Barcelona's quirky art and architecture captivate Shelley Bridgeman.
The eccentric architecture of Antoni Gaudi punctuates Barcelona's tree-lined avenues at regular intervals. The curves, motifs, colours and, sometimes, downright wonkiness of his work are reminiscent of a Dr Seuss book come to life.
We could see the tops of La Sagrada Familia's spires from our hotel so it was fitting that this landmark, Gaudi's unfinished masterpiece, should be the first tourist attraction we visited.
After joining the early-morning queue I spied my first beggar, a woman draped in a headscarf with a small cup beside her. We would discover that such people are common sights at Barcelona's busiest locations.
Once inside, we were overwhelmed by the sheer scale of La Sagrada Familia, a Catholic basilica informed by Gaudi's appreciation of the natural world: staircases were inspired by a snail shell and grilles configured with a honeycomb pattern. Looking up to the soaring internal heights, even the irreligious may gain a sense of Christian worship and awe. The organically shaped towering columns evoke the feeling of a forest rich with the echoes of myriad whispered voices.
Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, which has an identity, culture and cuisine distinct from other parts of Spain. The driver who met us at the airport and drove us to our hotel - El Palace, formerly the Ritz, located on the busy Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes - pointed out a bullfighting ring that had been turned into a shopping mall."In Catalonia we are not so much into the bullfighting," he said.
Bullfighting is now outlawed in Catalonia, where the people seem to regard themselves as Catalonians first and Spaniards second.
Art, architecture, street theatre and convivial socialising are treasured in this balmy Mediterranean city. Barcelona is a walker's paradise as every leafy avenue offers a vista that is likely to include fountains, classical statues flanked by cypress trees and ornate buildings.
Much of the city is paved with cobblestones, many adorned with a simple motif. Congratulating ourselves on noting such a small detail that could easily be overlooked, we decided that the naive flower design, such as a preschooler might have sketched, was our favourite.
We returned to our hotel one evening to discover that the chocolates on our pillows were imprinted with the same pattern. At every random turn Barcelona delights in unexpected ways.
We visited the Museu Picasso where 3800 Pablo Picasso works are housed in five 13th-century palaces.
My husband and I, feeling we'd had a cultural overdose, rested on a bench while Katie, our 8-year-old, who had been studying Picasso at school, stood taking careful notes. And to think I'd expected her to have the shortest attention span of the three of us.
The next day we drove for about 80 minutes towards the French border to the small town of Figueres, birthplace of surrealist Salvador Dali. Suitably unusual exhibits greeted us at the Dali Theatre-Museum, including a watery Cadillac, espadrilles on transparent walls and an installation in which a strategically positioned sofa, double fireplace and pair of paintings resolve into Mae West's lips, nose and eyes when viewed from between a faux camel's legs. Yes, really.
We'd hired our driver for six hours and with time still remaining, we took a detour to Gaudi's fantasy outdoor extravaganza, the multi-level Park Guell. Here, dragon hats were plonked on our heads and we were urged to have our photographs taken for a small fee.
We ate baguettes and icecreams on a terrace with a view across the hazy city to the Mediterranean before exploring more of Gaudi's mosaics, columns, spires and curvaceous benches. Afterwards it was a treat to peel away from the throngs of tourists and escape to the shiny black car still waiting at the entrance.
Where to stay: Panels of damask fabric trimmed with thick braiding lined the walls of our rooms at El Palace. A European breakfast of cheeses, cured meats and fresh-baked pastries among the palm fronds of El Jardin was a daily highlight.
Where to shop:
Passeig de Gracia: Wide, bustling and leafy, this is Barcelona's Champs-Elysees or Fifth Avenue. Here, too, is Gaudi's Casa Batllo with a facade evocative of a mythical creature.
El Rey de la Magia: This dimly lit and atmospheric store has been dispensing magical tricks and accessories since 1881.
Where to stroll:
La Rambla: The exuberant street theatre such as acrobats and mimes caught our attention as we took an evening stroll along Barcelona's most famous pedestrian boulevard lined with stalls and artists.
Where to eat:
De Tapa Madre: Our first course was a highly recommended combination of fried eggs on French fries with chorizo pate. To follow was a plate of impeccably grilled asparagus, then seafood paella served straight from the paella pan. Carrer de Mallorca, 301.
La Tramoia: The house speciality of coca bread with tomato and parmesan slices was an acquired taste but we approved of the croquettes, Spanish omelette, sautéed chorizo, fried calamari and white wine. Rambla Catalunya, 15.