The city of Barcelona can be divided into three sections: Montjuic, Old Town, and Eixample. Having checked into our bed and breakfast a block from Sagrada Familia, Nataliya and I have about four days ahead of us to explore all the great city has to offer.
We’ve read ahead and have a good idea of what we expect to enjoy the most, but we also want to fit in as much as we can while still allowing time for pleasant restaurant eating and plaza lounging.
Confident that we’ve timed things right, we decide to start with Montjuic—certainly a must see—and to work our way up to the unique sights we expect will most excite us.
From Palace to Fortress
We love our art museums, and the Museu National d’Art de Catalunya (or National Art Museum of Catalonia) is a collection well worth seeing. This art museum is housed in the grand National Palace, which was built for the 1929 International Exhibition. The highlight of this museum is Europe’s largest collection of medieval frescoes.
Almost as impressive as some of the art, is witnessing the National Palace’s great dome from inside. We have tea and coffee in the café next to the great hall just beneath the massive dome; even more fulfilling than the drinks is the surrounding view.
Earlier this morning we took the bus from our bed and breakfast in Eixample but we got off at the wrong stop; the great dome of the Palace looking closer than it actually was. By the time we got to the art museum inside, we’re a bit worn out. We are rewarded on the upper floor (after taking in all the art) with plush chairs that we could almost fall asleep in. But instead of closing, our eyes are lured to the majesty of the ceiling art.
Onward and Upward
After the National Palace and the National Art Museum of Catalonia, we decide to go uphill, knowing it will take us to Castell de Montjuic. The simple path gets twisted and we end up at the Olympics Center instead. This center is an interesting mix of neo-classical and modern style because the stadium was originally built for the 1936 Olympics (cancelled due to the Civil War) and refitted more than half a century later for the 1992 Olympics. As we tour the Olympics Center, we think about the upcoming 2012 Olympics in London. Will our former neighbor, Michael Phelps, win enough medals to become the most decorated Olympian ever? (Yes!)
After spending time at this Olympian sight, we continue onward and upward, asking for directions from locals in our broken Spanish. The walk is a long and grueling one. We could take the funicular, but decide that doing so would be a cop out. We hike for a good hour or so before making it to the summit of Montjuic, where the 18th century castle opens its doors to us.
The fortress was originally built in 1640 but was destroyed by Felipe V in 1705 and rebuilt after that. Being from the Baltimore area, it reminds me of our own Fort McHenry. A sight worth seeing, but we’re saving the best for last.
A Most Peculiar Park
Speaking of saving the best for last, we end our daylight hours with a fitting finale: Park Guell. Without a doubt, it must to be the most whimsical and unusual park I’ve seen—and I’m including such places as the fountains and gardens of Petergof’s Sumer Palace outside St. Petersburg and Versailles outside Paris.
A Gaudi dragon in Park Guell
Park Guell might be the kind of park Walt Disney would visit if he wanted to unwind instead of hype up or Salvador Dali if he sought inspiration in design. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is Antoni Gaudi’s most expansive work of art and architecture. Originally commissioned by Count Eusebi Guell as a garden community on fifty family acres, the planned sixty houses never came to be. But everything else, it seems, did.
You enter the park through a gate (making this perhaps one of the first “gated communities”) between two unusual houses. The one to the left is a gift shop so crowded you have to swim in and out and from one floor to another. The one to the right is a guard house—larger than most family McMansions in the U.S. It is fittingly referred to as the “gingerbread house” given its appearance.
The Room of a Hundred Columns is uncanny, with more than eighty leaning and twisting pillars holding up the ceiling, illuminated by stained glass and ceramic mosaic designs. It was originally intended as a marketplace for the residents of the park community.
The park sprawls up a hill with open areas, tunnels that look like waves of rock ready to crash down on tourists, pillars and walkways that look like they are carved right out of nature. Inside the park is the house where Antoni Gaudi lived for about twenty years, and a museum devoted to Gaudi. The park is filled with street musicians. These musicians are cast far enough apart that you nearly always hear one of them, but they never clash. Spanish guitar, four-piece chamber music worthy of the Palau de la Musica Catalonia (more on that later) and accordion players strutting flamenco flair offer a taste of the music playing in Park Guell.
When we reach a high area of the park with an excellent view, we can see across Eixample, across Old Town, all the way to Montjuic on the other side of Barcelona, where we’d started our sightseeing for the day. We are amazed to see the peaks from afar, the stunning National Palace and the seaside Castle Montjuic.
“Did we actually walk that far?” Nataliya asks me. “Climb that summit by foot, on our first full day in Spain?”
I nod. “The rest will be an easy, enjoyable, downhill stroll by comparison.”