residents of Barcelona and probably accounts for the permanent smiles on their faces plus their collective aura of happiness. Likely it's the reason why Europe's GLBT community is flocking to Barcelona creating the new mediterranean gay riviera.
Ideally situated on the northeastern coast of the Iberian peninsula and the shores of the Mediterranean, Barcelona is the second largest city in Spain in both size and population. It is also the capital of Catalonia, one of the seventeen autonomous communities that comprise Spain. The first language is Catalan and the second is Spanish-with many locals also speaking English--for a truly trilingual region. The documented history of the city dates back to the founding of Barcino a Roman colony in the second century B.C.
With the Collserola mountains to the northwest and the sea to the south, the city is encompassed by breathtaking vistas. Boasting a mild mediterranean climate with a year-round average temperature of 19 degrees celsius, sandy beaches plus some of the most visually stunning and fascinating architecture in Europe, it's easy to understand why the gay traveller is discovering Barcelona and claiming it as their own mecca.
At the very heart of the city is Ciutat Vella---old town---with vestiges of the original Barcino, presently known as the gothic quarter. This is the historic, religious and political centre of the city surrounding the cathedral, a gothic church built in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The interior chapels, magnificent choir stalls, ancient organ and the crypts are amazing examples from another era. There is an elevator to the roof for a stunning view of the city. The cathedral's cloister surrounded by smaller chapels has a certain kind of magic, with its central garden of magnolias and palm trees, where thirteen geese make their home. Here you can experience an eerie peace and tranquility in the heart of a pulsing city.
An unhurried stroll through the pedestrian streets of the old town is indispensable to appreciate Barcelona's history and to experience some of the oldest buildings, stores and squares, often enlivened by musicians, artists, actors and fairs or flea markets. The narrow, cobbled streets, cafes, restaurants, shops and historic buildings can easily occupy an entire day of strolling, shopping, dining and generally enjoying a leisurely step back in time.
Adjacent to and part of the gothic quarter is La Rambla, the famous pedestrian street and colorful boulevard zig-zagging through the old town like a verdant lifeline. This links the centrally located Plaza de Catalunya to the harbor and encompasses the Columbus monument at the waterfront. La Rambla is like an animated street theatre with a kaleidoscope of curious characters, street performers, market stalls and of course outdoor cafes offering tapas and cocktails. It's a people watcher's paradise and microcosm of never-ending activity at any hour of the day or night. The boulevard is comprised of many streets blended into one thoroughfare and is often referred to in the plural Las Ramblas. It is an experience to be enjoyed where time stands still as you imbibe in the surroundings, especially on a sunday afternoon when much of Barcelona is closed in observance of the sabbath.
At the northern end of Las Ramblas and to the west is the area known as Eixample which is now the central area of Barcelona. This urban expansion of the city began in the last half of the nineteenth century with the demolition of the medieval walls which had been suffocating the old city and constraining it within the walls. This enabled vast urban reform and the real expansion of Barcelona. Here you will find, not surprisingly, Gaixample the area which became home to the largest number of GLBT bars, bookstores, saunas, cafes, shops, hotels and residences. Whenever a city grows it seems as though the gay community is the first to establish their roots.
The visitor map and guide published by lists over one hundred gay or gay-friendly businesses most of which are located in Gaixample or close by. This provides one of the most vibrant gay villages you are likely to find anywhere in Europe. With the chic bars, elegant restaurants, cosy cafes, saunas, the extreme leather clubs plus sex clubs and everything in between, the gay scene in Barcelona attracts GLBT tourists from all over the world seeking to experience this liberated equality.
Within Gaixample there are two excellent places to stay in the heart of all the action. There are many other choices close by but here in close proximity you can experience gay Barcelona to the fullest.
The Axel Hotel is a luxury-- hetero-friendly-- gay hotel which is part of the world's first chain of gay hotels. Here you can pamper yourself and be waited upon by a caring gay staff dedicated to making your vacation perfectly gay in every way. The rooftop lounge area contains a pool, hot tub, fitness room and bar creating the perfect sanctuary in the heart of the city with a view of Barcelona second to none.
At Hostal Absolut Centro the rooms are more modest and the facilities are sparse but the price and location are perfect for the budget conscious traveller. This is a good location to enjoy all the gay offerings within walking distance and not have to worry about taxis or public transit. Hostal is a general term used to describe a basic European hotel that provides a no-frills bedroom and just like the no-frills airlines it's a basic service but adequate for a good holiday.
Throughout Barcelona there are plenty of different gay or gay-friendly accommodations to choose from but due to the city's popularity advance planning is absolutely necessary to ensure your holiday home is exactly what you're seeking at the right price. Last minute planning may result in expensive hotel rooms leaving less fun money in your pocket.
As you begin to explore this city you will observe the influence of famous Spanish artists like Picasso and Salvador Dali but certainly the most distinctive mark on the city was made by local architect Antoni Gaudi. Considered by many to be the genius of modernism---the Spanish equivalent to France's art nouveau---the truth is Gaudi represents a separate artistic talent and is in a class by himself. When you turn a corner and encounter your first Gaudi building it is guaranteed to stop you in your tracks. It will be a truly unique visual experience and you will find yourself instantly mesmorised.
His works were numerous including his famous Casa Vicens, Finca Guell, Palau Guell, Collegi de les Teresianes, Cas Calvet, Casa Batilo---today a must-see museum---and Casa Mila, just to name a few. His Basilica of the Holy Family is undoubtably his masterpiece to which he devoted over forty years of his life from 1883 to his untimely death in 1926. Today it is Barcelona's most visited attraction, the city's most famous landmark and yet it is still under construction. He designed Guell Park as a residential English-style garden city with his own distinctive style which leaves every visitor stunned by his architectonic elements. The park is in the hills high above the city with wonderful views and surprises around every corner making for a perfect day trip to escape the bustle of the city.
The dictionary definition of the word 'gaudy' is 'extravagantly or tastelessly bright or showy' and you have to wonder which came first---the architect or the word? Either way it's uniquely Catalonian and memorable.
With all the history, architecture, galleries and museums to enjoy you might think that Barcelona is an urban vacation experience but that would be the wrong impression. In preparation for the 1992 Olympic summer games the Barcelona waterfront underwent a major rejuvenation program which included the restoration of four kilometers of city beaches. This includes two gay areas where clothing is optional at Platja de la Marbella and Moll de sant Bertran. Trust the gay community to claim their own perfect spaces to chill out and enjoy the warm mediterranean waters amidst the excitement of the city.
Finding your way around and traversing the city is easy with the convenient metro and bus system. Economical passes for unrestricted transit access can be purchased for various durations to suit the length of your stay. There is also a Barcelona card which features free travel on public transportation plus admission to galleries and museums or discounts at stores and restaurants. The airport is also well served by an express bus or train to the city centre, both at a one-way cost of less than five Canadian dollars. The Barcelona Bus Turistic is an excellent way to visit the major attractions throughout the city and a day pass allows you unlimited travel on three different routes getting on and off to suit your own schedule.
Amazingly with the size of the city and heavy traffic volumes all of these forms of public transit run to a very exact schedule and frequency meant never having to wait more than a few minutes for any mode of transport.
For the adventurous it is also possible to rent a motor scooter which is obviously the transportation mode of choice for the local residents and it seems as though everyone owns a scooter. They're easy to park, economical on gas and can be easily maneuvered through the heavy traffic. The less ambitious can rent a bicycle for more energetic mobility. Of course walking around town is a very pleasurable way to see all the sights without distractions. Barcelona is a city of approximately one hundred square kilometers almost twenty percent of which is parks and gardens making for a very pleasant environment to discover whichever mode of transport you choose.
Enjoy a panoramic view of the city from the sea, either on a sailboat or a catamaran, and Barcelona's skyline reveals itself with the mountains as a backdrop. Either option is available with frequent schedules by day or night from the main port area.
If the city and beaches are not enough to make your vacation perfect, then several day trips into the surrounding countryside are readily available. The Montserrat Winery, Dali's City and Girona or the beaches at Castelldefels are perfect day trips with fascinating or relaxing agendas to afford a break from the urban life. However, the best day trip, or even for a few days, is a trip to the gay seaside resort town of Sitges just forty kilometers from Barcelona with convenient train service every thirty minutes from the city centre.
Barcelona offers diverse holiday pastimes and the local residents are happy to welcome every gay traveller. Prepare yourself for some leisurely days, long lingering lunches, afternoon siestas, late dinners and fun nightlife-could there possibly be a more gay vacation?

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