One of the world's most visited cities, Barcelona has a host of famous tourist sites, from the architectural gems of Antoni Gaudi to the city's ancient Gothic Quarter and impressive Picasso Museum. But beyond these mainstream attractions is a trove of comparatively overlooked places and experiences. From cruising the streets in a Ferrari to learning how to land sail, eating at a restaurant staffed by refugees, finding out how the city introduced chocolate to Europe, and being taught to make Gaudi mosaics, this is your alternative guide to Barcelona.
1. Piston-powered passion
Since I was a little boy I have wondered how I would feel at this exact moment. Now I'm sitting behind the wheel of a Ferrari, the answer has at last arrived – I'm nervous. Very nervous. Although I know this Ferrari California is insured, it's hard to feel comfortable when you're in charge of an Italian car that costs more than you make in a year.
Sensing my apprehension after a few minutes of hyper-cautious driving, my passenger tells me to "chill out and enjoy it", so I push my foot down on the accelerator and the Ferrari roars. As an employee of Drive Me Barcelona, this is just another day for him, supervising tourists as they take joyrides in luxury sports cars. For Dh360, tourists can take a 20-minute drive through the city in a Ferrari, Porsche, Lamborghini, Aston Martin or Tesla. There are also 40-minute (Dh700), 90-minute (Dh1,430) and six-hour (Dh3,070) options, the last of which lets you explore the surrounding majestic countryside.
My ride was only 40 minutes long, so I didn't venture out of the city. But the sensation of navigating a supercar up to Montjuic, a hill that looms above Barcelona, was exhilarating, intoxicating and unforgettable. The insurance provided by the company, coupled with the presence of an experienced instructor in the passenger seat, ensured that it was also a relatively low-stress experience.
2. Sailing across land
Barcelona's coastline is dotted with hundreds of yachts. But you don't expect to see one skidding across the ground at high speed in an empty car park, with a tourist strapped to it. Five minutes later, I witness that same person, an Englishman, smiling widely. He has got the hang of this yacht and is expertly negotiating a bend, sending gravel flying into the air. This man is taking a lesson in land sailing, a little-known mode of transport invented in China about 1,500 years ago, which has gained popularity as an adventure sport in Spain. A land sail is essentially a three-wheeled go-kart topped by a large sail. Its driver leans back and is strapped into the kart, which they control via pedals and handlebars.
As I learnt while dashing around, land-sailing is both thrilling and surprisingly safe. Because of their low centre of gravity, the karts are not only agile but also extremely stable. Even as I executed sharp turns, the kart stayed glued to the ground. These classes are run by one of Spain's biggest land-sailing clubs, LandSailing BCN, which offers one-hour lessons for €30 (Dh122).
3. Arranging all the pieces
Spanish architect Gaudi is the chief reason many tourists come to Barcelona. Visitors swarm to his most famous creations, which include La Sagrada Familia and Casa Batllo, both of which are embellished by trencadis, the style of mosaic he helped popularise in the late 1800s. By creatively arranging shards of glass or ceramics, trencadis artists create striking mosaics. Angelika Heinbach was so inspired by the work of Gaudi that she moved from Germany to Spain more than 20 years ago.
Now she runs daily trencadis workshops for tourists at Mosaiccos, her studio in Barcelona’s beautiful Gothic Quarter. Visitors gather around a large table, where they make basic mosaics under Heinbach’s guidance.
When I arrive at Mosaiccos, she gives me a brief rundown of the history of the artform and encourages me to "give it a try". Outside of photography, my artistic talents are woefully limited. Yet I quickly get the hang of this.
While there is obviously a great deal of complexity involved in professional works, it is a simple technique for beginners to try. I decorate a picture frame destined to be hung in my mother’s home. Slowly and deliberately I glue shard after shard to this frame until it looks colourful and unique. It is no Gaudi masterpiece, but, technically, it is art.
4. Resettling refugees
Plate after plate of sumptuous Spanish food is emerging from the kitchen at Mescladis, a relaxed open-air restaurant in the historic El Born district. Chunky vegetable burgers and spreads of tapas are placed in front of appreciative diners – an eclectic mix of tourists, businessmen and hip Barcelona folk.
The difference between this restaurant and its competitors is that Mescladis is helping to tackle Europe's refugee crisis. Mescladis is a non-profit organisation and its staff hail from countries such as Syria, Pakistan and Senegal. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have arrived in Europe since 2015 and, as well as accommodating these migrants, integrating them into their foreign environments has been a major challenge for Europe.
Addressing that latter issue was a core aim when Mescladis was established, says its founder, Martin Habiague. Habiague tells me that working at Mescladis provides refugees with a bridge between their old life and their new one. Mescladis offers three-month programmes during which employees are trained to become chefs or waiters, setting them up for careers in Barcelona's service industry. And not only is Mescladis a great cause, its food is mightily impressive.
5. A sweet origin
As I stand in the lobby, looking into a display cabinet, I almost start salivating. No substance in the world has the same power over me as chocolate. For as far back as my memory stretches, this sweet cocoa treat has seduced me. Now I’m in a building that is dedicated to the stuff.
This is not a chocolate shop, but a museum. You see, Barcelona is intrinsically linked to the treat, which had existed for more than 2,000 years before it first was introduced to Europe in 1520. Barcelona’s Chocolate Museum explains that, while it was invented in Central America, its European home is Spain.
Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes was the first person to introduce chocolate to Europe, via the port of Barcelona. He had discovered it while in Mexico, where it then existed only as a drink. This new, dark liquid quickly became popular across Spain, before spreading to the rest of Europe.
Back then, Barcelona was the European stronghold of chocolate. Not only was it the port from which it was shipped all over Europe, but it was also the place where the world’s first machine-made variety was manufactured in the 1780s.
While Switzerland and Belgium are now synonymous with the sweet, Spain wants the world to remember that chocolate’s European journey started right here, in Barcelona.