The Bizarre & the Beautiful in Barcelona

How much had I heard about Barcelona before I decided to join my husband for his work trip? A Lot. I stayed for a couple of weeks in the city in the month of February in 2016 and soaked up everyday living in the Spanish Capital. The first thing that struck me as we entered the city were massive concrete blocks of buildings that flanked the roads. They smacked of social housing architecture and thrilled me (not). The heart sank a little.

Armed with enthusiasm – you need a reserve of this emotion when you go to any place with sky-high expectations (everyone must love it for a reason) –  eventually, I did find bits of it that I fell for. It is not your quintessential pretty city but it does have pockets of interesting architecture. Below are a few elements of Barcelona that do appeal if you have a streak of craziness in you, because, it is after all the home of Catalan Modernism, a pioneer of which was Antoni Gaudi.

Park Güell

The park that Gaudi built for Eusebi Güell, a Spanish entreprenuer and an ennobled count, who was the Catalan architect’s patron. What the Medicis were to the Renaissance in Italy, Güell was to Gaudi. Gaudí is supposed once to have commented to Güell, “Sometimes I think we are the only people who like this architecture.” What was Güell’s reply you think?”I don’t like your architecture, I respect it,” he had noted.

On a bright sunny morning, I walked from the centre of the city to the district of Gràcia. It took me a long time, through narrow alleys, up and down hilly roads, up lots of steep stairs (after which I spied the escalator, but of course) till I reached the park on Carmel Hill. In the  year 1900 when Güell had bought land in this district, it was deemed to be a remote area. The site for the park itself was a rocky hill with sparse vegetation.

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The elite of Barcelona must have been particularly hoity toity if they could not wrap their heads around living in such a beautifully developed place. They would have none of it. Out of the 60 houses that were conceptualised within the park only two came to fruition. Here is a look into its lush gardens inspired by the utopian English garden city movement. The spire peeking out above the vegetation is that of Gaudi’s house where he lived for two decades.
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A couple of fairytale casas studded with broke, iridiscent tiles atypical of Gaudi.
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The central plaza with all its curvilinear, flowing design and mosaic-studded roofs reflect the architect’s intent to play with free-flowing forms and the baroque.
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Gothic and curvilinear Art Nouveau come together in the park that was the home of the Güell family till they donated it to the public some time in the mid-1900s.
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Bird’s nests that reflect the form of the trees growing around the walkway.

La Sagrada Familia

Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Familia (Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family) is the iconic Gaudi structure. Those cranes have been perched atop it for what seems like forever because its construction is supposed to be completed by 2026. But as Gaudi remarked famously: “My client is not in a hurry.”

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The Nativity façade to the East (the rising sun being the symbol of the birth of Christ) is the front of the church presented to the world at large.
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Nature is intertwined with humans in these scenes that are carved into the facade. Gaudi had visualised them to be painted, each and every figure and statue. Just imagine what that might have looked like.
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I have not seen anything like the interior of this church in all my travels. Gaudi had woven nature in with the columns reflecting trees and branches. The splashes of colour leave you lost for words. So you sit and stare at this wonderful, bizarre symphony concocted by a man who must have been very, very weird and a genius. Remember that Gaudi was a staunchly religious person. If you sit inside and take time (even amidst all the crowds inside) to take it all in, you will feel what he had set out to achieve – a temple where even a n0n-religious individual like me can experience exaltation.
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The Passion Façade cross-sectioned, which with its bare stone, harsh straight lines and austere design reflects the suffering of Jesus Christ during his crucifixion. It is straight out of Gaudi’s vision of it is as a vision of bones and a complete about-turn from the intricately carved Nativity Façade up front. The third front, the Glory Façade, is still under construction.
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An oasis of calm across the busy street from La Sagrada Familia.

Montjuïc

A hill with a view of the city. The Palau Nacional crowns it and on certain evenings (Thursday to Sunday) a magic fountain show grabs all eyes.

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Palau Nacional is home to 19th-20th century works of art. Those four columns in the middle transform into the magic fountain. I would suggest taking those stairs (forego the escalators you lazy bum!) if you want to burn off the brioche you have wolfed down.
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Classical statues with a view of Sagrat Cor
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The city from atop Montjuïc Hill
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The night views are not too bad either.

Passeig de Gràcia

On the most expensive avenue of Barcelona are these paeans to modernism by Gaudi.

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Casa Batlló, a building designed by Gaudi for Josep Batlló, a wealthy textile industrialist. It was re-designed by Gaudi in the early-1900s as an affair reminiscent of skull and bones. Those balconies are the skulls in the affair and the supporting pillars are the bones.
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The other of Gaudi’s creations is this, Casa Milà also popularly known as ‘La Pedrera’ or the stone quarry (alluding to its front design that might remind you of an open quarry).

Parks & Promenades

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Passeig de Lluís Companys, a promenade dedicated to the memory of a Spanish president, Lluís Companys i Jover, who was executed under the dictatorship of the infamous Francisco Franco in 1940. At one end of the promenade is the Arc de Triomf and at the other end is the Ciutadella Park.
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The triumphal arch was the access gate for the 1888 Barcelona World Fair. I quite liked its red brickwork, its Neo-Mudéjar style of architecture and the promenade it led to with a series of palm trees and ornamental lamp posts. There was a chilled-out air about it with entertainment provided by buskers and street artists, while joggers made their way through the palm-lined avenue at a sedate pace.
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The Palace of Justice shows up impressively along the promenade.
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Cascada Fountain inspired by the famous Trevi Fountain of Rome, was designed by Josep Fontseré in 1881. Guess who was his assistant? A young Gaudi. It was displayed proudly at the 1888 World Fair.

Poble Espanyol

On Montjuïc is this rip-off that is sold as a representation of a Spanish village with a recreation of houses from the various regions in the country. It is ticketed. Do steer clear. Unless you want to kick yourself at the end of a saunter through it. I did.

Barri Gòtic

I spent my evenings walking through the narrow cobbled streets of the Gothic Quarter, in the shadow of its old buildings and churches. It had its famous residents – Picasso and Joan Miró and historically it was once the stomping grounds of Christopher Columbus. His figure stands high above a Corinthian column down La Rambla to commemorate his report to Queen Isabella I and King Ferdinand V in Barcelona after his maiden trip to the Americas.

Extremely narrow alleys, mosaic motifs of saints looking down benevolently upon you from their alcoves upon alley walls, squares like Plaça del Pí with 14th century churches and other small churches frequented by Gaudi crop up. Basically I went with my gut here, walking into various streets. I had read plenty about safety and pickpocketing issues. But wear your bag in front where you can see it and you shall be golden. I did not feel unsafe at all during my walks in the city.

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Bell Tower of the Barcelona Cathedral
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Carrer del Bisbe or Bishop’s Street houses Pont del Bisbe (Bishop’s Bridge). The neo-Gothic bridge connects two historic buildings. The story goes that the architect who constructed the bridge in 1928 wanted to design new buildings inspired by the Gothic Quarter but the government did not grant its approval. Miffed, he put a skull with a dagger somewhere in the bridge. Try and not spot them, okay? The story warns that if you do, you shall be cursed. Trust the human imagination to come up with charming stories.
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Barcelona Cathedral is dedicated to Saint Eulalia. The Gothic cathedral is the seat of the archbishop of Barcelona. On any given evening it is a festive place to be at. Buskers sing soulfully and people love to mill around it.
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Pla de la Seu. In this forecourt of the cathedral, Catalans tap their feet to a traditional dance, Sardana, on weekends.
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Plaça de Sant Jaume, home to the Palace of the Generalitat of Catalonia and the City Hall.

La Rambla

The Spanish poet Federico García Lorca had remarked once that La Rambla was “the only street in the world which I wish would never end.” Now if he had seen it as I did, stuffed with tourists (God knows what happens in summer), he would have held his tongue. And if he had been pickpocketed, you can see how that line would change. The famous 1.2 km pedestrianised walkway is the nerve centre of Barcelona, popular with tourists and even more so with pickpockets. I am happy to say I survived it, more so because I would take off into the alleys, away from the main thoroughfare. If you are on La Rambla, a good place to walk into is Boqueria market that houses fishmongers and butchers. It dates back to the year 1217 when meat was sold there on tables.

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La Boqueria

El Born Barrio

This district is absolutely charming. You are likely to find mostly locals here. It gets its name from the adjoining former market of El Born and is filled with lovely restaurants, small bars and boutiques. It is a nice place to head to for dinner and drinks.

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The old Born market. A concoction in iron and glass built by Spanish Catalan architect Josep Fontserè in 1876. The first market in town was constructed ala the Parisian mode of architecture. It is no longer a market however. Today it serves as a cultural centre.
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The quarter is full of old alleys as this where you can spot old men, hunched into their coats in the cool evening air,  walking their sniffy spaniels.
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In medieval days it used to be a seaside residential area for the elite.
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This shot of Adi and our Spanish friend Nacho is in the El Born district. I would meet them every evening for dinner or drinks and boy those dinners would be elaborate. You will see the kind of dinners we would have laid out before us daily, below.
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The artistic community have now taken over the El Born district.
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Evening streets of Barcelona
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Santa Maria del Mar. A Catalan Gothic church built in the 1300s at the height of Catalan dominance in maritime trade that dwarfs you quite easily. Hemmed in by narrow streets, it is quite impossible to do justice to a shot of this church.

Sagrat Cor

How I wanted to see this basilica. To the extent that I was ready to even hike up to it except that I had left the idea alone too late. Till my last day in Barcelona when I had to catch a flight in a few hours. I went all the way up to Avenida Tibidabo with its quirky and flamboyant mansions only to realise that hey in spring they somehow do not expect people to arrive in the city. So they stall their quick fix funicular and elevator options to the top till summer arrives. The thought of the frown on the husband’s face if I was still hiking my way down Mount Tibidabo when I should have been inside the airport terminal made me think twice. Thus I never laid my eyes on Sagrat Cor. But you should if you are in the city.

Catalan Dinners

Local taverns were our pick. Our Spanish friend took us to small eateries that served excellent tapas and often food from his part of the country, that is the Basque region. We did try out various Spanish specialities but I quite loved the classic tapas dish of Patatas Bravas. When you are on holiday mode, the body and mind slip in too quite easily and my glutton genes can always be counted upon to make the most of well-laid out tables. Though I confess that this holiday was all about bread, meat and seafood. They can get me only that far. Yes, go on roll your eyes, but by the end of the trip, I was frantic for greens.

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Medium to rare beef steaks. The sight of it made me want to gag but it was enjoyed by Adi and our friends  while I watched them slice into the pink flesh with great gusto.
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Grilled prawns
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Jamón ibérico. Because how can you be in Spain and not have its famous cured product, the Iberian ham.
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Morcilla or Spanish blood sausage, stuffed with rice. I am not a fan of bloody stuff. That said, I did take a bite and it was actually tasty.
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Lemony Calamari
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Pork ribs and artichokes

 

Adi’s Travel Tips

  1. To appreciate Barcelona, you need time. Make a stop for at least three nights in the city. You can add on time depending upon the other destinations that you plan to visit from Barcelona. There are plenty of choices -Cadaqués, Girona, Zaragoza, Taragona…
  2. The moment you get into the city, do yourself a favour and buy the T10, a travel card that will cost you a little less than 10EUR but will give you a whole lot of travel options within Zone 1 (which covers the areas within the city that you will mostly want to see). You can avail of 10 single journeys on the Barcelona metro, its buses and FGC trains. You can also make use of the card more than once on the metro or buses within a duration of 1 hour and 15 mins roughly and you will be stamped only once within that time frame.
  3. Otherwise buy a three-day travel card for 21EUR.
  4.  Uber does not work in Barcelona (let’s not get into that discussion). But there is a way out for those who do not like to avail of public transport (especially after a night of drinking) — download the Hailo Taxi app. Hailo ties up with registered taxis and you can punch in your credit card details on the app. Works like Uber and you can just open the app and select your current location for a pick up. At the end of the journey, you don’t have to rummage through your wallet to find cash. The trip is charged to your credit card. And if you are using an Avios credit card, then, you earn points on that as well.
  5. SPG has a great Category 3 hotel at Diagonal which is roughly 2km walking distance from La Rambla and the same distance from La Sagrada Familia. The hotel charges you about 96 EUR per night. However, if you have 28000 Starwood points the hotel can be yours for four nights for free.

8 thoughts on “The Bizarre & the Beautiful in Barcelona

  1. Gorgeous impressions from Barcelona and such yummy looking deliciousness! Your love for the city shines through in all your superb images. Love the layout of your blog. Which theme do you use?
    Warm greetings from Norway,
    The Fab Four of Cley

    Liked by 1 person

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