The running of a marathon disrupts the scenic start of a Mediterranean odyssey, writes Catherine Masters.

In Barcelona, the Zurich Marathon is under way, which brings a crazy carnival atmosphere to the streets of the stylish Spanish city jam-packed with Unesco World Heritage Sites.

It's also a Sunday morning in the Catalonian capital, which means nearly all the shops are closed and as we depart the Viking Star cruise ship on Day One of our Mediterranean Odyssey, the big leafy avenues are empty of tourists, although there are plenty of locals out walking apartment dogs in smart little jackets.

Thousands descend on the city for the annual 42km run, named for its sponsor, and you could hardly get a more scenic route. The city is so full of remarkable buildings that in 1999 the Royal Institute of British Architects awarded its gold medal, usually reserved for individuals or groups, to the entire city of Barcelona.

The runners, who come from around the world, go past some of the world's most famous architecture. No architect is more famous in Barcelona than Antoni Gaudi, said to have "shaped the soul" of the city and who infused his work with the patterns of nature.


He wasn't overly appreciated in his day and we learn that his college professor described him as either a genius or a madman.

The runners pass such masterpieces as the Sagrada Familia basilica, where pillars resemble tree trunks, and the curved Casa Mila, said to be designed to look like an open stone quarry.

Unfortunately for us, the marathon means parts of the city are taped off and we can't get as close as we would like to some of the buildings on our bus and walking tour. It seems that down each long alleyway you get a peek at the runners.

The Viking Star cruise ship.
The Viking Star cruise ship.

Our guide, appropriately named Montserrat after the rocky mountain range that is the dramatic backdrop to Barcelona - and which is also a site of pilgrimage where you can view the Black Madonna - points out the restaurant that a young Picasso used to frequent.

Montserrat is also the name of the famous opera singer, Montserrat Caballe ("I wish I had her voice", says our Montserrat) who dueted with Freddie Mercury on the rousing song Barcelona. YouTube it, it's fantastic.

The song became iconic when Barcelona hosted the 1992 Olympic Games and Montserrat says it is still played in the city.

Barcelona began as a Roman city in the third century BC, and in the heart of the city we are told we are standing above the ruins. Underneath us a sprawling, ancient city stretches out: you can glimpse it through ground-level windows.

We visit the remains of the Temple D'August where the Emperor Augustus worshipped, and the Royal Palace with the Torre de Marti, the tower of King Martin. Montserrat said the monarch built upwards to improve his health because the air down below was not too good in medieval times.


A little further on it is quiet inside the gothic Barcelona Cathedral as the marathon cranks up outside, the streets thickening with spectators. Sunday mass is under way in the church and we listen to hymns sung in Catalan.

Back outside, however, the bustle of Barcelona is now in full swing. Tourists stand around with their selfie sticks and there are beggars dotted around the church.

The women, dressed in black, implore and wail and stretch out their hands, as does a man without legs.

I give them some money, although some say not to give to the beggars, said to be gypsies from Romania. It's hard to walk by the grimaced faces and haunting cries of "por favor, por favor" (please, please).

There are flamenco-playing buskers and David Bowie's Space Oddity blares out alongside a band of trumpet and clarinet players, all competing with the drummers and loud cheering welcoming the runners who go by close enough to touch, sweat dripping down their faces.

We don't wait for the end of the marathon because back on board the Viking Star it's time for a slap-up lunch, and, besides, we're off to France tomorrow.


Demand for the Viking Star's Mediterranean Odyssey is heavy but places are available on the Iconic Western Mediterranean, an eight-day ocean cruise from Barcelona to Rome. Prices start from about $4300pp in a Deluxe Veranda room, departing January 11 from Barcelona. Save $1088 per couple if booked before June 30.