Vigour, February 2015

CITY ZONE: BARCELONA

The scintillating Catalan capital is the ‘Rio of the Med’, a playground for fitness and adventure. By Duncan Craig

The vibe…Barcelona has undergone a dramatic renaissance in recent decades. People who knew the Catalan capital back in the 1970s and 1980s recall a dingy, inward-looking port city with a grim stretch of seafront and a penchant for the illicit. Active? Forget about it. Losing weight then meant having your wallet nicked. The catalyst for change was the 1992 Olympics. We recall it for Linford Christie and Sally Gunnell tearing up the track, for Derek Redmond’s anguished use of performance-enhancing dads. But for the innately dynamic Barcelonians, this was the moment when they discovered their identity, burst out of the blocks, head held high. The city kicked open the shutters, let the light of the ocean in, and set about recasting itself as the Rio of the Med, a playground for the energetic, the healthy and the beautiful. Today, neatly hemmed by mountain and water, it has a vibrancy that stretches way beyond the gleaming “trencadis” mosaics of Gaudi’s coveted monuments and the city’s growing stable of world-renowned restaurants. A visit to the city takes on the form of a health break whether you like it or not. You see the relentless buzz of activity, the toned bodies roller-bladeing, jogging, cycling, shopping, carousing and stretched out on the sand, you feel the energising, enabling sunshine on your back… and you think, “tell me again – why we don’t live here?”

Residents, sporting sons…Lionel Messi may be about as Catalan as Vigour’s gran, but don’t you dare suggest he’s anything other than homegrown. The impish maestro perfectly embodies the Catalans as they see themselves: unconventional, bursting with brio, a class above. In Barcelona, football is all. Another diminutive sporting giant claimed by the city is Kilian Jornet. The Catalan trail-runner, record-setter and all-round mountain goat learned his trade in the mountains of the region and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to test yourself on an incline or two as well (see below).

Where to stay…The competition is stiff (this is a city with seemingly as many memorable hotels as tapas blends), but the Pulitzer (hotelpulitzer.es) wins the prize. It’s perfectly situated: on the bank of the river of humanity that is Las Ramblas; a short cycle from the open-all-hours beachfront; and a couple of stops on the slick, air-conditioned metro system from the buzzy centre around Passeig de Gracia. It’s not out-and-out athletic – the Brompton fold-away bicycles available to borrow at reception set the tone in this regard. But it’s as fresh as a post-sauna shower, and carries off that tricky blend of stylish and informal with aplomb. The rampantly bucolic rooftop bar is one of the city’s best.

Healthy nosh…Vigour doesn’t hang out in too many vegan/veggie restaurants, it must be said. Call us narrow-minded, but the perception of sandals, lentils and fevered discussions about tofu consistency is just too deeply ingrained. Rasoterra (rasoterra.cat), an effortlessly cool and welcoming bistro hidden away on Calle Palau in the historic El Gotic quarter, rides a (locally sourced) horse and carriage through such lazy prejudices, however. Many of the dishes are as energising as they are creative – from eggplant laden with pistachios, to pappardelle with red pepper pesto and almonds. The atmosphere is lively and informal rather than earnest, the staff seemingly popping the same happy pills utilised by Pret, and the portions are substantial enough to leave even the most flesh-ripping, hairy-chested carnivore mopping their brow.

Kick back…If you’re one of those people who likes to earn their indulgence, then Carmel bunker is the place for you. Named after the steeply sloping neighbourhood over which it presides, this is a crude military fortification dating from the Spanish Civil War with peerless views. The climb, a steady but unrelenting uphill walk from Carmel metro, will take the best part of 25 minutes, and works as a natural deterrent for all but the most determined. Grab a chilled bottle of cava on the way, and then find a spot on the bare concrete to recline and soak up the gently anarchic vibe: musicians strumming away on guitars; separatists espousing the cause of Catalan independence; the unmistakeable waft of a questionable substance or two. If you’re more of a Panama cigar than hand-rolled smoke type of person, you’ll need to be heading to any one of a dozen excellent rooftop bars in the city centre for your reclining time. Hotel Majestic (hotelmajestic.es) and Grand Hotel Central (grandhotelcentral.com) are good starting points. Relax – but pretty soon, if we know you, you’ll be getting restless…

Leg stretch…Cycle tours – yes, we know. Hardly the sexiest proposition. Awkward, clunky, a tiny bit mucky… and that’s just the guide’s oven-ready patter. Not so with Steel Donkeys (steeldonkeybiketours.com), a company that prides itself on doing things differently. Every tour is themed, devised and led by a local, and unashamedly meandering. It’s unlikely you’ll accomplish everything you set out to, but you also won’t end up chafed, bored or disillusioned. Most tours take in the beachfront promenade at some stage, and sitting back on your fat-seated, green Steel Donkey and cruising along this endlessly glistening shoreline, you could almost be in Venice Beach. Deviate inland and allow your guide to take you on one of many dozens of historical, culinary or cultural tangents.

Break sweat…Barcelona is quite simply one of the best running cities in the world (and Vigour has sloped off to many a cultural city break with our trainers, believe us). Climate, terrain, views. It’s all here. Pull on your sneakers and set off in any direction and you won’t go far wrong. Tracing the shoreline should be your opening salvo, stopping only to bash out a few squat-thrusts and pull-ups in the city’s answer to Muscle Beach (just up from Frank Gehry’s giant metallic fish). Aim high for day two – Montjuic hill, site of the 1992 Olympic Games. The torch has long since been extinguished (remember that wayward archer?), and the crowds departed, but the aura remains. Don’t overdo it, because day three should be your biggie: a 90-minute seafront to mountain-top extravaganza. Depart from the fish and head due west up any of the chaotic, canyon-like main streets of the grid. As the incline kicks in, the urban sprawl will start to dissipate, and soon you’ll find yourself in the foothills of Mount Tibidabo, which is striped with an assortment of forested tracks and pebble pathways. Run up past the quaint delights of the historic Tibidabo Amusement Park, and you’ll eventually reach the steps of the Sagrat Cor church, its outline familiar from the distant silhouette that has presided over your stay in Barcelona thus far. Rocky finale? Why not…

Races, festivals, events…Did someone mention festivals? The Catalans, as if you didn’t know it, live for the stuff. From folk-dancing knees-ups to religious pageants, the calendar pulsates, twirls and usually encases itself in papier-mache at some point. Watch out for September’s Festes de la Merce (barcelona-tourist-guide.com) with its enormous figures (or “gegants”) of fishermen, kings and mythical beings. And the equally dizzying castels – human towers that form from hundreds of participants like some cartoon prison break. The more conventionally athletic calendar is arguably even more breathless, with 10ks ten a penny. Mark your diary with June 21: this is the Garmin Barcelona Triathlon (garminbarcelonatriathlon.com), with Javier Gomez – bete noir of the Brownlee brothers – riding a tide of home support.

Make it happen…British Airways (britishairways.com) offers three-day breaks in Barcelona, including flights and accommodation