The port and the Rambla

Christopher Columbus, from his pedestal 50 meters above street level and one of the best-known monuments in Barcelona, points seawards forever with a gesture of stone. In a sense, Columbus personifies Barcelona’s own gesture of gratitude to the sea. For it was by sea that the founders of Barcino arrived, and by the sea that their descendants sailed out to make contact with other worlds.

A stroll along the shoreline of Barcelona serves to confirm that this link between city and sea today embraces the most diverse aspects of everyday life. Walking from south to north, visitors first discover the commercial port, with its silos and warehouses, exchanging merchandise and containers with the cargo ships. The port is surrounded by a breakwater, the city’s last bastion against the sea and today a favorite spot for fishermen, athletes, and lovers.

Going on northwards, now skirting the historical center of the city, we pass the Maritime Terminal from which passengers can embark for the Balearics and other Mediterranean or ocean-going destinations. Alongside the terminal, a winding passageway with a drawbridge – really an extension of the Rambla over the sea – brings strollers to Mare-magnum, a small leisure city set over the waters of the port. More than ten million people visit this floating complex every year, eager to explore its Aquarium, cinemas, shops, restaurants, and bars.

Our stroll along the Barcelona coastline continues northwards through the beautifully refurbished spaces around Barceloneta, a bustling barrio with narrow streets and a distinctive seafaring air. Next, come to the Olympic Village and its leisure port. This new residential area, originally built to house the visiting athletes at the 1992 Games, has become the most popular meeting point in the city, particularly during the spring and summer months. The Olympic Village, like Barceloneta, is lined by a series of beaches, of which there is a total of four kilometers in the city as a whole.

Now at our northernmost point where the great avenue Diagonal reaches the sea, we find the area remodeled to house Forum 2004, with its giant conference center, bathing area, immense square, and the Saint Adria leisure port.

But it’s back to Columbus again, or rather to his statue, to start the ascent of the Rambla. By tradition the favorite route of Barcelona residents in quest of the sea, the Rambla is also a beautiful and bustling emblem of this open city, a meeting point for cultures, races, and traditions.

For centuries, the Rambla was only the bed of the stream down which Barcelona drained its waters to the sea. Now it has been transformed into a public way shaded with luxuriant plane trees that mark the boundary between the Raval district and the Barri Gotic. With its wide central pedestrian way flanked by twin lanes for traffic, the Rambla is an explosion of life, punctuated along its length by kiosks stocked with newspapers, flowers, and pets. Widening out as it descends seawards, the Rambla attains its average width where it passes the Plaza Reial, a sunny urban square ornamented with porticoes and palm trees.

Our ascent up the Rambla takes us past assorted traditional cafes, terraces, long-established businesses with their Modernist decor and new souvenir shops, to another prime point of interest: the Gran Teatre del Liceu. The opera house is the setting for Barcelona’s famous operatic tradition, whose rival factions were once so passionately divided between Wagnerians and supporters of Verdi. Just opposite the Liceu is the mosaic created by the painter Joan Miro. A few doors further up a gap created by a new building project lets us glimpse a Gothic church, the Iglesia del Pi, which this architectural adaptation has almost drawn into the Rambla scene from its site in Ciutat Vella.

On the opposite pavement soars the intricate metallic structure of the Boqueria Market. The colors of the leaded glass and city coat of arms that crown its entranceway are only a foretaste of the explosion of color and vitality that awaits its customers under its domed roof. Fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, and shellfish all abound in their stalls.

Continuing up the Rambla, our way is now lined with flowers from its florists’ stalls until its highest point where it joins the Plaza de Catalunya. Along the full length of the promenade, peopled by its famous living statues (individuals with a highly original and somewhat passive concept of street entertainment) visitors will bump into neighbors, tourists, immigrants, churchgoers, picaresque characters who live on its margins, music lovers just out of the Liceu, poets, madmen, and people with quite simply nothing better to do. In the Rambla, a veritable concentrate of life itself, all the many faces of Humanity are on display.

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