CATALANS GOT THE CREAM; Aidan McGurran says there is nowhere better than Barcelona for a great weekend break that has it all...
There are plenty of European cities that lay claim to being the perfect tourist weekend break destination.
But there is clearly one out-and-out winner - Barcelona.
You name it, the city's got it - spectacular architecture, all the history and culture you could want, the second-best football team in the world*, incredible restaurants, bars and clubs.
I could go on but you probably get the idea.
It has even got the best cathedral in the world - the Sagrada Familia - and it isn't actually finished yet!
When the first stone was laid in 1882, its genius creator Antoni Gaudi commented that his client, God, was in no hurry to see it finished. Just as well because the latest estimates for completion are 2026.
Mind you, the stunning creation has certainly been good to members of the building trade in the Catalan capital, providing not just a job for life but a job for generations.
Entering through the huge door, made of delightful bronze leaves complete with insects so lifelike you almost have to double check if they're real, your eyes become drawn to the heavens as a chorus of oohs and aahs ring out from hundreds of other visitors simultaneously drinking in the spectacle of the interior.
Suffice to say, the scale, the majesty and the incredible light are extraordinary.
Not far away, but rather less well known, is the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau. A tip from the receptionist at our stylish boutique hotel led us to the amazing 26 pavilions that served as Barcelona's hospital until 2003.
Designed by a contemporary of Gaudi - Lluis Domenech i Montaner - the ornately decorated buildings are linked by a maze of passageways covered floor to ceiling with shiny white ceramic tiles.
But there is a lot more to Barcelona than high-end culture. Just take a stroll and on every street corner is a cafe bar serving everything from delicious pastries to a full range of tapas, with all the ham, croquettes, spiced potatoes and calamari you could wish for.
On our first night, we gave one of Barcelona's best known and most stylish restaurants a try. Botafumeiro came highly recommended - former Barca coach Terry Venables put me on to it. Strictly speaking that isn't entirely true. A colleague of mine who was taken there by El Tel actually insisted I should break with the habit of a lifetime and treat my wife Deborah to an expensive meal.
The first picture you encounter on entering is one of Bill Clinton, which gives you a hint as to the nature of its clientele. We were shown past the bar which was full of customers perched on stools eating from giant plates of seafood. At [euro]170 for two, we decided to be a little less greedy.
And to be fair, although the Catalonian and Galacian seafood cuisine is sensational, the prices generally aren't too horrific.
Most of the wines were reasonably priced and the quality was high. I opted for one of the specials to start - Catalan cod and raisin pie, which might sound odd but was utterly delicious - followed by the hake stew, which was quite simply one of the best dishes I have ever tasted. Deborah went for the tuna carpaccio followed by baked scallops in tomato sauce.
Really good restaurants ooze ambience and that's certainly true of Botafumeiro. If you fancy a splurge while in Barcelona, it's definitely the place to go.
A good way to see the sights and get orientated is to catch one of the tourist buses. There are plenty of stops all around the city and you can buy your ticket in the queue or save time and do it online.
In truth, Barcelona is quite a compact city, so much of it you can cover on foot, and it also has a very cheap metro system.
Our base for the long weekend was the chic and stylish U232 hotel - the U being for Urgell, the street it is on.
One of its most surprising features was the roof terrace, complete with showers and sun beds. And even in spring, when we were there, it provided a real sun trap, especially late in the day.
The hotel is near the Avinguda Diagonal, the huge main road that dissects the city, and any thoughts we may be some distance from the main sites were soon dispelled. Strolling into town, we discovered we were less than 15 minutes from La Rambla - which is virtually always busy - but it is a Barcelona institution which has to be done. (Don't miss the fabulous Boqueria market.)
While the Rambla itself is tourist central with prices to match, there are some hidden delights close by.
I was genuinely moved by the sight of a square named in honour of author George Orwell who wrote Homage to Catalonia, his personal account of the Spanish Civil War. But then I'd had a couple, so I'm sure he would have understood.
Be warned, the Catalans dine rather later in the evening than we do, but it's worth changing your eating habits to fully enjoy the authentic local experience.
So on our final night, we booked dinner for 11pm at the Restaurant 7 Portes. Not far from the Marina, it's another classic Barcelona eatery.
We were shown to a table with a reserved sign, but the head waiter hurriedly moved us to an equally nice table elsewhere.
We thought nothing of it, but halfan-hour later all became clear.
A distinguished-looking gentleman with grey hair and neatly-trimmed beard entered to a ripple of applause and Happy Birthday played on the grand piano. Looking somewhat familiar, we enquired of the waitress who he was - Placido Domingo came the reply!
The meal was so good and our stay so glorious that being bumped off our table by one of the world's finest tenors seemed as good a way as any to bid farewell to this incredible city.
* The best is Everton FC - obviously!
easyJet Holidays has 3nts on &B at the 4* U232 Hotel in Barcelona from PS173pp based on 2 sharing and flying from Gatwick on Dec 4; Southend on Dec 2 from PS185pp, Luton on Dec 4 from PS169pp, Bristol on Dec 4 from PS165pp, Liverpool on Dec 10 from PS179pp, Newcastle on Dec 12 from PS170pp. easyjet.com/holidays 020 3499 5232
Tourist info: spain.info
TIME ZONE UK+1hr
CURRENCY Euro PS1 = 1.14
BEST TIME TO GO To Catalan story short, it's great any time of year
The first stone was laid in 1882 and it's still not finished market.) is tourist table We thought Placido Domingo turned up at the restaurant to applause
i BREAK Aidan enjoys the sunshine
CHIC Stylish U232 hotel is within easy reach of the sights of central Barcelona
PALM BALM Beautiful Placa Reial
TREATS Boqueria market just off La Rambla
UNFINISHED SYMPHONY The stunning Sagrada Familia cathedral