Tuesday, August 7, 2007

From the seaside to the hillside - Part 1 (Via Laietana)


Some of my favorite routes to follow in Barcelona extend from the seafront, where I live, to the hills that surround the city. There are several to choose from, but today I will write about the beginning of a journey I regularly take, and in fact took this past weekend, with a friend: from Barceloneta up to the hills and back.
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The first part of the journey goes from Barceloneta to Plaza Cataluña, and includes one of my favorite inner-city trajectories – traveling up Via Laietana. I initially started going this way to bypass the throngs of tourists that normally clog Las Ramblas. However, I quickly came to appreciate it for other reasons.
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Named after the Bronze age Laietani tribes that inhabited the region, Via Laietana is a straight road that was built in 1907 to cut through the old town and link the city's seaside with the growing neighborhood called the Extension (Ensanche in Spanish; Eixample in Catalan) dating from the latter half of the previous century.
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It is usually a very busy street, but with it's wide sidewalks, four lanes and proximity to so much history, it is a good one for a stroll or a bicycle ride. Via Laietnana is also anchored by two rather nice urban plazas: the airy Pl. Antonio Lopez at the end nearest the sea and the tree-lined Pl. Urquinaona near the city center.
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Pl. Antonio Lopez is across from what was once the city's port and is now a yacht basin. Here you will find the striking “Correos” building – Barcelona's main post office, which was erected in 1926/27. (On one side of this building is Que Bo, the great little sandwich shop I wrote of previously.)
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By simply walking around this square that stretches over two blocks, you can glimpse the medieval edges of the old town, structures from the 18th century, buildings from the years just before the Spanish civil war and one very bright spot from the late 20th century – Roy Liechtenstein's comic book colored “Barcelona Head” statue.
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On the other hand, Pl. Urquinaona is a more closed-in square with many shade trees, quite a few comfortable park benches and bordered by shops, cafes, restaurants as well as by multiple Metro station entrances. (The Metro station is also known as Urquinaona. The unusual sounding name is from an Andalusian who was bishop of Barcelona in the 1800s.)
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One of the interesting aspects of Via Laietana is its collection of early 20th century architecture -- mostly banks, government offices, guilds and other institutional buildings. The street offers a mix of styles: Art Nouveau / Modernist, Neo-Gothic, Rationalist, etc. This line up occasionally breaks open to reveal a little of Barcelona's Roman, Gothic and Medieval history just a few feet behind it.
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At least one pre-20th century building can be found on the avenue itself. This is “Casa de Veler” at number 50, which dates from 1758. Today it is the home of the Federación Nacional de Empresarios Textiles Sederos. (National Federation of Silk Textile Employers.)
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Right next to it, but not actually on Via Laietana, is the much more well known Palau de la Musica an incredible Art Nouveau structure dating from 1905. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a very popular tourist attraction and an actual concert hall.
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Back on Via Laietana, this time at number 80, you will find the impressive Caja de Pensiones building (pictured above), constructed in 1917. It looks rather cathedral-like, with it's white Neo-Gothic facade, but it is in fact home to Spain's most popular savings bank, La Caixa. A few other sites along the avenue include:
  • Pl. Antoni Maura, located at about numbers 37 and 42, is where Av. De la Catedral and Av. Francesc Cambo face each other. Despite being called “Avenues” these are actually two very spacious plazas. Av de la Catedral is the square where Barcelona's Cathedral stands; whereas Av. Francesc Cambo is a square holding a colorful and recently renovated public market, Santa Caterina;

  • Pl. Ramon Berenguer, at about number 29, has a recessed green area with a few benches tucked beneath a remnant of Barcelona's Roman wall;

  • Pl. del Angel, at about number 25, borders an ancient little street named Llibreteria, which was at one time the road that connected Barcelona and Rome.
Really, there is tons more to see on, and around, Via Laietana, so it is a great place to invest time in. Aside from all the sites and activities, it is also such a wide open street that it is a good vantage point to observe that Barcelona rises from the sea to the hills. The breadth, width and incline of the avenue combine with the grand looking architecture to provide pleasing views during a walk or a bike ride – whether it's just passing through, as I do when I head out on one of my jaunts up the into the hills, or for a more leisurely look at the obvious and not so obvious treasures along the way.
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Well, I haven't gotten very far -- not even past the city center! -- but soon I'll tell you about the rest of one of my favorite routes to the hills.

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