I would like to begin by sending heartfelt thanks to the SNCF (French railways), who made it very complicated for us to reserve a train ticket to Madrid from France and thus “forced” us to consider an alternative option – which turned out to be a voyage back in time to medieval Carcassonne, followed by a leap forward to the age of Catalan modernisme in the mesmerizing city of Barcelona…
Barcelona, proud capital of Cataluna, the province that gave us Picasso, Dali, Miro, Gaudi… What do they put in the water here?
The streets of the city are alive with the colour and creativity of its people: the boundless blue horizon of the Mediterranean; the deep greens and ochre of the rolling hills that encircle the city; the palm trees and colourful trencadis mosaics which speak of southern climes; the animated Plaza de Cataluna and the Rambla, with its “human statues” and vendors that hawk flowers, tapas, gelato – teeming with people, whatever the hour of the day or night…
The work of modernist architects – with Gaudi at the helm – spring up to surprise you when you least expect it, a celebration of nature’s beauty and ingenuity etched in the stone of the Sagrada Familia, the Casa Batllo, the Casa Mila (or Pedrera), Casa de les Punxes... Their frivolous and flowing curves seem at odds with the neat geometry of the city’s streets and boulevards: the Avinguda Diagonal which neatly transects the city (diagonally!), octagonal-shaped intersections, broad palmed-lined avenues that seem to run from one end of the city to the other, neatly manicured roundabouts.
Barcelona is also a city of contrasts: it is elegant and cultured, yet it can be rugged and wild; it is the country’s economic powerhouse, yet the haunted eyes of the homeless (all immigrants) speak of the hardships of a less fortunate class; it is one of the world’s gastronomic capitals, yet the locals will proudly recommend that you opt for a simple tapa of patatas a la bravas at the local bar.
Our stay here wasn’t a long one, but we did make the most of it…
We arrived on a mid-day train at Sants train station and hopped on a metro to the Sagrada Familia, which was a “short way” from our apartment. They had omitted to mention that the walk was all uphill, and heavily laden as we were, we were just about ready to quit when we finally reached the office!! Our apartment was located in the Gracia neighborhood (#314 Travesere Gracia), a nearby village which was annexed to Barcelona at the turn of the century: clean, modern, comfortable… perfect, and worth the hike!
We headed towards the Avinguda Diagonal, where we met a Alphons, the friend of a friend, who works at the Bureau du Quebec in Barcelona (their offices are located in the lovely Casa les Punxes and is was a real privilege to get a quick tour of this beautiful building!). After enjoying our first authentic Spanish comida at the authentic hora de la comida (i.e., 2pm for lunch!!), we went for a quick walk in the neighborhood – down to the Avinguda Diagonal and to the Paseig de Gracia (Barcelona’s equivalent to Paris’s Champs Elises), to Gaudi’s Pedredra… and then on to the Sagrada Familia.
What can one say about the Sagrada Familia? The project began in 1882 and Gaudi became involved in 1883, transforming the traditional vision of the “church” into his vision of a temple that combined Gothic and Art Nouveau forms, celebrating the word of God through the beauty and intelligence of Nature. He dedicated the better part of his life to this project and when he died in 1926, less than a quarter of the basilica was completed. He knew that he would never see this, his greatest work, to completion and would calmly respond "My client is not in a hurry” to those who dared to question his vision – or the time it took to execute it. It is only fitting that he is buried in the Sagrada Familia's crypt, resting at its feet - while overseeing it from above. And yes, Gaudi's client is certainly not in a hurry… and the project is worthy of Him. It is difficult to describe just how breathtaking the building is inside: the soaring pillars, the play of light and colours and textures, the harmonious form, the perfect proportions… It is stunning. I saw it 20 years ago and was awed by its eclectic exterior; this time, I was humbled by the simple grandeur of its interior… and I hope to return in another 20 years to see what it will have become then. Even the girls didn’t want to leave. They were happy just to sit there, staring at the ceiling and coloured glass, while their audio-guide unveiled the secrets held in the walls of this mystical place.
Because our time was limited, we decided to splurge and by a two-day pass on the Barcelona Bus Turistic (of the “hop-on, hop-off” variety)… and that was the best investment we could have made!! Day 1 was dedicated to the Blue Route, while Day 2 was on the Red Route… the sun was shining; we sat on top of the double-decker bus, drinking in the view and listening to the audio-guide; hoping on and off to our heart’s content – thus preserving the girls’ energy level and keeping them in buoyant spirits for the two days!
Day 1 (Blue Route) highlights:
- We began by heading to the Parc Guel, to travel in Gaudi’s imagination and savour the beauty of a warm and sunny morning
- We then hopped on the bus to rest and enjoy the city streets, and stopped in the lovely neighborhood of Sarria. The area doesn’t feel as “touristy” and we asked a local businessman where we should have lunch. Without hesitation, he recommended El Tomas di Sarria, reputed to make the best “patatas a la brava” in Barcelona (I would agree!) – a most authentic Spanish bar, complete with sawdust on the floor and a growling waiter… and for dessert: churros at the corner Xuxeria!
- Back to sightseeing on the bus, and on to beautiful and bustling Plaza Cataluna, and from there, a walk down to the Rambla and to the monument to Christopher Columbus by the Port Vell (old port), where the girls were completely taken by the “human statues” that spring to life (and scare the bejizus out of people!) when you drop an Euro in their tin…
Day 2 (Red Route) highlights:
- We walked to the Casa Batlio and decided to spring to visit the interior – and again, Gaudi does not disappoint. The design is said to have been inspired by the sea, from the shimmering and undulating blue exterior, to the spiraling staircase which resembles the spine of a pre-historic whale, to the arched hallways of the attic which where modeled after the ribcage of a the same whale…
- Bus to Creu Cuberta, close to the Sants stacion and the city’s commercial center: we were ravenous and walked off the bus and into the first restaurant we saw. I feared it would be a “tourist trap”, given its location, but if it was… it was a good one! The Bodega Monumental was lovely and offered the best value for money we had seen in a long time!
- After browsing the covered market next door, we hoped on the bus to Montjuic, where we boarded the teleferic which brought us to the top of the Montjuic hill and then on the Montjuic castle (which is more of a fortress than a castle, really). From there, under a bright blue sky, we could drink in the sun, the sea and the city’s sprawl, barely contained by the surrounding mountains… it was beautiful.
- And then down the teleferic, back to the bus, and on to the city’d old Gothic quarter to visit the impressive cathedral: it was huge, cavernous, dark, with ornate chapels and ostentatious golden altars – it all seemed designed to intimidate rather than inspire.
- And one last ramble through the cobblestoned streets to reach the Rambla again, where we stopped to refuel on “human statues”, paella and ice cream before heading home…
And to think we almost didn’t come to Barcelona… Thank you SNCF, we owe you one!!