Independent travel for independent minds

I’ve walked Las Rambla, but not with real intent… (MANIC STREET PREACHERS)

Capital of the autonomous Catalonia region, Barcelona is so self-consciously cool that it’s hard to imagine a time when this former textile town wasn’t on the European style map. But it wasn't until 1992 when The Olympics saw a massive injection of cash, huge redevelopment, and even the creation of a city beach. Fiercely independent, the Catalans are proud of their their heritage but they weren't always allowed to express it.

Speaking Catalan was banned under Franco, the Nou Camp soccer stadium was the only place locals could express themselves and, three decades later, this passion lives on. 30,000 turned up just to watch Thierry Henri sign on the dotted Barca line, and matches against the establishment's team Real (Royal) Madrid are always fiercely contested. Beaches and bars, sport and sunshine, art and architecture: Barcelona has it all. Forca Barca!

Stop Press! In summer 08 the Elephant bookstore was in the process of moving from its original location of 12 Creu dels Molers. With its cheap books and coffee, it was a an oasis of calm in the frenetic Catalan capital (don't count on a siesta here, the Catalans are known for their work ethic). The owner is an amiable North American and after a quick visit Bookpacking left with a cheap  “The Motorcycle Diaries” by global t-shirt star Che Guevara. There was also a bargain copy of Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu", though good intellectual intentions can go by the wayside when you see the size of it. When De Boton talked about “How Proust Can Change Your Life”, he presumably meant it completely swallows your leisure time. Apparently it loses something in the translation anyway...

ABOVE: La Boqueria on Las Rambla is a great place to sample local produce; climb the statue of Columbus; take a pension on Placa Reial; visit Gaudi's unfinished Sagrada Familia ©

They like the nightlife, they like to boogie. With the still slightly-shady vibe of Raval, the plastic glitz of Maremagnum, the gay-friendly Sitges' sophistication and student bolt-holes; you’ll be spoiled for choice.

Bookpacking likes to hang out in the bars behind Placa Reial. If you’re looking for kosher Catalan, a number of these bars are British-owned so you’re in the wrong place. But if you’re looking for a friendly welcome and a lovingly-crafted (Spanish-strength) mojito, step on in. If you’d visited Sub Rosa (21 Rauric, in the Barri Gotic) before June ’08, you’d have witnessed the bar-wizardry of Portland Oregon's exile Annie. Head down the narrow alleys and see who's filling those big bar-tending boots these days.

The superbly situated pension Bookpacking used to stay at, in Placa Reial, had jumped 25% in price in 08. As international stars allegedly drop the dollar, they're opting to be paid in the ever-stronger Euro. If you look around, you can still find a bargain, but bear in mind Barca can fill up. Alternatively, hostels are always a great place to meet people though for two of you a pension may actually work out cheaper.

Around town

A great way to spend a day is just to wonder the high narrow streets of the old town, you never know what’s around the corner. It may be a hidden treasure, like an obscure cafe or exhibition space – or equally it could be a teenager at full-pelt on a scooter. Barca, always full of surprises..

During the football/soccer season, take in a game at the impressive Nou Camp. Give yourself vertigo as you stare down the steep terraces, or a stiff neck as you crane round to take in the mountains behind.

When Las Rambla gets too much, check out the various museums and galleries around town. Picasso was a local(ish) boy and there’s a great museum of his work. The surrealist movement usually makes its legacy felt somew

Moving on
Take a ferry to Ibiza, or just up the coast is the Costa Brava - mucha bonita. The romantic ramparts of Tossa are a great spot for a nightcap or head up to the old town of Girona where Lance Armstrong used to have a training base. Scuba divers should check out the Medes Isles marine reserve while art lovers can visit the Dali Museum in his home town Figueres. South of Barca is Valencia, the 'new Barcelona', which plays host to the Benicassim music festival every year. Bulletin boards do say though that it's got less friendly as Brits do the sums and pass on Reading or Glastonbury to spend a week near the beach.

Pickpocketing is RIFE in Barcelona. Rife, we tells ya. It really does justify the capital letters. Bookpacking's been targeted, and seen it happen to others. Money belts may not be cool, but neither is losing your money. Watch out for bumping on the street or subway, and watch your back when you’re gawping at that mime on Las Rambla. Don’t get scared though – it’s all done by stealth – just get smart and you won’t be a sucker.

Essential reading
"Homage to Catalonia" – George Orwell's candid account of civil war chaos and Republican infighting

Every summer Spain and Portugal play host to a huge variety of festivals with great line-ups and competitive prices. Leeds or Lisbon for that Goldfrapp gig? Hmm...