Barcelona, 3-5 March 2023
Barcelona is a city with strong Catalan roots in northeastern Spain. We think of Barcelona, if not also all of Catalonia, as Spanish, but it is similar to Corsica for the French – a distinct culture and language even. Historically, Catalonia has an anti-Franco and Republican reputation, while recent political movements have been oriented to increasing its independence from Spain – or at least increasing its regional autonomy within Spain. And, in contrast to Corsica which has no urban center but lots of coastal towns, Barcelona is clearly the urban center of Catalonia, a bustling port city with over 40% of the Catalan population.
But the city is also a major tourist attraction year-round – probably the top tourist attraction in all of Spain. For most tourists, the Catalan influence is most evident in the street and transport signs which typically appear in both Catalan and Spanish. Otherwise, it’s as though the tourist is in a part of Spain – a predominantly Catholic county, home to one of the two top soccer teams in the country (and probably in all of Europe if not the world), and filled with restaurants featuring “las tapas” (a unique style of appetizers) and night clubs featuring flamenco dancers. If one had the time to dig more deeply into the historical influences on this culture, it would also include Moorish, Roman, Mediterranean and even Jewish traditions – all of which we were vaguely aware as we wandered through the historic Gothic Quarter of the city.
We were there as tourists, to be sure. And for a weekend adventure – no more. Besides the tapas and the castanets, what did that mean? Well, first and foremost, it meant absorbing the uniquely Spanish atmosphere of an urban setting. We were fortunate to have booked a hotel somewhere along the main boulevard – La Rambla de Catalunya. Most importantly, it was in walking distance from the Placa de Catalunya, where airport buses drop you off and where tourist buses pick you up for their “hop-on-hop-off” tours around the city. We subsequently learned that this main boulevard actually has several names along its full length and thus is known more in the plural form “Las Ramblas” than in the singular. Lucky for us, the hotel was conveniently located on the part of the boulevard known as La Rambla de Catalunya.
On our first day in Barcelona, we made a point of familiarizing ourselves with this broadly laid out boulevard of Las Ramblas. It has a central pedestrian walkway all up and down the full length of the multiple “ramblas”. It has craft stalls and street performers in the daytime and outdoor cafes in the evenings. We learned that this walkway was originally a river (and eventually a sewer) with various structures on either side of the river. And it ran along the exterior of the walled-in Gothic Quarter of old Barcelona. The name rambla is derived from an Arab word meeting sandy riverbed , and this one apparently dried out (or became an open sewer) and was eventually covered up. (This is very similar, by the way, to one of the main streets of Grasse – originally a stream that was eventually covered up – except that in Grasse we understand that the stream is still there underneath the cobblestones.)
We understand that once the dry riverbed (aka sewer) was covered up, the boulevard became a popular place for the well-to-do of Barcelona to build their mansions. We were duly impressed with the architectural appeal of these buildings along each side of Las Ramblas – mostly nineteenth century in style, with charming architectural finishes – gargoyles along the rooftops and elaborate mosaics along the entryways. Today they contain the shops and restaurants on the ground floor that attract both locals and tourists. We noticed the elegant specialty shops for fine leather goods, elegant attire and home furnishings, including the well-known Spanish brands like Zara, etc.
For dinner, we chose a restaurant near our hotel. It had both the outdoor tables along the boulevard but also a bustling indoor setting that we preferred because it was still quite chilly outside. Kathy indulged in a sampling of tapas – each one complemented by a different craft beer! Peppy, too, had a taste of a more generously-sized tapa plus a main course of meatballs accompanied by the spicy “patatas bravas” of Spanish cuisine – no beer, though. One final touch of our evening stroll that first day was this statue.
Later in our visit, we absorbed the daytime characteristics of Las Ramblas. We were truly astounded by the atmosphere of the vibrant and crowded pedestrian traffic up and down this central pathway. We came across the famed Miro mosaic – actually walking across it before realizing it was THE Miro mosaic! And then suddenly realized that it was also the marker for the entryway to the famous Boquéria market. So off we went to explore the noise and smells of this bustling covered open-air market. It was comparable to the markets we have explored in Lyons and Ventimiglia, each filled with local specialties in a crowded market setting. This one was clearly a distinctly Spanish (or Catalan?) array of meats and fish, fruits and vegetables, breads and desserts. The vendors shouted out their bargains over the din of the shoppers as we worked our way through the crowds in search of a dining opportunity. Although we did find one, we neglected to capture it photographically. But we did capture Kathy indulging in her after-lunch dessert – a delightful stick of chocolate-covered strawberries!
The Park Güell
The central touristic feature of Barcelona is the prevalence of the works of the architectural genius Antoni Gaudi. There are, to be sure, other artistic attractions – especially the links of Barcelona to both Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro. Each artist has a Barcelona-based museum in his honor, and we encourage visitors to check them out if they have time. On this particular visit, we did not include them mainly because our focus was on Gaudi. In fact, there are plenty more about Gaudi sites than we had the time to visit – seven buildings in Barcelona are officially listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites. We only went to the two main ones – Park Güell and Sagrada Familia. We saw a third one from a distance – the Casa Mila (see photo below). But our main interests were in the Park Güell and the Sagrada Familia.
Antoni Gaudi was an architect associated with the late ninetheenth century movement known as Modernisme, but he was constantly evolving in his architectural styles. Most significantly, we understand that both neo-Gothic and oriental influences can be seen in various phases of his remarkable career. He was, furthermore, a devout Catholic which explains his interest in designing churches, monasteries and other religious institutions. He was also passionate about linking what he built to nature itself, drawing inspiration from geometric shapes in geologic formations and such. This contributed to his interest in including sculpture, carpentry, wrought ironwork, stained glass work, landscaping, acoustics, ventilation, lighting and overall spatial sensitivities in his varied projects.
The Park Güell is associated with his Modernist phase, emphasizing the vision of a park. And it was financed by one of Gaudi’s leading patrons, the industrialist Eusebi Güell. Our walk around the park was somewhat atypical. We first walked up and around a variety of stone structures and even walked past the one obvious home that was intended to be replicated by other wealthy Barcelonians. They apparently weren’t persuaded to move up the hill to this relatively isolated park. And the home that we did walk past was in fact a home that Gaudi himself had occupied for a time. It now operates as a museum in the park.
It was only after we had enjoyed the park-like setting of ramps and terraces and lookouts that we finally came upon the famed colonnades and trencadis of Gaudi fame. It was clearly an example of appreciating Gaudi’s essential love of nature before coming to appreciate his genius in adapting nature to serve different functions of an urban population. This eventually included our finally coming upon the open square that Gaudi had intended as a community setting for outdoor cultural events. The main appeal here was the undulating and unusually mosaic-trimmed seating round the square. We subsequently learned that this was the prime example of his “trencadis” style of working with broken and colorful tiles to create interesting mosaics.
We then moved on to the “hypostyle” hall, a covered space with fluted columns and circular panels. It was intended to be the covered market for the residential community that never took off. It provided yet another stunning view of the Barcelona skyline before leading us to the monumental staircase that is the central attraction of Park Güell today. It’s here that one comes across the famed mosaic “dragon” of Park Guell fame. But the staircase also features a fountain in the shape of a snake’s head and other mosaic wonders.
We were, indeed, duly impressed by the variety of Gaudi’s skills and interests. His landscaping skills were evident in the paths and viaducts to negotiate the sloping terrain; his urban planning sensibilities showed in his incorporation of markets and cultural events into the ideal community; his architectural skills were clearly exhibited in the porticos and pavilions; and his whimsical talents with colors and shapes and different materials simply made it all come alive. We enjoyed our afternoon in the park and could have come back for more.
The Sagrada Familia
This has to stand out as the ultimate, the central feature, and the main magnet for tourism in Barcelona. It is a unique and massive structure. In fact, once it is completed, it will be the tallest church building in the world. (There is a German church that currently holds that title.) What’s more, it is more dramatically different than any other church building – or any other building generally, for that matter – that we have ever seen or heard about. One can hardly describe the full panoply of its unique features without writing a book about it, but here we focus on the features that caught our fancy.
First of all, the Sagrada Familia is a church that has been under construction since 1882 and is still not finished. The long-range vision that Gaudi had for this structure came to dominate his work in the last years of his life. Financed entirely by voluntary contributions, the fairly substantial entrance fee operates as the major source of ongoing revenue. A completion date had until recently been targeted for 2026, inspired by this being the hundredth anniversary of Gaudi’s death. But the pandemic seems to have pushed that back to 2030 or even 2032. Although many famed architects, sculptors, and other skilled craftspeople have been involved in interpreting or adapting his vision to the mammoth project, it is Gaudi’s vision and plans that drive the ongoing construction, The “work-in-progress” aspect of this structure has reinforced the intrigue with which it has operated as such a major tourist attraction for Barcelona. This work in progress is evident both externally and internally., but one can marvel at what is already there. It is well worth the price of admission. (Just be sure to book it well in advance!)
External Features of the Sagrada Familia
Externally, the Gaudi plan was essentially his interpretation of a neo-Gothic style, in size and grandeur comparable to the Gothic cathedrals that took centuries to build in years gone by. Well, he probably had in mind something even more magnificent. He planned the structure to have three entry facades, each with its own religious theme, and eighteen spires for further inspiration. . Eleven of the 18 spires have also been completed – four each above the Eastern and Western facades and three of the spires intended for the center (over the nave itself). The tallest steeple symbolizes Jesus, followed by an unusual star-topped spire honoring Mary. Next are (or will be) four spires for the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) and then 12 spires for the 12 disciples. (I remarked about this that I guess Judas has to have a spire even if he did supposedly betray Jesus.)
The spires do make an impressive site along the skyline of Barcelona, and they all seem to have a visible neo-Gothic style to them. Peppy took photos of some of the spires close up, but it was especially striking to view the spires from afar – both from the Park Guell looking to the sea and from the rooftop of Barcelona’s own Gothic (and neo-Gothic) cathedral looking inward.
As for the facades, two of the three have been completed. We entered the Sagrada Familia through the Eastern facade featuring a nativity theme. And we exited the structure through the Western one featuring a passion theme. The main facade on the Southern side (with a “glory” theme) is still in the works. Gaudi’s plan was quite elaborate – a grand staircase and doorway, and one wonders what it will eventually look like.
The two other facades are, in themselves, quite different. The Eastern facade was apparently on its way to completion before Gaudi died and is identified as his work. It is this facade (plus the nave) that is included in the list of Gaudi’s architectural contributions to UNESCO’s designation of world heritage sites attributable to Gaudi. The Western facade does seem to be more contemporary. In fact, I was quite intrigued by how different some of the statuary on this facade appeared in comparison to the Eastern facade. I subsequently learned that the main sculptor for this facade, Josep Maria Subioachs stirred a bit of controversy in his style. See for yourself.
Interior Features of the Sagrada Familia
The variety of impressions/images filling the interior space of the Sagrada Familia is mind-boggling. There are no flat surfaces or straight lines in the interior. The central nave is magnificent in its height and spaciousness. If one knows advanced geometry, one can appreciate the “hyperboloid” shapes in the windows and naves; the “paraboloids” linking columns and vaults with the roof; the “ellipsoids” forming the rounded tops of the columns that branch out to a polygon or star at the base; the the”helicoids” in the spiral staircases. Gaudi applied these geometric shapes from his observation of nature and to infuse the structure with religious significance of natural shapes. Thus, the columns were designed to convey the impression of being in a deep forest. They reach up to support the vaulted ceiling of the nave in all its splendor of shapes and colors.
Another aspect of the interior that was especially striking for us was the stained glass windows that lit up the eastern and western aisles. On the eastern side that houses the Nativity portal, the brilliant colors are yellow, then green and then blue. The interior light that comes through these different colors is stunning to behold. From the literature describing their purpose, we learned that the colors symbolize poverty, light and the birth of Christ. Then, on the Passion portal, the colors are red, yellow and orange – symbolizing water, resurrection and light. Everything has its religious meaning, to be sure. I was enraptured by how the gradation in colors flowed through the light as one walked from one end of the nave to the other.
One could go on and on about the design of this or that, and we are inspired to read more about what we saw. We’ll definitely be interested in a return visit. Just to close on this part of our Barcelona tour, just take a look at the crucifix above the altar that seems to be floating like a hang-glider under its canopy. On closer examination, the canopy (or “baldachin”) is decorated with shafts of wheat and different colors of grapes (symbolizing the “body” and the “blood” of Christ in the Eucharist) and 50 lamps symbolizing the fifty days from Easter to Pentecost. Apparently, Pope Benedit XI celebrated mass at this altar in 2010 when he declared the Sagrada Familia a “minor basilica”.
The Gothic Quarter and Cathedral
Our whirlwind weekend tour of Barcelona concluded with a stroll through the famed Gothic Quarter where we came upon the original – well, the official – Barcelona Cathedral – aka The Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia. This Gothic Quarter is the oldest part of Barcelona, with parts of the ancient Roman walls still visible where one enters into quarter. We ambled through the charming alleys and narrow winding streets. And we came across a lovely sunlit square with a fountain, cobble-stone streets, stalls selling crafts and open-air cafes under the colonnades encircling the square. We paused here and there to listen to a street musician or two, and to watch a polyglot parade of Hare Krishna supporters dancing by.
At the end of our walk through the Gothic Quarter, we happened upon the cathedral with its neo-Gothic facade. We only learned this after the fact – the original facade having been rather plain, in contrast to the interior. We were just in time to purchase entry tickets before the late afternoon closing – no need to have booked this one in advance. But it proved to be a delight in its own right – a truly Gothic cathedral built in the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. We appreciated looking up at the lovely vaulted ceilings of the nave, the choir stalls with its decorations from knights of the Order of the Golden Fleece, and the chapels along each side covering the flying buttresses that Gothic cathedrals required to support the height of the main structure. It was instructive to compare the light in this cathedral with our impressions of the Sagrada Familia. Having passed on the option to climb up the circular stairs to the roof of the Sagrada Familia, we also took advantage of the access to the rooftop of the cathedral with an elevator! From there, we had a lovely view of the seaport (and a distant statue of Christopher Columbus) and of the Sagrada Familia itself.
Planning for a Future Trip
Barcelona is definitely a city that we will want to revisit. We enjoyed the conviviality of the people as we walked leisurely along Las Ramblas and in the Gothic Quarter. We definitely want to return to the Sagrada Familia. Gaudi’s influence on the city was evident here and there, but we can do a whole lot more to learn about his works and his heritage. Other famed artists have Barcelona connections – visits to both the Picasso and Miro museums were set aside for our return. And then there’s that Christopher Columbus statue and the seaside area, just to mention a few of the things we missed. We’ll definitely be back!