On May 2 we sailed into bustling Barcelona for an overnight stay. This was a perfect stop for an overnight since there is so much to see and do here. Really, I don’t think you can do it right in less than a week, but at least we had more than one day here. Barcelona is the capital of the Spanish province of Catalonia, an area with its own separate language and a relatively strong nationalist movement that seeks independence from Spain. It has (you have heard this before) a very long and involved history dating back to Roman times, and was a sea power as part of the kingdom of Aragon in the late middle ages and Renaissance. Our primary focus was the Modernista buildings of architect Antoni Gaudi but we found much more here to catch the eye. The one priority on our list to which you couldn’t realistically walk was Gaudi’s Park Guell, so we decided that on the first day we would use the HOHO (hop on hop off) bus and then stay on foot the second day. This turned out to be a good plan, but not without its unanticipated flaws.
So after breakfast in the Prinsendam restaurant (which makes superb French toast) on our first morning we boarded the shuttle bus that took us to a park at the base of Las Ramblas, the main pedestrian street running up from the harbor to Placa de Catalunya where we would board the HOHO bus. The 12 acre Placa de Catalunya is pretty much the center of town, situated where the old city walls, torn down in the 1850’s, once stood. We walked pretty quickly up Las Ramblas, two narrow streets with a broad pedestrian promenade in the center, lined on both sides with large Sycamores. It was not crowded in the early morning before most of the cafes and vendors’ booths were set up. We boarded the HOHO bus for the ride to La Sagrada Familia, the great church designed by Gaudi that is still under construction after about 130 years.
So what is Modernista, the characteristic architecture of Barcelona? I think after seeing the pictures you will have a feel for that. But basically it is the Catalonian version of Art Nouveau, and was rife in Barcelona from the late 1880’s to the beginning of World War I. It is characterized by curved lines rather than straight lines and square corners; by vivid colors and a variety of materials; by an inspiration from nature and by a lack of symmetry. But more than anything else it is characterized by originality and experimentation. There were a number of well-known and important Modernista architects in Barcelona in that period, but the foremost and best known was Antoni Gaudi. Born in the mid-19th Century, Gaudi was an odd duck: a very rigid conservative and a devout Catholic who designed buildings that look like psychedelic fantasies. My doctor described him as the Dr. Suess architect and I think that’s a pretty good description. He died in 1926 when run over by a streetcar, and recently there has been a movement to have him canonized as a saint.
La Sagrada Familia is Gaudi’s final project. It was begun in 1883 and at the time of Gaudi’s death only one of the facades (depicting the Nativity) had been largely completed. Gaudi lived on site for the last decade of his life (I told you he was a bit strange). Construction was halted in the mid 1930’s by the Spanish Civil War and didn’t resume in earnest until the 1950’s. Today two of the three planned facades are pretty much completed (Nativity and Passion), while the main entrance (the Glory façade) is nowhere near completion. The roof was completed in 2010, just in time for the Pope to visit & consecrate it as a Catholic Basilica (it is not a cathedral; we will see the Barcelona Cathedral later). You can see in the pictures that it is still surrounded by cranes and construction areas, but the goal is to complete the building by 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death. If they make it we hope we are still around and able to come and see it. Even in its current state La Sagrada Familia is nothing short of awesome. When completed it will have a central tower about a hundred feet taller than the current ones that will be topped by a lighted cross that will be visible far out to sea. It will be the tallest church in the world.
There are often long waits in line to get into La Sagrada Familia. You can buy a ticket ahead of time & skip the line, but you have to arrive at a set time of day and we weren’t sure we could do that. So we thought we might not be able to go inside. But upon arrival the line was relatively short, so we only had to wait about 20 minutes to get in, perhaps because it was still early in the tourist season. Anyway, you enter the church through the Passion façade, very severe in aspect, supported by angled pillars meeting in a narrow arch above the entry. On the wall above the door are sculptures representing scenes from Jesus’s last days & his crucifixion. The sculpture was begun in 1987 by a team led by a sculptor born after Gaudi died, so these were not designed by Gaudi although they follow his general plan.
Stepping inside this building is breathtaking. It is lined with pillars modeled on trees with branches at the top that come together in parabolic arches to support the roof. It is a gigantic space; it was very full of people but the space looked very empty because it was so tall. Everywhere you looked there were curved lines, very few straight lines or corners.
Inside the church we were approached by a guy who noticed my hat & told us he was a distant relative of Bob Castellini, the majority owner of the Cincinnati Reds. He said he had been in Europe for a while & asked how the Reds were doing (not too bad at the time). This was somewhat refreshing because in Turkey we had been approached several times by guys who thought my hat was a Chicago Cubs hat (Cubs hats are actually blue with a round C on them, entirely different from a Reds hat). One of them told us we should be rooting for the Blue Jays, which seemed pretty random to us!
The windows of the church are gradually being replaced by stained glass; Gaudi envisioned this as a fairly dark & contemplative space. But there is also a large and bright skylight in the ceiling.
Along the walls are a variety of stonework balconies, walkways & spiral staircases. The walkways have wrought iron railings in twisty designs.
Over the altar in the apse is a hanging figure of Jesus on the cross suspended under a lighted canopy, which made him look like he was hang gliding or skydiving. There is a pipe organ there as well. Eventually there will be several more organs with a total of 8,000 pipes that will be able to be played separately from their own keyboards or linked together so that they can all be played from a single keyboard. Under the altar was a crypt, where Gaudi is entombed (I think; he’s in this church somewhere), which has a chapel. There were windows just above the floor to look down in this space.
We left the building on the other side, through the Nativity façade. This was the one façade completed during Gaudi’s lifetime & under his supervision. It is much friendlier than the Passion façade; its style has been described as “cake left out in the rain” & in fact it does look like the stone is melting and dripping around the sculptures. The theme here is life affirming centered on the birth of Jesus, depicted in the top sculpture over the door. Above the façade is a “tree of life” with doves on it that really looks like a Christmas tree. The main pillars sit on a turtle and a tortoise, representing land and sea life. The sculpture includes musicians, angels, livestock present at Jesus’ birth. And nearby is another tower topped by a fruit basket.
We went around the church to catch the HOHO bus to the next stop on our itinerary, Park Guell, and discovered the biggest flaw in our time management plan: we weren’t the only people who were doing this (who would have guessed?). There was a VERY long line of people waiting for the HOHO bus & we stood in line watching bus after bus leave after boarding only a few people each.
But eventually we did get on a bus (although we had to sit inside instead of on top where there is a great view) & it took us to Park Guell. There was a very steep climb up to the park entrance from the bus stop, but it was well worth it. Built in the first 15 years of the 20th Century, his was originally intended to be part of a housing development for wealthy people that never panned out (only 2 houses were ever built). Guell was an aristocrat who was Gaudi’s most important patron. Most of the most recognizable architecture in the park is concentrated at the entrance.
On each side of the entrance is a building made of brown stone with roofs made of a variety of tiles with a large brown mushroomy object at the top. One of them has blue tower topped by a white cross (that one is the gift shop). They look like gingerbread houses with icing roofs.
The staircase features a number of colorful figures decorated in Gaudi’s signature mosaic style. He is famous for his technique of using broken shards of pottery or tile to make up a colorful and variable surface. The most famous of these staircase decorations is the salamander, called el drac (the dragon) by the locals, copies of which are for sale in most of the gift shops in Barcelona.
Above the stairway is a very large terrace supported by columns. The serpentine concrete bench with wildly varied mosaic decoration that surrounds the terrace is an iconic Gaudi creation. Last year in Lima, Peru we saw a bench wall in a park overlooking the water that was obviously inspired by this bench.
Park Guell is on top of a large hill overlooking the city toward the sea. From the terrace & several other points nearby there were breathtaking views.
On the other side of the terrace is a retaining wall holding up a road higher on the hill. The wall undulates somewhat and overhangs the terrace; I have seen the round structures at the top referred to as birds nests, although I think they really function as planters. There are several similar structures, made to blend with the landscape through the use of local stone and naturalistic design, that support roads intended to service the housing project. There are walkways underneath some of them; we saw some street performers in a couple of those spaces. We also saw Gaudi’s house for the last 20 years of his life (although I understand that during the last 10 years he mostly slept at Sagrada Familia). This was the show house for the project & Gaudi bought it because no one else was interested in moving here.
As you have glimpsed in some of the earlier pictures, the terrace is supported by a colonnade of fluted columns filling the space below the terrace like a forest. The ceiling is made of broken white tile with mosaic medallions between the columns. The view from inside looks down on the gingerbread buildings at the gate. Gaudi expected this to become a covered marketplace.
Finally we left, walking by the outside wall of the park with its mosaic top & another entrance to the park down the street. There also was a wall of intricate tiles (broken but still with coherent patterns) separated by white mosaic that was a little different. We walked back down the steep hill, then waited in the long line for the HOHO bus.
After we finally got on the bus (on top this time, thankfully) we headed for our next stop, Gaudi’s Casa Mila apartment block. But one thing about the HOHO bus is that you have to go through its entire circular route to get back to the beginning (no back and forth routes). This took a while, but it gave us a chance to see a lot more of Barcelona from the top of the bus. We saw a lot of interesting buildings you probably wouldn’t see elsewhere. I can’t identify most of them but we did drive past the Guell Pavilions built by Gaudi in the 1880’s. Its most famous feature (at least to me) is the iron dragon gate at the entrance.
Throughout the city are buildings (presumably residential) with interesting iron balconies, even if little else distinguishes them. This helps give the city a pleasant ambiance since there is always something new and interesting to see even on blocks lined with rows of apartment buildings.
We left the HOHO bus near the Casa Mila, a few blocks north of Placa Catalunya, to walk the rest of the way to the shuttle bus stop on the harbor. Casa Mila was an innovative building (for example, the first with underground parking) Gaudi finished in 1912. A large apartment building with undulating lines & curvy balconies with intricate iron railings, it is known locally as “La Pedrera” (the Quarry). It was very controversial at the time. Gaudi ignored city height limits and other regulations, which resulted in a drawn-out battle over fines and other administrative interference. When it was completed many of the neighbors were so incensed by what they considered an eyesore that would reduce their property values that they refused to speak to the owner, Mila, when passing on the street. Today it is, along with several other Gaudi buildings, a Unesco World Heritage site. In addition to the building’s innovative designs, the roof is in effect a sculpture garden populated with distinctive air vents and smoke stacks. One can visit the inside and the rooftop, but it is fairly expensive and the line was long. As it was getting late we did not take the time for a tour (next time!).
We walked a little way down the Passeig de Gracia to the Casa Batllo, another Gaudi creation. This building originally dates from 1877 but was completely refurbished by Gaudi in 1906 (the year the Casa Milo was begun). It reputedly represents the story of St. George & the dragon: the roof supposedly represents the dragon’s scaled & undulating back & the tower on the left with the cross represents St. George’s lance sticking into the dragon. Be that as it may, the building is completely unique, with multicolored pottery pieces giving the walls an impressionist cast & hardly a straight line in the whole building. Of all the Gaudi works we saw in Barcelona, this strikes me as the one that would be most at home in a Dr. Seuss book. Tours are available of this building as well, but again the long lines & late hour induced us to skip that. So much to come back for!
Casa Batllo is part of the Block of Discard, so called because it contains contrasting buildings by several of the more important Modernista architects. Next to Casa Batllo is the Casa Amatller by Josep Puig i Cadafalch, which has a Flemish step roof façade and a bright yellow color. Next is the Casa Bonet, then Casa Mulleras and on the corner the Casa Lleó-Morera by Lluís Domènech.
We continued walking down Passeig de Gracia to Placa de Catalunya, passing several interesting buildings I can’t identify. I was particularly taken with a large building with a very bright orange turreted roof across the square from the Placa on the north. In the park is a fairly spectacular fountain, complete with statuary.
We walked down Las Ramblas (I will save all the Las Ramblas pictures to show at once) toward our last Gaudi landmark, the Palau Guell. But on the way we stopped for a gelato! Mmmm.
Refreshed, we walked on to Palau Guell, one of Gaudi’s early works built mostly in the late 1880’s. It is on a narrow street, so pictures of the roof were not possible and we did not take the tour for reasons discussed earlier. It is very colorful and original, particularly for such an early date. The 2 large parabolic doors in the front with detailed iron work were to allow a horse & carriage to enter through one door and exit through the other. The doors led to the stable & guests would then walk up a flight of stairs to the living quarters. Between the doors is a large iron decoration that represents the Catalan coat of arms, a patriotic statement.
Tired but happy, we went back to the ship for dinner. After dinner was a performance by an impressive group of local musicians and dancers. Pretty compelling stuff, and a good time was had by all. Afterward we walked out on deck for a night view of the harbor, and then to bed.
The second day in Barcelona would be a short day since the ship was scheduled to depart at 4:30 & we had to be back to the shuttle well before then. Our plan was to go first to the Barri Gotic (Gothic Quarter), which is the old town of Barcelona, to see the Cathedral, then have breakfast at an outdoor café, then go to the Picasso museum, which is just beyond the Gothic Quarter. After that we wanted to do some shopping, since this was our last free day on the continent, at the market on Las Ramblas. Great plan for using our time except for one thing: there were other folks in town. In fact, several very large cruise ships arrived that morning with the result that we encountered many more tour groups than we had the day before. So, as I have said several times before, we will have to come back!
But that doesn’t mean the day was wasted. We started off fairly early toward the Gothic Quarter & the Cathedral. The first thing we came to was the Columbus statue on its extremely high column (almost 200 feet) at the beginning of Las Ramblas. Barcelona was the place where Columbus docked on returning from his first voyage to America (because Ferdinand & Isabella happened to be there at the time). Erected in 1888, it’s a pretty impressive monument, very tall and elaborate, and can be seen a long way away. It was being cleaned (or something) while we were there, so there were ropes & even a brightly colored covering for a worker on Columbus’s back. It reminded me of Gulliver tied down with the Lilliputians’ tiny ropes.
We walked through the narrow streets of the Barri Gotic to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross & St. Eulalia, usually just called the Barcelona Cathedral. There has been a cathedral on this spot for many hundreds of years but the current structure was built in the 14th and 15th Centuries (with the Neo-Gothic façade completed in the 19th). St. Eulalia, one of the patron saints of Barcelona (who is interred in this cathedral), is said to have been martyred by the Romans here, supposedly by being rolled down a hill in a barrel with knives sticking into it. The first part we came to was the cloisters, with a pool in the center, gargoyles on the walls & a nice view of the the tower of the cathedral. Wealthy merchants were buried in the floor so they could be close to the cathedral. It has been populated for hundreds of years by a gaggle of 13 white geese, said to represent Eulalia’s virginity & her age when martyred. They also served a security function since they would make a loud fuss if anyone entered at night. There are several gated chapels in the cloisters, the most popular dedicated to St. Rita, the patron saint of impossible causes.
We had to walk around to the front of the cathedral, facing a large square, to enter. The interior is quite majestic with a very high ceiling supported by pillars and the whole space bathed in a golden light. In the center was the elaborately carved wood and stone choir with wooden spiral peaks topped with crosses all along the top of its wall. After viewing the cathedral we had a continental breakfast at a sidewalk café across the square.
After breakfast we headed to the Picasso Museum. Picasso lived in Barcelona as a young man & this museum is reputed to have the best collection in the world from Picasso’s early years. It was harder to find than we expected (its in a sort of alley) so we walked some through the interesting Gothic Quarter, with its narrow streets, hidden plazas & old buildings. We found the street lights particularly interesting in this area. In fact, there is a great variety of interesting styles of street lamps throughout Barcelona; there are even a couple designed by Gaudi somewhere, although we didn’t see them. A very common sight is the Catalan flag flying from buildings, reflecting (I assume) secessionist views. During the Franco regime display of the Catalan flag was forbidden, so instead they flew the flag of the Barcelona soccer team which has a similar design.
When we finally found the Picasso Museum we discovered the second major flaw in our time management plan. There was a very long line waiting to get in, stretching far down the narrow street. This was partly the result of several very large cruise ships arriving over night; we saw many more organized tour groups than we had on the first day, often crowding the narrow streets and making it difficult to get by. So it turned out we should have come here first thing in the morning since it was not difficult to get into the cathedral. We waited in line for almost half an hour but the line had hardly moved, so we reluctantly moved on since we still had some shopping to do & a midafternoon deadline for returning to the ship.
Our next stop was the Palau de la Música Catalana, a concert hall opened in 1908. Designed by Modernista architect Lluís Domènech, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The exterior of the Palau de la Musica is a fabulous mixture of form and color, with mosaic columns, busts of composers, sculpted stone reliefs and very few straight lines. It is located at the intersection of two narrow streets and surrounded by mostly nondescript buildings, making it very difficult to get a view of the building as a whole; it really deserves a better setting. It turned out there was a long wait before an English tour that we could join, so we didn’t get to see the inside of this building. This was unfortunate because the concert hall itself is supposed to be one of the most beautiful in the world, featuring a huge stained glass skylight in the middle of its ceiling. So, once again our time management plan came up short and we added another reason to return to Barcelona. I did manage to get a couple of pictures through the window of the vestibule, behind the wide red pillars surrounding the original entrance to the concert hall. Notice the tiny ticket window in one of the pillars.
In the 1980’s the building was restored and an adjacent building,formerly the headquarters of the Orfeo Catala, a choral society that originally financed the concert hall, was redesigned to house dressing rooms, a library & an archive. It has a brick façade which is carved into a relief of a tree going up the whole six stories. Visitors now mostly enter through the foyer, located in the first floor of this building, which also has tables and a bar serving refreshments to concert patrons. It is decorated in a style consistent with the concert hall.
As I mentioned we had some shopping we wanted to do, so we hustled over to the main market on Las Ramblas, the Mercat St. Josep. Unfortunately it turned out to be exclusively a food market. So there was another flaw in our time management plan (they are adding up, aren’t they). But even though there was nothing there for us to buy & take home, it was a very colorful place that was fun to explore, with aisle after aisle of kiosks.
We walked down Las Ramblas & had a late lunch at a sidewalk café. But before we get to that, this is a good place to show some of what can be seen while strolling Las Ramblas (in addition to the Mercat). As you can see, it is a wide pedestrian promenade shaded by Sycamores (called plane trees in Europe) lining each side. Outside the trees on each side is a narrow street with buildings on the outside of the streets. It runs from the Placa Catalunya at the top of the hill down to the Columbus column at the bottom. The walkway is constructed in a wavy pattern from side to side. During the day it is full of sidewalk cafes and kiosks selling flowers, gelato and other sundry items. Smack in the middle is a round abstract sidewalk decoration created by Miro, a Barcelona native (there is a Miro museum here, which we didn’t get to see . . . on this trip). A genuine original work of art by a modern master, folks walk over it without even looking, as if it were just a sidewalk. Across the street from the Miro is the Gran Teatre del Liceu, the city’s opera house. Built in 1847, the building has been restored twice after extensive fires. One of our favorite sights on this street was a wonderful dragon carrying an umbrella & a lantern that was hanging on the corner of a building that once was an umbrella factory. There are other interesting buildings all along this street, and at the bottom is, of course, our old friend Columbus (still in chains) & across the street the port headquarters in the old customs building. This is considered one of the great streets of Europe, and with good reason.
We stopped for lunch in a sidewalk café near the opera house called Café de L’Opera. We shared a large pizza with jambon (ham is a Barcelona specialty) & each had a beer. It was very good & the huge beer was served in a glass that looked like a globe. We were a little taken aback when the bill came, as it added up to about $50! I think a good part of that was to pay for the privilege of sitting in a prime spot on Las Ramblas, and we did enjoy that quite a bit. But by the time we finished it was too late to get a gelato & we had to hurry down to the shuttle bus stop at the port end of the street, which was more challenging than it should have been because of all the food & beer we had just finished. But we made it onto the next-to-last shuttle bus & back to the ship on time. As you can probably tell by the length of this episode, delightful Barcelona was truly one of the highlights of the trip.