In Summer, Culture Heads Outdoors


Barcelona may be famous for its elegant and surrealistic architecture, but in summertime all the action is out of doors.

The city has its interior pleasures too, of course, but its museums take second place compared to the allure of its beaches, parks and neighborhoods adorned with Gaudi buildings. (Madrid, in contrast, is an indoor city the way New York is: its top sites are museums, and I once spent a half-hour vainly searching for a park — even just a shady bench — to enjoy a picnic lunch.)

Spaniards are famous night owls, and in summertime, when daylight stretches until 10 p.m. and heat lingers well into the wee hours, it can seem that Barcelona never really goes to sleep.

This was brought home to me recently when I vainly tried to turn in around midnight in the Raval, a once-sketchy but rapidly gentrifying quarter of the old city. It being the air conditioning-free Mediterranean, my windows were open, and a cascade of nocturnal activity echoed through the narrow alley.

“Habbibity-babbity-bobbity,” yammered a young man into his cell phone in a language I couldn’t understand, pacing relentlessly below my window. “OW-rowwwr!” yowled a pair of restless cats from the courtyard, over and over. “Frawk! Frawk! Frawk!” screeched a flock of seagulls overhead. SNAP! A firecracker went off in the plaza. The bass line was provided by the steady bobbling sound of a children’s soccer game.

Clearly, sleep was not in the cards. I got up and headed outside to mingle with the chattering midnight crowds, wondering what summer mysteries lay in store.

Much of the summer-night action takes place on Montjuic, the lush green mountain that looms over the city to the southwest. Montjuic literally means “hill of the Jews” and was once a Jewish burial ground; today, it is a breezy, panoramic escape from the central city, a park-like expanse dotted with tourist sites.

On Thursday through Sunday evening, crowds gather to watch one of Barcelona’s most singular spectacles: the Magic Fountains of Montjuic. Framed by the imposing steps of the Plaza Espanya, the fountains leap and twirl in brilliant colors against the night sky, while swelling music plays. The fountains have been a beloved, free summertime entertainment since the 1929 World’s Fair, when they were inaugurated along with the nearby Poble Espanyol.

This latter attraction was designed as a recreated historic Spanish pueblo depicting a pastiche of traditional village life. In summertime, it is also host to a concert series that — in an ironic twist on its original context — features a lineup of cutting-edge performers from around the globe. This summer’s entertainers include Mala Rodriguez with Calle 13, Andalusian hip-hop; the Kings of Convenience, a Norwegian folk duo; and the Brazilian singer-songwriter Ana Carolina.

The Fundacio Miro, a museum dedicated to the Catalan surrealist painter Joan Miro, is nearby on Montjuic and also offers a popular summer-evening series. This year’s “Nits de musica” mixes classical, jazz and improvisatory modern offerings.

Date-night couples and in-the-know visitors pack a picnic and head to the gardens at Montjuic Castle, where open-air films and concerts take place all summer long. Movies — ranging this year from classic Spanish and French films of the 1960s to modern American and Israeli releases, including “Waltz with Bashir” — are shown on Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings. A busy concert schedule features Brazil’s Luna Cohen Trio, the Cuban rhythms of Palosanto 3.0, and Cargole, a traditional flamenco group. All performances are just five euros, about $6.50 at current exchange rates and a bargain by any standard.

The Festival Grec (“Greek Festival” in Catalan) sponsors summer-evening entertainment at various venues around the city, including at the neoclassical amphitheater known as the Teatre Grec. World-renowned Jordi Savall, a Catalan local known for his performances of period music with the group Hesperion XXI, will perform a concert inspired by musical Istanbul of the 17th century, including Sephardic and Armenian selections and works from the Ottoman court. Later this month, the amphitheater will host the dancer Eva Yerbabuena in “Lluvia” and the Cadaques Chamber Ensemble in “Poemes de amor – El amor brujo,” a spectacle of Spanish classical music.

Culture is not the only outdoor draw in Barcelona, naturally. Many enjoy Montjuic simply for its shady parks and stunning hilltop views over the city to the wide blue Mediterranean.

In the central city is the Parc de la Ciutadella, more commonly referred to as simply Ciutadella. Located just north of the beach, this verdant expanse boasts fabulously landscaped gardens, bench-lined promenades, a pond where you can rent a canoe and a magnificent, gilded fountain at its north end that looks like it was lifted out of Versailles. Well into the sunlit summer evening, circles of Catalan hippies strum guitars and smoke suspicious herbs under the dark-green orange trees.

Arguably less exotic species are to be found at the south end of the park in the Barcelona Zoo, a pricey entertainment (about $22) that is nonetheless great fun if children are along.

All in all, really, there’s little reason to sleep. As one Spanish waiter once explained to me: “Dormiremos cuando estemos muertos” (“We’ll sleep when we’re dead”).