Exploring Barcelona

By Peter Majerle   Photo by Andrés Madrigal


Costa Rica Traveler takes you on a journey to Spain and introduces you to the city of Barcelona.

Friends had gushed about Barcelona’s extraordinary architecture, magical street art, and the unique vibe. And it definitely has all that. I just had to get through the first day to find out.

It could have been the weather, freezing, gray, making the Mediterranean look dull. Or my attitude after a 4am wakeup call. Maybe it was the group of gypsies who accosted me after interrupting a street game of three-card monte. I felt like I had gotten a pair of knitted mittens for Christmas. I got a bite to eat, went back to the hotel, and slept.
What a difference a day makes.

Still cold and gray the next morning, I made my way back to the Barri Gotic, the Gothic Quarter. After some fresh rolls at a French bakery and a eye-popping café cortado, I entered the maze of dark, narrow streets that opened onto squares surrounded by austere Gothic buildings. After a couple of twists and turns, I found a tiny antique store crammed with old pocket watches, a business card holder, some silver flasks, scary -looking dolls and old Catalan magazine ads. I was intrigued and decided to come back after lunch.

A small eatery offered a three-course lunch for 8 Euros, complete with wine. Full, I returned to the streets for a couple of hours, never finding the antique store. Instead, I found a guitar workshop. The sign on the window read: “Please note that this is a professional workshop, not a folk village, a theme park, a film set or a photo studio.” In front of the ornery guitar maker’s place was a clothing designer’s studio and funky art galleries.

Throughout the neighborhood colorful window displays stood out against the imposing stonework, all set along twisting lanes, some just a couple of meters wide.
Musicians occupied nearly every acoustically advantageous spot, and the sweet notes of a Bach violin concerto gently bounced off the walls of 14th century mansions near the Town Hall. Down the street was a magnificent gothic church, Santa Maria del Mar which, in spite of a steady stream of curious tourists, inspired reverence.

That afternoon I stopped in an über-modern coffee shop where a tattooed waitress brought me an espresso as I sat in an oddly shaped, oversized red chair in front of a glass coffee table decorated with a single light that looked like an air-traffic controller´s orange baton. While fast techno music throbbed from the speakers, the city streets pulsed with gawking tourists, hustlers, and the to-and-fro of city life.

Barri Gotic’s winding lanes contrast with Eixample’s perfect grid. Eixample contains a fantastic array of modernist architecture. Antoni Gaudí’s hand is readily visible here, and two of his most famous works, Casa Milá and Casa Batlló, lie in the Quadrat d’Or, the Golden Square.

Eixample, which means “expansion” in Catalan, was civil engineer Ildefons Cerdá I Sunyer’s brainchild. The city was about to burst out of its medieval walls, and Cerdá was commissioned to lead the new development. His plan called for a grid system with beveled corners, so the streets broaden at every intersection, offering improved visibility and traffic flow. Original blueprints also included parks on every block and low-density constructions. However, in the end capitalism won out over idealism. The octagonal blocks were eventually filled with buildings.

The stars of these blocks are the modernist buildings. Pedestrians often find themselves shaking their heads and smiling up at a monumental building unlike anything they’ve seen before. Undulating, lacking traditional straight lines, full of color and elements of nature, these buildings are still used as functional edifices, much like the more sober brick row houses in Boston or London.

The architectural density made for great strolling. Smart shops and funky modernist buildings towered over stylish women dressed in fur coats and men in suits, their ears stuck to cell phones. I strolled past displays that included watches that cost more than most people’s cars, sparsely decorated shops dedicated to high fashion, and stately banks before disappearing into the subway. I emerged ten blocks later.

Emerging from underground at the Sagrada Familia stop is quite a shock. Right in front of you the world’s most famous unfinished building reaches up 170 meters. Immediately you realize this is no ordinary church. This is Gaudí’s masterpiece.

The architect’s search for the perfect temple led to his design of La Sagrada Familia. Gaudí wanted to unite all the symbols of Christianity into a stone Bible that would tell the history of the religion through architecture and sculpture. Gaudí dedicated 43 years to the project, 16 of which he lived on site.

He never saw it through. Gaudí died in 1926, and the building is still under construction. Not an officially sanctioned Church project, all funding for construction comes from admission fees and private donations. The city of Barcelona must not have too many complaints, though, as more than two million people visit the half-built church annually.

Even when (and if) the church is ever finished, we may never know if the results will be true to Gaudí’s vision or not. All his drawings and models were destroyed by anarchists during the civil war. As Robert Hughes writes, “Since Gaudí’s death there has been no ‘real’ Sagrada Familia.”

I asked a friend who lives in Barcelona when he thought Sagrada Familia would be finished. “Never!” he blurted. “That construction zone brings millions of visitors and tons of money to Barcelona. It’s a gold mine. Would you ever close a producing gold mine?” He had a point. Gaudí’s original plan included several blocks around the church. Today those blocks (save the plaza in front of and behind the church) are covered in mid-rise apartment buildings and local businesses. The cost of expropriating those properties would be astronomical.
Still, you gotta love any city that would allow something like La Sagrada Familia to be built. Like the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty or the Golden Gate Bridge are to other cities, La Sagrada Familia is the emblem of Barcelona. One finds the same words to describe the church as the Catalan people: incredibly unique, independent, richly nuanced and monumentally creative.

On the scaffolding outside the church, I saw the following graffiti, written in English: Catalonia is not Spain. This is something that many casual tourists don’t realize. Yes, Barcelona and the rest of Catalonia are located within the political borders of Spain. However, most Catalans don’t consider themselves Spanish. Their first tongue isn’t Castilian Spanish but rather a distinct language (Catalan). Nationalist feelings are strong.

Jo no sóc espanyol (I’m not Spanish) by Victor Alexandre is a well circulated book in favor of Catalan independence, a controversial movement that has gained steam recently.
This very Catalan nationalism isolated the region during Franco’s dictatorship and made the city a target for the tyrant’s wrath. The city’s transformation as a Mediterranean cultural hub has been so thorough that it’s hard to imagine the city as Barcelona grisa, gray Barcelona, as it was known just a generation before. During the Franco years, “Barcelona had turned into a sort of sleeping princess, neglected, and ignored,” wrote Hughes. “It was one enormous ashtray, covered in a mantle of grime and grit.”

In some ways, it still is. Barcelona is rough enough around the edges to keep most people on their toes, and yet the boisterous afterglow from the nation-wide party after Franco’s death remains, and the city pulses with an artistic, individualistic undercurrent that will infuse even seasoned travelers with a sense of wonder: how did they do it, create this living thing?

On my second stroll along Las Ramblas I saw the long pedestrian mall for what it was: center stage for Barcelona’s eclectic personality. The city’s diverse elements converged here at all hours. Mimes struggled out of invisible boxes, musicians played for coins, human statues, some dressed as Nordic warriors, painted bronze, or just plain bizarre, remained absolutely motionless until a passerby made a monetary contribution. Then, startling some nearby, he/she would offer a short bow before assuming a new frozen position. Watching them are prostitutes, pickpockets, gypsies, the upper crust and the just plain crusty, all rubbing shoulders on Barcelona’s main drag. Las Ramblas is the city’s cerebral cortex, the line of thought through which the rest of the city is measured and all movement originates. The weather stayed cold, but I was just starting to warm up to the place.

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