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  Unlike many monumental European cities, the Catalan capital's charm lies in a sum of many small parts. You could fall in love with the city over an encounter with the mélange of street performers along the famous boulevard Les Ramblas or at your first close encounter with a fanciful work of the master architect Antoni Gaudí. It could be the fact that fine city beaches, splendid Gothic palaces, elegant green parkland, cutting edge cafes, and sophisticated shopping are all within arm's length in this compact metropolis and its inherent easygoing nature means that as much time can be spent on chilling as cultural pursuits. It could be the fact that Barcelona are truly distinct from the rest of Spain and therefore many pre-conceptions of what it will be like give way to the discovery of a language, landscape, and people you may have known little about.

  Over the centuries the Catalan people have clung fiercely to their culture, which General Francisco Franco systematically and often brutally tried to eradicate. Catalonia endured, becoming an autonomous region of Spain in which Catalan culture and language flourishes. Barcelona, the region's lodestar, has truly come into its own. In 2003 nearly four million visitors came to the city, many on charter flights from Northern Europe. The explosion of low-cost, Internet airlines, plus the good value at hotels and restaurants compared to other European cities, has made Barcelona the European weekender capital. Many come to party, some to soak up the unbeatable Mediterranean climate and most find the time to see a few of its outstanding cultural and architectural offerings.

  The city's most powerful monuments open a window onto its history: the intricately carved edifices of the Barri Gòtic, the most intact Gothic Quarter in Europe; the florid, curvilinear modernisme , the seminal works of Picasso and Miró, plus daring new projects from national and international names of the ilk of Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, and Toyo Ito, Barcelona is a crucial incubator for 20th-century art and architecture. Gastronomy is another regional plus; led by Ferran Adrià, a chef whom Time listed as one of the 100 most influential people in the world today, "New Catalan Cuisine" has even been hailed by the French as the next great culinary wave. In 2004 six restaurants in the region received the coveted Michelin star.

  Barcelona is on the doorstep of some of Europe's great playgrounds and vacation retreats. The Balearic Islands lie to the east, the Costa Brava to the north, the monastery at Montserrat to the west, and to the south, the Roman city of Tarragona, and the playground resort of Sitges.

  A revitalized Barcelona welcomed thousands of visitors to the 1992 Summer Olympic Games, but the action didn't end when the last medal was handed out. With a culturally savvy local government, the city has become a model for intelligent development. On any weekend, as locals enjoy a new park or promenade, an outdoor concert or fiesta, it is clear that this proud population has an enduring love affair with their city. Of course the downside of all this progress is that the sound of the jackhammer is never far off. But the Barcelonese believe that while the past must be respected, the future is to be embraced.


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