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Barcelona is really interesting city. On the surface it looks like a big, sprawling, modern Spanish city that has lots in common with Madrid, Valencia or Seville. But carefully scratch the surface and lots of hidden complexity comes into view.

The Spanish civil war casts a very long, silent shadow over the city. At the very centre of the battle between the government and the rebels, Barcelona wears its history quite lightly but it doesn’t take much for it’s passion and militancy to reach the surface. Wandering around the city recently on a book club trip, we embarked on an unofficial civil war walking tour that took in some of the key civil war locations in Barcelona. In truth, there is very little to see seventy years later. Where the socialist rebel headquarters once stood, there is now an Apple store and although the hotel that Orwell stayed at is still intact, the Ramblas it overlooks is a transformed from what it was in the thirties.

Barcelona is right at the centre of the debate for Catalonia independence from Spain. Proud Catalonians have fought for independence for many years and the recent Scottish independence vote in the UK was followed more closely by the Catalan media than in our country at first. The weekend we visited, there was an historic meeting of every mayor in Catalonia signing a memorandum backing the right to vote for independence. Feelings were running high with a noisy demonstration followed by a more stately and civilised official event. Time will tell if Catalonia gets its independence, but Spain eyes the economic powerhouse cautiously.

Manic tourist streets make way for tranquil passageways that, in turn, lead to peaceful squares. Cafes beckon and cool beers are sipped in frosted glasses. Shuttered windows silently survey the blissfully dark streets, designed to take the sting out of the fierce Catalonian summers. Cobbled streets and tiled hallways speak of the city’s history, the ever-present graffiti reminding the visitor it’s actually 2014.

In stark contrast is the museum of modern art. Angular and modernist the building sits alongside pan tiled rooftops and ancient battlements, seamlessly integrated into the fabric of the city. The collections are wilfully obscure and eclectic, challenging, constantly pushing the boundaries of acceptance. Whilst skateboarders noisily take advantage of the plaza outside, gallery visitors amble the airy walkways in an oasis of artistic nonsense.

Gaudi’s spectacularly unfinished magnum opus, La Sagrada Familia sits oddly in a residential district on the outskirts of the city like the unfinished remnant of an alien civilisation. It’s hands down the weirdest and most remarkable piece of architecture I’ve ever seen and never fails to move me. Gaudi died in the 1930s and his masterpiece is still far from finished, but testament to his wild imagination and feverish vision. The final touch will surely be an elaborate gold leaf kitchen sink on the highest spire.

But ultimately Barcelona charms. Its sheer scale dictates a district-led approach but if you stay around the gothic quarter as we did, you will be well served with masses of tapas or pixo options and cool bars on every back street. The city rewards the patient and serendipitous traveller; try not to plan too much and Barcelona will show you a completely different side.

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