In the Bari Gottic or Gothic Quarter outside the Cathedral
Cloud cover over the UK (so what else is new, right?) made my window seat redundant but within an hour and 40 minutes, we touched down in Barcelona. Couldn’t enjoy the landing as it was too dark. Immigration clearance took another ten minutes (was the officer really leering at me, or was that my imagination?) and then I was outside the airport into the balmy night and looking confusedly for the aeroport bus to take me to the city.
At this point, I latched on to two English girls who had been to Barcelona before and knew the ropes. They directed me to the bus stop where they were heading themselves and presto, within five minutes, a bus materialized (the fare to be paid to the driver on the bus was 4. 05 euros–thank goodness I had some change with me) and we were off. Through the well-lit roads we sped, many of them reminding me of Madrid, and arrived at Plaza de la Catalunya (Catalonian Square) from where Las Ramblas, the main artery originated. A five minute walk through the crowded street (yes, it was buzzing even at 10 pm) took me to the Youth Hostel where I checked in to find myself placed in an 8-bedded mixed dorm with a bunch of youngsters from Switzerland, Germany and Brazil. They gave me a very hearty welcome indeed and though I was tired, out of politeness, I did spend some time socializing with them while munching on my baguette dinner.
At 10. 30 pm, I was in my bunk, only to be awoken frequently during the night by my young suite mates for whom Friday night can only mean one thing–Party Time!
First impressions of Barcelona? It doesn’t have it’s Fun City reputation for nothing!
Rambling through Las Ramblas and the Bari Gottic
The youngsters sharing my dorm went clubbing and didn’t return till day break. They were sound asleep when I awoke at 9 am, used the Ladies Only bathroom at the far end of my corridor and went down to breakfast in the hotel dining room. This was Carboholics Paradise with cornflakes and muffins and toast and coffee presiding.
Reading up on the plane as to how to spend my three days in Barcelona, I was advised by the gurus at Lonely Planet to start with the Bari Gottic (that’s the Gothic Bario or Quarter). Knowing that the best way to get a feel of a place is on foot, I fuelled up on those carbs, tied the shoe laces on my walking shoes firmly and was off for the day. And I honestly did not stop walking until night fell!
Las Ramblas was already frenetic with activity when I got there at 9. 45 am. I crossed it and entered the Call (or former Jewish Quarter) and was confronted with a tangle of confusing streets, some so narrow that only two people would walk through them abreast. But what character is preserved in this maze! I got a crick that stayed in my neck for the next four days as my head was titled at an angle to allow me to take in the overhanging balconies (very similar to those in Naples, Italy) as I walked gingerly along cobbled streets–the last thing I wanted was a twisted ankle! One old plaza opened out into the other and soon I was taking in the sights of the Plaza de la Jaume, one of the oldest parts of the city that traces its origin to the Roman occupation of Spain. My camera worked overtime as I tried to capture it all.
Lonely Planet’s Walk through Ramblas and Bari Gottic takes the stroller through plazas and medieval cloisters of Romanesque and Gothic churches, through crusted Roman walls and tombs, through churches with enormous Rose windows and geese-filled courtyards, through ancient monuments, hoary with history. I even saw a wedding take place at the charming 12th century church of St. Anne and am sure to be in some of those wedding pictures–I’m sure the bride is going to wonder at the Indian tourist gawking at her off-white mantilla!
I spent a long while in the Gothic Cathedral with its many chapels, its superbly carved wooden choir stalls and pulpit, the crypt with the sarcophagus of St. Eulalia and the Monstrance of Barcelona, not to mention the quiet chapel of Santa Lucia.
Out on the main Plaza Nova, there was scribbles on a building which turned out to be Picasso drawings on the walls of the College of Architecture. That’s what’s so wonderful about these Spanish cities–you see the work of the Modern Masters embedded on the walls and on the streets (Gaudi tiles–I mean tiles by Antoni Gaudi–decorate the Passeig de Garcia and there is a Miro mosaic that you can walk all over on Las Ramblas!)
Leaving the Cathedral environs behind me, I stopped in a tiny old taverna for chocolate and churros (the Spanish snack I remembered so well from my visit with Llew to Madrid a few years ago). The chocolate is so thick, your churros (fried dough sticks) can stand upright in it. Yuumm! I didn’t worry about the calories because I knew I was burning them up faster that I could digest those churros! Then, I was heading for the waterfront, where I saw another sculpture (Roy Lichtenstein’s odd piece entitled Barcelona’s Head). I found myself a bench and since my feet were fairly killing me by this time, I stretched put and closed my eyes (ah, how heavenly that felt!) and contemplated the canopy of trees above me.
Then, I set out for the Llotja (or medieval Stock Exchange building) whose front contains an Art School that both Picasso and Miro attended as teenagers. In a while, I was at the most famous church in the city–the Church of our Lady of the Sea–another Gothic wonder (though I preferred the Cathedral for atmosphere and art works). After a swift visit (there was another wedding scheduled there), I headed off for the Carrera de Montecada, a narrow medieval Bond Street of sorts which once boasted the most fashionable designer stores in the country. Today, its string of old palaus (mansions) have been converted into museums and when I discovered that almost all of them open their doors for free on the first Sunday of each month, I resolved to return the next morning to get to the Museu Picasso first.
However, I did also pass by the Museu de l’Historia de Catalunya and was I glad I popped in there! For this place was free on the first Saturday of each month, so if I could find the motivation and the energy to explore it, I could get in right then and there. And who could pass up such a good offer, right? So there I was, nine metres underground (a lift got me down there) doing a walk through Barsino, which was the Roman name for the city. Recent archaeological excavations have unearthed a city lying intact underground and I felt as if I was back again in Pompeii exploring the bakery and the wine cellars and the homes and palaces of the rich and well-constructed city as it thrived under the Romans!
My exploration done, I emerged on the Plaza del Rei (which I finally managed to find after almost a whole day’s search) and made my way back to La Ramblas and then the sea front where the tall column with Christopher Columbus allegedly pointing to his beloved Genoa, graces the landscape. Antique and junk jewelery stalls kept me browsing for a while before I decided that if I didn’t get back to my hostel room soon, I would quite pass out with fatigue!
Back in my room, my suite mates were partying (I don’t believe they had stopped since the previous evening!) and offered me a Spanish beer (Estrella, which was cold and very good) and as I ate my sandwich dinner and socialized with them, I wound down and got ready for bed.
Dazzled by Picasso and Gaudi
Early on Sunday morning, while the rest of the Youth Hostel residents were sleeping off their weekend carousing, I walked quickly along the Bari Gottic and arrived at the Museu Picasso only to be stunned at the endless line that had formed before the museum even opened its doors. With at least 500 folks on line, I decided to explore the Museu Barbier-Mueller D’Art Pre-Colombi which translates from the Catalonian into the Barbier-Mueller Museum of Pre-Colombian Art. This collection is also located in a beautiful old palau (mansion) on the Carrer de Montecada, right opposite the Museu Picasso, but so gigantic is the reputation of Pablo that no one seemed interested in inspecting the treasure concealed inside–and frankly I did not expect anything too impressive either.
How mistaken I was! One room in particular so seized my imagination that I was glad I gave Picasso a miss until the queues thinned out. The manuscript room was filled with photocopies of the correspondence that ensued between Columbus and the monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain who had sponsored his voyages of discovery. Columbus writes in his own hand about the things he encounters in the Caribbean Islands and his disappointment at not finding any gold. The diary jottings of a number of his crew were also on display and I was transported to 1492 as I scrutinized those priceless documents. Seeing these words in black and white (or sepia and white, to be more precise) somehow made history come alive for me and gave it a soul.
Then, I was out on the street ready to join the line for the Picasso Museum. To my astonishment, I entered in less than ten minutes and though the place was filled, it was still possible to enjoy the contents of the many rooms at leisure and study every single one of the exhibits. I found the museum totally fascinating though most visitors are rather disappointed to find that his best-known works are not on display–they happen to be in Paris, of course, at the Musee Picasso (where I had seen them 22 years ago and been profoundly moved).
This time round, I was moved again, but for altogether another reason. This collection showcases Picasso’s earliest work, most of which was done when he was still barely out of his teens and while he lived and studied Art in Barcelona’s Llotja Art School. It allowed the viewer to see exactly how he progressed from an imitative artist to one who blazed new trails and changed the direction of 20th century Art completely. His earliest self-portraits show an uncanny resemblance to his last photographs taken just before his death. His portraits of his father and his mother are touchingly realistic–such a far cry from the iconoclast into which he evolved. The canvases he submitted to Art competitions while he was still in art school are extraordinarily realistic and show no signs at all of the abstract artist he would become. I found all of this extraordinarily moving. There were a few canvases from his Blue Period and his Rose Period and then the tempo quickened as we moved into his Cubist phase with his take on the work of the Old Masters such as Manet’s Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe and, of course, the famous series he did on Velasquez’s Las Meninas. This superb collection is an opportunity for any lover of Modern Art to understand Picasso’s complex journey and to marvel as its exhaustive invention.
It took me an hour and a half to see it all and then I was on the street enjoying the warmth of the Iberian sunshine pouring down upon me as I decided to spend an hour in the Parc de la Citadella, a green lung of the city that contains some interesting early landscape designs by Gaudi, primarily in the huge Cascade or Waterfall that he created which contains, among other things, statuary, spouting jets of water and terraced basins. The park also is also the location of the Catalonian Parliament but since tours were stopped for the day, I had to content myself with a look-see around the exterior. It reminded me a bit of the Parc de Bieno Retiro in Madrid which included topiary and a lake in which boating was a pleasant weekend past-time. Indeed, the park was empty of tourists and it was great to see the ‘locals’ taking the air, strolling along with their toddlers and to watch the elderly enjoy a sit-down on the many benches.
Then, began my long walk towards Barcelona’s piece de resistance, La Sagrada Familia (the Church of the Holy Family). This iconic image of the city is now familiar to most people but to see it in person is truly a staggering experience. A conception of Gaudi’s imagination, work on this Gothic cathedral began over a hundred years ago but came to a standstill during the Communist era of the Spanish Civil War. When construction was resumed, Gaudi make it his personal ambition to get it finished but, as luck would have it, he was mowed down by a tram right in front of the church. Undaunted by his demise, the engineers and architects continued with his vision and the church is described today as a “work-in-progress”. Most of the exterior has been completed but the inside is still basically a shell with completion expected only in 2030.
Encrusted with sculpture depicting the Nativity on the back facade and the Passion on the front, Gaudi took his inspiration from nature, his constant companion as a child. This was brought home to me through the small exhibit in the crypt of the church and for that reason alone, I was so glad I splurged on the 10 euros that it cost to enter it. I understood completely the rationale of this genius after seeing that exhibit and perceiving the link between the various images from nature (wheat stalks, lavender, sunflowers, pine cones, etc.) on the artistic and architectural motifs to be found on his buildings and their interiors. Everything that had seemed weird suddenly made complete sense to me and I felt as if I had a revelation, an epiphany of sorts.
I took so many pictures but cameras cannot quite capture the intensity of his vision or the creative zeal that has allowed it to be implemented. The giant columns inside the church, for instance, are multi-limbed trees whose branches form a canopy above–Gaudi’s take on Gothic fan-vaulting. The choir stalls at the back of the church are so wide and expansive that, when complete, will hold 1,500 singers. I encircled the building several times both inside and out because suddenly I could not get enough of this revolutionary architect and since I was exhausted by this point, I took the Metro back to Las Ramblas, very proud of the fact that I found my way despite needing to make two changes on two different lines and without speaking or reading a word of Spanish!
Though the evening was still young, I was much too pooped to possibly consider covering any more ground that day. I returned gratefully to the hostel and plopped into my bed where I stayed for the rest of the evening!
Blown Away by the Modernistas
Though I did not intend to, it turned out that I saved the best for last. Indeed, on my last day in Barcelona, I decided to take another self-guided walking tour (as outlined in Lonely Planet) of the area called L’Eixample. This region, consisting of about 12 street blocks in the heart of the city, showcases the work of the Modernist architects that flourished in Barcelona in the last quarter of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th. Apart from the gigantic figure of Antoni Gaudi, they include Domeneck i Montaner and Josef Puig i Cadafalch. The best place at which to start such an exploration of this burst of architectural creativity is the lovely Parc Guell and when I found out over breakfast that one of my Youth Hostel fellow-residents, a German woman named Gisella, decided to visit it too, we made plans to travel there together.
Taking the Number 24 bus from the Plaza de la Catalunya (fare was 1. 30 euros one way), we drove through the wide boulevards of this fascinating city and arrived, about 20 minutes later, at one of the many entrances to the Park. We were glad we had opted for the bus because the journey was long and involved a steep climb up a mountain which afforded lovely views of the city sleeping quietly in the autumnal sunshine.
Our exploration into Parc Guell took us first to the Museu Gaudi, a pink confection of a house in which the artist had once lived. Now converted into a musuem, visitors are free to wander inside for 5 euros, but Gisella and I decided to pass as we had a great deal to cover that day. Instead we walked towards the wide open ceramic tile encrusted terraces, Gaudi’s handiwork, which offered views towards the park’s main entrance where the famous iconic figure of the ceramic lizard is to be found. Of course, we took pictures by the spouting fountain and the sunflower tiled terrace and the towering columns punctuated with the octopus-like tentacles of the ceiling decoration. With each vignette that presented itself, I understood more about Gaudi’s creative passion. Walking around the terraced tiers of the garden, I had the chance to appreciate Gaudi’s work as a landscape architect and I understood again the organic nature of his creations.
Then, Gisella and I were in the bus, making our way towards the center of town to begin our walking tour of the work of the Modernists or Modernistas as they are known in Spain. One after the other, we paused to admire the buildings created with the principles of Art Nouveau in mind–the curlicues, the fussy flourishes, the total femininity of the aesthetic vision. We saw La Prendrera, the famous apartment building designed by Gaudi on Passeig de Garcia. Just a few steps away was Casa Batllo which my guide book suggested we tour if there was just one building we could afford to see. And so Gisella and I purchased a ticket (16. 50 Euros each), which seemed like a princely sum until we entered the space and were swept off our feet.
Casa Batllo is a private mansion for which Gaudi received a commission from the Batllos. He conceived the entire building as deriving from the Sea and chose blue as the dominate color on his rather subdued palate. Inside, motifs from the sea–shells, conches, sea horses, whales, star fish, etc. envelope the space so fully and so ingeniously that words can do it no justice at all. As you wander from one space to the next, you don’t quite know what to take in–so detailed are the touches, so imaginative is the execution. In his signature material–ceramic tile, carved and polished wood, blown glass–Gaudi had created a home that is not just one-of-a-kind but state-of-the-art as well for its time.
The aesthetic features are so perfectly balanced by the scientific and engineering rationale that prompted them that what you see is a perfect marriage of the Arts and the Sciences in that one space. What’s more, every single little feature from the brass door handles to the crystal chandeliers, from the wrought-iron window boxes to the cutest little elevator you ever did see, are entirely conceived and fashioned by his stupendous imagination. This home is certainly one of the most splendid things I have ever seen in my entire life and I emerged out of the place totally overwhelmed.
By this time, I had lost Gisella. Using the audio guides that came with our entry ticket, we had viewed the building at our own pace and, in the process, had drifted apart. Deciding to complete the walking tour on my own, I pressed bravely onwards taking in the Casa Amatler, the Fondacion Antoni Tapie, the Casa Lleo Morera, the Casa Pia Batllo–all of which define the work of the Modernists. Some of the building facades carried elaborate carvings, others had astounding wrought-iron scrollwork, yet others had fancy balconies…every single one of these features falls under the umbrella of Modernism, but I guess the tour reached it zenith at the Palau de la Musica Catalana, designed by Montaner for the performances of Catalonian Music.
This building is striking in the extreme for the facade that sports the busts of famous composers such as Verdi and Beethoven, Mozart and Wagner, ceramic pillars that hold up the structure, ceramic tiles that freely decorate the floors and the ceilings and a wealth of stained glass windows. I decided to grab a bite to eat in the cafeteria inside–a wonderful selection of Spanish tapas presented itself and in choosing to nibble on serrano ham and fish paste with shrimp, I found myself a tasty little lunch, before I picked up the pace once again and arrived at the Mercat de la Boqueria, a famous street market right of Las Ramblas. There, I bought myself neat packages of serrano ham and manchego cheese and with a baguette was able to fashion some truly delicious sandwiches for my dinner later that day
And then, when the sun was close to setting, I realized that I had been in Barcelona for three whole days and had not yet visited its beaches! As you can tell, beach combing is rather a low priority for me, but since I could not possibly leave without setting eyes on the Mediterranean, off I went on another long ramble in the direction of the beach. Within a half hour, I was at the waterfront, enjoying the promenade on a particularly pleasant evening as I watched families have a fun time together. In the far distance, the land mass curved around towards the French fishing port of Marseilles and on the other side, the sea stretched towards the Costa Brava. Ahead of me, the brilliant azure-blue of the Mediterranean made a spectacular backdrop and I was so glad I did find the motivation and the energy to see the sea!
On my rambles back, I took a different route past the ancient Roman quarter once again and, quite by chance, came upon a leather shop from which I bought my one big purchase of the trip–a Spanish leather backpack.
Barcelona was everything I had expected it to me and more, but by the end of three days, I was ready to back my backpack and move on and, the next day, I left the hostel early to catch a bus to the airport for my return to London.