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Barcelona, Catalunya, Spain

Highlights of Montjuïc

Fresh air, Olympic triumph and a millennium of art spread across a hilly cultural hub, plus just a dash of sundown magic

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Difficulty: Facile
Length: 2.5 miles / 4.0 km
Duration: Mezza Giornata
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Anteprima: Barcelona is a fairly leafy city, but every major metropolis needs a place to listen to birdsong, breathe clean air and drink in the scent of eucalyptus, oak or pine. In the Catalan capital that role is admirably discharged by Montjuïc, the one-time Hill of the Jews.

There are beautifully landscaped gardens, sprinkled with interesting statues, to discover, sun-dappled foothpaths to wander and miradors to take in the views. But it's not all pastoral idyll. It's also a major cultural hub, with two world-class museums (and a number of others)to add a little artistic and educational balm to the soul. You can recharge your intellectual batteries here, too.

The last century saw two global events take place here - a World's Fair or 'Universal Exposition' in 1929, and 1992's Olympic Games. Their legacy buildings enrich your visit, whether it's the grandiose faux-Renaissance palace that now houses a thousand years of art in the National Art Museum, the vast between-the-wars stadium that was reinvented for the 1992 event, or Mies van der Rohe's German Pavilion from the 1929 Fair, recreated on its original site in the 1980s, still startlingly modern,and alarmingly tasteful.

There's a vibrancy about the place. Even as you meander through the beguilingly restful Laribal Gardens you are just moments from the deliciously bold and life-affirming art of Joan Miró, while the 'Olympic Ring' teams the stadium's conventional form with the sleek elegance of Santiago Calatrava's communications tower and Aiko Miyawaki's playful installations.

And around the weekend, should you choose, you can end your day with a bit of communal frivolity as you bag your vantage point for the kitsch but capitivating Font Mágica. Thomas Mann's 'Magic Mountain' was never this much fun!


Consigli: There are a number of ways of getting to Montjuïc, and the best way of getting there really depends on what you want to see. There's an austere castle around the summit, which was the scene of some important political executions during the Civil War. It used to house a military museum which airbrushed out of history the horrors that had taken place there, but the city authorities have now closed it and have plans to open a Peace Museum. If you want to ascend to that level you can either take the funicular (free with a Barcelona Card or a metro pass, which treats it as a transfer) from Para.lel metro station or take the recently-revamped cable car (the Telefèric) from the waterfront at Barceloneta.

This costs a whacking €9.30 return (€6.50 single) for an adult, and €6.70 return(€5 single) for a child aged 4-12, and there's a €2 discount on the return price with a Barcelona card. Views are spectacular, but it looks spindly from ground level, so rather less enjoyable if you're not good with heights. It operates from 10am until 9pm between June and September, with earlier close down times off season.

Alternatively, if you are planning to concentrate on the lower sites you can just take the metro to the Plaça d'Espanya station, and take the stairs and escalators up to the MNAC art museum in the Palau Nacional, and then either walk uphill, or jump on bus 193 from outside the museum. The brightly-coloured city-operated Tourist Buses also stop outside all the main Montjuïc sites, which feature on the red route (one of three that the ticket covers). They feature audio-guides, operate on a hop-on, hop-off basis and have an adult fare of €23 (€30 for 2 days), €14 (€18 for two days) for children aged 4-12. There's a 10 % discount if you order online.

There's little shelter as you walk around Montjuïc, so you should probably have some sunscreen handy, as well as a waterproof as - even at the bus stop outside the Palau Nacional - there's no protection from torrential summer downpours.

At €9 adult entrance, the Miró Foundation is pricey (but worth it). If you are interested in art you may well also be planning to visit the National Art Museum (also in Montjuïc), or possibly Gaudí's La Pedrera in the Eixample, and/or the Picasso Museum near the Gothic Quarter. If you visit Miró plus any two of those you will save money with an Articket, which is valid for six months, and gives you access to the four properties mentioned plus three others. It costs €25, but you'll get a 5% discount if you order it online from www.barcelonaturisme.com, and exchange the downloadable receipt for the ticket on arrival. It also lets you walk to the front of the queue.

You can also save money by having a Barcelona card - a combined transport and museum entry pass, which gives free access to a number of museums and discounts at others. It can be valid for two to five days, with prices rising incrementally for the length of your stay. Obviously the longer you stay the better value it becomes, as you will visit more museums. In Montjuïc it gives free entry to the National Art Museum and the Olímpic Museum plus the Botanical Gardens, as well as 20% discounts at the Miró Foundation and Mies Van der Rohe Pavilion, in addition to the Archaeological and Ethnological museums, should you wish to visit those. If you are weighing it up against the Articket, it also gives a 20% discount at the Picasso Museum and Gaudí's Casa Batlló among a large number of others. It costs from €27.50 for two days through to €45 for five days, all subject to a 10% discount if ordered online.

Punti di Interesse

Landmark
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The Olympic Ring and the Torre de Calatrava

Montjuïc has twice been the focus of international attention - in 1929 when it hosted a great International Exhibition or World's Fair, and again in 1992 when it was the main site for the track and field events of Barcelona's Olympics. It's intriguing to come up here and see how across this mountain site architects have seamlessly woven together old and new, recycling, reinventing and recreating buildings, and turning the city's great, green lung into an unlikely work of art.

Instead of building a stadium from scratch the Catalans remodelled the stadium from the 1929 events, inserting a state-of-the-art interior, within the sandstone classical Spanish Renaissance-style façade. There's a museum opposite - the Museu Olímpic i de l'Esport - which commemorates sporting triumphs, and uses technology to pit you against great Olympians - taking on Carl Lewis, or discovering how Mark Spitz swam his way to seven gold medals.

Beside the stadium the Palau Sant Jordi, the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki created by contast a sleek modern indoor complex with a turtle-shaped roof, a homage apparently to both the contours of the landscape and to Gaudí, whose Sagrada Familia features a turtle at the base of its Nativity façade. There are more contemporary flourishes in the courtyard outside where Aiko Miyawaki has created an interesting ensemble of 36 concrete cylinders topped by metal rings and steel cables that gleam in the evening light. The cylinders - in all their modernity - seem to echo the columns of the classical world.

But towering above them all is the contribution of the doyen of current Spanish architects, the Valencian designer Santiago Calatrava. His emblematic 136 metre high communications tower seems to combine the sloping curve and grace of an elite athlete's body with the elegance of a musical clef, and the nonchalance of a squiggle. It's a remarkable piece, the shadow of its central needle projecting on to the Plaça below as a sundial, while the trencadí mosaic tiles at its base are his own tribute to Gaudí.

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Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys
Avinguda de l'Estadi s/n
Phone: 93 426 2089
Hours:Summer daily 10am - 8pm.
Winter daily 10am - 6pm.

Museu Olímpic i de l'Esport
Avinguda de l'Estadi, 60
Phone: 93 292 5379
Hours: April - September Tuesday - Saturday 10am - 8pm
Sunday and holidays 10am -2.30pm
October - March Tuesday - Saturday 10am - 6pm
Sunday and holidays 10am -2.30pm
Monday closed all year

Palau Sant Jordi
Address: Pg. Olímpic, 5-7
Phone: 934 262 089
Hours: subject to events held
Building
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Fundació Joan Miró

You're never far from Miró in Barcelona, whether you are trundling your luggage in a trolley outside the characteristic mural that enlivens the external wall of Terminal 2 at the city's airport, walking along the Ramblas trampling his swirling sidewalk mosaic, or strolling past one of the numerous branches of La Caixa savings bank - Miró designed the colourful, jolly starfish logo that gives the company its corporate identity.

Nevertheless, a visit to the Foundation's striking whitewashed home (by his contemporary and longtime collaborator Josep Lluís Sert) is a really enjoyable part of an excursion to Montjuïc, the vibrancy and simplicity of his art proving the perfect counterpoint to the comprehensive exposition of the art of the last millennium on offer in the wonderful National Art Museum, and the surreal sculptures you'll find on the roofspaces of the building complementing the contours of the surrounding topography.

You can pay extra for the audio tour, or just plonk yourself down in the viewing area beside Gallery 15 and get up to speed on the artist's life and work thanks to an excellent short film introduced in 2010. It runs in Spanish and Catalan with English subtitles, but you might want to wait for an English screening, so you can concentrate on the images a sthe narrator explains them.

Suitably educated you can then explore the galleries, picking out his flirtations with Cubism, Fauvism and Futurism, and the development of his own style through his constant repetition (and variation) of certain themes and icons, including women, birds and stars. It's fun to follow his trajectory from the representational art of his youth through adventures in the abstract to his declared ambition to 'assassinate' painting, dalliances with the provocative manifestos of Dadism and Surrealism and his increasing focus on sculpture, ceramics and tapestry. There's something child-like yet profound in the embracing of primary colours, and the bold lines and hypnotic whirls of his mature work, whether that be in papier-mâché, ceramics or strangely-tactile tapestries like the joyous, Felix-like cat that drapes the wall by a staircase.

Unless you hate modern art you're bound to leave with a smile on your face. Whisper it - but it it's much more fun, and much less crowded than the Picasso Museum in the Gothic Quarter - so if you plan to visit only one, this is the one to choose.

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Fundació Joan Miró
Parc de Montjuïc s/n
08038 Barcelona
Phone: 934 439 470
Hours: October - June Tuesday - Saturday 10am - 7pm
July - September June Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday 10am - 8pm; Thursday 10am - 9.30pm
Sundays and public holidays 10am - 2.30pm

Closed on Mondays (except public holidays)
Other Resources
Fundació Joan Miró
Landmark
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Jardins de Laribal

In 1999 Montjuïc acquired dedicated Botanical Gardens, which showcase plants from the seven regions of the world with a Mediterranean climate. There's an entrance charge (though admission is free with a Barcelona card), but if you simply want to take lovely walks amid sylvan spots and glades, and admire the art of the landscape architect, then these delightful , free gardens, close to the Miró Foundation, fit the bill very nicely: they really are one of the treasures of Montjuïc.

They take their name from to Joseph Laribal, a distinguished lawyer and one-time owner of the upper gardens, where he laid out a formal estate and built a grand chalet with Modernist Flourishes amid tall trees. Following his death the city acquired the land, and set about developing gardens that would drape down the hillside from close to the present location of the Miró Foundation down to Passeig de Santa Madrona where it runs past the Ethnological Museum. This work was completed in 1922, and the gardens became a popular weekend treat for city-dwellers even before the 1929 World's Fair brought the transformation to Montjuïc that included the building of the grand Palau Nacional that now hosts the National Art Museum.

A number of lush gardens are linked by sculpted terraces, scattered pergolas and shady pathways that suddenly bloom into delightful squares, where serene statues are perfectly-sited to catch the eye, and occasional fountains burble in harmony with the birdsong. Look out for "Repòs", a seated and deliciously unposed nude near the entrance from the Miró Foundation, and "Noia de la trena", a bronze of a girl plaiting her hair, close to the stairway that leads to other levels of the garden. Both date from the 1920s and are by Joseph Vilodomar. The dazzlingly-white marble "Estival", in the rose garden, has a classical pose, but a more obviously art deco aesthetic. Colourful ceramics on the stairways, give a nod to the Moorish inspiration of a garden design that has irrigation at its core, with reflective ponds and ornamental water features, including a terraced cascade that echoes the slopes and ramps that give the gardens such texture. Fig and palm trees testify to the Mediterranean setting, while soaring, elegant cypresses add formality, and pay homage to the Generalife in Granada's Alhambra which captured the imagination of the garden's creators.

If you visit in the afternoon this would be the time to stop of for lunch or a drink at La Font del Gat (see next entry) from which you can proceed to wander down to the Passeig de Santa Madrona, for the rather worthy Ethnological and (closer to the Plaça d' Espanya) Archaeological museums. Alternatively you can follow the signs to the Teatre Grec Gardens, a legacy of the 1929 Exhibition when a Greek-style amphitheatre was laid out in a former quarry. Visitors in late June or early July can see it in its full glory when it hosts the Grec Festival of Barcelona--an internationally-acclaimed music and drama season that draws directors of the calibre of Shakespeare innovator Peter Brook.

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Jardins Laribal
Passeig de Santa Madrona, 2 (There is also access from Avinguda de l'Estadi and Avinguda de Miramar)
Phone: 93 413 24 00
Hours: Daily (including Monday holidays)
January, February and December 10am - 6pm
March and November 10am - 7pm
April and October 10am - 8pm
May to September 10am - 9pm

Food/Dining
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La Font del Gat Restaurant

as you wander through the Jardins Laribal you'll see signs to La Font del Gat. The original Font is a tiny feline headed fountain, immortalised in an enduring song. It has given its name to a restaurant, built in 1918 in the Modernist style by the Catalan Renaissance Man Josep Puig i Cadafalch - a nationalist politician and literary figure, as well as an architect of distinction (designing, most famously Casa Amatller, just along from Gaudí's Casa Batllo on the Passeig de Gracia's famous Manzana de la Discordia or Block of Discord - a row of contrasting Modernist buildings by the cream of the movement's architects). He was an appropriate choice, as the Laribal Garden site was a popular meeting meeting for Barcelona's early 20th-century elite, who gathered in an exclusive gastronomic-political club, not far from here.

It's a pleasing pantiled pavilion-style building, with a lovely terrace with both palm and orange trees, and fine views over the city, including the cigar-like towers of La Sagrada Familia.

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La Font del Gat
Passeig de Santa Madrona, 28
Phone: 932 890 404
Hours: Tuesday - Sunday 1pm - 4pm Closed for three weeks in August and 10 days around Christmas.
Other Resources
BCNRestaurantes.com
Landmark
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Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya - MNAC

If you return through Jardins de Laribal, you can either walk or take bus 193 from outside Fundació Joan Miró to the MNAC. The collection is housed in the distinctive Palau Nacional, built between 1926 and 1929 as the signature building of the great exhibition, and designed in the neo-classical style of the Spanish Renaissance with a great central dome.

It houses one of Spain's greatest art museums, elevated to world class status by its flagship collection of Romanesque frescoes. These wonderfully expressive murals were executed in the 12th and 13th centuries as sacred decoration for the churches of remote villages in the Catalan Pyrenees, and have been relocated to preserve them. There are many curiously expressive frescoes, but the greatest of them all is the 'Pancreator' from St Climent de Taüll, which shows the Christ in Majesty as a simultaneously stern yet compelling figure. The gallery re-opened in the middle of 2011, with a revamped presentation which explains the origins of the collection and seeks to explain the otherwise baffling questions surrounding the process of removing and relocating the murals.

There's also an extensive Gothic collection, bristling with angels, devils and gory martyrdoms, plus Renaissance masterpieces from Titian, Tinteretto and Tiepolo, as well as works by Goya in a Spanish collection that additionally majors on Catalan art of the 19th century. The 20th-century gallery has, as you might expect, a sprinkling of works by Picasso, Miró, and an early, uncharacteristically 'straight' Dalí - a portrait of his father.

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Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya
Palau Nacional
Parc de Montjuïc
08038 Barcelona
Phone: 93 622 03 76
Hours:Tuesday to Saturday 10am - 7pm
Sunday and public holidays 10am - 2.30pm
Closed:January 1st, May 1st and December 25th, and on Mondays except public holidays
Building
map

Mies van der Rohe - German Pavilion

If you descend from the MNAC by the stairs and mechanical escalators, and turn left when you reach the enormous fountain you will encounter another echo of the 1929 World's Fair. Between 1983 and 1986 a team of architectural enthusiasts recreated the German Pavilion from the Exhibition on the original site, a building designed by Mies van der Rohe, a Director of the Bauhaus.

It's a work of timeless simplicity, and effortless style - the perfect rebuttal to those who contend that modern architecture is never beautiful. The whole steel-framed building rests on a plinth of travertine (a form of limestone), its white roof projecting far beyond its walls of green marble from the Alps, ancient green marble from Greece and golden onyx from the Atlas Mountains) and glass. Pools to front and rear, the latter presided over by Georg Kolbe's decorous statue 'Alba' or 'Dawn' add to the air of tranquillity.

The interior is bare, but for the marble walls, and the specially-designed furniture, square, white leather stools and their partners, the 'Barcelona chairs', that went on to become a style icon. Van der Rohe designed them for the king and queen of Spain, intended as a modern interpretation in steel and leather of the scissor-like collapsible stools used by Roman and Egyptian rulers.

The design, though over 80 years old is airy, light and surprisingly contemporary. It is an impeccably tasteful space, where even television Frasier could feel right at home. If architecture's not your thing, yet van der Rohe's name rings a bell and you're not sure why, it could be from the series about the eponymous Seattle radio pyschiatrist, who in one episode set off on a quest to find a chair with 'the presence of a Mies van der Rohe and the playful insouciance of an early Le Corbusier'.

'Less', as van der Rohe famously said, 'is more'.

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Mies Van der Rohe Pavilion
Avinguda Francesc Ferrer i Guàrdia 7
Barcelona
Phone: 93 423 40 16
Hours: Daily 10am - 8pm
Landmark
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Font Màgica

Try to visit Montjuïc on a Friday or Saturday (or, additionally on a Thursday in Spring and Autumn). That way you can end your day out by taking in a free performance at the Magic Fountain. Once again it's a legacy of the 1929 beanfeast, and another way that Barcelona puts a smile on the face of its visitors. It's located at the end of the Avinguda Reina Maria Cristina, just below the Palau Nacional. There are terraced seats on the slope leading up to the MNAC, though on a nice night you'll need to turn up early to bag one of those. Otherwise you might end up, at least initially until the crowd thins, perched on a wall, your view of the fountain restricted by a tree.

Once the programme starts, amplified music provides a soundtrack for acrobatic jets of water that dance, soar and play peek-a-boo with the crowd while running through around 50 different hues. The music ranges from light classics, through film scores (which have high level international recognition), and some pop classics, of which the crowd-pleasing barnstormer is local diva Montserrat Caballé's duet with Freddie Mercury - their anthem 'Barcelona' is really a love song to the city. And you really haven't lived until you've heard The Jungle Book's 'Bare Necessities' in Catalan!

It's fun to sit with a beer and watch the fusillade of camera flashes, and see the lights of a thousand mobile phones flaring in the dusk like a swarm of giant fireflies. Most bizarre are those who constantly surf the escalators, gently gliding down always in search of the perfect photograph. It's silly, it's cheesy, and it's innocently entertaining, and as you walk back to the metro station you realise that the sky behind MNAC is pierced by massive beams of light that radiate like a sunburst. It's all deliciously over the top.

You can't miss the four huge ionic columns sited between the fountain and the Palace. These columns - designed to recall the four vertical red bars of the Catalan flag - were originally designed by Puig i Cadafalch and erected in 1919 where the fountain now stands. The Dictator Primo de Rivera, determined to stamp out all vestiges of Catalan nationalism had them demolished in 1928. Following a long campaign replicas were erected as close to the site as possible and in accordance with Puig i Cadafalch's plans in 2010.

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Font Magica
Plaça Carles Buïgas, s/n
Hours: Autumm & Winter Friday and Saturday 7pm - 9pm
Spring and Summer Thursday to Sunday 9pm - 11.30pm.
Fotografie di questa Guida scattate da: Caledonianne, Wallygrom (very busy at work), Flickr, runneralan2004, Flickr, Vincent Desjardins, Flickr, PhillipC, Flickr, puroticorico, Flickr, caledonianne, xcaballe, Flickr, Alex Castellá, Flickr, gribiche, Flickr

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Caledonianne
Caledonianne
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I've been a travel specialist since 1987, combining travel writing with researching and advising on tourism...

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