Oh my Gaudi!

Today we visited two of Antonio Gaudi’s most famous works: Parc Guell and La Sagrada Familia. A modernist architect at the turn of the century, Gaudi must have been Divinely inspired. This man was a genius; it is hard to find adequate words to describe his marvels. Before touring Gaudi’s works we stopped at El Mercat de Boqueria, a market along La Rambla, a wide street leading up to the northern area of the city. Inside the market vendors were selling colorful candies and fruits. Further back slabs of meat hung from the ceiling and vendors were selling fish, eggs and bread. After breakfast at the market we headed up to Parc Guell.

Parc Guell was a maze of winding pathways traversing a hill side overlooking the city. There were so many panoramic views of Barcelona–the shining sea and skyline were exquisite. At the front entrance to the park was a beautiful building decorated with mosaics. We sat for a moment on the iconic mosaic benches lining the top of the structure. After lunch and a cup of coffee we hiked to La Sagrada Familia, an unearthly and breathtaking cathedral on which Gaudi worked until his untimely death in 1926. We stayed until closing. Although still under construction, La Sagrada Familia is striking. Soaring ceilings, intricate masonry, enormous stained-glass windows–this was just the beginning. Although I can try to describe the cathedral, I don’t have the right words to describe my experience. As I sat and prayed, admiring the otherworldly beauty surrounding me, I felt like God was right there sitting next to me. Whether or not you believe in God, or a Higher Power, Gaudi’s church is a sacred place of peace; it is a sanctuary. Gaudi had an incredible ability; he was a visionary and he left the world with a beautifully sacred space in which to contemplate life’s great questions.


A City in Two Days


Greetings, again, from Barcelona, where our second day of exploration is coming to an end.

After a light breakfast and our first round of café Americanos, we met our driver and tour guide for the day, Jordi (named for the aforementioned St. George, patron saint of Barcelona) and set off to explore the outskirts of the city.

Jordi, like Toni (our guide from the previous day), is an upbeat local, who seemed to have close personal friends almost everywhere we stopped. Somehow even friendlier than Toni, Jordi had a million things to talk about, from the most vivid details of nearly every building and property in the city to his favorite mountain biking trails and parks. We spent nearly four hours in the backseat of his Volkswagon, in addition our short but frequent excursions into gardens and roadways for better views and pictures of our surroundings.

My favorite of these views were two hospitals, one dilapidated and out of use, named La Rotunda, and the second a turn-of-the-century, nine-block hospital compound named Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau. La Rotunda stood out from its well-kept neighbors with its picturesque, faded clay walls and shining, mosaicked tower. Wedged between bus stops and breifcased pedestrians, it looked almost forgotten in all its beauty and mystique. The Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau, an urban center in comparison, was a more obvious architectural triumph. Because of its sprawling layout, its multiple, specialized building accompanied a more modern emergency care center, where different specialists and general doctors collaborated to heal patients quickly before sending them to the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau. Despite being obscured on four sides by walls and intricate iron gates, it looked like an oasis of palm trees, succulents, and towering, decorative brick domes. “When you have time, you must go there!” Jordi exclaimed in all seriousness, as I wondered bewilderedly what excuse might get me inside the long-term care unit of Barcelona’s largest hospital.

After Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau, we climbed the narrow roads to Park Guell, another of Gaudi’s triumphs. Once there, I ascended staircase after staircase into a bustling, open-air market, filled to a crowd with photo-happy tourists, blanket vendors and performance artists. During my climb, I passed a series of beautifully organic fountains and stone walls, which were balanced by the eccentricity of Gaudi’s curvaceous, abstract walls and sculptures, flanking a cavern of tiled pillars. The pillars created an echoing den, filled with tourists listening to the native musicians and performance artists, and reflecting the rainforest-like sounds of red-green parrots and frogs in the lush forest surrounding it. More even than the garden, it was these sounds that moved me, as if Gaudi himself had ordered the animals to call in accordance with the buxom, flowing lines and flowery decals of Park Guell.

We finished our tour atop Montjuic (named either for an ancient Jewish cemetery or the Roman god Jupiter, depending on whom you ask), where we had a beautiful lunch at La Terraza. The restaurant sat cliff-side, where its multi-level terrace patios faced all of Barcelona and its slow descent into the sea, making for a breathtaking view.

After a lunch of freshly squeezed apricot juice and ‘crunchy baby goat lasagna’ (I’ve made it my goal to eat the most preposterous meals I can find on every menu, so far with mouth-watering results), we walked down the little, tree-lined street to the Fundacio Joan Miro, where I spent hours wandering the white hallways, fervently drawing out my sketchbook and colored pens every time I saw something memorable, which happened more often than not.

In addition to one of the largest permanent collections of Miro’s work, the museum had a large selection of noteworthy modern art, and was exhibiting an impressive show dedicated to modern British paintings (including one of my favorites by Lucien Freud).

The majority of Miro’s work in el Fundacio was sponsored by the art enthusiast John Pratt, founder of the gallery in his name, La Galleria John Pratt, which has exhibited work by Donald Baechler, with whom I’ll be spending the rest of my Senior Project on returning to the states. In seeing the work collected in the Fundacio, I saw the common thread of abstract modernism and expressively drawn and painted works of art, which in many ways reflected the beauty of Baechler’s paintings and prints.

After fully exploring the museum, we took a tram down the mountain, and shopped our way up Passeig de Gracia until our bodies ached from the day’s walking. At eight, we were the first patrons in the restaurant (dinner usually doesn’t start until around 10:00 on weekends; our ‘early’ dinner was a clear sign that we were tourists), and chatted in English with the waiters while they served us a variety of their favorite tapas.

2/20 We are in the home stretch. With only one full day before another seven-hour flight (dios mio!), and a to-do list that’s been almost completely crossed out, Barcelona is slowly becoming a memory, or at least the beginnings of one.

In the past three days, I’ve visited La Casa Batallo, La Sagrada Familia, La Pedrera, Montjuic, Park Guell, La Fundacio Joan Miro, Museu Picasso, Santa Maria del Mar, the Barri Gotic, Las Ramblas, Barceloneta (Barcelona’s old city, with an ancient execution square, Roman aqueducts and city walls and an endless maze of narrow streets), Palau de la Musica Catalana, Parc de la Ciutadella, and countless shops and restaurants. I’ve tried new foods and adapted to Catalan customs (especially sleeping late and staying out and about at night!); I’ve even learned a few words of Catalan to sprinkle into my Spanish! More than anything else, though, I’ve laughed. When you’re here, with the warm sun browning your skin and the breeze catching your hair in every direction, it’s hard not to.

We started this morning early, before even the breakfast cafés were open (which happens at the earliest, at 9:00). We walked through the empty streets, avoiding the half-full wine glasses and bottles that littered the street like dead soldiers after a raucous Saturday night, until arriving at Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia.

The basilica rose up from the surrounding gardens like a giant drip-sandcastle, with intricate, blistering facades and magnificent yet unfinished towers. When inside, light poured in through the beautiful stained-glass and clear windows, trickling through the tree-like pillars to the people below.

The Sagrada Familia is known for its foresty feeling, as each twisting pillar erupts into a carefully spiraling golden ratio of branch-like arches in the vaulted ceiling. As Gaudi once said, “The tree outside my studio is my greatest teacher”; he channeled his fascination with nature and the outdoors into an abstractly organic, almost indescribable architectural style, which remains completely unmatched even today, nearly 100 years after his death.

After Gaudi, we walked a few blocks to Barcelona’s old city, also known as Barcelonetta. Barcelonetta was once a walled city created by the Roman Empire as a Mediterranean port. With nearly 700,000 people living in a space only seven new city blocks square, it was a vortex of infection, crime and disease controlled almost exclusively by the Catholic Church.

Now, with most of the walls torn down, the remains of the old city have become living relics, filled with beautiful little shops, narrow passageways and laundry lines zig-zagging from building to building.

In one of these narrow passageways was the Museu Picasso, a beautiful, medieval stone building filled with the drawings, paintings, sculptures and ceramics made by Picasso while he was studying in Barcelona. While I’ve seen countless Picasso exhibits, this was one of the few that truly showed his humor and versatility, and his constant fluctuation of artistic style. Mixed among somber, realist paintings were almost pornographic sketches and decorated advertisements, on which he drew moustaches and excessive body hair on the female models, and perverted little men dancing around them with cameras.

With my sister bored with the quiet walking tours of museums and historic sites, my mom and I left her with my father and went to explore on our own.

After a light meal of Udon soup and ‘Very Good Rolls’ (we had a choice between either the ‘Good Rolls’ of the ‘Very Good Rolls’, and made the obvious decision), we walked around Las Ramblas (a touristy district near old city) and the Barri Gotic, one of the oldest churches in Barcelona, with a beautiful Mediterranean courtyard and an elevator to see the view from its roof.

Feet hurting from so much walking, we returned to the hotel for a siesta before visiting La Casa Mila, Gaudi’s apartment building which was also known as La Pedrera.

La Pedrera, only a block from our hotel, is still occupied today by a few of its original tenents, but three floors and its rooftop terrace have been opened to the public as a referential museum of Gaudi’s work and the changes taking place in Barcelona while he was creating them.

Finally, after a long and inspiring day, we met together one last time for drinks and tapas at a restaurant down the street. Thanks to the variety of their tapas, and the traditionally small portions, we all tried almost everything on the menu, including an almost ridiculous amount of dessert (we made up for our meagerly-portioned meal with a triple-serving of desserts: hot chocolate cake in orange sauce, the always delicious crème brulee, biscotti, solidified (jellied) g&t with lemon sorbet, and chocolate crème and crackers with oil and salt).

Leave it to Barcelona to surprise you with the unexpected, and always keep it sweet.

Hasta Luego, Emily

The Dragon House and Gaudi’s Spain

Today marked the official beginning of my journey with my family to Barcelona, Spain. I travelled thirteen hours into the future, from Thursday afternoon until Friday morning, and managed, somehow, to still have energy enough to explore. After getting off the plane we were met with an overly enthusiastic driver named Toni: a nearly indistinguishable Spaniard with olive skin, short, brown hair, flattering stubble and prominent, bony facial features. As he drove us the half hour from the Barcelona Airport to our destination, Hotel Majestic on Passeig de Gracias, he excitedly discussed with us the happenings of his city, and the recent ups and downs in terms of Barcelona’s economy and tourism.

On our drive, I was immediately struck by the mixture of classical and modernist architecture both inside and outside of the city. From Gaudi to graffiti, every building glittered with humanity and creative ingenuity, not to mention a plethora of multicolored, divinely inspired mosaics. On leaving Toni and the world of Barcelonan automotive transportation (most of which is run by Mercedez Benz, Volkswagon and Audi, a fine example of the comparatively blasé sense of American quality… but that’s another story), my senses overloaded with the vibrancy of my settings. If nothing else, Spain is sexy. It’s well groomed, it’s generous, it’s exciting. It stays up late, and it knows how to make you smile.

After a much-needed espresso and selection of tapas, we checked into Majestic and unpacked our luggage to join the rest of the city in their mid-morning siesta.

Our hotel is on the Park Avenue of Barcelona. It shares a building with Chanel, and a block with Hermes and Louis Vuitton. Sitting on the balcony outside of my room (almost every room or apartment in central Barcelona has a balcony; as Toni described it, “They chop off the corners of buildings for all those beaaaautiful terraces… who wants a window?! No one wants a window. You must go outside and be a part of the street”), my vision was overwhelmed by the constant whirring of motorcyclists and picture-snapping tourists, leggy-models and Armani-clad homes.

We reconvened after our early morning siesta on the roof of Majestic, where my sister was dying to visit the swimming pool. To our surprise, the roof was a thousand times as splendid as our little rooms and balconies; the azure pool glimmered in the sunlight, reflecting the mountainous, city-wide view that circumnavigated it. A bartender brought us snacks and drinks as we leaned over the latticed railways towards  La Sagrada Familia, Montjuic and the Mediterranian, breathing deeply the smell of lilacs, orange trees and palm growing on a terrace beneath us.

As the sun peaked in the sky and the locals rolled out of their beds, we jostled our way across the street, weaving between bicyclists on community-loaned bikes, subcompact cars, motorcycles, and all of the endless picture-taking tourists. Like many of the tourists, we headed for the line into La Casa Battlo, a private home designed and renovated by Antoni Gaudi, the riotously popular local architect and designer of La Sagrada Familia (as yet unfinished), and the controversial La Casa Mila (also known as La Padrera), both of which I hope desperately to tour before my time here is through.

I like to call La Casa Battlo ‘the dragon house.’ It was built as a testament to St. George who slayed the dragon (the patron saint of Barcelona) and the multilevel house serves as a functional shrine, encapsulating their infamous battle. The dragon’s spine curves its way up the banisters and walls of the curvaceous, asymmetrical house to the roof, where it dips and peaks under George’s cross-shaped sword as it’s ultimately defeated. On either side of the main stairway, which circles around a beautiful, blue mosaic atrium, are hallways and smaller stairways that are indistinguishably bony and rib-like in their curved, white arches and spirals, which are meant to depict the bones of the dragon’s previous victims.

Antoni Gaudi; La Casa Batallo

As is many other masterpieces of Spanish architecture, La Casa Battlo is naturally lit, with its atrium and windows gushing with Barcelona’s clear sunlight. When approaching the outdoors, though, the brilliancy of light is almost overwhelming. In taking photographs and making quick sketches, I was entranced by the interesting shapes Gaudi used in his windows and towers, which cast brilliant highlights and shadows across the space, as if the spaces themselves were imposing their voices upon the viewers and the floors and walls around them. I remember standing on the roof, watching as the shadows of an iron-barred window slowly cast themselves over a tourist photographing the terrace below. He snapped the picture and walked away.

I walked away, too, but not before capturing the little circle of shadowy black on the clay floor. I think that Gaudi’s magic reflects, and even promotes the magic I see in Barcelona. It is as though even the mundane is brought to life, reflecting the everyday as if in a funhouse mirror. Everything is slightly distorted, and looking makes you think.

I was telling my father, in a little bagueteria, about the power that South American and Spanish writers have had on me, about the reality I’ve found in their unbelievable stories. Barcelona is like that; Gaudi is like that. It wouldn’t be quite as magical if it followed any standards; it wouldn’t be as real if it made any sense.

With love from Barcelona,