Travel: Acquired taste of eco España in Barcelona

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Barcelona has added a green flavour to its famous attractions of exotic architecture and tapas culture

THERE is something about the headquarters of Spanish state gas company Gas Natural in the La Barceloneta district of the Catalonian capital which looks surprisingly familiar to a Scot.

The landscaping outside the towering, mirrored structure features small pools edged with bare concrete. Although on a smaller scale, the pools closely resemble the ponds outside the Scottish Parliament – and that’s no wonder, because both buildings were designed by late Catalan architect Enric Miralles.

But unlike our parliament, Miralles’ last building (he died before either was completed), attracted little controversy. It is located a few kilometres outside Barcelona’s historic Old Town, close to the port area, and is popular. Its unusual shape, creating a unique landmark in an otherwise low-rise area, has caused little consternation among residents.

We have travelled there effortlessly by electronic bike, which is essentially cycling for lazy people like me. With every turn of the pedals, the battery gives the bike a satisfying electronic whoosh, propelling the rider faster, even uphill.

The first few minutes on the super speedy cycle are daunting: over-zealous pedalling, even at the “eco” speed setting, sends me frighteningly close to the nearest wall, kerb or tourist wandering the streets of the Gothic Old Town. But once we are out of the main pedestrianised historic centre, its benefits are amazing, giving even the least physically active of visitors a chance to tour the city by bike.

Barcelona has just 1.6 million residents but now receives around nine million tourists every year – five times the number of 20 years ago. As a result, it is trying to encourage visitors to look beyond the typical tourist sites such as the still-unfinished Sagrada Familia – the Antoni Gaudi-designed church, started in 1882, which is not due to be completed for at least another ten years – to ease the congestion on the city streets.

Indeed, Barcelona, despite its historic architecture, is a very modern city, focusing heavily on sustainability and smart technology to make life easy for its residents. Parking spaces come with a sensor which allows drivers to work out from an app where their nearest free berth is – a bid to keep cars from unnecessarily driving round in circles; street lights on a main square automatically dim and brighten depending on the light; and rubbish bins also come with sensors, making sure that refuse collectors do not make unnecessary trips.

Embracing sustainable tourism in Barcelona is not a hardship and venturing out of the three-square-mile pedestrianised centre is not a disappointment. The city’s two-mile boardwalk beach area, created for the Barcelona Olympic Games in 1992, is busy with locals and holidaymakers enjoying a walk, cycle or scoot along the shore lined with beach cafés and restaurants. Created after bulldozing ugly industrial buildings along the waterfront built by a disgruntled General Franco – who wasn’t keen on Catalonia for its resistance during the Spanish Civil War – the area is now thriving. As we pass, one artistic busker has created Barcelona’s only finished version of the Sagrada Familia out of sand on the edge of the beach.

The next day brings a Segway tour – an entertainment in itself and another steep learning curve in avoiding Spanish pedestrians – which allows us to explore La Barceloneta further. Later, we are shuttled a world away to Mas Salagrós, about 30km outside Barcelona, which is a new eco hotel nestled in a national park close to the historic village of Vallromanes. The former family home of owner Carlos Cascante, the hotel offers rustic luxury to guests wanting to get away from it all in tiny bungalows overlooking the stunning Serralada hills. Boasting a state of the art thermal spa, part-operated by luxury spa company Aire, including a red wine bath for those really wanting to channel their inner ancient Roman, everything is eco-friendly, down to the mattresses on the beds, which have been selected to meet stringent organic criteria.

Continuing the theme of luxury family living, on the outskirts of Barcelona, another Gaudi building is tucked away behind high garden walls – one of only a handful of private homes built by the renowned architect. For many years acting as what was possibly the world’s most quirky maternity hospital, Bellesguard house has only recently opened its doors to the public. The family who own it still live in a private part of the building. The Moorish entrance hall and dragon-inspired roof is far more intimate and memorable than the giant Sagrada Familia or other buildings on the Gaudi tourist trail, such as La Pedrera. Climbing the steps to the roof for a view over the city, our guide tells us that these homes would have been built as retreats for wealthy families who spent the week in their city crash pad and retired to the leafy suburbs at weekends.

That night, meeting outside the pretty post office building at the dead of night, we are sworn to secrecy before we embark on our tapas tour, created for us by a tour guide, who navigates the Gothic Quarter’s streets in search of the city’s best food. Any publicity, he says, would spoil the atmosphere of the bars, filling them with tourists and changing the authentic ambience. But the cat’s out the bag to judge by our first destination, which is packed with diners spilling out on to the streets from the tiny pavement café, keen to sample treats such as pescadito frito (fried fish) – one of only four dishes on the menu, which remains exactly the same as when La Plata (oops, it slipped out) was founded in 1945. Considering this bar has been named the best tapas joint in Barcelona by a leading Spanish newspaper and is said to be a favourite haunt of Goodbye Lenin actor Daniel Brühl, I don’t feel too guilty about revealing its name to you. Yet despite its fame, it has not lost its authentic atmosphere.

While enjoying our tapas, the man who grows the tomatoes for La Plata’s excellent tomato salad wanders in, takes a seat at the bar and has an excited conversation with anyone who will listen. Daniel and the newspaper are right: it is the best.

The other two bars on our tour, don’t hold a candle to La Plata. Yet the delicious fried green peppers, a Russian roulette of spiciness, are welcome as we sit down at a table in the busy dining room of a more formal joint. The patatas bravas are different to the usual chain tapas bar fare and all the more delicious for their lack of overpowering tomato flavours, replaced, instead by a delicate mayonnaise. Next stop and we are faced with plates of delicious hams and cheeses, plus baskets of excellent bread.

Barcelona has certainly earned its reputation for top class gastronomy – and richly deserves wider recognition for hi-tech tourism. n