Thursday, October 15, 2009

Barcelona; A whole new adventure in Spain begins

We had never been to Spain before and wondered if we would enjoy it; new food, very different scenery, a language we don't speak and menus we can't read. Oh dear... Vueling were cheap and efficient at getting us from Rome to Barcelona. The apartment we had rented needed to be big enough to accommodate us and Cameron and Christine, our son and his wife, who were joining us. There was also a definite instruction that we needed to look at Gaudi related things, so the apartment had a view right on the Sagrada Familia and was convenient for the Metro. However, it was once a lovely apartment...these days rather shabby and ill equipped. Still, it was spacious and convenient and had a view. This view...

View from the apartment window

One thing I must mention is the graffiti...or the lack of it, and of advertising posters stuck to walls and posts. The trains are pristine, the subway stations that get tagged have the tag removed overnight, nothing is on the walls in the central part of town. I saw just a bit as we left town by train. It was so obvious I did a Google search and found that several years ago they brought in a zero tolerance law. The "artistic" graffiti artists protested their loss of large canvases, but something sure worked. Now I am usually quite tolerant of colourful graffiti, but in places like Rome things seem to have gone a bit far and the underground train carriages are covered with graffiti and look very tatty. It was quite a noticeable and dare I say, pleasant, difference.

We had several days to ourselves at first, so leaving aside Gaudi for later, we explored the city, taking a guided walk through the Gothic quarter which was really worthwhile. We saw places like the cloister of the cathedral, the royal palace and even the first Barcelona "skyscraper" (about 10 floors), decorated by Picasso.

Part of Picasso's "Kings" drawing

On a more sober note we saw the square of St Philip Neri church, with the bullet holes in the church wall where they shot people during the civil war, a nice, enclosed space where no one could see what was going on.

Square of St Philip Neri

Gilded altar in the cathedral

St George fountain in the cloister

While we enjoyed the cathedral and its cloister, it was the soaring lines of Ste Marie de la Mar that inspired. Beautifully lit, tall, a modest altar (thanks to some left wing firelighters during the civil war who destroyed the ugly old altar) everything adding to the impression of height and light. Beautiful!

St Marie de la Mer

Light fitting

We really enjoyed the Bouqueria Market where the fruit was so beautifully arranged it was a shame to disturb it. They had also hit on the idea of pure fruit drinks, any flavour, for 1 euro. All the stalls were selling them, stacked in ice and so cooling.

Fruit at Bouqueria

Gorgeous displays

Preserved cumquats
(love this photo!!!)

The hams all hung in serried rows. The price on these ones was E58 per kg. The taste was sensational when we ordered tiny slices in a restaurant, quite different from Parma ham, nuttier and earthier somehow.

E58 per kilo. Yum!!!

After the market wandered on down the Ramblas to the Maritime Museum where the display was beautifully curated, culminating in a full sized galley with oars and a nasty prow for ramming other ships. It was a very beautiful thing but scary to think of it being at sea and even worse to think of being a slave rowing the thing. I never realised that the innermost man on an oar would need to stand to hold on to it and push as it dipped into the water. That really is hard labour.

Stern of the galley

We ventured on the funicular and then the cable car to the fort on Mont Juic overlooking Barcelona for rather misty views of the city, then spent several hours at the Joan Miro museum, wondering at his ability to consider a single line for several months before committing it to paper...just one line on a vast canvas. Three different lines on three canvases to make a triptych. I must admit they looked nice too.

A day in bed for me with a nasty cold developing, so we didn't get to Montserrat for the church, scenery and the boy's choir. A shame, but I needed to conserve strength to keep up with Cam and Christine when they arrived.
It was so good to see them again, but there was room in the plans to let them get out and have fun in the crowds there for a festival, and also to catch the fireworks at Barceloneta.

Then it was Gaudi and more Gaudi. The man may have produced strange architecture but it was with genius. He developed a series of parabolic arches where the only force on them is compression and invented an entirely new type of column to support the soaring heights of the Sagrada Familia. He believed in following the forms found in nature, which are not straight, so everything has an organic look to it, from a wall in a room to the arches sprouting from tree trunk like columns.

We looked at the outside of his building Casa Batlo but thought the E16.50 entrance fee was very steep so we walked up the road to Casa Pedrera which was more reasonable. For E10 we visited an apartment still decorated and furnished as it would have been. It swirls through the building with organic shapes of rooms and doorways in the Modernist or Art Nouveau style.

Bedroom in the apartment

Window and reflection, Casa Perdrea

We then proceeded to an exhibition in the roofspace of his work, followed by ages actually on the roof photographing the wondrous vents and chimneys that look like Star Wars warriors and also a bit like the sculptured soldiers on the Passion facade of the Sagrada Familia.

Helmet like chimneys

Next day began with the Sagrada Familia. What a strange building and what an act of faith to still be building it 80 years after his death. Make no mistake, this is a seriously odd piece of architecture. The Nativity Facade was completed in Gaudi's lifetime and looks for all the world like a sandcastle made with dribbles of wet sand. The sculptured figures are life-like and rather sweet, whereas on the Passion facade they are blocky and angular and very powerful.

Nativity Facade

Passion Facade

There are eight towers completed outside but when the temple is finished there will be eighteen. I was surprised to see coloured writing embedded in the finished towers saying things like "Hosanna" and "Gloria". Smaller pinnacles are topped with coloured Murano glass mosaic balls and fruit shapes which I dubbed the "Carmen Miranda effect", really quite odd.
Internally the place just soars, with extraordinary columns like tree trunks and stonework so fine it looks almost like pleated fabric. Some of the stained glass is already installed, each area having a particular colour, greens, yellows, blues, golden browns and so on. The ceiling is again studded with golden glass mosaics from Murano.

A work in progress

Tree trunk columns branch to hold the golden mosaic ceiling

Light shines through the glass onto protective fabric

Huge windows

Ruched and pleated stone

Having exhausted ourselves at Sagrada Familia we set off for Park Guell, also designed by Gaudi, a large area on the hilly outskirts of the city. If you go here, go by taxi or bus, not by metro, as the walk uphill, even with some escalators, is very steep. Most of the attractions of the park are towards the lower end, a fact that we sadly did not know. However, when we finally got there, there was space to sit and have a drink and then lunch, followed by a wander through the amazing architecture of the park, all done up in mosaic tiles and fantasy shapes like a child's dream.

Terrace for lunch

Cam and Christine on the sinuous mosaic bench that runs right around the open area

Fantasy house at the gates

Dragon spines along the wall

We never did get very comfortable with the food scene in Spain. Everyone seemed to stand at bars and know what they wanted. We had difficulties in just decoding the menus, though we got better. Some places were easier than others and we preferred to sit at a table than stand at a bar. However, we usually enjoyed what we ate, though there is quite an emphasis on fried food in the tapas.

We feel we have barely touched Barcelona and that there is more to explore. Maybe another day...


  1. Great blog about your visit to my city, glad to hear you enjoyed it!
    Just a small correction: the holes in the church wall of Sant Fleip Neri are not 'bullet holes' (as even many locals believe), there were no executions on this place during the civil war. But these scars on the wall are reminders of a terrible incident: a bomb shell exploded in the square, setting fire in the nearby church and killing a group of children who were inisde looking for refuge.

  2. belsata, I can't refute what you say, but the incident was related to us by the guide from the tourist office who seemed very knowledgeable about other areas. When I look it up on line there are at least three different stories accounting for the holes. If this can happen in just 70 modern years no wonder we get confused about things that happend even longer ago.
    This issue aside, we loved Barcelona, and there is so much more to see.

  3. When the grandpa of a good friend was a witness of the facts... you tend to trust him better than the tourists guides ;-)

    Yes, there is much confusion about the facs of teh civil war. As you say, there is no wonder we get confused about things happened ever long time ago.


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