The Parks of Montjuïc: A Whole Lotta Green in Balmy Barcelona

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It might be nearly Christmas Day, but in a balmy Barcelona with temperatures in the sun at 19°C, tis apparently the season to pack up a picnic and head for the hills. If that sounds like fun, you might like my most recent article for the Spain Scoop, on  the stand-out spots to get away from it all on the mountain of Montjuïc.

Here’s my take on the best green retreats for when you need some nature/nurture.

Statue in Laribal Gardens Barcelona

“Pining for greenery

…it has to be said, if there’s one thing that’s at a premium in this city, it’s grass. Having grown up in Glasgow (aka “dear green place” – you see the predicament) I have come to expect a certain amount of turf and topiary in my life. Throughout most of the city, there’s isn’t a blade of the green stuff in sight (Ciutadella Park is the notable exception, but the grass there is like week-old stubble, sprawled on by sunbathers and to top it all off, jaggy).

If you too are craving a little bit of nature, without doing anything as extreme as hiking Barcelona’s surrounding hills, the parks and gardens of Montjuïc are your best bet. Most of them were designed back in the 1920s for the International Exposition that was to take place, and then overhauled again in the run-up to the Olympics in 1992.

Don’t be fooled by Montjuïc, though. Its size is deceptively doable on the map, but it’s a very large area which has some brutal slopes for added calf kick. Here are some of the gardens I think are worth seeing if you’re tackling this Olympic mountain.”

Pines in Barcelona

Pines in Barcelona

Pining for greenery

Because it has to be said, if there’s one thing that’s at a premium in this city, it’s grass. Having grown up in Glasgow (aka “dear green place” – you see the predicament) I have come to expect a certain amount of turf and topiary in my life. Throughout most of the city, there’s isn’t a blade of the green stuff in sight (Ciutadella Park is the notable exception, but the grass there is like week-old stubble, sprawled on by sunbathers and to top it all off, jaggy).

If you too are craving a little bit of nature, without doing anything as extreme as hiking Barcelona’s surrounding hills, the parks and gardens of Montjuïc are your best bet. Most of them were designed back in the 1920s for the International Exposition that was to take place, and then overhauled again in the run-up to the Olympics in 1992.

Don’t be fooled by Montjuïc, though. Its size is deceptively doable on the map, but it’s a very large area which has some brutal slopes for added calf kick. Here are some of the gardens I think are worth seeing if you’re tackling this Olympic mountain.

Bringing out the big guns – the Botanical Gardens

Languishing across the area between Montjuïc Castle and the Olympic Stadium, this garden has an interesting history. In a past life the area was a landfill site, and before that, a straggling shanty town known as Can Valero.

On my first visit, I have to admit I was slightly disappointed. This version of the city’s botanics only opened in 1999, and in fact, the official literature cautions visitors to have “patience and understanding” while the garden gets established.

It’s not that the 14-hectare site doesn’t have its fill of flora and fauna (it has over 2000 different types of plants) but, visiting in summer, everything had that desiccated, parched look about it. No surprise, when you consider that the garden’s main focus is Mediterranean – plants from Australia, Chile, California, South Africa and the actual Mediterranean region itself are all represented here.

Reaching for the Mediterranean sun

Reaching for the Mediterranean sun

Visiting for a second time, though, I saw the place through new eyes. In spring, I decided to ignore the main signposted route, and just took my time sauntering around the network of criss-crossing paths. I even took a picnic. There was much more colour, this time round, and most of all, utter peace and quiet.

If you decide to give Barcelona’s botanics a chance, I think you’ll enjoy it. Be aware that the site sits on a steep slope, but it is wheelchair-friendly. Feel free to hug a tree while you’re there, too. They’ll appreciate the love.

Opening times: daily from 10am to 6pm in the winter (October to March), till 7pm in April, May and September, and till 8pm in June, July and August. Closed Christmas and New Year’s Day (just when you want to walk off the hangover).

Cost: 3.50€ (but free every first Sunday of the month). 

Spectacular views over Barcelona’s harbour

Spectacular views over Barcelona’s harbour

The ‘cactus gardens’ – aka Jardins de Mossèn Costa i Llobera

Trust me, you’ve never seen anything like this. A thorn in the side of Montjuïc, these amazing gardens are tucked away on the edge of the mountain, overlooking the harbour. They’re considered to be one of the best cactus gardens in Europe, with an array of tropical and desert plant specimens that occasionally make you think you’ve walked onto the set of Alien.

The gardens were created back in the ‘60s by a Catalan cactologist (I know – try searching for that on Linkedin). Sheltered from the nippy north wind on the south-eastern side of Montjuïc, they possess a unique microclimate that plays home to some seriously spiky residents that wouldn’t survive elsewhere in the city.

I insist on taking friends and family to see the cacti whenever they’re over staying with me. The views over the Mediterranean sea are gorgeous, and there are plenty of benches where you can sit and take it all in. Just try to resist touching any of the cacti – you’ll be biting that splinter for weeks. Believe me.

Opening times: from 10am till dusk.

Cost: free!

How to get there: you could catch the funicular from Parallel metro station, then walk along, or if you’re near the beach, jump on a cable car from Barceloneta to Miramar, on the edge of Montjuïc. Or on the buses: 50 and 193.

The enchanting Laribal Gardens

The enchanting Laribal Gardens

The Jardins de Laribal – smell the roses

Not many tourists make it here, but this might just be the best chill-out zone in Barcelona. Tucked behind the Joan Miró museum, these gardens are a series of interlinked glades and glens, punctuated by pergolas, terraces and the odd Moorish design feature reminiscent of the famous Alhambra in Granada. Think babbling brooks framed by bright ceramic stairways, classical statues amid manicured rose beds, and best of all, much-needed shade in the heat of the summer.

Looking across from the gardens of the Grec Theatre

Looking across from the gardens of the Grec Theatre

It’s a serene spot that I find myself automatically heading towards whenever the city heat becomes oppressive. Take a book and you can easily while away a few hours. Afterwards, make sure you check out the gardens of the Grec Theatre, beside its open-air amphitheatre, or call in for a drink at the Modernista-styled restaurant La Font de Gat.

Opening times: opens at 10am all year round and shuts at 6pm in the winter (December, January & February), 7pm in March & November, 8pm in April & October and 9pm May to September.

Cost: free!

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