Let’s be honest: the majority of Barcelona’s 68 parks and gardens are unlikely to win any awards. They’re just too small and dusty. Understandable of course in a crowded city with a sunny, dry climate but some of us are used to city centre parks that are big and full of rich green grass, so Barcelona’s lack of such can cause disappointment, especially when you’re looking for a fresh spot to take a break.
There is Collserola, the so-called ‘lungs’ of Barcelona that is the huge expanse of park that covers the big hill behind the city (you know the one, with the jaunty church and big communication tower on top; you can’t miss it), and that is green enough. But it’s more of a place for a Sunday walk with the dog, a morning cycle ride or a serious all-day hike. It’s not somewhere you’d go to lie out for 20 minutes to look up at the sky and think profound thoughts about clouds and planes.
However, if there is a time of the year when several of the city’s parks are worth visiting, that time is spring. Flowers are bursting out, trees are full-leaved and the scorching summer sun has not yet done its damage.
Let’s start in one of the outer reaches of Barcelona, the Zona Universitaria, an area where few tourists ever dare to venture; not because it’s dangerous, I hasten to add, but just because they probably don’t realise there’s a valid reason to go there. It’s dominated by the eight-lane Avinguda Diagonal, uninteresting (by Barcelona standards) blocks of offices and flats, and very few shops. But there are also three marvellous parks. The first is that of the Palau Reial de Pedralbes. Get off the metro at the Palau Reial stop and you’ll find yourself at the gates of this residence; once used by Franco for his visits to Barcelona, it is still the official (but not oft-used) place to stay for the Spanish royal family. There are touches created by Antoni Gaudí—a metal pergola and the ‘fountain of Hercules’, a virtually-hidden water spout in the shape of a dragon—and cool, tree-shaded lawns where couples and friends lie out in the fine weather. While there, you can also visit the Ceramic Museum and Decorative Arts Museum, both housed inside the palace itself.
Further up the Diagonal, heading away from the city, you’ll find the Parc de Cervantes, a sloped park that is a haven for rose lovers. Every year in May it is the venue for an international competition of ‘new roses’; for three days or so, the park is filled to bursting with varieties modern and classic.
Finally, sitting in the shadow of the Camp Nou is the Maternitat park. Once the home to the city’s Maternity hospital (the modern version is today on an adjoining plot), there are good-sized lawns and Modernista pavilions, which housed the wards and now serve as offices. Suitably enough, it’s a great place to take kids, with two play parks for different age groups.
Heading to another part of the city entirely, namely Horta, the Labyrinth Park is Barcelona’s oldest park (1791) with design elements drawn from a variety of styles, including Moorish, Neoclassical and Romantic. The main attraction is the maze (entry fee), which celebrates the Greek tradition of labyrinths, with a frieze at its entrance featuring Theseus arriving in Crete for his mission against the Minotaur.
If you prefer to stay nearer the centre of town, there is a lovely park to discover. Hidden inside the walls of the main Barcelona University building, but open to the public, you’ll find a small urban oasis. To get to it, walk in the main entrance from Plaça Universitat and head towards the back. You’ll see an exit outside, in the direction of the middle of the building, and from there the garden is northwards. Expect to see lecturers lounging and students sleeping on benches amongst the water features and exotic plants.
So while in the summer, some people may visit Barcelona for its beaches, at this time of year, it’s the city’s parks that come into their own.