Barcelona: Gaudi and more

May 2012

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Read Catalonia: On the Trail for Dali and the Pyrenees

Barcelona Spain May 2 – 7 2012

Thank goodness for suitcases with wheels. We don’t have to carry everything on our backs any more. We had a quick and comfortable ride from the airport to Plaa Catalunya, right in the center of Barcelona. The walk to our simple hotel in the oldest part of the city is easy. We have good walking instructions and we even have time to stop in the plaza beside Barcelona Cathedral and take some photos. We will get to know all these narrow, winding streets with its numerous, interesting plazas well in the next four days.

 

As soon as we have checked into our room we are off again exploring. The place to be on this sunny afternoon is La Rambla, a wide pedestrian walkway in the middle of the road leading from Plaa Catalunya right to the port on the Mediterranean. Everyone else has the same idea. We have never seen so many tourists in one place, but everyone is polite and friendly. Every corner has flower shops, souvenir shops and a Living Statue, busking for a living. There are large historic buildings to admire and the Central market with tempting displays of foodstuffs, Tapas (Spanish snacks) restaurants and booths selling fresh squeezed fruit juices.

 

We stopped at a booth on La Rambla advertising various entertainments and bought tickets for a guitar concert scheduled for the next evening in a local church. That was a great choice. Barcelona 4 Guitars were not only accomplished musicians; the two men and two women proved to have a sense of humour, to the delight of the audience. There was a running gag about a worker wandering past the musicians, disturbing their play and contests between the musicians as to who could play the most unusual instrument. The performance ended with an unexpected piano solo by one guitarist and an operatic aria by another. They got a standing ovation.

 

We ate well in Barcelona. We decided to follow Spanish tradition and have our main meal in the middle of the day. The well-priced Menu del Dia usually includes three courses and a glass of wine. How could we resist. Our evening meal was either Tapas in a restaurant or a crusty bun with a piece of cheese, a tomato, sometimes an avocado, eaten in our room and washed down with a bottle of wine. We never did make it to late night dinner, which doesn’t start until after 9 PM.

 

Antoni Gaud brought architecture to the forefront in the early part of the 20th Century. We visited most of the buildings, now UNESCO World Heritage Sites that Gaud designed in Barcelona and were amazed by his imagination and engineering expertise. Most were within an easy walk from our hotel. We found we liked using the audio guides available in most of the Barcelona buildings we visited. We could take our time wandering in and outside the buildings and understand much more of the significance of the features.

 

Casa Batll has probably the most photographed facade of Gaud’s houses. Gaud was commissioned by Batll, a wealthy textile industrialist, to remodel his existing building to be unlike any other house owned by his family. He got his wish. Finished in 1906, the design of the house is said to symbolize St George, the patron saint of Catalonia, killing the dragon. It isn’t hard to imagine that dragon coiled over the roof, the ceramic roof tiles forming the dragon’s scales, with the white ceramic cross on a rooftop turret plunged into its back. The chimneys on the roof were not just utilitarian, they are each a work of art. As in all his houses, Gaud designed all the interior decorations, from banisters, to windows and doors, to the smallest bolt. We found the house fascinating, with its many room, exterior terrasses and parabolic arches in the attic.

 

Just north of Casa Batll is Casa Mil, Gaud’s eight story apartment building. Like most of his buildings, there are no straight lines. Every surface undulates. Even the intricate wrought iron balconies hug the curves of the building. On the roof are more of those fantastic chimneys.

 

A few blocks to the east of Casa Mil sits Gaud’s last masterpiece, the still unfinished Sagrada Famlia Basilica. A lot of work is going on, starting and finishing a third facade, spires and parts of the interior. Even this work in progress is fascinating. There was so much to see; the Passion and Nativity facades were covered with sculptures, the pillars inside the church made the area more like a forest of trees than a mere church, the use of windows for natural light was mind boggling. No wonder when we think of Barcelona we think of this wonderful church.

 

Eusebi Gell, another wealthy industrialist, whose father became rich with his Cuban enterprises, was the revered patron of Gaud. His home, Palau Gell, was Gaud’s first major commission and made his reputation. Gaud was told to spare no expense and he didn’t using the finest woods, materials and skilled workmen available. It was built in the time of horses and carriages, so the main entrance leads to a spiral ramp bringing horses down to the elegant brick livery stables. Those were the days of grand living. Visitors were invited to the house to hear concerts performed by an orchestra with choral accompaniment or enjoy a recital on their elaborate organ. The house had deteriorated over the years and required restoration that just finished last year. I was impressed by the care taken to ensure that all work was done to original plans and using authentic materials.

 

There is more to see in Barcelona besides Gaud designed buildings. We didn’t have time for everything but we did see the beautiful Barcelona cathedral, with its carvings and St George slaying the dragon fountain. We admired many of the other mansions and public buildings. It is no wonder that tourists throng to Barcelona.

 

Montjuc, named for a Jewish Cemetery once located on the hilltop, is now parkland and home to both the Olympic Stadium and the National Museum of Catalan Art (MNAC). It made a good day’s outing for us. We reached the top via a funicular railroad that starts at one of the Metro stops a short walk from our hotel. Our first stop after arriving on the hill was the Fondaco Joan Mir, an art gallery conceived by Mir and opened in 1975. Much of the permanent collection was donated by Mir but works by other artists and temporary exhibits are also encouraged. One of our favourites was a fountain by Alexander Calder, a friend of Mir, which runs not on water, but on mercury.  There was an interesting exhibit of photography from one of the first people to take the bird’s eye or worm’s eye view of objects, especially buildings and nature. Once again we were amazed at the breadth and variation of Mir’s works. I couldn’t resist buying a T-shirt screen printed with one of his more famous paintings, “Tear with Nude Woman”. Cameras were not allowed inside the building so we were limited to pictures of his sculptures on the roof and exterior of the gallery.

 

Nearby was the Olympic Stadium, built for the 1936 Olympics, which were subsequently cancelled, and refurbished for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. We had a look around the huge arena and had lunch in the cafeteria before moving on to the National Museum of Catalan Art (MNAC). We had been taking advantage of Senior’s entrance rates in all the public buildings and were pleased to find the Museum was free for us. We didn’t try to see all the collections; we can only take in so much in one day. We did view the special exhibit of Gothic art from the 14th C, interesting for its detail, colour and technical skill.

We finished with the modern Catalan Art collection, which included many works by artists of renown.

 

The front entrance of the MNAC gives a sweeping view of fountains at the base of the museum, Plaa d’Espanya with its own grand fountain, built for the 1929 International Exhibition, and Las Arenas Bullring, now a shopping and entertainment center. The stairway below the museum is a favourite location for wedding photos, such as the wedding party we witnessed posing in the sun.  

 

Eusebi Gell had grander ideas than just his mansion, which was right next to the fashionable La Rambla. He proposed that Gaud design an upscale housing development on a rocky hill with beautiful views and none of the noxious fumes of the city center a short distance to the south. Unfortunately not enough people were ready for Gaud’s modern styles and the development was not a success. Besides the Gell home, only two others were built, neither designed by Gaud, and because one of the houses could not be sold, Gaud moved in himself. The failed project became a public park with walkways and pavilions designed by Gaud. It remains popular to this day, especially on warm, sunny Sundays, when we took the metro north and walked up the hill to one of the entrances. There were numerous paths to follow, leading to lookouts with views of the city and neighbouring hills. The stonework still spoke of Gaud’s imagination. The brick and stone walkways were supported by pillars, each of which was topped with plantings. Entrance pavilions, looking like Gingerbread houses sat next to an elaborate wrought iron gate. Broad stairways led up to a colourful dragon fountain, where everybody takes turns posing for a photograph. Benches with curved backrests decorated with broken ceramic mosaics snaked across a slope above the main entrance. Even the support pillars and the ceiling below the curved benches had elaborate decorations.

 

We still had time our last day to explore the Barcelona Port Vell (Old Port). We walked the broad promenade, Rambla de Mar, past the old Customs house and the Monument to Christopher Columbus that marks the spot where Columbus came ashore in 1493 after returning from his voyage to the Caribbean. He brought with him six Caribbean natives who were baptized as Christians in the Barcelona cathedral, amidst much pomp and ceremony. You can visit the largest aquarium in Europe in Port Vell, watch an Imax film, visit a maritime Museum or learn more about Catalan history, but we were content to just walk along the shoreline, enjoying the sunshine. It was a pleasant way to end our visit to Barcelona.

 

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