Spanish Holiday: Part 1, Barcelona by Eric and Nataliya Goodman

We had nine days in Spain and wanted to make the most of it. Our trip began in the outskirts of Madrid. Near the airport, our overnight stay, Barajas was a nice little neighborhood to spend the night. We roamed the streets and found ourselves at a little plaza every few blocks with people seated at outside cafes under table umbrellas with beer and wine and tapas. It wasn’t long, once we’d explored the bread and meat and flower shops as well as the grocery stores and specialty shops, that we found ourselves under an umbrella enjoying beer and tapas.
Upon traveling on from Barajas the following day, we arrived at Barcelona, which can be divided into three sections: Montjuic, Old Town, and Eixample. After an early arrival, we checked into our bed and breakfast a block from Sagrada Familia. Wanting to fit in as much as we could while still allowing time for pleasant restaurant eating and plaza lounging, we decided to start with Montjuic, which is a must see.

We love art museums, and the Museu National d’Art de Catalunya (or National Art Museum of Catalonia) is a collection well worth seeing. This art museum is housed in the grand National Palace, which was built for the 1929 International Exhibition. The highlight of this museum is Europe’s largest collection of medieval frescoes. Almost as impressive as some of the art itself is witnessing the National Palace’s great dome from inside. We had tea and coffee in the café next to the great hall just beneath the massive dome. Even more fulfilling than the drinks was the surrounding view. By the time we got to the art museum inside, we were a bit worn out. We were rewarded for our efforts on the upper floor (after taking in all the art) with plush chairs that we could almost fall asleep in. But instead of closing our eyes, they were lured to the majesty of the ceiling art.

The simple path uphill twisted, and we ended up at the Olympics Center, an interesting mix of neo-classical and modern style originally built for the 1936 Olympics (cancelled due to the Civil War) and refitted more than half a century later for the 1992 Olympics. We continued onward, the walk long and grueling. We could have taken the funicular, but decided that doing so would be a cop-out. We hiked for a good hour or so before making it to the summit of Montjuic. This 18th century castle is a fortress, which was originally built in 1640 but destroyed by Felipe V in 1705 and rebuilt after that.

We ended our day at Park Guell, which must be the most whimsical and unusual park, the kind of park where Walt Disney or Salvador Dali might visit to unwind or get inspiration! This UNESCO World Heritage Site is Antoni
Gaudi’s most expansive work of art and architecture. We entered the park through a gate that stood between a crowded gift shop and a guard house—fittingly referred to as the “gingerbred house.” The Room of a Hundred Columns is uncanny, with more than 80 leaning and twisting pillars holding up the ceiling, illuminated by stained glass and ceramic mosaic designs.The park sprawls up a hill with open areas and tunnels that look like waves of rock ready to crash down on surfing tourists and pillars and walkways that look like they are carved right out of nature. If you are anywhere near Barcelona, you’ve got to spend some time strolling through this park.
Inside the park is the house where Antoni Gaudi lived for about 20 years, and a museum devoted to Gaudi. The park is filled with musicians: those with Spanish guitars, four-piece chamber music worthy of the Palau de la Musica Catalonia (more on that later) and accordion players strutting with flamenco flair and more.

When we reached a high area of the park with an excellent view, we could see across all the way to Montjuic on the other side of Barcelona, where we started our sightseeing. “Did we actually walk that far?” Although very tired, we did manage to fit in a tour of the Palau de la Musica Catalonia or Palace of Music, as much palace as concert hall. The stunning stained glass, detailed ceramic tile work and sculptures are a sight to behold. It is the only concert hall in Europe lit by natural light. The tour costs nearly as much as a concert in the cheap seats, so we would have preferred a concert if we’d had more time. On the way from the palace, we passed the Arc Del Triomf. This is perhaps not as impressive as the French grandfather, but this gateway to the Universal Exhibition of 1888 is a triomf.

On our second day in Barcelona we visited the Gothic Quarter of Old Town or Barri Gotic, considered the heart of Barcelona itself, dating back to Roman times, around 27 BC. We entered the quarter near Casa de l’Ardicia, decorated with a letterbox made out of marble and carved with a tortoise and swallows. This house has a charming ceramic tile courtyard and fountain and is home to the historical archives of Barcelona built on the old Roman city wall.

Barcelona Cathedral, begun in 1298 and finished late in the 19th century, is majestic, pure European Gothic, and contains 28 side chapels set between the columns which support the unvaulted ceiling that shoots up an impressive 85 feet. Beneath the altar is a crypt with the sarcophagus of St. Eulalia. The Cloisters are outdoor gardens enclosed by walls and decorated with fountains and statues.

Other sights to see in the Gothic Quarter included the Museu d’Historia, the Centre Excursionsta de Catalunya (with subterranean Roman ruins), and Palau Reial, with a 14th century altarpiece. Deeper into the Gothic Quarter is a busy plaza: Placa de Sant Jaume. There, the Palau de la Generalitat (the seat of Catalonia’s governor) faces Ajuntament (Barcelona’s Town Hall).

The place to go if you want to see the hustle-bustle of Barcelona is Las Ramblas—the pedestrian street lined with cafes and vendors and filled with locals and tourists. Unfortunately, it’s also the place to go if you want to get robbed—both figuratively and literally. Prices tend to be higher on Las Ramblas because it’s the place all the tourist go, so be prepared to be taken to the cleaners for the luxury of siting in one of the streetside cafes to watch masses flow by. Pickpockets are plentiful. The next most annoying thing about the crowded street is the number of hucksters. I’m sure what they’re selling varies with the season and when they’re able to get a huge shipment of for dirt cheap. Their only language seems to be the irritating series of quick squeaks and beeps coming from the whistles concealed in their mouths.

But Las Ramblas has much more going for it than just vendors and thieves. The tree-lined “dry river” begins at the Font de Canaletes, a beautiful lamppost and fountain, and the people flow from there down to the monument at the other end of the pedestrian street where you will find a column topped by Columbus pointing the way to America. Along the way, there were impressive sights to see: Placa de la Boqueria, a square with mosaic pavement designed by the artist Miro in 1976;an Art Deco dragon over an old umbrella shop. And one also will find the opera house, burned and restored twice, in 1861 and 1994.

The busiest and liveliest plaza in Barcelona must be Placa Reial: a large square surrounded by historic buildings and filled with palm trees and lampposts designed by Gaudi. A number of restaurants and cafes line the plaza.

Palau Guell proved to be one of the highlights. It was Gaudi’s first city-center project on such a massive scale. We marveled at the incredible sense of space and style Gaudi was able to create. The tour takes you on eight levels: the center room, complete with organ, choir stalls, an altar, and domed ceiling spaning several of the stories. Gaudi used stone, tile, and ironwork and unique columns and structures to create a home that is a museum piece of its own. The rooftop terrace, should you brave the irregular tiled floor, is crowned by twenty chimneys covered in mosaics of broken tile and designed in unusual and surprising shapes.

Sometimes referred to as Barcelona’s favorite church, the Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar was built in the Catalan Gothic Style. With donations by local merchants and shipbuilders, the massive church was built in a mere 55 years—a short span of time for a classic European cathedral. (Just consider the many centuries it took to complete the Barcelona Cathedral, by comparison.) Stained glass and stone fill out this beautiful Basilica, showing in the artisanship that this was a labor of love and, indeed, the church of the common people.

Picasso Museum is located in five connected palaces from medieval times and showcases 3,000 pieces ranging from Picasso’s mid-teenage years to his old age. Surprisingly from what we traditionally think of as his work, Picasso painted in the styles of many other artists, some realism, some impressionism. And there are a number of sketches from his school days. .The most dense and fullest part of the collection is his study, dissection, and entirely unique recreation of Velazquez’s masterpiece, Las Meninas.

Our final day in Barcelona proved to be a surreal experience filled with fantastic modern architecture and design. The Great Gaudi’s Barcelona Cathedral Sagrada Familia was the sight I most anticipated, easily Europe’s (and most likely the world’s) most unusual and creatively designed church, which I loved touring. Since I love art museums, I toured this magestic creation in a way that I had not done before, seeing Gaudi’s masterwork that combined majestic architecture of old cathedrals and palaces with the aspect of touring a wonderful art museum. The exterior has frogs and lizards carved in the towers and stone along with fruits and vegetables. Eight of the 12 existing spires are topped with detailed Venetian mosaics. The church was under ongoing construction, to be completed according to Gaudi’s designs on the centennial of his death. The entrance view was something to behold. The Passion Façade features angular figures carved in stone showing the passion and crucifixion of Christ. The modern style is stunning. The brass doors to the church are covered in passages from the Bible about the passion. Inside looking up, it was like fireworks exploding above us. Gaudi’s interior columns are like colorful and textured trees, reaching the starburst-floral ceiling. Stained glass and gold leaf and jeweled areas shine down on us. No surface is smooth; everything has color and texture. You can see an example here:

Outside again, we passed through the Nativity Façade, showing the nativity in a new way and in a style very different. Completed in 1930, it showcases doors that represent Hope, Faith and Charity. The nativity scenes carved in stone include the usual manger wise men and angels, Joseph, Mary, and the Christ child. But it also features turtles holding up pillars and birds flying every which way. In 2010 the Pope visited to consecrate it and proclaim it a “minor basilica.” Gaudi, who spent the last 15 or so years of his life working on the church and raising money to build it, would have been happy. He is buried in the Sagrada Familia’s crypt.

Where Barcelona’s Old Town is like a twisted confusion of intertwining streets. This is exemplified by Quadrat d’Or or “Golden Square.” The area contains some of the city’s best Modernitsa architecture, including the works of Gaudi and his contemporaries. The gem of them all is Gaudi’s Casa Mila or La Pedera. This “stone quarry,” an apartment building with some eight stories, was his last project before he devoted his later years to Sagrada Familia. The wavy walls of stone are accented by balconies with intricate ironwork, and the effect is unreal. The top floor of Casa Mila now houses the Gaudi Museum. The Golden Square is a great example of a melding of gothic and modernista styles. Another highlight of Quadrat d’Or is the Illa de la discardia or the block of discard. The name is given due to the surprising range of unique styles showcased on the small city block. Three highlights compete for the attention of passers: Casa Lleo Morera, crowned with an ornate tower; Casa Amatller having a façade that blends Gothic and Moorish and includes a tile-encrusted gable and stairs; and Casa Batllo nicknamed the House of Bones. The large masks covering the lower parts of the fourth, fifth, and sixth floor balconies clearly resemble skulls with drooping eyes and nose holes. From the front façade broken and circular tiles that give it a scaled look more fish than dragon, and the wavy, ceramic roof resembles the back of a scaly beast.

Casa Batllo is even more impressive inside. It is like stepping into a building designed by Gaudi but entering into a Dali painting. The entire house inside is soft and supple, with no lines to be found, no corners. Rooms seem to be pushed out of dough. Light fixtures seem to bloom naturally out of the ceiling and columns seem to sprout from the floor and blossom into ceilings of clouds. Casa Batllo is a can’t miss of Barcelona, the perfect last sight for our time the Barcelona.