Barcelona (Apr 2-6)

It was only a short hop via plane from Granada to Barcelona and it seemed like we were touching down in next to no time. There is a very regular bus from the airport, which takes about 20mins to get into the city, most of the trip is efficiently via motorway (rather different than the rather circuitous and windy route on small roads from Bristol airport into the city..).

Our hotel was called Casa Camper – it’s a brand apparently better known in Spain  for shoes, but they’ve branched out and opened a rather interesting boutique hotel in Barcelona (with another in Berlin). All rooms come as a pair; the bedroom is on the inside of the hotel, with a window to an inner courtyard which has plant pots running up a wall opposite, all ensuring a quiet night’s sleep. You also get a sitting room, which is over the corridor from your bedroom.  It has a patio door overlooking the pedestrian street on which the hotel is located, together with a table, sofa and a hammock – which pleasantly surprised me with how comfortable it was!  Another unique feature of the hotel was the the snack bar. Rather than equip rooms with expensive mini-bars the hotel instead runs a large open snack bar downstairs, in the area which hosts the breakfast buffet in the morning. There you can take your pick of a selection of pre-prepared snacks, sandwiches, wraps, desserts, crisps, soft drinks and with hot soup available on request; all for no extra charge. 🙂  It was a fantastic service, which we wished other hotels would copy.

We had four days in Barcelona, but Greg had already realised that there were way too many interesting things to try and fit in during that time, so we covered what we could, starting with enjoying a small sleep in on the first day.  (Trust me, on the 40 project that’s a treat!). Then we headed out on a day of exploring GaudĂ­ architecture. We learnt a lot about Gaudi during our trip to Barcelona and by the end of it I was absolutely convinced that he was a total genius. He had a distinct style and I wouldn’t have wanted to live in any of his more extreme creations, but overall I loved his work and felt he was supremely creative, completely visionary and in many ways surprisingly practical. Our first stop was one of his early big commissions, Palau GĂĽell (GĂĽell Palace).  This was built as a town house for his patron Eusebio GĂĽell between 1886 and 1888 and shows some early indications of his style, particularly in terms of the use of flowing lines and curves rather than just straight lines, and the attention paid to light. It has a very practical basement, which included space for storage and animal pens and very innovative drainage.

The ornate walls and ceilings of the receiving room disguised small viewing windows high on the walls where the owners of the home could view their guests from the upper floor and get a ‘sneak peek’ before greeting them, in case they needed to adjust their attire accordingly. The main hall is magnificent with a particularly spectacular ceiling which has small holes in it outside of which lanterns could be hung to give the appearance of a starlit sky. Rather curiously one wall of the room had two giant hidden doors that could be opened to reveal an altar and a tiny sacristy, so the room could become a chapel for mass and prayer.

We went to Mercado de La Boqueria (a local indoor market for lunch) and I had a small selection of local sausage and chips.  From here we visited the Palau de la MĂşsica Catalana (Palace of Catalan Music); Greg had found this through Tripadvisor, where it is very highly rated. What we hadn’t realised was that it is also very highly priced, so after buying tickets we were concerned that it was going to prove a disappointment. In fact, we found it rather splendid.  It was built between 1905 and 1908 in a Catalan modernist style for the OrfeĂł CatalĂ , a choral society founded in 1891.  The façade is a riot of fabulous ornamentation, sculpture, and decorative structural elements for which the Palau has become famous. The exterior of the building features exposed red brick and iron, mosaics, stained glass glazed tiles with inspiration of both Spanish and Arabic tradition.  Originally you would have entered at street level through arches supported by massive pillars, the central pillar being the ticket window, adorned with floral mosaics.

These days the main entrance, ticket office and cafe are located in a glass atrium extension.  We went on a tour of the building which passed though the main public areas, including the very scenic main theatre which had a rich history and the most phenomenal ornate chandelier of coloured glass representing the sun and surrounded by a stained glass choir of young women. The single stage is obviously not designed for theatrical production but for orchestras and choirs (as the decor would never allow for scenery). Above the stage is a magnificent organ and around the sides and back of the stage are 18 young women representing the muses. Each has a 3D sculptured bust with a lower body crafted as a mosaic on the wall and each has a different skirt, blouse, elaborate headdress and instrument.  We’d love to return one day and see a performance there.

From there we went to Casa BatllĂł (also known as Casa dels ossos – House of Bones – as it has a visceral, skeletal organic quality). The building was originally built in 1877 by GaudĂ­ but in an unremarkable classical style with a basement, ground floor, 4 other floors and a terrace garden at the back. In 1904 GaudĂ­ was commissioned to remodel the house with BatllĂł giving him free reign to do whatever he pleased hoping for something audacious that stood out; that didn’t resemble anything else on the street. The result is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Although Art Nouveau it is only barely recognisable as such. It has all the GaudĂ­ hallmarks of flowing lines, irregular oval windows, colourful mosaics of broken tiles and very few straight lines. When visiting we went into the main floor which would have been a stunning apartment with amazing curvy built in wooden furniture. We particularly like the little nook fireplace with seats to each side which looked like a mushroom when viewed from across the room.  There is a terrace garden out the back of the apartment (on the roof of the floor below) which has echoes of Parc GĂĽell. We visited the roof with its lovely view of the city (even though it was a little overcast and rainy) and the floor below.  The loft space was vast – it housed services such as the laundry – and was formed of 60 catenary arches, which are somewhat of a GaudĂ­ signature.  Looking at the building from the outside the catenary arches form the ribs and shape of what looks like a dragon – the roof line with it’s crowning tiles looks like its backbone, and a small triangular window on the right hand side looks like an eye.  The “dragon” previously hid a room housing water tanks for the building, and it appears to be curved round a small tower topped with a turret and cross said to be the lance of St George (patron saint of Catalonia – GaudĂ­’s home) that has been plunged into it’s back.

Dinner that night was at a little place about 30mins walk away called Restaurant Petra, and we had an early table at their first booking slot at 8pm (it is Spain!).  They had their menus displayed on old winebottles, with dessert wines presenting the dessert options, obviously.  The food was very good, and the price was very reasonable indeed making it great value overall.

The next day was an adventure out of the city to the Benedictine Santa Maria de Montserrat Monastery, which includes the sixteenth century basilica and a fifteenth century Gothic cloister.  To get there involved several trains; first the underground, then a local commuter train and finally a rack railway to get up the mountain side (there was also alternatively cable car option for this final leg). The Cathedral itself is very impressive. It is apparently well known for it’s ‘black Madonna’ to which people still make a pilgrimage today, and for which there was a long queue the whole time we were there.  For us however the impressiveness came from the architecture, and especially the stunning location.  Monseratt is a small community perched high up on a flat section of mountain, with magnificent views down to the valley floor far away below us.  You can catch a funicular railway to viewpoints below and above the main plateau, which we did.

The Santa Cova viewpoint below was very quiet and we walked along a path to a church which was punctuated by various scenes telling the story of the life of Christ from birth to resurrection, one of which we had lunch beside.  The church itself was built into the rock and although small had one of the most unique and stunning (and somewhat scary!) locations that we had seen. The Sant Joan viewpoint at the top had a more scenic focus, with walks in various directions away from the top funicular station. The journey up Sant Joan funicular is a special and similarly terrifying experience, with a steep slope gradient (more than 65%), travelling up 503 metres in seven minutes. At the top is the Sant Joan chapel and a nature reserve, but we did not have time to linger long – just long enough to take a photo from the view from the balcony, which offered a vista both across the nearby heights and all the way down to the valley far floor below.

After a bit of sight seeing, we settled down inside the cathedral and waited for what we hoped would be a real treat.  The cathedral is known for its Escolania (boys choir) which was started in 1307, and who were due to perform in about 30 minutes. The choir comprises around 50 boys who live and study in the monastery.  During the time that we waited the cathedral quickly filled up and before long was totally packed with visitors.  Sure enough the choir appeared exactly on time and after a short introduction and bible reading from a priest (the price of the show I guess) the choir began and sang for a short but totally spellbinding time, their beautiful voices completely filling the church. Afterwards outside in the plaza were lots of international school children and we were delighted to see (and hear) them later taking part in a singing contest. At the end of the contest the church boys choir joined them in the plaza and sang some more – an angelic sound outside the cathedral which we could hear clearly from our vantage point over 100m away!  We took the rack railway back down from the mountain, as it turns out did many of the kids.  As it happened they all went down one end of the train and filled up from the opposite end that we headed for, so it wasn’t quite as noisy as we figured it might be.

We headed back to our hotel and changed to go out for dinner. Greg had planned a 2nd real treat meal of the trip, with a visit to Patka.  Patka is a slightly difficult dining concept to explain. It is a Japanese Peruvian fusion, a style called Nikkei, which came about due to the large Japanese community in Peru (Patka means “union” in the Quechua language of Peru). Patka is the creation of Albert AdriĂ , one of the AdriĂ  who created the extraordinary El Bulli restaurant which had a legendary waiting list (and criteria for actually being allowed to go), his brother Ferran is a silent business partner in the venture.  AdriĂ  weaves his magic along with two phenomenal head chefs – Kyoko Ii (Japanese), a precise chef with incredible attention to detail who runs the cold kitchen and Jorge Muñoz (Peruvian) a jolly, infectious man mountain who runs the hot kitchen.  Greg explained later that getting a reservation is a challenging experience. The restaurant does not list a phone number, the only way to get a table is via the website. Tables are released 6 months in advance, and with only 32 seats they go very fast.

We were lucky enough to be seated at the bar along the front of the cold kitchen, and so got to watch Kyoko and her team and the pastry chef weaving their magic. The restaurant is decorated in a traditional sparse style reminiscent of a Japanese tavern with beautiful pale wood furnishing, punctuated by wooden fixtures wrapped in bright wooden thread which evoke traditional Peruvian looms.  The menu is interesting; it is essentially one menu – called Machu-Pichu – that you progress through with no choices.  Though if you are not up to it they do offer a slightly abbreviated menu – the Fujiyama menu with fewer dishes.  We opted for the Machu-Pichu, all 33 courses (or so) and settled in for the evening.  Before the food appeared our waitress admonished us that once dinner started we would need to give notice to be allowed to go to the toilet due to the complexity of the timing of the menu(!).  And so the performance began…

And a performance it was. Each course was a small work of art almost too good to eat and just a few bites of indescribable flavour and texture; each a perfect combination of the food traditions of both cultures. Each course had its own presentation, crockery and specify type of cutlery – apparently there were so many different kinds of cutlery and different materials as these choices affect how things taste.  After a magical journey though food it was lovely to say thank you to Kyoto in Japanese (in our limited knowledge from our trip to Japan) and Greg ambled off to say thank you to Jorge.  Next thing I know I look up and he is in the hot kitchen with Jorge and his brigade chatting up a storm! (which he got a great memory photo from 🙂 )

We set off the next day to the old Gothic quarter (El Barri Gòtic) and wandered around the streets a little, soaking in the atmosphere. It was a great place to amble around, and we took our time as we headed towards the waterfront. Our destination was the Aquarium Barcelona and on the way we passed by an absolutely huge private yacht. (I looked it up via Google to find it belonged to the Emir of Qatar, and was probably the most expensive yacht in the world!). Near it there was another fantastic super yacht, which was available to rent for ÂŁ100,000s per week, but despite its helicopter landing pad it looked small next to that of the Emirs…  The aquarium itself was reasonable, but ultimately nothing special. The main point of interest was the huge main tank with a moving walkway snaking under it, meaning you can stand still and admire the fish collection while being transported effortlessly to the other side.

After a fairly short time we decided to walk along the city beach.  Unusually Barcelona has an extensive shoreline and beach in the heart of the city and we walked a long away along it in the sunshine admiring the view. There are various sections to the beach which tend to have a different focus, so it was interesting to wander from the family beach, to the swimming beach, past the sports beach, along the fishing beach, etc. After a couple of hours and a short rest we gathered ourselves together and headed into the city for a late lunch / early dinner at Tapas24.  The chef is an alumni of the El Bulli, and served us good food but overall wasn’t as good value or as notable as some other meals we’d had.  After dinner we went to watch the Magic Fountain of MontjuĂŻc which is situated below the Palau Nacional on the MontjuĂŻc hill and was constructed for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition.  Originally just a light and water show, music was added on the 1980s and now a musical performance takes places every half hour between 19:00 and 21:00 on Fridays and Saturdays. They are vibrant and great fun and certainly when we were there quite a crowd had gathered and everyone from kids to adults were really enjoying the show.

I should mention the hotel breakfast at this point. There was a nice variety of drinks and snacks available. But the highlight was a cook-to-order breakfast prepared by a wonderfully chirpy lady chef, who listened attentively to how we liked our breakfast cooked and turned out fantastic meals with perfect scrambled eggs and bacon done just how we liked it (slightly crispy for me and completely crispy for Greg!). Greg enjoyed chatting to her in Spanish and we look forward to seeing her again if we return (she had worked at the hotel since it opened). I also want to highlight that the hotel staff were very helpful indeed – a real standout. In particular they helped me to retrieve a raincoat from the Seville hotel that I’d managed to leave there – dealing with the somewhat unhelpful Seville staff on my behalf. And when it arrived after we left they posted it onto me in Bristol.  All on all we’d definitely return to the Casa Camper.

The next day started bright and early with a visit to Park GĂĽell, home of many GaudĂ­ masterpieces. It is there that you can find the famous salamander (popularly known as “el drac” – the dragon), bigger in real life than we’d expected.  The park was built between 1900 and 1914 as a collaboration between GaudĂ­ and GĂĽell and originally planned as a housing estate with homes surrounding a central park inspired by the English garden city concept. There were to be 60 homes away from the smog of the city with commanding views, but ultimately only two homes were built, neither designed by GaudĂ­. One was intended by be a show home, but was put up for sale and GaudĂ­, persuaded by GĂĽell, bought it and it became his family home where he lived until 1926. It is now the GaudĂ­ House museum celebrating the life of the architect, and showcasing some of his furniture.

The park gatehouse (Casa del Guarda) at the main entrance was originally the home of the porter and is typically GaudĂ­ and is now home to an exhibition about the development of the park. In the park, at the base of the main staircase is an overhang, looking a bit like a stylised cave, which was built to give somewhere for people to wait for their carriages. Bisecting the grand main staircase is a vivid white structure with mosaic animals including the grand salamander, along with a small stream including small waterfalls and fountains (fed by the water tank under the room at the top of the stairs) which serve to cool the environment. At the top of the stairs there is a massive hall (Sala HipĂłstila) the roof of which forms the huge terrace above. The space contains a vast number of fluted columns designed to catch the water from above and filter it down into water tanks for the estate. This grand open space was designed to be a market space and community gathering point.

Climbing the stairs on either side of the hall takes you up to the focal point of the park, the main terrace, the edge of which is a huge long bench in the form of a sea serpent.  The undulations of the serpent form a number of enclaves, creating a more social atmosphere.  Past that are gardens with a portico which was designed as a walkway with the columns holding up the roadway above. The roadways were put in to provide service access to the planned houses and the design was intended to keep the roadways discretely hidden from view. It is one of the most important examples of GaudĂ­ organic architecture and ends in a helical ramp which took us back to the entrance.

Our next stop was the Casa MilĂ , most commonly referred to as La Pedrera (The Quarry) because of how it looks. The building was originally intended to pay homage to GaudĂ­’s devout Christianity and was planned to feature a number of representations of the Virgin Mary and the archangels St Michael and St Gabriel. The design was not always followed during construction and the owners were fined by local government for numerous infractions including exceeding the permitted height, which resulted in the removal of many of the religious symbols from the plan. GaudĂ­ almost abandoned the project at this point but his priest convinced him to finish.

Casa MilĂ  is actually two buildings meshed together, each structured round a courtyard which provides light to all nine levels.  The resulting layout is shaped like an asymmetrical “8” because of the different shape and size of the courtyards. The attic housed the laundry and drying areas, forming an insulating space for the building and simultaneously determining the levels of the roof.  One of the most significant parts of the building is the roof, crowned with skylights, 6 staircase exits, fans and 28 chimneys. All of these elements, constructed with timber coated with limestone, broken marble or glass, have the feel of sculptures even though they are an integral part of the building function.  Uniquely the entire building inside and out was designed as one, so the doors, furniture, windows and ceiling reliefs amongst other things were all designed by GaudĂ­ to be harmonious. Famously Roser Segimon (the wife of Pere MilĂ  who commissioned the building) is said to have objected to the sinuous nature of the walls as it meant that there was no straight wall against which to put her Steinway piano. GaudĂ­’s response? “So play the violin”. GaudĂ­ wanted the place to be sociable and neighbours to get to know each other, so the lifts were on every second floor to force people to meet.  Built between 1905 and 1910, the building was sold after the death of Pere MilĂ , but maintenance costs and changes to the building resulting in the building falling into disrepair.  It became a national monument in 1969, but continued to deteriorate badly until the 1980s, until in 1986 it was declared a World Heritage site and in 1986 it was purchased by Caixa de Catalunya and restoration began.

We toured as much of the building as is open to the public, including visiting the roof, and the stunning loft including it’s 270 catenary arches – which look like the ribs of an animal when you look down the length of each wing. The arches are at different heights giving the roof above a gently undulating aspect.  The roof has the most amazing walkway on it, around and between the fabulous chimneys; completely unique and spectacular. The floor below has servants areas and laundries and down on the fourth floor we visited two apartments recreated as they would have been when completed by GaudĂ­. They are recreations as none of the original detail remained.  I was very impressed, and this building in particular was one which really felt different. After visiting a great range of many buildings and palaces, it gets hard for new ones to stand out, but the Gaudi creations felt very particular, with a distinctive style and atmosphere. It was a genuine treat to wander round, explore and experience.

We’d left the best to last however, with a visit to Gaudis masterwork, the project to which he devoted the last decade of his relatively short life (he was run over by a horse and cart in his middle age) – the “BasĂ­lica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada FamĂ­lia” (Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family) most commonly known as the Sagrada Familia. It’s still not finished but already it’s an impressive sight. In 2010 Pope Benedict XVI consecrated it and proclaimed it a minor basilica (as distinct from a cathedral which must be the seat of a bishop). Like many other GaudĂ­ works it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The church was begun in 1882 and initial construction was in a gothic revival style. GaudĂ­ assumed responsibility for its design in 1883 and the plans changed radically. We saw the crypt (which has a consecrated chapel) which remains in the original gothic style. When GaudĂ­ died in 1926, the basilica was between 15% and 25% complete. On the subject of the extremely long construction period, GaudĂ­ is said to have remarked: “My client is not in a hurry.”  After GaudĂ­’s death, work continued until interrupted by the Spanish Civil War in 1936 when parts of the unfinished basilica and GaudĂ­’s models and workshop were destroyed during the war by Catalan anarchists. The present design is based on reconstructed versions of the plans that were burned in a fire, as well as on modern adaptations.  I would encourage anyone, even if you have never visited, to read about the phenomenally detailed design work in the building.

The central nave vaulting was completed in 2000 and since then work has focused on the Jesus Christ tower and the Glory façade. It is currently projected that for completion around 2026, the centennial of GaudĂ­’s death, accelerated by additional funding from visitors to Barcelona following the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Computer-aided design technology has also been used to accelerate construction of the building, which had previously been expected to last for several hundred years, based on building techniques available in the early 20th century. In 2008, some renowned Catalan architects advocated a halt to construction, to respect GaudĂ­’s original designs, however construction has continued extrapolating from the original designs in order to complete the work.  Given that Gaudi apparently left astonishingly detailed instructions on how he wished the building to be built, I really hope that it is finished faithfully to his vision, at which point I would love to return and see the final creation.  

The outside is a mixed beast, with a modern front on one side and a traditional one on the other. They are both very well executed and stand in stark contrast to each other. It’s inside though that really blew me away – the use of space and light is outstanding. As a photographer l like to try and pay attention to the design and to work out which are the most attractive sight lines in a building. Good cathedrals often have several, and I am used to selecting a few vistas to try and capture. Here it was a different view every few yards!  I took more photos inside this building than any other I can ever remember, and I doubt that they did the real experience full justice. It’s just magnificent, and I am told that the design is such that the light changes very noticeably through the day and deliberately changes the mood and atmosphere from morning to evening.

And so, we left for the airport and returned home from our most recent leg of The 40 Project.

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