Maybe fifty years ago I listed Barcelona as a must-see on my three month travel circuit. In those days, when you got off your train, purchased previously with a three month Europass, ensured your valuables such as your passport were safely tucked into your clothes , you headed for the kiosk that would direct you to a cheap hotel, especially if you were sharing the cost; otherwise it was the local hostel or nunnery.
Those years back when I first arrived in Barcelona,I was given the name of The Ritz and amazed by the cost, and of course, familiar with the name, practically jumped for joy, imagining pristine white sheets. Backpacks heavy down our backs ( before ecologically balanced), off we trod. The first look should have sent us running , and a second look for sure should have revealed that someone was laughing at poor travellers by the misappropriation of the name, but we, I and my recent traveling companion, were young and foolish so we dropped our packs and headed out to explore the sites of Barcelona.
Indulging in the local food, I soon found myself feeling mighty queasy. Sprawled uncomfortably on what I recall a bed very close to the floor, I noticed the walls were constructed of brown paper and not much more. Maybe it was bad shell fish in a greasy paella, my first by the way, ,but the next three days found me unable to move from the spot. My friend came up with bottled water and that I recall was even hard to keep down. Of my initial experience in Barcelona, I think I may have managed the Joan Miro Foundation, for I brought home posters for friends and family. As you might imagine, I swore off paella and was in no hurry to return to Barcelona.
Over the years I did retrace my steps to France and Italy, especially with my kids, my husband and one year, we visited the Alhambra, Toledo, Seville, Madrid…but not Barcelona.
But this summer, bravely, I returned and spent three wonderful, wonderful days in Barcelona which properly re-introduced me to the Spain I had missed. Our focus was on the architect, Antonio Gaudi and his marvellous architectural creations. Unable to find tours that would explore the specific buildings I wanted to see, I managed to gather together eight hours of viewing with a helpful guide.
Now it is true Gaudi’s work suggests a chaotic lively hodge podgy of features drawn from sources in Nature, diverse cultures, previous artists and movements such as Art Nouveau and books by Viollet-le-Duc. Still for his time, his work begun in 1882, his constructions are in deed unique and I must admit being surprised that his unusual oeuvre could garner support.
Our first stop, early in the morning so as to avoid massive crowds, for three million people a year visit, is his Sagrada Familia. In 1984, it was designated an UNESCO World Heritage Site. And it is impressive- connoting 15th Century Gothic-style towers that aimed to pierce the heavens and touch God. Records report it is one meter shorter at 170 meters than Montjuic, the highest mountain in Barcelona. We twisted our necks upward to follow the ascent of the towering church. As the guide points to the tomb in the basement, he explains that Gaudi on his way to the Sagrada Familia was hit by a trolley in 1926 and is buried here.
Because of the upcoming 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death and a surge to finally complete this enormous project, there are huge industrial cranes surrounding the structure. But the first view is awesome as we notice fruits such as oranges at the tippy top of the spires,Gaudi’s reminder that to the east of Spain, those sweet treats are grown. And to the west are pomegranates, a sample of the fruits from that locale. The entrance is carved with relief and free standing sculptures of the life of Christ. These scenes once educated the parishioners of the trajectory of Christ’s life. But I noticed the fine detailing of the pieces.
Inside, each side of the cathedral glows with the colours of the day, stained glass bathing either green or orange, overspilling onto floors, warming or cooling the space with a kind of sacred light quality. Because this is Gaudi, there are numerous design elements, organically shaped as in sprouting trees, squat turtles and other animals, or alternately hard edged cubist religious sculptures, and other surprises tucked into the tiniest crannies of the soaring, dizzying heights. Some might suggest it is a cacophony of shapes, colours and designs, but everywhere your eye searches, there is a something strange or wonderful to behold. I imagine it would take days to categorize and discover both natural and human- inspired elements here, but we have more Gaudi to see, so we drive to the next spot.
We move on to Park Güell, also unfinished: Gaudi’s dream of a neighbourhood, but unfortunately never fully realized. Fantastic coloured mosaics decorate communal sitting benches reminding me of Lima’s undulating ones that face and reflect off the sea. Here at Park Guell, there is a tunnel that replicates the experience of being caught in a wave as it curves from top to bottom. A school, a few apartments, a church built into a composed landscape suggest how magical this project might have been before in- fighting among the buyers began.
Most interesting and only recently opened to the public is Gaudi’s Casa Vicens where one can begin to notice how Gaudi incorporated styles from diverse cultures and employed different materials, such as iron, glass, ceramic tiles and concrete into this fantastic summer house. Moorish influence is very strong as the house actually demonstrates male and female sections: there are decorative blinds that cool the house while sheltering women from prying eyes. There is an elaborate blue dome- shaped smoking room for men, and in one bedroom, there is a separation of ceramic ceiling decoration with different objects, the walls, too, painted and embossed with different ferns and flowers to denote the separation between the sexes. However, it is the budding styles commingled in this house considered Art Nouveau that foreshadow the artist’s attention to the possibilities of technique and material that is so exciting.As in the previous buildings, colour plays a major factor for it is not quiet, but rather strident, attracting, even riotous in the blazing sun of Spain.
La Pedrera meaning “ quarry” is a famous apartment complex where people continue to live, but also the building is an exercise on undulating shapes. The resulting layout is shaped like an asymmetrical “8” because of the different shapes and sizes of the courtyards. The balconies in wrought iron surprisingly low but twisted into vinelike structures that suggest the material has come to life augment Gaudi’s design, but are not created by him. Here the rooftop harbours bulbous whimsical forms decorated with mosaics that contrast stiff concrete columns of statute heads of helmeted Roman soldiers. As well, there are small arched tunnels and more colourful mosaic details celebrating the four seasons.The complex also known as Casa Milà was created in 1905 for wealthy investors in coffee from South America. Casa Milà was not completed to Gaudí’s specifications. Disputes with the owner’s wife were responsible for the building diverting from the architect’s original concept.Additionally, the local government ordered the demolition of elements that exceeded the height standard for the city, and fined the Milàs for many infractions of building code.
There is still Casa Batlo and Guell Palace to see.I reflect on Gaudi’s worldwide attention, linking him to another architect of the day Friedensreich Hundertwasser from Austria because of his use of biomorphic forms and fascination with tiles. In contemporary times, I’m thinking of Frank Gehry, his appropriation and transformation of fish scales, bold architectural shapes and unusual materials that make his work identifiable, unique and dazzling. In Toronto, the AGO, and in Bilbao, the Guggenheim cause the viewer to stop and react, calling them to respond to the architecture in a visceral way.
It is no doubt the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi is a treasure to Barcelona, attracting millions of tourists yearly and establishing many of his works as UNESCO sites. Our recent visit confirmed to me Gaudi’s role in the development of architectural style along with the other greats who have caused the evolutionary eruption of thinking that pertains to art in architecture. This focus on just one of Barcelona’s treasures made me wonder what else I had missed here over the years. But just as a twenty year old mellows and matures, so too does a city, relaxing and growing into itself so that it can provide venues and attractions that will attract both young and old. Well, maybe old-er.