THERE is something wonderfully cinematic about cycling in Europe. Think: Guido, Dora and Joshua in La Vita è Bella, the entire Von Trapp clan in The Sound Of Music, and Catherine and her two loves in Jules et Jim. And for the purposes of seeing Barcelona – hemmed in between the Balearic Sea and the Serra de Collserola mountain range one way, and the Besós and Llobregat rivers the other – in just one weekend, it’s well worth the satisfying burn in your thighs and the bicycle’s inexpensive rental fee. Add to that Barcelona’s mostly flat terrain and a bike network of around 200km, and this is a city that was built to be explored on two wheels.
Visitors can go it alone from the start and navigate with routeyou or barcelonamap360, or they can get a feel of the place with the help of a local expert as part of a guided bicycle tour. For the purpose of experiencing the real Barcelona – I figure I can find the big sightseeing landmarks on my own, but not, perhaps, a food and flower market favoured by the locals – I choose Steel Donkey Bike Tours. It touts itself as ‘the definitive alternative guide to Barcelona’ and then goes on to prove it with an immersive, laid-back and off-the-beaten-track pedal through the Catalonian capital’s side streets and on to its wide avenues.
Indeed, a Steel Donkey guide is told to choose the routes they’d take a friend on, making them not your average tourist fare. Edu, our guide, leads us (a small group of four) on a circular course, which starts with being kitted out with a sturdy three-gear bicycle at Green Bikes, five minutes from the beachfront and just around the corner from the Central Post Office building – a seemingly unassuming government institution you just have to see the inside of.
Skirting the Gothic Quarter we make our way northwest, stopping at points of interest along the way, and before long we’re leaving the Old City and the road opens out in L’Eixample (Catalan for “wider part”), a district known for both its Modernista architecture and grid-like geometric street blocks with corner cut-offs (the work of progressive 19th-century urban planner Ildefons Cerdá). While there, make sure you turn your handlebars in the direction of Passeig de Gracia, one of the most architecturally important avenues in the city.
Before looping back, we stop at Mercat de La Concepció and, locking up our bikes outside, fan out on foot in search of lunch. You can’t go wrong with a simple sandwich (buy a roll from the bakery and take it to one of the vendors selling a selection of salted meats – ask nicely and they’ll even make it up for you, olive oil and all), washed down with one of the freshly pressed tropical fruit juices the markets in Barcelona do so well.
Because Steel Donkey always explores in small groups, it enables its guides to engage with you. As way of conversation I mention that I make my own nut butters, so Edu takes us on a quick detour, stopping under Passeig de Picasso’s arches at Jaime J. Renobell, a family business founded in 1945 that specialises in legumes and nuts. (Now privy to the location of this denizens’ delight, I cycle back the next day to buy over 4kg of cashews, hazel nuts and pine nuts.) From nearby Parc de la Ciutadella it’s on to the esplanade, which is absolutely one of the most fulfilling places to cycle – I don’t fight the urge to do the “no hands, no feet” coasting and instantly feel like a carefree teenager.
“Whenever I’ve travelled, I’ve always had the best time when I’ve had a friend to show me around,” says Steel Donkey’s founder Duncan Rhodes. ‘But not everyone has a friend in Barcelona and that’s where we can help.’ Aside from Steel Donkey, Rhodes has also set up Tapas And Beers, three alternative tours (without a bicycle this time) to share the best of Barcelona’s unique gastronomy and nightlife – it’s a truly ingenious way to experience a place while simultaneously making connections with others.
A two-minute walk from Urquinaona subway station, Yurbban Trafalgar is a hip and upscale 56-room hotel with an impressive rooftop bar and pool – and a strong emphasis on local. Housed in a former textile factory, it’s nine minutes from the Museu Picasso and 25 minutes from Sagrada Família – although quicker if you take advantage of Yurbban’s complimentary loaner bike service (book ahead to ensure availability of its slick urban Finna bicycles). It’s also a short stroll to Parc de la Ciutadella and L’Umbracle (a 17th-century brick and wood tropical shade house that’s a must-see for any urban-jungle enthusiasts), the Arc de Triomf and, just beyond it, the beachfront.
Upon arrival, a friendly bow-tied twenty-something swiftly checks me in before settling into the ritual of pouring me a vermouth from a nearby drinks cart. I sip it as I’m elevated to the seventh floor and my room with its wall-to-wall window, from where I have an aerial view of Barcelona living and breathing.
Yurbban’s decor draws on clean lines, atmospheric lighting and brass details, the work of interior designer Raquel Sogorb, whose former clients include Barcelona’s Mishima Sushi Bar and Restaurante Pan Comido. On the walls, unique custom-made mounted fabric pooch heads – bespectacled and wearing jaunty hats or neckerchiefs – from local crafters, Softheads, hang, signalling a sense of humour echoed by the building’s signage (“Do not use this lift. Only for authorised personnel. And Billy Murray” and “Do not disturb. Unless you’re the woman or man of my dreams”).
Downstairs, I get my fill of Catalonian flavours each morning at breakfast – a buffet of regional cheeses and meats, local pastries, yoghurts, jams and hot dishes of tortilla Española (Spanish omelette) and pa amb tomàquet (bread with tomato) – illustrated table placemats even provide step-by-step instructions on how to prepare this simple yet delicious bread rubbed with tomato, olive oil and salt. Upstairs, meanwhile, is where I go for cocktails and a 360-degree bird’s-eye view at the Roof Top Terrace Pool & Bar.
With both Steel Donkey and Tapas And Beers it’s about having a friend in a new city, for Yurbban it’s a family. After a weekend at the hotel, I’m checking out but spending the night at a nearby Airbnb apartment before my flight the next day – boy, am I going to miss Yurbban’s Catalan breakfasts, decor-magazine-worthy style and its panoramic vistas. “Can I still come and sit by your rooftop pool?” I ask. “Of course, this is your Barcelona home now.” Done.
by Natalie Egling
Yurbban: Doubles from €120, room only, Carrer de Trafalgar 30, +34 932 680727
Proceeds from reservations (January to June 2016) will go towards helping the children of the Taiga School of Special Education
Steel Donkey: €35 per person
Tapas And Beers: from €25 per person