06 Sep 5 Wild Sides of Barcelona, Spain: Green Spaces in Urban Places
Standing in the thick of central Barcelona, the Ramblas to my left and Passeig de Gracia to my right, I became lost in the shapes of nature. Before me towered Antonio Gaudi’s Casa Batlló, perhaps Europe’s most original residential building. Its sweeping, curvaceous roof arched like a gecko’s spine, and the checkered sea blue, grape, and emerald roof tiles created a scaly texture. The building’s wall looked as if someone had torn off a piece of the Milky Way and inlaid it there: My eyes followed the speckled mosaic pieces as they swirled orange, aqua, violet, pea green, and mustard yellow. Balconies that at once looked like ocean waves, fairy lamps, and dragon faces guarded the residents inside from the world below.
As much as Gaudi was considered a modernist (and eccentric) architect, his inspiration was nature: her forms, textures, colors, and organic contours. This seemed a perfect tribute from the Catalan artist who made his home in Barcelona, a city situated in the rich natural confluence of sea, mountains, rivers, and forests. Where these geographical features pause, rolling, vineyard-covered hills abound. Within the city proper, many flora and fauna reflect these diverse geographies, including European bee-eaters, peregrine falcons, Iberian water frogs, and wild boar.
Finding nature in Barcelona is easy. It surrounds a visitor on all sides and it reflects the wealth of both Mediterranean and Pyrenean influences. The challenge is deciding where to go first. To get you started, here are five of the best ways to tap into the wilds of Barcelona.
Head to Montjuic
One of the best vistas of all of Barcelona is from the rising hill of Montjuic, which casts its gaze over the city and sea from the southwest. Once a medieval Jewish cemetery, Montjuic later served as the site of the 1929 World’s Fair and the 1992 Summer Olympics.
Museums, theaters, and clubs occupy buildings from both historic moments. Around them are walking paths, forested terrain and gardens growing tropical, desert, or aquatic plants. A native Mediterranean woodland with cypress, pine, and occasional palm trees also holds root here.
Montjuic is a great place to walk softly and quietly, keeping eyes alert for not only butterflies, moths, and dragonflies but also larger vertebrate residents. Among them, keep your ears peeled for Iberian water frogs and Mediterranean tree frogs, each with their special songs; the former sound like rippling laughter, and the latter, like a sudden burst of explosive sound.
Take a trek in native forest in Collserola Natural Park
In the coastal mountains, just a 30-minute walk northwest from the center of Barcelona, you’ll find the 8,000 hectare Parc Natural de Collserola. The park is rich with trails for hiking, biking, jogging, and bird watching. Picnic areas and two restaurants offer leisurely pauses in Collserola where some 1,000 plant species and 190 vertebrate species thrive. The park has more than 10 million trees, making it a substantial lung for the city and one of the world’s largest urban parks.
The early 20th century Templo de Sagrat Cor — often compared to Paris’ Sacre Coeur church — stands on the Serra de Collersola’s highest hill at 512-meters, and offers a dramatic lookout over Barcelona and the Mediterranean Sea. Apart from the other people enjoying the view, you may also discover wild boar, foxes, badgers, sparrow hawks, salamanders, frogs, turtles, snakes, martins, blue tits, eagles, woodpeckers, squirrels, genets, and rabbits.
Some popular activities in Collersola involve themed walks led by the park’s guides, which include identifying native plants and birds, following wild boar trails, and learning more about the natural environment.
Look for One-of-a-Kind Natives in Montseny Natural Park
Just west of Barcelona, Montseny Natural Park is home to the Montseny brook newt (Calotriton arnoldi), a salamander found nowhere else in the world. There are 1,000 to 1,500 brook newts in the park. They have a distinctive milk-to-dark-chocolate coloring that darkens along the spine and lightens toward the newt’s sides, legs, and belly. Heavily dependent on the mountain streams, their numbers have been diminishing as the streams dry up. (The biggest culprit for their decline is the bottling and sale of El Montseny mountain water, which is sold across Europe.) Montseny brook newts are listed as critically endangered, warranting treading carefully (and foregoing buying bottled water).
Montseny Natural Park’s proximity to both the Mediterranean and the Pyrenees makes it home to flora and fauna from both zones. In addition to wild trails and diverse wildlife, there are megaliths (standing stones, dolmens) here that harken back to prehistoric peoples from the Neolithic some 4,000 to 5,000 years ago.
Take a Workshop on Wildlife at the Zoo de Barcelona
The Zoo de Barcelona, set on the easternmost edge of the Parc de la Ciutadella — a city park near Barcelona’s shoreline and harbor — is home to 300 species of animals (totaling 2,000 individuals) and 332 species of plants (totaling roughly 1,300 trees, shrubs, and other plants). Most of these species come from around the world, but the zoo is also home to native species, including the Iberian wolf.
The zoo also offers ongoing activities and workshops where participants learn about its animals as well as those of the surrounding environment. This includes a workshop on both domestic and wild animals and how to care for and protect them. It takes place at the zoo’s farm.
Hike in the unique terrain of Montserrat’s serrated hills
The toothy, jutting mountains of Montserrat rise suddenly and dramatically, like fortified citadels across the plains northwest of Barcelona. It is no wonder that this site has long been held as sacred for many people; the very geography gives a mysterious, dramatic, and dynamic mood to the landscape. While it is possible that early peoples revered Montserrat’s natural forces, it is known that the Romans venerated the goddess Venus here.
A few centuries later, shepherds recognized another feminine divinity in the same site, Our Lady of Montserrat, a potent Black Madonna depicting the Mother Mary and Child, which is celebrated not only in Catalonia but all across Spain. Legend recounts that the shepherds saw a light from the sky touch down on Montserrat. When they went to investigate, they found the Black Madonna inside a cave. For more than a thousand years, La Maroneta has drawn both local and far-flung pilgrims to her shrine in the mountain.
The mountain is really a formation, made of vertically rising peaks that twist and turn and hold trails thick with valley floors and forests in between. At the center of the mountain complex is the monastery and church dedicated to La Maroneta, but there are numerous other shrines and caves tucked throughout the crevasses, cliffs, hilltops, and forests. Striking out on any one of them promises the double pleasure of walking in nature and coming upon a beautiful shrine.
The nearness to the coast influences Montserrat’s largely Mediterranean flora: More than 1250 plant species grow here, as does one of Catalonia’s most celebrated oak forests. Fauna also thrive here: the wild goats, wild boar, bats, geckos, and many birds are the stars of the show.
For more wild ideas, launch into nature-loving adventures from Barcelona with Backroads trips from the Costa Brava to Pyrenees and Costa Brava to Provence, and venture deeper into the Mediterranean with Lindblad Expeditions.
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