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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Barcelona Has Right Mix of Old and New

With its popular seaside resorts and picturesque historic towns, Catalonia is a perfect place to relax in the sun or explore the history and culture of this distinct part of Spain.

Catalonians speak their own language and are proud of their history as an independent kingdom.

The pearl of Catalonia is the capital, Barcelona, as bustling as Manhattan with all the grace and elegance of an old European city. Barcelona's rich cultural and artistic traditions are expressed in the city's architecture, a mixture of Gothic, Moorish and Art Nouveau perfected by the architects Antoni Gaudi, Domenech i Montaner and Puig i Cadafalch.

Some 150 to 200 years ago, a giant fortress, the Citadel, guarded the eastern part of old Barcelona. Today the Parc Ciutadella shares most of that area with the city zoo. In the spring, the smell of jasmine and orange blossoms fills the air in the park, where paths curve around tranquil ponds and lead to a five-story-high waterfall with fountains - the perfect place to cool down in the summer heat.

Nearer to the coast, a giant aquarium dominates a spacious boardwalk between a supermodern IMAX movie theater and a shopping mall surrounded by a busy marina. In front of the aquarium is a replica of one of the first wooden submarines ever built.

To the west of the marina, Montjuic, a huge green mountain with a fortress, juts up between the city and the sea. At its base, a slender pillar with a monument to Christopher Columbus overlooks the Barcelona coastline.

The ritzy La Rambla street with many cafes and shops begins at the Columbus monument and makes its way inland. Along the street, mimes in shiny outfits stand motionless like statues, but if you drop a coin in their hats they might surprise you and suddenly move.

From La Rambla, take any street to the right and you are in Barri Gotic, the old Gothic town, the center of Roman and medieval Barcelona. On its narrow streets you will find cozy courtyards with orange trees, palms and fountains, and beautiful palaces and churches, like the giant 14th century Esglesia Catedral de la Santa Creu.

This part of town also has nice boutiques, shops, cafes and museums, including the Picasso Museum. The cathedral square is a favorite place of street musicians and young people.

Montjuic is one of the first places we visited in Barcelona, because it offers a breathtaking view of both the city and the Mediterranean Sea. Its old fortress once housed the local garrison that protected the city. In Roman times, the mountain was settled by Jews, who gave it its name.

To get to the top you can take one of two funiculars or drive up a winding road on the eastern side of the mountain. Old cannons and guns taken from ships used during the Spanish Civil War point out into the blue horizon. Inside the fortress, is an armory museum with weapons and uniforms from all parts of the world dating back to the Middle Ages, and models of ships, tanks and aircraft. Maps, portraits and photographs hang on the walls, including one photograph of Spanish special forces walking a shaggy boar on a leash.

Heading down the northern side of the hill, you pass through a park past the Olympic Stadium and to the palace-like National Art Museum of Catalonia, built as part of the International Exposition of 1929. A series of fountains that interact with light and music wind down for about a kilometer toward Placa Espanya, or Spanish Square (the light show happens Thursday through Sunday, and on holidays, from 10 p.m. to midnight). To the west is the Spanish village (Poble Espanyol), where copies of famous Spanish buildings were constructed in 1929.

If you are in the northern part of town, head to Park Guell, a maze of paths and tunnels surrounded by thick woods, created by the famous Catalonian architect Gaudi, who died in 1926. His startling creations in Barcelona and elsewhere show a masterful use of color, mosaics and sculptural configurations. If you ask at the tourist information center at Placa Catalunya, at the other end of La Rambla, they will give you a special map of the city with a marked route to most of Gaudi's creations. Park Guell is also on that route.

At the entrance to the park, two pavilions designed by Gaudi stand like magical mushrooms covered with mosaics. You can wander through the tunnel-like alleys in a dense pine forest and breath in the fresh air emanating from the trees. In other, arcade-like tunnels made from stone, you feel like you are walking through the skeleton of a giant beast.

When you come out of the woods, there is a big lookout platform with winding benches - all covered with abstract mosaics - from which you get a great view of the city. The hill was barren before Gaudi was commissioned to build a park there.

The most magnificent of Gaudi's creations is the Sagrada Familia, the Church of the Holy Family, an astonishing surreal cathedral unlike anything else in the world. Gaudi died before the giant structure was finished, leaving no plans and only a few rough sketches of his vision of the church. After standing unfinished for decades, work on the church recently has been started up again by the city's leading architects. You can take an elevator to the top and view the fantastic architectural details of the stone walls and high spires. The spires are capped by superb mosaics and crosses, some of which are quite bizarre in shape and form.

Gaudi, a devout Catholic, has incorporated the shape of the cross and other Christian symbols into most of his works.

Among Gaudi's other must-see wonders in Barcelona are the Casa Batllo, the Conservatory and the Guell Palace.

The Casa Batllo on Passeig de Gracia is said to represent a dragon with the Saint Jordi Cross nailed to its back and the skeletons of victims at its feet. Its walls and roof are covered in scales.

Also on the Passeig de Gracia, which is lined with wrought-iron street lamps, is the Casa Mila. The building's distinct wavy facade and swerving chimneys represent Gaudi's preference for the curved line.

Barcelona has several interesting museums, first among them the Picasso Museum. The museum, located in Barri Gotic, offers a chance to follow Pablo Picasso's development as an artist. A number of his earliest works were donated to the museum by the master himself. Walking from one hall to the other in the medieval Palau Berenguer d'Aguilar palace, you can see the transformation of Picasso's style from the academic and conservative, during his childhood and early adulthood, to his development of cubism and abstraction.

The artist's abstract and ink graphics of groups of nudes are quite bizarre, and some even found their way to the Museum of Erotica in Barcelona. Sadly, there are few examples from the artist's "blue" and "rose" periods, such as can be seen in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

Barcelona's Maritime Museum is located in a huge centuries-old shipyard, which until the new port was built faced the sea. The building, not far from the passenger terminal of the marina, is a rare example of secular Gothic architecture of the Middle Ages with its giant arches supported by massive pillars.

The museum has many models of schooners and brigantines, steamers and yachts and other ships from all times. A life-size replica of a 16th century galley spans the length of the building.

And when you stroll along La Rambla, don't miss the Museum of Erotica, which openly exhibits the history of human sexuality through the ages. The collection includes artifacts, statuettes, paintings and photographs, including pieces by controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, Japanese graphics and ancient Hindu sculptures. There is a silent black-and-white movie of the X-rated kind that was made to entertain the king of Spain. You can even listen to a voice recording on "the sex phone" in four different languages.

How to Get There

Aeroflot flies directly from Moscow to Barcelona on Saturdays and Sundays. Round-trip tickets are $350.

Where to Stay

There are many hotels and hostels in and around Barri Gotic, however, it's best to make a reservation at any time of the year so that you don't arrive to see the "completo" sign on the door, meaning no vacancy. Rooms range from 3,000 pesetas (about $20) and up.

In the upscale Eixample district, the Taber hotel on Arag? 256 has air conditioning and charges 17,500 pesetas ($112) for a double. Tel: (34-93) 487-3887, fax: 488-1350. The hotel is near many shops and boutiques and is close to the Passeig de Gracia railway station.

In the pristine Catalonian district north of the center of Barcelona, the clean Penzion San Medin on Mayor de Gracia 125, near metro Fontana, charges 6,000 pesetas (about $40) for a double facing a quiet backyard. Tel: (34-93) 217-3068, fax: 415-4410.