Travel: The Most Dynamic City in Europe?

Spurred by the 1992 Olympics, Barcelona claims the title with an exuberant revival

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The daring part crops up in the kitschy surrealism of Salvador Dali; in the sensuous modernismo architecture of Catalonia's turn-of-the-centur y masters, * Antonio Gaudi and Lluis Domenech i Montaner; and in the explosion of contemporary design that has transformed the city's nightclubs and even furniture stores into tourist attractions. If Madrid was ever a city of soldiers and aristocrats, Barcelona is a metropolis of merchants and artisans. Its fame springs from monuments like Gaudi's Templo de la Sagrada Familia (Sacred Family Cathedral), with its stone-dripped spires and wildly ornamented facades. But it is less a city where one tramps from one guidebook attraction to another than a place that unfolds like a treasure hunt, revealing itself in small clues: rococo streetlights and curlicued ironwork balconies; a stained-glass peacock, an art nouveau marvel, nestled above the door of Escriba, a celestial chocolate shop; a Gaudi-designed sidewalk of blue-green pavement stones carved with sea creatures.

The discovered delights are more than visual. In the Boqueria, an open-air marketplace, five varieties of wild mushrooms are fried up for less than $5 at a simple lunch counter. The funicular to Tibidabo, Catalonia's answer to Coney Island, presents a panoramic view of the turquoise sea. Take in a concert at the flamboyant 1908 Palace of Music, with its lush mosaics and Wagnerian Valkyries. Pick up a souvenir at a street table staffed by separatist activists: a sticker of Snoopy hoisting the Catalan flag. (Wear it to the annual El Barca-Real Madrid soccer match -- and be prepared for a fistfight.)

In the summer, a visit to Barcelona can be steamy and is best punctuated with side trips to the ancient villages of the Pyrenees, with their Romanesque churches. In the fall, the city is at its cultural high season, with the Festival del Tardor, an international theater, dance and music extravaganza. Spain's best opera house, the gilded Liceo in Barcelona, features fine international singers, including homegrown stars Jose Carreras and Montserrat Caballe. No matter what the season, the traveler can feast at one of the fish restaurants of working-class Barcelona, its neon signs flashing and its laundry rippling from the balconies. Sadly, a new coastal-protection law threatens to shut down the parasoled beach tables, where you can enjoy paella while a barefoot, sad-eyed Gypsy girl plays a miniature accordion.

Barcelonans inevitably end their evenings with a stroll up the Ramblas, the ebullient boulevard where all classes, ages and ideologies flow in a restless human torrent. This populist Champs Elysees, a Felliniesque vision, is lined / with stalls selling flowers, parrots, canaries and turtles; newspaper kiosks with journals in eight languages; cafes dishing up snacks of fried squid and hard sausage; Gypsy fortune tellers, their tarot cards laid out on fold-up tables. On one street corner, Eduardo Mazo, an Argentine poet, has pasted his verse on billboards for more than a decade. "The Ramblas is the most magic mile in Europe," he says. "People begin at one end when they're tired of life. By the time they get to the other end, they're in love with life." And with Barcelona.

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