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Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Bouncing About Barcelona

Written by Eric D. Goodman
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      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.  

Park Guell Dragon

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.”



A Little Night Triomf

      We had planned to take in a concert for our first evening in Barcelona, but our mountain climbing and voyage across the city has tired us, and the little bit of paella we’ve eaten around lunch time has run out.  We enjoy some tapas and wine instead of music.

      However, we do manage to fit in a tour of the Palau de la Musica Catalonia, or Palace of Music during our days in Barcelona and I’m glad we do.  It truly is as much a palace as a concert hall. The stunning stained glass, detailed ceramic tile work and sculptures are a sight to behold.  It also happens to be the only concert hall in Europe lit by natural light.

      The tour costs nearly as much as a concert in the cheap seats, so I would go for a concert if we had more time. To sit and take in the beautiful sights while listening to good music would likely cast the surroundings in a new perspective. But concert or not, this is a sight not to be missed.

      On the way from the palace, we pass by another sight on our list: Arc Del Triomf. Perhaps not as impressive as the French grandfather, this gateway to the Universal Exhibition of 1888 has a pink-tinted brick façade that gives it a very different (and Spanish) look.

      “It’s a triomf,” I declare. Nataliya groans.


New Day, Old Town

      After a simple B&B breakfast of pastries and coffee, we begin our second day in Barcelona with a visit to the Gothic Quarter of the Old Town, or Barri Gotic. Considered the heart of not only Old Town, but of Barcelona itself, this is the oldest part of the city and can be dated back to Roman times, around 27 B.C.

      We enter the quarter near Casa de l’Ardicia, decorated with a letterbox made out of marble and carved with a tortoise and swallows. This house has a charming ceramic tile courtyard and fountain, and is home to the historical archives of Barcelona. Casa de l’Ardicia is built on the old Roman city wall. If Casa de l’Ardicia is the oldest site in Old Town, the next thing we see must be the most impressive.

      When you think of a gothic, European cathedral, Barcelona Cathedral fits the picture. The cathedral was begun in 1298 and finished late in the 19th century. The inside is majestic, and there are twenty eight side chapels set between the columns. These columns support the unvaulted ceiling that shoots up an impressive eighty five feet. Beneath the altar is a crypt with the sarcophagus of St. Eulalia.

      A somewhat unique addition to the cathedral is the Cloisters. These outdoor gardens attached to the cathedral and enclosed by walls but with no roof, are decorated with fountains and statues. 

      Other sights to see in the Gothic Quarter include the Museu d’Historia, the Centre Excursionsta de Catalunya (with subterranean Roman ruins), and Palau Reial, with a 14th century altarpiece.

      Deeper into the Gothic Quarter is a busy plaza: Placa de Sant Jaume. There, the Palau de la Generalitat (the seat of Catalonia’s governor) faces Ajuntament (Barcelona’s Town Hall).  Having seen photographs, we’ve been looking forward to a visit inside City Hall’s Salo de Cent, or council chamber.  Unfortunately, it is closed due to a function. 

      “Can we go in?” I ask the guard. He says something in Spanish, but the shaking of his head is all the translation we need. 

      However, we are able to peek over the uniformed guard’s shoulder to get a glimpse of the stone chamber, wide arcs, and giant chandeliers before being ushered away. Such a quick visit gives us more time to enjoy some tapas and beer before siesta.


Are You Ready to Ramblas?

      The place to go if you want to see the hustle-bustle of Barcelona is Las Ramblas—the pedestrian street lined with cafes and vendors and filled with locals and tourists.  Unfortunately, it’s also the place to go if you want to get robbed—both figuratively and literally.  Prices tend to be higher on Las Ramblas because it’s the place all the tourists go. Be prepared to be taken to the cleaners for the luxury of sitting in one of the street side cafes. It’s also the one place in Barcelona that everyone has warned us about—pickpockets are plentiful. 

      “Eric, watch out,” Nataliya says, pointing to my other side. I turn to find myself face to leathery face with a toothless, whiskered man. He smiles, shrugs, and does an about face, shadowing another man going in the opposite direction.

      Twice while strolling along Las Ramblas, men shadow me, only an inch or two from my side, and I turn to stand face to face with an innocent smile turning away to find another victim. I may have been a victim myself had I not kept my wallet zipped in an inside jacket pocket and double zipped inside the jacket.


Beep be de beep bip beep!

      The next most annoying thing about the crowded street is the number of hucksters. I’m sure what they’re selling varies with the season and what they’re able to get a huge shipment of for dirt cheap. While we are here, foreign venders blow annoying whistles constantly and shoot lighted rubber-band toys into the air. Not two minutes pass during an hour walk along Las Rambles without a vendor whistling and shooting, walking right up to us to offer his wares. 

      Although it is most prominent along Las Ramblas, it is not unique to the location. The vendors with the same two products were at Park Guell, in the plazas, squares, and even in the busy areas of Madrid.

      The fact that they don’t speak English or Spanish does not matter as their only language seems to be the irritating series of quick squeaks and beeps coming from the whistles in their mouths.  A raised eyebrow and a “Beep de be beep” is their sales pitch. It is an offer we can (and do) refuse hundreds of times during our days in Spain.


From Font to Columbus

      But Las Ramblas has much more going for it than just vendors and thieves. The tree-lined “dry river” begins at the Font de Canaletes, a beautiful lamppost and fountain, and the people flow from there down to the monument at the other end of the pedestrian street: a column topped by Columbus pointing the way to America. 

      Along the way, there are impressive sights to see. The ones that we find most interesting are the Placa de la Boqueria (a square with mosaic pavement designed by the artist Miro in 1976); an art deco dragon over an old umbrella shop and an opera house burned and restored twice, in 1861 and 1994. 


One Real Plaza!

      The busiest and liveliest plaza in Barcelona must be Placa Reial: a large square surrounded by historic buildings and filled with palm trees and lampposts designed by Gaudi. A number of restaurants and cafes line the plaza. We go to one for a late lunch. I don’t remember the name of the place and it doesn’t really matter.  The view and atmosphere at the outdoor café render the average food worthwhile. Being in the restaurant area also shields us from whistling venders and their shooting toys.



A Most Unusual Palace

      Palau Guell, the home commissioned by the same Guell who later commissioned the park outside town, proves to be one of the highlights of our visit to Barcelona. It was Gaudi’s first city center project on such a massive scale. The palace stands on such a small plot of land, we wonder from the outside why it’s called a palace at all. Then we go inside and marvel at the incredible sense of space and style Gaudi was able to create.

      The tour begins on the ground floor—an entryway worthy of being a nobleman’s home on its own—and then down to the basement, where the horses once lived in luxury. The tour takes you on eight levels, including the basement, attic, and rooftop terrace. In the center of the house, the center room, complete with organ, choir stalls, an altar, and domed ceiling, spans several of the stories.

      But more impressive than size,  is style. Gaudi uses stone, tile, ironwork and unique columns and structures to create a home that is a museum piece of its own. 

      The rooftop terrace, should you brave the irregular tiled floor, is crowned by twenty chimneys covered in mosaics of broken tile and designed in unusual and surprising shapes. It is when you exit the palace, seeming to go down the stairs forever, that you realize how far up you have climbed. Visiting Palau Guell is indeed a high. But the highlight of Barcelona and Gaudi is yet to come.


Beautiful Basilica

      Sometimes referred to as Barcelona’s favorite church, the Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar was built in the Catalan Gothic Style.  With donations by local merchants and shipbuilders, the massive church was built in a mere fifty five years—a short span of time for a classic European cathedral. Stained glass and stone fill out this beautiful Basilica. It is a beautiful basilica, and it shows in the artisanship that this was a labor of love, and, indeed, the church of the common people.


Not Your Usual Picasso

      If there was any doubt, the Picasso Museum in Barcelona confirms that Picasso could paint just about anything he wanted. Love or hate the chosen style he became famous for, this painter had talent. Located in five connected palaces from medieval times, the museum showcases some 3,000 pieces ranging from Picasso’s mid-teenage years to his old age. Picasso paints in the styles of many other artists, some realism, some impressionism. There are a number of sketches from his school days, some of them stamped by the administration.

      The most dense and fullest part of the collection seems to be his study, dissection, and entirely unique recreation of Velazquez’s masterpiece, Las Meninas.


Columbus in Port

      Not far off the beaten path, we find our way from the Picasso Museum back to Las Ramblas. After strolling for a short bit, we escape to some of the twisting side streets, where a more authentic feeling Barcelona awaits.  About three side streets in is where we usually begin ducking into shops, restaurants and cafes.  It is somewhere around this area that we have a good and inexpensive three-course meal at a little restaurant called Princessa 23. 

      I order caper and onion seared salmon, with a starter of leak and potato soup that could have been a meal in itself. The highlight of the meal, despite how good the salmon tastes, is the strong mojito.

      After filling our stomachs, quenching our thirsts, and relaxing our senses, we continue down the hill until we meet with Columbus once again, his monument pointing to the water, toward the new world.  We’re not ready to leave the old world yet. So instead, we continue down to Port Vell for a stroll along the dock, and then along the breezy boardwalk. 


A Perfect Eixample

      For our final full day in Barcelona, we decide to save the best for last and stay close to our bed & breakfast in Eixample  with a slight diversion at the edge of Eixample back to Old Town. We have tasted a sample of what our day is to be filled with since we have already visited Park Guell and Palace Guell. Our final day in Barcelona is to be a surreal experience filled with fantastic modern architecture and design. Our tour guide: the Great Gaudi.


Fireworks inside a Cathedral

      Truth be told, although the Sagrada Familia is the sight I have most anticipated, I expect to be let down.  Like a movie or book everyone has raved about, you watch or read with unreasonably high expectations, only to come away disappointed.  That is not the case with what is easily Europe’s and most likely the world’s most unusual and creatively designed church. I come with high expectations. They are exceeded.

Sagrada Familia

      I love touring the majestic architecture of old cathedrals and palaces. And I love art museums. In a way I have never seen before, Gaudi’s masterwork combines the two. I have marveled at the insides of cathedrals many times before—from Notre Dame to Saint Chappelle, from St. Issac’s Cathedral to St. Basil’s Cathedral. Nothing has ever taken me by surprise like Barcelona’s Cathedral Sagrada Familia.

      Even as we wait in line for more than an hour, we look up and find surprises in the exterior.  Frogs and lizards carved in the towers and stone, along with fruits and vegetables and other elements of nature. Eight of the twelve existing spires are topped with detailed Venetian mosaics. Much of the exterior is hidden by the construction work that continues, and is expected to continue until the church is completed according to Gaudi’s designs on the centennial of his death.

      When our line reaches the entrance (which is actually the back of the church), the view is something to behold.  The Passion Façade features angular figures carved in stone showing the passion and crucifixion of Christ. The modern style is stunning. The brass doors to the church are covered in passages from the Bible about the passion.

      Once inside, the real marvel begins. Slowly walking in, looking up, it is like fireworks exploding above us. Looking around, it is so much to take in. Gaudi’s interior columns are like colorful and textured trees, none of them uniform, all of them branching out into other columns before reaching the starburst, floral ceiling. Stained glass, gold leaf and jeweled areas shine down on us. No surface is smooth; everything has color and texture.  I would describe it as white or gray, but it’s really multi-colored, carved from different types of stone and material. Unlike any other church I’ve seen, this one seems alien and organic, but in a beautiful non off-putting way. In a word: amazing.

      Pictures don’t do the cathedral justice, but here is an attempt at showing off the beautiful ceiling: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sagrada_Familia_nave_roof_detail.jpg

      There is so much to take in.  We could spend hours exploring the details. But we have ground to cover on our last day in Barcelona, so we reluctantly make our way to the exit of the cathedral after an hour of open-jawed staring.

      We exit through a museum beneath the cathedral that displays models and methods of construction. When we actually come outside again, we pass through the Nativity Façade, showing the nativity in a new way and in a style very different from that on the Passion Façade.

      The Nativity Façade is the most complete section of the church; it was completed in 1930. It showcases doors that represent Hope, Faith and Charity. The nativity scenes carved in stone include the usual manger scene with wise men, angels, Joseph, Mary, and the Christ child. It also features turtles holding up pillars, and birds flying every which way. From a distance, the façade has an alien look, almost like a melting, bug-like hill. Like the water-eroded mud formations of a California seaside cliff.

      Another façade is still to be completed, along with about half of the church and the tallest of the towers. Gaudi’s original designs and intentions are being followed, and funding comes from private contributions. The estimated mid-point on construction came in 2010, the same year the Pope visited to consecrate it and proclaim it a “minor basilica.” Gaudi, who spent the last fifteen or so years of his life working on the church and raising money to build it, would have been happy. He is buried on sight, in the Sagrada Familia’s crypt. We bid Gaudi farewell at his final resting spot. But we will visit him again in town.



D’Or!

      Where Barcelona’s Old Town is like a twisted confusion of intertwining streets, Eixample is on an easy-to-follow grid. That is exemplified by Quadrat d’Or, or “Golden Square.”  The grid holds some of the city’s best modernista architecture, including the works of Gaudi and his contemporaries.

      The gem of them all is Gaudi’s Casa Mila, or La Pedera. This “stone quarry,” an apartment building with some eight stories, was the last project of Gaudi before he devoted his later years to Sagrada Familia. 

      The wavy walls of stone are accented by balconies with intricate ironwork and the effect is unreal. When it was built in the early 1900s, it was unlike anything seen before—and therefore was both praised and criticized (One critical cartoon mocks the building as an airplane hangar).

      The top floor of Casa Mila (once home to the Mila family) now houses the Gaudi Museum, and a tour of the roof showcases an array of chimneys, chimney pots, and air ducts that are unusual and, in some cases, unnerving. Whether you’re standing inside the courtyard or looking at an aerial shot, one of the most striking features of Casa Mila is the empty space in the middle of the building.  Massive as the Casa Mila looks from the outside, much of the inner space is taken by two large courtyards, visible when walking in on the ground floor. From above, the gaping holes have an organic appearance, almost as though they are large open mouths. A short visit to Casa Mila just might leave unprepared visitors gasping for air.

      Casa Terrades, also part of the Golden Square, is a great example of a melding of gothic and modernista styles. The six-sided apartment building boasts six modernista spires, which inspired the nickname “Casa de les Punxes” or House of the Points. The corner spires are shaped like pointed hats and lavishly decorated.

      Another highlight of Quadrat d’Or is the Illa de la discardia, or the block of discard. The name is given due to the surprising range of unique styles showcased on the small city block. Three highlights compete for the attention of passers, but each deserves more than a glance—if not a full tour. All three of them can be seen while strolling along Passeig de racia.

      The first of these is Casa Lleo Morera, crowned with an ornate tower. Casa Amatller has a façade that blends Gothic and Moorish and includes a tile encrusted gable and stairs that welcome visitors from the street. 

      It may be predictable, but the most impressive of these houses of discard is the one designed by Gaudi: Casa Batllo.


House of Bones

      If Gaudi’s most impressive work is Familia Sagrada and his most elaborate work is Park Guell and his most stately work is Palau Guell, then Casa Batllo must be his most surreal. Even up close, one can see why this house is nicknamed the House of Bones; the pillars—especially those on the second and third floor balconies—evoke leg and arm bones. But step back; cross the street to take in the house from afar, and the large masks covering the lower parts of the fourth, fifth and sixth floor balconies clearly resemble skulls with drooping eyes and nose holes. From the front façade, the house may well have fallen into the nick name “fish house,” for the surface of the house is covered in broken and circular tiles that give it a scaled look. Those scales may be more fish than dragon; the wavy, ceramic roof resembles the back of a scaly beast. 

Casa Batllo

      Casa Batllo is even more impressive inside. Don’t be deterred by what may seem a high price for the tour of a house—this is unlike any other house you will see. Earlier, I remarked that stepping into a building designed by Gaudi was like stepping into a Dali painting. At the time I made the comparison, I didn’t realize Dali was actually a fan of Gaudi’s. In fact, this is the house he remarked on. Dali praised Gaudi’s “soft, calf-skin doors.” 

      The entire house is soft and supple, with no lines to be found, no corners. Rooms seem to be pushed out of dough. Even the color schemes are soft and organic: the courtyard resembling water, other rooms resembling stone and dirt and sand and air. Light fixtures seem to bloom naturally out of the ceiling and columns seem to sprout from the floor and blossom into ceilings of clouds. Even the polished wood stairs and banisters and doors look like they come from nature, not from design. It proves to be the perfect last sight for our time in Barcelona.

      We walk from Casa Batllo back to Las Ramblas, fully realizing for the first time just how close these different places are. In fact, the tower from Casa Lleo Morera is visible from the bus stop we’ve used to and from Las Rambles a few times, but was never noticed in the distance because we’ve been focused on other things. As with life itself, sometimes we’re so busy focusing on one thing that we miss the beauty just beyond our noses.


Catalonian Transformation

      Guide books are curious things. They begin as coffee table books that slide off once in a while so you can flip through the pages and glance at the pictures and captions. Only after an impending visit looms on the horizon do they seem to become interesting enough to actually read. A guide book is a marvelous thing then, full of mystery and wonder, unlocking treasures to be discovered with maps leading the way.

      A guide book changes as the reader does. The same guide books that helped us discover Barcelona took on a whole new meaning as we sat on the plane returning home.  All of the wonder and anticipation, as I looked at the same pages and passages, had changed to familiarity and comfort. It’s sort of like the first day at a new school compared to the last day at an old one. It’s always nice to leave home for an adventure. It’s usually nice to be back in your own bed.

      I won’t pretend to be an expert on Barcelona, having spent less than a week there. But those limited days were packed full, from pre-dawn to post-dusk, with exciting visits and enjoyable experiences. Whether we were talking to locals or expats, seeing palaces or the surreal wonders of Gaudi, the adventures did not cease. Our visit lasted long enough to let me know that I need to return when I have more time to invest. More time to get lost in the twisted side streets of a village or be mesmerized in a museum or to relax in a street side café with a pinch of Spanish brandy and a plate of Spanish omelets.

      Rain or shine, I’ll be knock-knock-knocking on Gaudi’s soft, calf-skin door again one day.





Tracks Reading In Madrid©Eric D. Goodman is a full-time writer and editor who loves to travel.  His novel in stories, Tracks, was published by Atticus Books (Summer 2011) and won the 2012 Gold Medal for Best Fiction in the Mid-Atlantic Region from the Independent Publishers Book Awards. It follows a passenger train full of travelers as these strangers touch one another in unexpected ways. He’s also the author of the children’s' book, Flightless Goose.  Eric's work has appeared in The Baltimore Review, Pedestal Magazine, Writers Weekly, The Potomac, Barrelhouse, JMWW, Scribble, Slow Trains, and New Lines from the Old Line State: An Anthology of Maryland Writers, among others. His second novel, Womb, is currently with his agent. Visit Eric on Facebook, Twitter, and at his literary blog, Writeful. Learn more about Eric and his writing at www.EricDGoodman.com

Illustrations by Nataliya A. Goodman


Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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