Parc de la Ciutadella is perfect for winding down. Come for a stroll, a picnic, a boat ride on the lake or to inspect Catalonia’s parliament in what is the most central green lung in the city.
After the War of the Spanish Succession, Felipe V razed a swath of La Ribera to build a huge fortress (La Ciutadella), designed to keep watch over Barcelona. It became a symbol of everything Catalans hated about Madrid and the Bourbon kings, and was later used as a political prison. Only in 1869 did the central government allow its demolition, after which the site was turned into a park and used for the Universal Exhibition of 1888.
The monumental cascada (waterfall) near the Passeig de Pujades park entrance, created between 1875 and 1881 by Josep Fontserè with the help of an enthusiastic young Gaudí, is a dramatic combination of statuary, rugged rocks, greenery and thundering water – all of it perfectly artificial. Nearby you can hire a rowing boat to paddle about in the small lake.
To the southeast, in what might be seen as an exercise in black humour, the fort’s former arsenal now houses the Parlament de Catalunya. You can join free guided tours, in Catalan and Spanish only, on Saturdays and Sundays. The building is only open for independent visiting on 11 September from 10am to 7pm. On show to the public are the sweeping Escala d’Honor (Stairway of Honour) and the several solemn halls that lead to the Saló de Sessions, the semicircular auditorium where parliament sits. In the lily pond at the centre of the garden in front of the building is a statue of a seemingly heartbroken woman, Desconsol (Distress; 1907), by Josep Llimona.
The Passeig de Picasso side of the park is lined with several buildings constructed for, or just before, the Universal Exhibition. The medieval-looking caprice at the top end is the most engaging. Known as the Castell dels Tres Dragons, it long housed the Museu de Zoologia, which has since moved to the Fòrum area and is now known as the Museu Blau. Domènech i Montaner put the ‘castle’s’ trimmings on a pioneering steel frame. The coats of arms are all invented and the whole building exudes a teasing, playful air. It was used as a cafe-restaurant during the Universal Exhibition.
To the south is L’Hivernacle, an elaborate greenhouse. Next come the former Museu de Geologia and L'Umbracle, a palm house. On Passeig de Picasso itself is Antoni Tàpies’ typically impenetrable Homenatge a Picasso. Water runs down the panes of a glass box full of bits of old furniture and steel girders.
Northwest of the park, Passeig de Lluís Companys is capped by the Modernista Arc de Triomf, designed by Josep Vilaseca as the principal exhibition entrance, with unusual Mudéjar-style brickwork. Josep Llimona did the main reliefs. Just what the triumph was eludes us, especially since the exhibition itself was a commercial failure. It is perhaps best thought of as a bricks-and-mortar embodiment of the city’s general fin de siècle feel-good factor.