One city stands as Spain’s political, economic and geographic centre, the other with a more laidback, youthful focus, so which should you visit, Madrid or Barcelona?
I assume Messi loves Barcelona while Ronaldo punches his weight behind Madrid, their fondness obviously arising from their respective association with the two celebrated Spanish football clubs, Barcelona FC and Real Madrid.
However, when in Spain it’s not difficult to spot other points of rivalry between the nation’s two most visited destinations. Foremost is perhaps the cry from Barcelonans for separation of their state, Catalonia, from Spain. The capital Madrid hates this idea and as a result some ideological differentiation has been exploding between the two cities. For example, there’s no more bull fighting in Barcelona because it’s now thought to be brutal, but in Madrid it continues in full swing as a part of age-old Spanish tradition
Each of the two cities claim to be the ‘best destination’ in Spain. However, as a first time visitor, I stay neutral and stamp both as equally appealing, each having their own urban character and historical, architectural and contemporary charms to clutch visitors in their grips.
Tucked between the Collserola Hills and Mediterranean Sea, Barcelona represents a patchwork of characteristic districts, narrating the story of its evolution from a medieval maritime hub to the 19th century extensions and today’s high energy borough set up.
Being a history enthusiast, I start my Barcelona odyssey at Barri Gotic, or the Gothic Quarter, which is the medieval nucleus of Barcelona. This area inside the Old Town is a labyrinth of paved squares and twisted streets lined with several pivotal buildings, the most significant being the mighty Barcelona Cathedral, a blend of Gothic and Romanesque design. Its construction began in 1298 on the foundations of a Roman temple and Moorish mosque reminding modern generations that the Romans and the Muslims earlier marked their footsteps in Barcelona.
So too did the Jews, who were also occupying parts of the Old Town, Antiga Sinagoga being their most notable living landmark. Edging the Gothic Quarter is La Rambla, the city’s most illustrious thoroughfare. Densely packed with restaurants, cafes and bars, this kilometre-long, tree-lined avenue is a dawn-to-dusk frenzy of human activity.
Barcelona claims to have Europe’s greatest collection of Art Nouveau buildings dating from the early 19th century. Many of them were designed by prodigious Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi whose distinctive style is branded by freedom of shape, riot of colour and texture. A cluster of his creations in Barcelona are World Heritage listed, most visited among them being Palau Güell, Casa Mila, Casa Batlló and La Sagrada Familia, a monumental church whose construction continues to this day since it was commenced in 1883.
If there is time to see just one thing in Barcelona, it has to be this towering building, deemed Gaudi’s most fabled concept, based on the traditions of Gothic and Byzantine cathedrals. His design calls for a total of 18 spires, some of which are still under construction. They are supposed to represent Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Four Evangelists and the Twelve Apostles. When complete in 2026, this band of spires will represent a unique addition to the skyline vista of Barcelona. The cathedral’s interior, which is almost complete, reflects innovative use of light to bequeath the architecture with eloquence and grandeur. Gaudi died of a tragic accident in 1926 and his body is buried inside the crypt, so that he remains for time eternal with his distinguished formation.
If La Sagrada Familia ranks at the top of any Barcelona itinerary, then Museo Nacional del Prado aptly qualifies for a similar ranking in Madrid. According to art gurus, it fits in the same bracket as the Louvre in Paris and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, all of them being a treasure trove of extraordinary art and sculpture. Housed in a vast neoclassical edifice, the Prado embraces art from the 12th to 20th centuries and exhibits the world’s largest collection of Spanish works. Its distinct feature is the display of the collections of former Spanish monarchs which reflect the taste and political alliances of the royalty during 15th to 17th century. Many visit here to see the works of Francisco de Goya, the most eminent Spanish court painter, whose best creations were completed as a part of his official duties. Several of his masterpieces, like the Naked Maja and the Clothed Maja, are housed in this museum. While the Prado presents Spanish art, there are museums in Barcelona, such as the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, that showcase mostly Catalan art.
The Spanish capital since 1619, Madrid is engraved with many imperial emblems, with the 18th century Royal Palace being the biggest crowd puller. Many of its 3000 rooms are open to the public to witness the opulent lifestyle of monarchs like King Charles II & IV and King Alfonso XIV.
Like La Rambla in Barcelona, the medieval quarter of Puerta del Sol is the where the heart of Madrid has been racing for centuries. The area is filled with churches, monasteries and government buildings, recent additions being hordes of restaurants, cafes, bars, boutique shops and other outlets visitors look for, like money changers and mobile phone suppliers. It’s close to the expansive Plaza Mayor, a paved square which began life in the 15th century as a market place and then a venue for bullfights, carnivals and important ceremonies of imperial Madrid. A statue of 17th century monarch Phillip III stands at its centre. The square today is an important hub of social gatherings and is surrounded by some of Madrid’s best restaurants; Los Galayos, serving authentic Spanish cuisine since 1894, being one of them.
The biggest similarity between Barcelona and Madrid is their passion for football. Though tapas, paella and flamenco are other contributors to harmony, none are possibly as strong as the world game. Both Camp Nou and Santiago Bernabéu Stadiums, the homes of Barcelona FC and Real Madrid, are pilgrimage sites for football fans irrespective of their city of origin. If their clubs are not playing, these fans have no hesitation in uniting to stand behind the Spanish national team during any international game.
Getting There: Qatar Airways (www.qatarairways.com) have regular flights from Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth to both Barcelona and Madrid, with a high speed train connection between the two cities.
Stay: Hotel Catalonia Barcelona Plaza (en.cataloniabcnplaza.com) and Hotel NH Madrid Eurobuilding (www.nh-hotels.com) are conveniently located and well serviced.
Day Trip from Barcelona: Tucked at a mountainous location 40km away from Barcelona, Montserrat is a basilica and monastery where pilgrims storm to see the Black Virgin.
Day Trip from Madrid: Dotted 72km from Madrid is the former imperial city of Toledo, still deemed the nation’s regal and cultural epicentre.
Entertainment: Tablao Villa Rosa (www.tablaoflamencovillarosa.com) in Madrid presents an excellent dinner and flamenco show package.
More Info: Spanish Tourism Board (www.spain.info)