James Leavey's Corner
A Cigar With The Catalans

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by James Leavey, editor, The FOREST Guide to Smoking in London
and The FOREST Guide to Smoking in Scotland

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James Leavey
When you arrive off the plane in Barcelona, Spain's most cosmopolitan city, you will find yourself besieged with Catalan images for this is also the capital of Catalutta, a region that has its own language, distinctive history and character.

Barcelona is not only a city of two cultures - Spanish and Catalan - it is also, like most places, yet another battleground of smokers versus anti-smokers.The bad news is that Iberia has banned smoking on all of its aircraft, and most of the city's museums and galleries are smoke-free.The good news is that the Catalans are more relaxed about smoking than many other Europeans, and virtually all of the city's bars, most of its restaurants, airport, train station, smaller shops and hotels will still allow you to light up freely.

That said, things do change, so if you're uncertain of the places in Barcelona where you, a Cigar smoker, would be welcome to puff away in peace, it's best to double-check when booking reservations.Even better, ask for up-the-minute advice from one of the city's cigar shops, such as Spain's premier cigar emporium, Gimeno, which is still run by the charming family who first opened it for business in 1920 at Rambla de les Flors 100 (tel: 0034 93 302 09 83 fax: 0034 93 318 49 47).

Smokers have in recent years grown accustomed to the doorways they are usually banished to.If you are forced to smoke outdoors, you won't get tired of the view, as Barcelona is one of the most dynamic and exciting cities on the western Mediterranean seaboard - equalled, some say, only by Marseille and Naples.

For centuries, Barcelona played second fiddle to Madrid, until it suddenly shot into the limelight with the success of the 1992 Olympic Games.A few billion pesetos transformed the city's decrepit docklands into a new playground that combines chic, ultra-modern parks with miles of golden sand. Over the last few years, you just had to turn your back and yet another architectural stunner lifted its head to the Mediterranean sun.

While you're out there, admiring the scenery, you're unlikely to miss the crazy exuberance of Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926), who personifies a movement in architecture known as the Modernistas (the bulk of whose work was done from the 1880s to about 1910).In Britain, we knew this style as Art Nouveau.

There are about 2,000 buildings in Barcelona and throughout Catalunya that display at least some Modernista traces.A good place to study the subject in Barcelona is the area known as L'Eixample.

The Catalan inhabitants of the second Spanish city after Madrid, are to the Spanish what the Scots are to the English.And some say they share the Scots' reputation for miseriness - which the all-too generous inhabitants of Barcelona really don't deserve.

If you like fine seafood and good wine, you're in for a treat. A good place to sample Catalan cuisine - some of Spain's best - is the Palau de Mar in Port Vell, where on a fine day you can sit and smoke at a table outside one of its many restaurants while gentle sea breezes waft in from the harbour. And if you feel like celebrating your arrival in the city with a Cigar and a bottle of nice bubbly, do try cava, the local version of champagne.

We don't know if cava was tasted in 1895 by the then 14-year-old Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) who had just arrived in Barcelona, where (with Catalunya) his unique artistic style was formed.Judging from his great surreal paintings, he certainly drank something potent. For years, Picasso painted and smoked (usually cigarettes, although it is believed he enjoyed the occasional cigar, when he could afford it) in Barcelona.His near contemporary, Joan Miro (1893-1983) was born in the Barri Gotic area of the city - and spent a third of his life in his home-town.

There's far too much of Barcelona to list here but one of the liveliest places to wander and smoke is the colourful boulevard that runs from the Placa de Catalunya down to the port, lined with newspaper and book stands, and interspersed with bird and flower stalls.Thriving commerce is centred in one of the side streets, the Portaferrissa, with its many fashionable shops and boutiques. Theatres, cinemas, bars, restaurants, banks and hotels abound in this area known as Las Ramblas - described as one of the most beautiful places in the Mediterranean by George Orwell in his book, 'Homage to Catalonia'.En route to the port, you will see buildings of great architectural value such as the Betlem church, and the 18th century Palau Moja - where the city's cultural department is based and exhibitions are held.

A little further down from the traditional street market, popularly known as La Boqueria, you will find the multicoloured cobbled pavement designed by Joan Miro.On its right stands the newly reconstructured opera house, the Gran Teatre del Liceu.Following on, pavement bars and restaurants full of cigar smokers flank the central strip of the boulevard.On the street, Nou de la Rambla, stands Gaudi's magnificent Palau Guell, which remained unfinished at his death.

As you near the Mediterranean, you come across the 17th century Santa Monica Convent, restored to hold art exhibitions.Nearby is the Wax Museum, where you definitely aren't free to light up, for obvious reasons!

And on and on, for at times there seem to be no end to the attractions this dual city can unexpectedly throw in the way of the casual visitor, whether he or she is enjoying a smoke, or not.

One thing's certain, you're unlikely to get bored in gloriously revitalised Barcelona.

Recommended reading:

The best guide to the city I have found is Barcelona by Damien Simonis (recently published by Lonely Planet £9.99, who also publish an excellent, down-to-earth Spanish Phrasebook - an absolute bargain at £3.99 - look for their excellent website)

Copyright James Leavey, 2000.All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Author.


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