April 17. Day 1. Barcelona.
See Travel Itinerary for a rationale of this trip, and a who’s who of those travelling.
With only two complete days to spend in Barcelona, there was no way we could do justice to this dynamic Mediterranean port city. So to capture highlights, we decided to take two double-decker bus tours, one each day, and in between stroll through the ancient, twisting streets of the Barri Gotic (Gothic Quarter) and along the Ramblas, Barcelona’s famous, vibrant tree-lined avenue.
We started the day with a great breakfast –including freshly squeezed orange juice– at Forns del Pi, a small bakery in Carrer (Street) Ferran, 12, just off the Plaça del Pi, and the only place in the vicinity that we could find open by 9.00 a.m. Then we sauntered via the Ramblas to the Plaça de Catalunya, the starting point for bus tours.
The advantage of the bus tour was that we could get on and off as we wished spending as much time as we needed in places we wanted to visit. You can pick up tickets at various places (e.g. the Ramblas, the Plaça) or reserve on line and get a discount. Details regarding routes, prices and other very useful information can be found at http://www.bcn.travel/Scroll down to “Our most popular Barcelona Tours & Activities” (FYI, we chose Barcelona Bus Turistic, and were very happy with them).
Initially we bought a one-day ticket at 26 euros (15 euros for Andrew and Alex), and were pleased to find that when we decided to go on the next day, we were charged only 9 euros (4 for Andrew and Alex), i.e. the simple difference between one-day and two-day tickets.
We were impressed by the efficient system ensuring fairness when boarding a tour company bus. Most tourists want seats in the open upper deck for the views. When the upper deck is full, the attendant checking tickets just inside the bus offers remaining passengers the option of the lower deck. These passengers are given first chance to go upstairs at the next or subsequent stops to replace those leaving the upper deck. Only then are newcomers allowed to enter the bus.
For our first day, we took the Blue Route, stopping at three Antoni Gaudí creations: Casa Batlló, the unfinished church of the Sagrada Familia, and Park Güell, and finally at Camp Nou, home to one of the most famous football/ soccer clubs in the world: FC Barcelona or simply Barça.
Although not born in the city, no other artist is so intimately linked with Barcelona as Gaudí (1852-1926). Of his 18 buildings, 12 are in the city and 7 have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites (See http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/320 Works of Gaudí on the World Heritage List. UNESCO lists 7). All 3 that we visited are on the list.
Casa Batlló is located on the elegant Passeig de Gracia, the first stop after leaving the Plaça de Catalunya. This part of the Passeig is a focal point of Catalan modernism with strikingly different buildings by contemporary architects, each daring in its way and portraying an iconoclastic/ adventurous spirit breaking with conventions (e.g. compare the Casa Amatller by Puig i Cadalfach immediately to the left of Casa Batlló). Gaudí combined modernism’s variegated decoration –using iron, ceramics and wood– with romanticism’s appreciation of tradition and empathy with nature.
Casa Batlló is actually a renovated apartment block, converted by Gaudí for the textile magnet Josep Batlló in 1904-06. Its façade strikes you immediately with its large undulating windows on the lower level, topped by a wall of multi-coloured mosaics, bold, jutting balconies that look like masks or eyeless sockets, and vertical window dividers on the second and third floors that imitate elongated bones. The locals name it: Casa dels ossos (House of Bones)! Alex’s great name for it: the funky house
Look a little closer at the centre of the large window: those two long bone verticals are topped by a headless torso with arms folded over the chest. And running down beneath the undulating horizontal frame of the window and into the soft curved sandstone frames of the ground floor are four large nipple-like drips. Dripping blood? There’s a surreal feel to the front, which explains why Salvador Dalí –fellow Catalan and surrealist par excellence—admired Gaudí immensely.
According to the art critic, Robert Hughes, the façade of Casa Batlló was intended to project publicly both Gaudí’s deep Catalan nationalism and religious conservatism. Gaudí allegedly said that the façade portrayed the victory of St George (patron saint of Catalonia) over the dragon. The knobbed outline of the roof represents the scales of the dragon’s back (which is much clearer if you go up to the roof), the masks and boned window dividers are remains of the monster’s victims, and the large window the dragon’s devouring mouth. Above, the tower that protrudes boldly to the left is the tip of St George’s lance, topped by a cross inscribed with the names of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
Andrew: I really liked the Casa Batlló because the outside looked like bones holding up the house and the dragon on top of the house looked out above the balconies.
Next we headed for La Familia Sagrada, the building that has become for Barcelona what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, or the Guggenheim Museum to Bilbao: an iconic feature that immediately identifies the city by its boldness and visionary quality.
Gaudí neither started nor finished the Sagrada Familia. It was begun in 1882, and he took it over in 1883 quickly stamping his aesthetic personality on it. When he died on June 10, 1926, three days after being struck down on Barcelona’s Gran Vía by a street car, the church was far from finished. It is still under construction as the cranes on the accompanying picture(s) show, with costs being largely defrayed by donations (especially from Japanese) and entry fees; it is scheduled to be completed around 2026.
Gaudí was a devout Catholic, a conservative at odds with the democratic movements of the times and the revolutionary ideologies rife in Barcelona in the late 19th century. The church from the beginning had been conceived as an expression of atonement for these revolutionary sins, and this purpose complemented Gaudí’s religious convictions perfectly. The Sagrada Familia became an obsession, and after 1912, Gaudí dedicated himself entirely to the church’s construction, begging for donations, sleeping for much of the time in his workshop, neglecting his appearance and scarcely eating.
Gaudí’s church is basically Gothic, overlaid with romantic freedom and modernist love of decoration. Romanticism followed several paths: amongst them a search for the medieval past, a reawakening of interest in local traditions, and nature. Gaudí takes the medieval Gothic cathedral as his starting point, and then adds endless structural and decorative elements based on his belief in the sanctity of nature as an expression of God’s omnipotence.
Nature was God’s great creation, His “building” and since God did not “build” in straight lines, Gaudí too shunned straight vertical and horizontal lines. This is one of the most characteristic qualities of his work. The façade and interior of Casa Batlló contain endless curves; just up the road, Casa Milà (La Pedrera) curves around the corner in a series of waves; inside and outside the Sagrada Familia horizontal and vertical structures lean or are broken up by decorative elements drawn from nature.
This is especially so in those parts of the Sagrada Familia completed by Gaudí: for example, his exuberant, highly decorative Nativity scene in the east entrance.
Compare this with Christ’s Passion scene of the west entrance designed by the Catalan sculptor Josep María Subirachs. The latter’s entrance is simple, with clear cut lines that emphasise austerity, which in fact captures the solemnity of the moment very well.
John: The Sagrada Famiilia is such an amazing building that it was hard to pick just one photo from it. I’m lucky enough to have seen a number of European Cathedrals and while each is impressive in its own right, this one really stands out for its use of light and nature. Inside, your eyes are always drawn up the white stone columns to the deceptively simple yet complex roof. While there is no sign of the work being completed, I am really looking forward to seeing the exterior without the cranes.
Andrew: I really liked the inside of the Sagrada Familia and the pieces that caught my attention were the stained glass and the architecture itself. I especially liked the entrance that Gaudí made because everything was put together as one big piece of art.
After the Sagrada Familia, it was back to the bus and on to Park Güell. After being dropped off at the foot of the Carrer Larrard, we picked up some bocadillos (baguette sandwiches) and made our way up the hill to the park.
Gaudí was commissioned in 1902 to create the park by his long-time patron, the wealthy industrialist and Catalan nationalist Eusebi Güell (Gaudí was 50). Güell had travelled widely in France and England, and the park was possibly conceived in imitation of the residential garden cities in vogue in England at the time (hence the English “Park” as opposed to the Catalan “Parc” or Spanish “Parque”). The enterprise didn’t take off but the citizens of Barcelona are better for it. Güell sold the park to the municipality in 1923.
It’s a public park like no other, now enjoyed by barceloneses and tourists both for Gaudí’s quirky designs and a great view of Barcelona.
Alex: One of my favourite things in Barcelona was the seats in Park Güell because they are so artistic. I also like that they are made of tiles.
Andrew: My favourite part of Park Güell was the tiled seats that were built on a platform where you could see a lot of the city.
Throughout the park, there are hidden corners (some used by musicians when we were there), intimate spaces and everywhere lush vegetation covering the multi-tiered layout. True to his aesthetic and religious bent, Gaudí sought to complement nature which he saw as God’s work. E.g. a sculpted tree arcade, partly entwined by wisteria, seems to grow organically from its natural surroundings.
John: Park Güell was my favourite stop in Barcelona. Maybe because I never knew that it was there. It truly is a gem in the city. I loved the way that the stone work, surrounded by flowers and trees, had no straight lines and created a whimsical feeling.
The mosaic benches, created with broken tile, were brilliantly colourful and, with the city as a back drop, make a strong statement. I particularly enjoy the bright blues that are incorporated into the colour scheme. My caution to other travellers is that the bench area is very popular and gets crowded quickly. Also, go early in the day as the bench area has no shade and gets very hot.
Park Güell is a feast for the senses. If you are interested in an academic interpretation of the Park as an expression of Catalan nationalism, read Robert Hughes’s invaluable but very personal views on Barcelona, especially pages 504-12: Hughes, Robert Barcelona New York 1993.
After Park Güell, it was back down the hill and on the bus (bus frequency depends on the season, from 5 to 25 minutes). It was a beautiful day, warm but not hot, and riding on the upper deck was pleasant and refreshing. A free audio with individual headphones kept us informed of interesting sights as we travelled.
After about ½ hour we got off at Camp Nou, home to Fútbol Club Barcelona or simply FCB. Unfortunately, we never made it to the tour because — and this will seem sacrilegious to aficionados of soccer/football—the queues were long, entrance fees fairly expensive (to us), it was late and we were tired after a lot of walking.
Regrets? In retrospect, yes, especially when Andrew decided that he was a Barcelona fan and bought an FCB cap, scarf, and tile declaring him an “hincha” or “fan” (for which I teased him, because I have been a Real Madrid supporter since I first saw the team in a charity match against Manchester United at the San Bernabeu Stadium in 1959!). Consolation? Yes, it’s a good reason, but not the only one, to go back to Barcelona.
We ended the day, meandering back to our hotels via the Ramblas.
Leslie: I loved Barcelona. Everything. One of my favourite places, though, was The Ramblas.
It was always busy, and full of energy no matter what time of day. It was a great place to walk, people watch and browse the stores and booths along the strip. It was also a great place to see the buskers. We saw some amazing human “statues” as we walked, and I couldn’t believe how still they could be. We had been told to be careful of pick-pockets, yet I never felt unsafe, although we were very careful to make sure we were not obvious targets.
John: When we were planning this trip, I had heard that the Ramblas was the most likely place in Europe to be pick-pocketed. Please don’t let that stop you from walking this street because, even if you have no interest in shopping, it is a great place to people watch and to “drink in” the city. Toward the sea, there are a number of buskers who are “statues” and are remarkable in their abilities.
Andrew: I really like the Ramblas because of all the buskers; they were really good. I preferred watching them than going shopping.
A quick break was followed by an enjoyable, relaxed dinner at the Taller de Tapas in the Plaça Sant Josep. Already we were in the mood for next day’s adventures.