Leigh & I spent the week in Barcelona a month or so back and is my wont (the Project is occupying all my writing time these days), I’ve only just managed to get round to writing about it.

Our pension was right at the top of La Rambla, Barcelona’s main pedestrian drag. On our first night we took a left down La Rambla and walked halfway down it to Plaça Reial, a square formed by colonnaded arcades, furnished with some Modernista lampposts (Gaudí’s first commission, as it turned out) and lined with open air cafés. We found a table, ordered a couple of beers and sat down to watch the endless flow of people as they crossed the square. There were a few study-looking metal chairs scattered about, apparently in lieu of the benches you might otherwise expect to find in a place like this, and most of them were occupied by homeless people looking for somewhere for a surreptitious pull on something alcoholic. One chair just across from our table, though, bore a youngish guy wearing jeans and a T-shirt. He was out for the count, head thrown back and mouth open in a drunken stupor.

After a while, he woke up and stood up unsteadily. A waiter from the nearest café asked him how he was, and satisfied that he wasn’t about to kick off, left him alone. Then, in front of the many, many people enjoying an al fresco drink in the square that night, the wobbly drunk guy stuck his hand down his trousers and had a wank.

This was unexpected.

Finished, and presumably satisfied, he lurched off down the nearest street leading off the square. We left shortly after that too, heading home in the opposite direction.

* * *

Each day followed the same relaxing template (although drunken wankers were mercifully absent from the days to come): we’d have a coffee in a café just down La Rambla, do a bit of touristy wandering, have a late lunch then a siesta and finally head back out for drinks and dinner. The city was packed with tourists but also, if you ventured off the beaten track a little, a lively place in itself. By comparison, Edinburgh seems quiet and reserved away from Princes Street and the Royal Mile.

We went, as I believe is legally required on any visit to Barcelona, to la Sagrada Família. I was prepared to be underwhelmed; I’m not an art nouveau kind of chap, and anything hyped up to this degree, I thought, whether a building, painting or sculpture, is surely bound to disappoint.

I was wrong. The studied insanity of this building is breathtaking to behold: if any modern building is capable of causing Stendhal syndrome in a visitor, then this is it. You enter through the precisely fluted arches of the ‘Passion’ façade, and this entire aspect of the church defined by a sort of CSG explosion of hyperbolic curves, planes and polygonal surfaces. The idea that Gaudí could have designed, drafted and supervised the construction of these intersecting shapes before the advent of computer modelling is almost inconceivable. This façade also has a pyramidal arrangement of the Stations of the Cross, with angular, anguished figures by Josep Maria Subirachs depicting various episodes from Christ’s final journey to Golgotha and the crucifixion. There’s an almost cheery figure of Christ ascendant perched jauntily on a lofty crossmember between the façade’s two central towers; I read that the sculptures provoked controversy upon their installation, and I can’t help but wonder if the spectre of the recently deceased Son of God apparently having a gay old time up there had a little to do with it.

The interior is restrained by comparison, but it’s still an amazing display of detail and scale. Each of the walls reflects the style of the corresponding façade, so that the ‘Passion’ wall is all straight lines and regular curves, while the opposite wall has a much more traditional feel to it. Pass through its doors and you look up to see the ‘Nativity’ façade, where Gaudí took your common or garden Neo-Gothic cathedral and melted it. It’s astonishing to behold — I hesitate to say that I liked it, but it’s certainly a spectacle and a half — with traditional statues perched on ledges reminiscent of frozen rivuelts of molten candle wax. The was the first façade to be completed, back in 1930, and they’re already having to conserve it even though the building won’t be finished until around 2026.

Gaudí only ever drew rough sketches of the third, final and largest ‘Glory’ façade. Reproductions of his drawings are on show in the museum in the bowels of the church where his workshop used to be, and I am happy to report that the ‘Glory’ façade will be just as monumentally bonkers as the first two. If you only ever see one thing in Barcelona, go to la Sagrada Família. It’s both awesome and fantastic, in the literal senses of the words.

* * *

One blazing hot day later in the week we walked down to the port to visit the Museum of the History of Catalunya, set in an old warehouse on the waterfront. There’s an amazing amount of stuff crammed in there — maybe a little too much, in fact — and it could easily occupy an entire day. As it was, we ate a late lunch at a little café nearby on one of the squares which pepper the city and then headed back for a siesta.

In the evening it was out again for dinner. We had a couple of exorbitant drinks at a disappointingly dull basement bar called Les Gens Qui J’aime in L’Eixample, the upmarket area just north of the Barri Gòtic, and were, to be frank, a bit pissed off about it. Happily, the restaurant we eventually ate at later that night erased any ill feeling: Tapaç 24 is the best place I’ve eaten at in ages. It was bright and bustling, with a nifty typographic menu listing traditional tapas elevated just a little out of the ordinary either by great preparation or careful tweaking of an otherwise standard recipe. We ate mussels, a McFoie burger (this is what it sounds like, and what it sounds like is awesome), lentil and chorizo stew and a ‘bikini’, or croque monsieur, with truffle oil. We finished with xocolata — chocolate truffles served with olive oil and salt. I’m salivating even now as I write about it. The night was saved, and in spectacular style.

* * *

The rest of our time was spent in other similarly enjoyable pottering, eating and drinking. We took the train to the ancient Roman colony of Tarragona and spent an afternoon exploring the ruins; we ate a luxurious meal (and paid for it!) in the fin de siècle surroundings of Los Caracoles, or “The Snails”; we visited the Barcelona History Museum for more Roman’ around subterranean excavations; we sat fully clothed and out of place on the scorching sands of the beach, and we drank beers while the other tourists around us struggled with their absinthe, water and sugar cubes in Marsella, one of Hemingway’s favourite Barcelona hangouts. Leigh continued to awe me with her compendious knowledge of anything remotely historical, and through it all, of course, Ally G periodically popped up in his capacity of knowledgeable expat to show us around and provide much excellent chat.

After spending nine days there I couldn’t help but entertain the (entirely fastastical) notion of buggering off there to lead the dissolute life of a writer in exile. It was a great holiday!