I can’t believe I’m pedalling down Barcelona’s magnificent Rambla, crossing intersections, turning left and right, cheekily zipping past pedestrians. Truth is I’m not a brave cyclist but I’m putting my faith, rather blindly, in our leader, frantically following so I don’t have to negotiate the traffic alone. By night Megan Pearson manages a bar, by day she leads small groups on a cycling tour of Gaudi’s Barcelona – showing them that Barcelona is possibly the best city in Spain to explore on a bicycle.
Originally from Amsterdam, she’s fallen in love with the city’s back lanes, cycle paths and the story of the architect that’s so closely interwoven with the Catalan capital.
Best City in Spain on a bicycle
One of the first places we pass is the Hospital de la Santa Creu, which should really be at the end of the ride, as this is where Antoni Gaudi died after he was hit by a tram in 1926, unknown and sadly mistaken for a homeless man.
It’s a leisurely 13-kilometre cycle and we take our first break at the palm-lined Rambla del Raval, one of the smaller ramblas or streets, a trendy up-and- coming area where the cafes are good value.
This is where sculptor Fernando Botero’s black cat statue finally found a home. From here it’s a short ride to Placa Reial, a lovely 19th-century square with interesting street lamps designed by the young Gaudi.
Here Les Quinze Nits restaurant is good fun but be prepared to queue.
Nearby in the square of Sant Jaume stand, Barcelona’s two political powerhouses: the Palau de la Generalitat de Catalunya (the seat of Catalan government) and the City Hall.
This is often the scene of political demonstrations and we’re briefly introduced to the idea of the Catalan independence movement, its flag and Sant Jordi (St George) and the dragon, all influences on the architect’s work.
Riding down the famous La Rambla, our group of five blocks a bus but it patiently waits to overtake. In fact, the traffic seems quite tolerant of cyclists, much to my relief.
At the end of the great boulevard stands a huge Christopher Columbus statue, a reminder that it was King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella who funded his discovery of America.
Barcelona is a city of 3 million, one that has been transformed by tourists in the last two decades.
It all started with the Olympics in 1992 and now almost 8 million visitors come annually, making it the fifth most popular city in Europe.
The beach, almost four kilometres long, was created then and is a great addition.
The broad cycle path is flat and smooth and we build up speed as we head for the Parc de la Ciutadella where the student Gaudi contributed to the design of the extravagant Cascada Fountain.
The park is the heart of the city, a welcome green space that is much used by Barcelona residents, many of whom live in small apartments.
Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia
Unexpectedly we turn a corner and come upon the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece.
Construction began in 1882 and Gaudi became involved the following year, transforming the building with his radical gothic and art nouveau fantastical notions.
The cathedral attracts about 3 million visitors a year whose entrance fees mainly fund the construction. Officials say it will be finished by 2026, 144 years after it was started, but many remain skeptical.
Despite the scaffolding, crowds and buses, the Sagrada is breath-taking and certainly one of the best places to visit in Barcelona. But I feel it doesn’t look all that different from my first visit 25 years ago.
Then I had a panic attack while climbing its tortuous stairs and today I’m quite happy to view it from the street.
In the nearby Eixample district, on Passeig de Gracia, stand two of the architect’s most beautiful buildings. Redesigned by Gaudi in 1904, Casa Batllo is also known as the House of Bones.
Today it’s a privately run museum, with mind-bending interiors, and is well worth exploring.
Nearby Casa Mila, also known as Pedrera (the stone quarry), was built between 1906 and 1912 as an apartment and office block.
Disappointingly the facade is covered for restoration but the cultural centre inside is open.
For those on a tight schedule – I have only 36 hours – the cycling tour is an easy introduction to the city and the architect who has contributed so much to its dreamy splendour.
Hotel Mirror is a smart small boutique hotel in Eixample. Doubles from $223 a night.
Casa Batllo; Casa Mila; Sagrada; book online to avoid the queues.
Gaudi bike tour or BudgetBikes. There are also more detailed tours by architects.
For more artistic attractions in Spain, if you’re visiting Madrid be sure to put the Prado Museum on your list. Northern Spain is a green land of fields, paddocks, Spanish villages and lovely beachside towns.