Right then, L'Eixample. It's a funny sort of place, a vast collection of right angles and confused looking people that have come off at the wrong metro exit and can't work out which way to turn to get home. For any who don't know, it is the massive grid work which sprawls across central Barcelona. When you talk to friends about 'the time they went to Barcelona' it's all las Ramblas and beaches. They think they may have strolled through it once on the way to the Sagrada Familia but it gets ignored for being the rather drab, repetitive, residential bit between the old town and Gracia. To a degree that's a fair appraisal of the place. It is by and large a very well organised, functional yet seemingly lifeless area of town. I shall try to convince you otherwise without mentioning the pointy cathedral or Paseig de Gracia once.
L'eixample's design was envisaged by a chap called Ildefons Cerda in 1859 after he won what can only be described as an 19th century X factor. It may look square and that the idea was stolen from the Romans but this is not the case. It is octagonal, and with very good reason. Square blocks give a dim and claustrophobic feel whereas octagonal ones allow light and air to travel. It was also designed thus to allow greater visibility to traffic, although Judging by the amount of motor cyclists that you see strewn across it this idea has not worked so well. It was designed as an urban utopia full of hospitals and public gardens to cater for the needs and wants of the working class masses, in practice however it has evolved into a very middle-class area, but not to worry, the middle-classes invented loads of great things, look at the Daily Mail, brilliant read that.
Stuff to look at
In fairness pretty much all of it is worth a look. The houses have no uniformity apart from their rough height and it lends the whole area a wonderfully refreshing feel when you come from the housing production line that is the U.K. It's an architect's field day, similar to when you were young and on the last day of term the teacher would give you glue, paper and things that sparkle and you were all told to make Christmas cards. A similar thing has happened here. Architects in a room, boss walks in, right then lads it has to be yay big and squareish, off you go, and off they jolly well went. Look at almost any house and you will find something that both surprises and delights in equal measure. From balconies to wall decorations, roof designs to entrance porches. There is a very ornate presence about many of the buildings. It all reminds you of a time when chaps wore hats, smart suits and bowed when meeting people. A time when you could leave your front door open and you cared about politics, all very whimsical stuff I'm sure you'll agree. There are however a few gems which warrant a closer look.
Paseig de Gaudi
Walk down Calle Provenca with Tibidabo on your left until you get to the metro station. Turn left and there is a diagonally orientated street named after Barcelona's most famous citizen. As you walk up the pedestrianised walkways it offers a view of one of the city's most wonderful sites, the great gothic inspired Hospital san Pau. All the street lights lining the street are those lovely old round ones with the long black steel columns. There is quite often a juggler or street artist or two entertaining the families that normally throng the place during daylight hours. The street is littered with bars and restaurants that cater to most tastes but specialise in the tapas of the area, the most famous of which are the tomato bread and the cold meats known as Embutidos. It's not the sort of place you would go for a stag night but it is worth a visit as it has an air of being distinctly from Barcelona, a part of the city itself rather than a flailing appendage. The aforementioned hospital is worth the trek alone with some of the finest interior decoration that you are ever likely to see and guided tours put on so that you can understand what it's all about. If you must get sick, then get sick there.
Whatever your feelings are about sticking bits of metal into male cows this is an undeniably beautiful building. It is, as you may have guessed used as a bullring and doesn't really fit in with the architecture or the social conscience of the area in general, all of which is entirely irrelevant. It harps back to colonial times when Spain was administered by the Ottomans. There's a huge Arab influence on the building topped off nicely with the addition of gleaming Spanish ceramics to the twisting minarets that pierce through the top of its circular base. The place lends an air of exotic romance to what could be considered an otherwise drab street. Staring at it you could suppose it's riddled with magic carpets and curved sabres, it's not, but you could suppose it and that's what makes it worth seeing. It ignites a person's imagination as all great works of art should.
Casa de les Punxes
Just because a house doesn't look like the family Flintstone lived there or is based upon a fish does not mean that it does not merit complimentary attention. The Casa de les Punxes is just such a place. It's located on one of the Eixample's two main thoroughfares: Avegnida Diagonal. The building is a great example of what can be achieved with even the simplest of ideas. It's clear that the influence comes from the Netherlands with all those square undulations running across the top and then just for that little something extra it goes all Disney fairytale and interrupts this nice little fractal pattern with a load of great big spires, hence the name. The greatest beauty of this place is that you could walk past it a thousand times and not notice it was there and then, all of a sudden you look up from your ipod one day to see a whopping great mystical tower sticking out of the top of the building in front before thinking to yourself, I likes that I does. After this epiphany you will find something new every time you walk past until it is the highlight of your diagonal experience.
Casa Asia is so named as it houses the Barcelona Asian cultural centre which hosts art and photography exposÃ©s along with practical demonstrations in things such as the art of tea and calligraphy. It's located again on Diagonal, just up from Casa de les Punxes but on the other side of the road. From outside it almost seems to be swallowed up by its neighbours and the huge tower blocks which dominate the area nearby. Casa Asia however has a marvellous ability, and that ability is that it can physically grow; rapidly and substantially. When you first look at the building from the outside your attention is immediately drawn to the renaissance style decoration of the main balcony it's all intertwined, delicately carved angels and other heavenly creatures. It would be possible to spend hours looking for the secret path to the philosopher's stone there if you were so persuaded. It's a very surprising piece of work for everything that surrounds it is testament to the modern world and Casa Asia is a tribute to that which has gone before. Everything from its Tudor shape and dormer windows to its Roman door arch seem to be influenced with the benefit of hindsight. If the outside can be considered surprising then the inside can only be considered one thing; jaw-dropingly gorgeous. You want to call it gaudy and gratuitous but you just... can't. It's colours, it's smashed mosaic tiles, it's extravagance, it's opulence it is everything a spectacular building should be, and there's lots to do there once you calm your beating heart after entering, go there.
Small IS beautiful!
In the middle of L'Eixample's other main artery, Gran Via lives another gem. As with most things in the area it's the small and discreet that stands out rather than the large and over-bearing. Casa Golferichs is located quite a way down towards Placa Espanya on the cross-section with Calle Viladomat. It is another cultural centre but more orientated around the Catalan culture. There are again frequent exposÃ©s and exhibitions there. As you stand outside and glance at the building you feel that somehow it's influenced by the orient with the tiered roofing and each layer being a little wider than that before along with the separate entrance point. The tree overhanging the entrance porch can almost convince you to run all the way back to Casa Asia and ask to check the contract to make sure that they got the right place when they first decided to come and set up in the area. Another likeness that it shares with Casa Asia is that it has one of those overly intricate yet infinitely interesting renaissance style balconies, albeit on a smaller scale. The decoration inside differs somewhat. Much of it has been modernised and so there are lots of glass showroom cubes poking out everywhere which can ruin the ambience of the place if you concentrate on them to heavily. They have however kept many original features and the main staircase with its ornate green porcelain decoration climbing up the wall in a strangely organic yet organised way is a fine example of this keeping the best bits approach.
Eating and Drinking
Now, as mentioned before L'Eixample is by and large a residential area and as such comes with certain social responsibilities when out on the town. It's not generally laid out to allow revellers the opportunity to debauch themselves in gory hedonism and the bars that litter the area reflect this more relaxed approach to socialising. The majority of the bars are those wonderful old places with curved metal serving bars which protect the wide and wonderful variety of tapas from yours but not the barman's heavy smoking. The type of places that all seem to have those giddy bar stools perched at precarious angles and a local that never leaves and repeats their favourite story again and again but somehow you never seem to get bored of it. The tiled floors, the Barca scarves, the T.V in the corner with those mind altering chat shows running constantly all make up a vast piece of what makes life here life. These bars however have sadly been neglected by many who are looking for a more defining and unique social experience and although you have to search sometimes there are many places which cater to revellers with more refined tastes. It's pretty hard to mention certain bars as there are so many over such a large area that its nigh on the impossible. The best way is to go investigate as best you can applying a bit of basic common sense. If you can't see into a bar it's because they have something to hide and will charge you lots and lots of money to be there. If there are five nasty looking chaps looking like they want to rob you, they probably do, etc etc. The approach to eating is much the same. The Eixample really does cater to all tastes, without exception. Name a country and/or a price range and it's fairly guaranteed that there will be a restaurant that represents said country and bill. One recommendation however is that one lunchtime, just one, you pop into one of the bars that you would normally pass by for a menu del dia. They are what make daily life great, you will remember the experience for better or worse for trying than for going to the fancy place down the road where the waiter pours your wine and brings you seafood on an iced tray.
So, there it is. It's not a definitive guide, it's not even a scratch on its vast surface, but it is a start. There is more to this city than the tourist guide divulges. For the most part L'Eixampe is a safe, elegant, pleasant place where one can go to enjoy the subtleties that it offers without having to wait in a queue or take an open top bus to see. You won't be able to see it all but you will find something that you find amazing that not many other people have noticed. And that for me is the point of tourism, to see something or somewhere that you didn't know existed before and be delighted by the fact that you found it.