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Walking historic Barcelona, Spain one step at a time

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Barcelona, Spain

People who like to walk will never be lonely in Barcelona. This city -- with its rich history, Roman ruins, Gothic cathedrals, Art Nouveau-inspired apartment buildings and hyper-modern hotels -- invites the closer look that you can get only on foot.

In fact, several of Barcelona's most popular neighborhoods are for pedestrians only. Cars often are off-limits -- or only grudgingly accommodated.

My favorite memories of other cities -- Paris, of course, and New York -- are made of the hours I spent on foot, stopping in front of every store window that caught my attention, following the winding streets to see where they led. So when I visited Barcelona for the first time in January, I decided to walk my way through it.

The Barcelona Office of Tourism makes exploring on foot easy, offering four guided walking tours that start at the Plaça de Catalunya, the large city square at the top of La Rambla, one of the most popular walking streets in town. I signed up for a tour (with an English-speaking guide) of the Barri Gòtic, the Gothic quarter that still has the flavor of its medieval roots. Some of the quarter's streets are named for the guilds that once flourished here, including bookbinders, sword makers and others.

But before I took the tour, I spent two days taking in La Rambla on my own. My hotel on Carrer Santa Ana was just off the concourse. The street comes to life around noon, and by 7 p.m., it's crowded with locals stopping on their way home to meet friends or do errands. (Cars are limited to narrow lanes on each side of the pedestrian mall.)

I noticed new things each time I wandered down La Rambla, with its magazine stands, flower stalls and bird cages filled with parakeets and canaries. I passed tapas bars serving eggplant frittata, salted almonds, shrimp in olive oil and potato salad.

Well-known pastry shop Escriba Patisseries is a haven for chocolate lovers. You almost can't miss the restaurant, at 83 La Rambla, housed in a Modernisme-style building, akin to French Art Nouveau architecture, and decorated with a green-and-violet floral pattern on the facade.

Halfway down La Rambla, heading from Plaça de Catalunya toward the seaport, is one of the most popular meeting places in the neighborhood, Mercat de la Boqueria, the local market. The food hall is cavernous, filled with restaurants, fresh produce, fish, meat and other local products, including almonds, figs, olives and ground spices. Even on a cold January day, I saw clementines, lady pears, fava beans, leeks and winter root vegetables in the stalls.

One stand specializes in organ meats, and the day I was there, I got a full view of a sheep's head and a cow's stomach, digestive tubes still attached, displayed among the tripe, pigs' feet, sweetbreads and brains.

At Pinotxo, one of the busiest of the market's restaurants, people stood three deep behind each of six or so stools and a counter, waiting their turn. With so many locals ready to pounce on the next available seat, I didn't enter the fray.

La Rambla is not only a social scene and a shopping district but also the city's unofficial performance space. Mimes and living sculptures add to the street-fair atmosphere, day and night. I saw white-face angels with shimmering wings, a cowboy painted gold and a monocyclist holding a skeleton and a red devil. Some hold their pose for so long that you wonder if they are made of wax. Then, someone takes a photograph or drops coins into the box and a wink or smile from the sculpture gives it away.

The old meets the new

All this was entertaining, but for me, the narrow side streets that wend from La Rambla into Barri Gòtic were far more appealing. So I signed up for a $23 walking tour of the neighborhood. At 10:30 a.m., I joined two tourists from Australia and three from England. Our guide, a Barcelona native who was fluent in English and the history of her city, gave us a generous two-hour tour.

Our group set out from the Plaça de Catalunya onto Avenida de la Portal de l'Angel, a walking street where tapas bars were tucked between clothing boutiques. Wearing the wide tile facade of a doctor's clinic, a shop called Happy Pills showcased spicy jelly beans in bins. Purchases were packed in medicine bottles.

We passed the remains of a Roman wall dating from the 4th century and on to the Gothic-style Holy Cross Cathedral, started in the 14th century and completed in the 19th. Palm trees rustle and geese roam in its interior courtyard.

Its tall, narrow spires recall the taller, narrower spires of the Sagrada Familia, a half-hour walk away. The church by architect Antonio Gaudí -- an icon of Modernisme architecture -- is still under construction, although Gaudí died in 1926.

When I first toured Gaudí's church, it seemed to have been created entirely out of his symbolist-laden imagination. But my tour of Holy Cross cast the Sagrada Família in a different light. Gaudí's design has similarities to the older cathedral -- tall spires, relief sculpture on the building's exterior, soaring interior spaces. It almost seems as though the two buildings are in conversation.

Our tour took us past a 15th century mansion that once was the home of the cathedral's archdeacon and held the city's archives. Many government buildings in the Barri Gòtic date from the 14th through the 17th centuries, and most include an interior courtyard with a beauty of its own -- a mossy fountain, a wall of colorful tiles, an arrangement of citrus trees in large stone pots, a modern window of tinted glass filling a Romanesque arch. Such design features give the buildings a contemporary feeling and bridge the centuries.

DARK HISTORY

Among the most stylish new buildings is Neri Hotel, which has a dark glass facade. It is hidden deep in the Barri Gòtic quarter, at St. Philip Neri Square, named for the church that dominates the small cobblestoned space. Coming upon it, our guide pointed out places on the church exterior where the stone had been blown away by a bomb during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Many children from the neighboring school were killed by the blast.

On the nearby Carrer de Marlet, the remains of a medieval Jewish synagogue recall another dark era in the city's history. The small, one-room structure is at the center of the Jewish Quarter. Jews were driven out of Spain during the Inquisition that began in the 15th century, after Christianity was made the country's official religion.

Some streets in the area are named for the artisans who once clustered there. Carrer l'Ibretaria was once lined with booksellers. Carrer de la Dagueria was filled with shops selling daggers and other weapons. Now, there are bookstores, bakeries, boutique jewelry shops, all of them inviting. Turn a corner and you enter the antiques area, with shops filled with dark wood furniture, landscape paintings, gold clocks and etched wine glasses.

The centuries of historic landmarks in the Barri Gòtic are updated by modern shops selling handmade chocolates, leather goods and other artful products made in Catalonia.

On my next visit, I want to take the Modernist Walking Tour, for a closer look at the architecture of Gaudí, Josep Puig i Cadafalch and others who helped make Barcelona a showplace of Modernisme. After that, there is the Picasso Walking Tour and then the Gourmet Tour. The city is worth at least that many return trips.

mary.rourke@latimes.com

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