Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 21, 2017
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Playing in Barcelona

Bring the kids and explore the exuberant culture of Spain’s second-largest city

Barcelona is a sultry, sophisticated metropolis: the kind of place where dinner is served at 10PM and dancing goes on til daybreak. So you'd be forgiven for thinking of it as an adult destination. Nevertheless, kids needn’t feel left out of the loop — at least during daylight hours.

Blessed with a rich history, accessible art, and architecture so outlandish it could make Dr. Seuss blush, this city promises junior travellers an entertaining entrée into European culture.

Surreal appeal

No one is more strongly identified with Barcelona’s (barcelonaturisme.com) distinctive brand of Catalonian cool than 19th-century architect Antoni Gaudí, and even tots whose interest in buildings usually stops at Cinderella’s Castle will be dazzled by his creations — chief among them being the Sagrada Família (sagradafamilia.cat; adults $18, students 10 to 18 $15, under 10 free).

The Church of the Sacred Family is impossible to miss either literally or figuratively. Crowned with eight slender towers, each more than 100 metres tall, the city’s unofficial symbol is on track to become the world’s largest basilica when completed in 2030.

Yet it’s style as much as sheer size that sets this landmark apart. Flamboyant, fantastical, phantasmagoric: a thesaurus full of synonyms can’t adequately describe the eye-popping visual appeal.

Inside is a forest comprised of massive granite pillars which branch out and sprout futuristic-looking leaves; outside two finished facades have New Testament tales surreally rendered in stone. An English audio guide aimed at six- to 12-year-olds describes the structures and their symbolism in understandable terms.

It doesn’t really matter, though, if younger children know the difference between an apse and a transept: considering this has been an active construction site since 1882, there is sufficient machinery to hold the interest of any Bob the Builder fan. Nor will it matter if they’re clueless when it comes to Christian iconography: there are enough carved doves, turtles, frogs and such to keep a game of “I Spy” going for hours.

Further Gaudí-esque flourishes can be observed a short walk away at Casa Milà (www.lapedreraeducacio.org; adults $15, students 13 to 25 $9, under 13 free): a vintage apartment block whose curvaceous exterior graces countless postcards. Kids will find the interior equally intriguing. A fourth-floor museum, recreating a bourgeois flat circa 1912, boasts all the “latest” amenities (including a gramophone and electric lights), plus a nursery bulging with period paraphernalia.

Then there’s the pieza de resistencia: a terraced roof topped with giant chimney pots that alternately resemble soft-serve ice cream cones and menacing Pez dispensers.

Burn some energy: Follow the lead of local families by relaxing at Gaudí’s Parc Güell. After checking out the Hobbit-ish buildings by the main gate and mugging for the camera in front of the whimsical salamander fountain, your crew can play tag in the open plaza as you kick back on the wavy trencadís benches surrounding it. (They’re comfy despite being decorated with bits of broken tile!) Beyond the plaza, three kilometres of shady hilltop trails beckon.

Art even a kid can love

When Gaudí was laying foundations at Sagrada Família, Pablo Picasso was busy shaking the foundations of the art world. The famed artist spent his formative years here and has a museum devoted him. What may catch you off guard is the uncharacteristically staid facade of the Museu Picasso (www.museupicasso.bcn.es; adults $13.50, students 16 to 25 $9; under 16 free) which seems more in keeping with a Spanish master like Velazquez, who pre-dated Picasso by three centuries. However, that's actually quite fitting. After all, Picasso once quipped “at 15, I painted like Velazquez... it took me 80 years to paint like a child,” and the object of the museum is to trace his trajectory.

Creative kids can’t help but be inspired by the early works that make up the bulk of the collection. (Who knew a teen could paint so proficiently?) The galleries are arranged chronologically; allowing children to follow Picasso’s evolving style from the imitative to the avant-garde, culminating in those signature portraits with aggressive angles and multiple noses which solidified his reputation.

Of course, Picasso wasn’t this city’s only innovative artist. The presence of Joan Miró is keenly felt too. Strolling the Ramblas (the city’s lively pedestrian promenade), you walk right across a circular mosaic he designed; and it’s easy to spot the ceramic-studded statue that rises 22 metres above a park bearing his name.

Another 14,000 paintings, sculptures, tapestries and ceramics are displayed atop Montjuïc Hill at Fundació Joan Miró (fundaciomiro-bcn.org; adults $12.75, students 15 to 30 $9, under 15 free). Whereas the average grownup approaches the bright, irreverent works with a quizzically cocked head, young visitors embrace Miró’s use of primary colours and shapes. Most are also left giggling by his titles: the favourite being a toss up between Man and Woman in Front of a Pile of Excrement and Hair Pursued by Two Planets.

Burn some energy: Barcelona is one of those rare cities where you can tick art ogling and beach bumming off the list simultaneously because a fine collection of work, much of it commissioned for the 1992 Summer Olympics, lines the revitalized waterfront. Installations with kid appeal include Roy Lichtenstein's Cap de Barcelona (a dotty 20-metre-high head), Frank Gehry's Fish (an undulating mass of copper mesh), and Javier Mariscal’s Gambrinus (a large cartoonish lobster).

High on history

Gaudí, Picasso, Miró and their forward-thinking friends redefined this city to such a degree that some sightseers forget Barcelona was a thriving centre long before the Modernists left their mark. The multi-venue Museu d’Història (www.museuhistoria.bcn.es; adults $9, students 16 to 25 $6, under 16 free) rectifies that. It occupies several buildings in the heart of the Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter). The complex is entered via a 16th-century merchant’s mansion, where an elevator acts as time machine, whisking riders back over 2000 years as it descends to Roman-era Barcino.

Local excavators accidentally unearthed the ruins in the 1930s. Now carefully preserved, they are the highlight of a subterranean archeological site which extends for about half a hectare beneath the plaça. And since you can spy the remains of homes, baths, shops, sewers, even a fish-salting factory while traversing its suspended glass walkways, only an ounce of imagination is needed to picture what life was like here in ancient times.

You re-emerge through another historic building, Palau Reial Major: the very palace where Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand welcomed Columbus upon his return from the New World in 1493. Replicas of the explorer’s three ships are, incidentally, on view nearby in the Museu Marítim (www.mmb.cat; adults $3.75, students 7 to 25 $1.75, under 7 free) along with a miniaturized version of the 15th-century port he triumphantly sailed into.

There’s an impressive selection of navigational instruments, figureheads and maps as well, some dating back 600 years. The showstopper, though, is the full-scale reconstruction of Juan de Austria: a lavishly decorated galley that is 60-metres long and banked by 59 oars, each designed to accommodate four hulking rowers.

More than just handsome, the original vessel — built on the premises in 1568 when the Maritime Museum still functioned as the royal shipyard — was clearly fearsome. In fact, as the Holy League’s flagship in the Battle of Lepanto, it’s credited with saving Christian Europe from an Ottoman invasion. And coming aboard today you can witness virtual flashes of the action courtesy of monitors mounted on deck.

Burn some energy: Play the old-fashioned way at Sky Walk (www.tibidabo.es; adults $16.50, children 90-119 cm tall $10.50, under 90 cm free). Opened in 1901, this section of the popular Tibidabo amusement park has classic rides: among them kiddy planes, a carousel and panoramic Ferris wheel. After taking a spin you can watch a film on park history; then visit an onsite automaton museum filled with antique fortune-telling machines and other slightly creepy carnival fixtures.

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