By Julie Sheridan
Barcelona offers so much, from excellent cuisine to rockin’ parties to awesome architecture. It does not, however, offer up much ‘green’. If you know where to look you can find nature in Barcelona. Julie Sheridan shares tips on where to find trees, birds, and butterflies.
It may not be one of the biggest, but Barcelona is one of the most densely populated cities in Europe. Built on a lowland valley that’s encircled by rivers, sea and mountains, it can easily become a pent-up pressure house in the summer (which is roughly 10 months long).
Luckily, it has two main escape valves – the Mediterranean beaches and the green hill of Montjuïc. I live in what you could call the underskirts of Montjuïc, in the Poble Sec neighbourhood, and can often be seen escaping up the hill in search of, well frankly, a bit of bloody grass.
Pining for greenery
Because it has to be said, if there’s one thing that’s at a premium in this city, it’s grass. Having grown up in Glasgow (aka “dear green place” – you see the predicament) I have come to expect a certain amount of turf and topiary in my life. Throughout most of the city, there’s isn’t a blade of the green stuff in sight (Ciutadella Park is the notable exception, but the grass there is like week-old stubble, sprawled on by sunbathers and to top it all off, jaggy).
If you too are craving a little bit of nature, without doing anything as extreme as hiking Barcelona’s surrounding hills, the parks and gardens of Montjuïc are your best bet. Most of them were designed back in the 1920s for the International Exposition that was to take place, and then overhauled again in the run-up to the Olympics in 1992.
Don’t be fooled by Montjuïc, though. Its size is deceptively doable on the map, but it’s a very large area which has some brutal slopes for added calf kick. Here are some of the gardens I think are worth seeing if you’re tackling this Olympic mountain.
Bringing out the big guns – the Botanical Gardens
Languishing across the area between Montjuïc Castle and the Olympic Stadium, this garden has an interesting history. In a past life the area was a landfill site, and before that, a straggling shanty town known as Can Valero.
On my first visit, I have to admit I was slightly disappointed. This version of the city’s botanics only opened in 1999, and in fact, the official literature cautions visitors to have “patience and understanding” while the garden gets established.
It’s not that the 14-hectare site doesn’t have its fill of flora and fauna (it has over 2000 different types of plants) but, visiting in summer, everything had that desiccated, parched look about it. No surprise, when you consider that the garden’s main focus is Mediterranean – plants from Australia, Chile, California, South Africa and the actual Mediterranean region itself are all represented here.
Visiting for a second time, though, I saw the place through new eyes. In spring, I decided to ignore the main signposted route, and just took my time sauntering around the network of criss-crossing paths. I even took a picnic. There was much more colour, this time round, and most of all, utter peace and quiet.
If you decide to give Barcelona’s botanics a chance, I think you’ll enjoy it. Be aware that the site sits on a steep slope, but it is wheelchair-friendly. Feel free to hug a tree while you’re there, too. They’ll appreciate the love.
Opening times: daily from 10am to 6pm in the winter (October to March), till 7pm in April, May and September, and till 8pm in June, July and August. Closed Christmas and New Year’s Day (just when you want to walk off the hangover).
Cost: 3.50€ (but free every first Sunday of the month).
How to get there: buses 50, 55, 61 and 193.
The ‘cactus gardens’ – aka Jardins de Mossèn Costa i Llobera
Trust me, you’ve never seen anything like this. A thorn in the side of Montjuïc, these amazing gardens are tucked away on the edge of the mountain, overlooking the harbour. They’re considered to be one of the best cactus gardens in Europe, with an array of tropical and desert plant specimens that occasionally make you think you’ve walked onto the set of Alien.
The gardens were created back in the ‘60s by a Catalan cactologist (I know – try searching for that on Linkedin). Sheltered from the nippy north wind on the south-eastern side of Montjuïc, they possess a unique microclimate that plays home to some seriously spiky residents that wouldn’t survive elsewhere in the city.
I insist on taking friends and family to see the cacti whenever they’re over staying with me. The views over the Mediterranean sea are gorgeous, and there are plenty of benches where you can sit and take it all in. Just try to resist touching any of the cacti – you’ll be biting that splinter for weeks. Believe me.
Opening times: from 10am till dusk.
How to get there: you could catch the funicular from Parallel metro station, then walk along, or if you’re near the beach, jump on a cable car from Barceloneta to Miramar, on the edge of Montjuïc. Or on the buses: 50 and 193.
The Jardins de Laribal – smell the roses
Not many tourists make it here, but this might just be the best chill-out zone in Barcelona. Tucked behind the Joan Miró museum, these gardens are a series of interlinked glades and glens, punctuated by pergolas, terraces and the odd Moorish design feature reminiscent of the famous Alhambra in Granada. Think babbling brooks framed by bright ceramic stairways, classical statues amid manicured rose beds, and best of all, much-needed shade in the heat of the summer.
It’s a serene spot that I find myself automatically heading towards whenever the city heat becomes oppressive. Take a book and you can easily while away a few hours. Afterwards, make sure you check out the gardens of the Grec Theatre, beside its open-air amphitheatre, or call in for a drink at the Modernista-styled restaurant La Font de Gat.
- Opening times: opens at 10am all year round and shuts at 6pm in the winter (December, January & February), 7pm in March & November, 8pm in April & October and 9pm May to September.
- Cost: free!
- How to get there: our old friend the funicular from Parallel metro station, then a short walk.
About the writer: Julie Sheridan made the move to Barcelona from her native Scotland in spring 2011, after 10 years living under Scotch mist in Edinburgh. Out of an innate love of making things difficult for herself she deliberately chose a part of Spain where she knew no-one and couldn’t speak the local language. Her blog focuses on the social and cultural differences between Scotland and Spain, Caledonia and Catalonia. Find her blog at GuiriGirlinBarca.com and her ramblings on Twitter.