Travel: Barcelona’s unusual character 

Crowded, historic, working-class neighbourhoods reflect Catalonians’ love of food and life in the city

"Food is very, very important to us," says Josep Romero, our guide on a gourmet tour of Barcelona's historic quarter.

A middle-aged man with a pronounced limp, Romero grew up in the narrow passageways of this centuries-old Barri Gothic. And he approaches his neighbourhood as though it were a rural village.

Crossing over the Rambla, the popular pedestrian stroll that bisects the inner city, and entering the Raval, an infamous enclave of poverty and crime that is now acquiring a kind of gritty chic, Romero points out that many of the businesses remain unchanged.

There's a dry goods store, circa 1950s. And an unpretentious grocery stocking all the basics, from olive oil through pasta to polenta. The nougat shop - the Spanish love this nutty confection - opened, says its sign, in 1820. And down every passage, only wide enough for a couple of people to negotiate, and lamp-lit at night, are hole-in-the-wall bars and cafes serving tapas and cava, the sparkling wine consumed here in copious quantities.

"You don't need a car to move around," says Romero. "I don't own a car. You come out of your flat and you find everything here - the bar, the pharmacy, the bakery." And if that isn't enough, a few metres away sprawls one of the largest fresh produce markets in Europe, in a vaulted steel and glass structure known as La Boqueria.

So, here is a (potential) world without cars. In August the heat is almost unbearable says Romero (he prefers winter), and the drug abuse, prostitution and all-round desperation of the Raval is still visible. But some of the urban principles are sound; there's a lot about this crowded, largely working-class inner city that's hugely attractive.

Barcelona owes a great deal to architect-artist Antonio Gaudi (pronounced "Gow-dy"). Born to a poor copper craftsman in rural Tarragona in 1852 and educated in Barcelona, Gaudi showed an early proclivity for design, craft and unbridled creativity that drew on a reverence for nature. Nature, that is, rooted in a religiosity that, in later life, evolved into a conservative Catholicism that put him at odds with many of his professional peers and left-leaning Catalonians. He was an unusual character.

There's nothing like his masterpiece Casa Battlo, looking like an apartment building for well-heeled hobbits. Drawing on Art Nouveau principles then gaining popularity - this was 1904-06 - the façade, facing onto an upscale boulevard, is an entirely successful hodge-podge of features that resemble - maybe - a giant, scaly lizard or lovely carnival masks. Inside it's all shapely woodwork, convoluted wrought iron and hand-shaped and painted tiles. Everything moves or is fluid - and bathed in abundant colour and natural light. Even a soft breeze. Gaudi designed cutting-edge ventilation systems of curvaceous wood that waft cool air through this gorgeous dwelling.

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