Barcelona: Ever Avant-Garde
Text and photos by Marla Norman, Publisher
Barcelona’s unique architecture is one of the primary reasons visitors arrive in droves. Antoni Gaudí and his Moderniste contemporaries defined the city’s style with their brilliant use of color and flamboyant birthday cake ornamentation. Recent construction is more minimalist in comparison, with fantastic angles and twisting shapes. Somehow it all blends together in one spectacular, mesmerizing cityscape.
Gaudi, of course, the beloved native son, is renown for his blissfully surreal Casa Batlló, Casa Milà and the iconic Sagrada Família (Holy Family) cathedral. Catalan architect and award-winning urban designer Ricardo Bofill, has also graced the city with a number of his structures: from the distinctive W Hotel, to the National Theater of Barcelona, the regional Airport, and his own corporate headquarters.
Other acclaimed international architects have left their mark on the city as well. Richard Meier designed the Museum of Contemporary Art, Norman Foster the Communications Tower and Jean Nouvel built Torre Agbar – to name just a few.
And yet, visionary architecture is just one facet of Barcelona’s creativity and genius. For centuries, the region has been the site of extraordinary inventions and original thinking. As the ruler of a great seafaring empire, with colonies spread across the Mediterranean as far away as Athens, Barcelona was well positioned to assimilate new ideas and concepts. Navigation techniques developed by the Moors were incorporated into Catalan maps and sailing. Ideals from the French Enlightenment were borrowed liberally. Barcelona’s natural love for freedom and individualism allowed the region to thrive culturally and socially.
The city’s electric light, public gas and telephone systems were among the first in the world. (Universidad Carlos III Madrid) These days, Barcelona is at the forefront of digital development. Not only is there city-wide WIFI, but smart meters to monitor and optimize energy consumption, the advanced use of electric cars and bike sharing. “From reduced congestion and lower emissions, to cost savings on water and power, to economic development, the city’s commitment to producing smarter urban infrastructure is changing the quality of governance and the quality of life for residents, workers, and visitors.” (Harvard Education)
Not surprisingly, Barcelona was named “Global Smart City” in 2015 and the “European Capital of Innovation” in 2014. The city is also the permanent home for the Mobile World Congress – the largest exhibition for the mobile industry, from device manufacturers, technology providers and content owners around the world.
For a quick overview of Barcelona’s famous buildings and neighborhoods, hop on a city bus. Begin your tour at Eixample, the location of many of the city’s Moderniste (Art Nouveau) architecture, including Gaudí’s Sagrada Família, Casa Batlló, Casa Milà (also known as La Pedrera) and Casa Calvet.
Souvenir Collectors, be sure to note that Passeig de Gràcia offers some of the city’s foremost shopping!
Moving on to Barceloneta, you’ll find Parc de la Ciutadella – one of the city’s great green spaces. Walkways and bike paths lead to seaside apartments and a number of outstanding seafood restaurants. Resist the urge to jump off the bus and travel on to La Ribera and El Born, adjacent to Ciutadella. Here you’ll find the Picasso Museum and the exquisite Basilica Santa María del Mar. Notice Passeig del Born — once a medieval jousting ground, this area is now filled with boutiques and cafes – handy for more shopping and snacking later.
The oldest neighborhood in Barcelona, Barri Gòtic, still has remnants of Roman walls as well as the medieval Jewish quarter. Streets here are narrow and in many cases, allow only pedestrians. Barcelona’s seats of government Casa de la Ciutat (City Hall) and Palau de Generalitat de Catalunya (Presidential Palace) sit across from each other at Plaça de Sant Jaume. Also here is the Catedral de la Santa Creu i Santa Eulàlia (Cathedral of the Holy Cross & Saint Eulalia). Built between 1298 and 1450, the site is known for exquisitely carved choir stalls dedicated to the Knights of the Golden Fleece, scenes depicting the martyrdom of St. Eulàlia (not for the faint of heart!) and a sculpture of St. George, slaying a dragon, while mounted on his horse – one of the city’s most treasured art objects. By night, the cathedral is particularly lovely — the illuminated spires resemble embroidered lace hanging from the sky.
Travel up the giant hill towering over the city – Montjuïc. This area was the center of Barcelona’s successful hosting of the 1992 Olympics and helped establish the city’s reputation for world-class accommodations. The Olympic Stadium and pools are still used regularly.
Leave the bus at Montjuïc and stroll the beautifully landscaped gardens. Take time to drink in the superb views of the city. Then opt for a a crash course in Catalan Impressionists and Moderniste painters at the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. The palace, with its massive dome and pillars was renovated in 1995 by Gae Aulenti, the architect of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Along with the Catalan artists, be sure to view the world’s finest collection of Romanesque frescoes. Many of these works were literally removed from deteriorating walls, lovingly restored and then remounted.
At the nearby Miró Foundation, visit a vast collection of the artist’s work. The collection as well as the museum buildings and grounds were donated to the city by Miró himself. Alexander Calder’s metal sculpture, Fountain of Moving Mercury, is a must-see as well.
For a truly dramatic ride back into the city, take the Telefèric de Montjuïc down the mountain to the beaches. If you’re not feeling so adventurous, stay on the bus or take a taxi. But the cable cars are MUCH quicker and make for an unforgettable experience.
SO MANY TAPAS…SO LITTLE TIME
You’re undoubtedly ready for a break at this juncture. So, make your way to La Boqueria, just off La Rambla. You’ve undoubtedly heard or read about this Barcelona legend, but nothing can prepare you for the actual experience. La Boqueria is one of the oldest markets in Europe, dating back to 1217. It’s also one of the largest markets – over 20,000 square feet of food – stall after stall of vegetables, fruit, fish, ham (LOTS of ham), mushrooms, herbs and saffron.
Best of all, La Boqueria is filled with dozens of tiny tapas bars. Many guidebooks recommend stopping immediately at Pinotxo (Pinocchio) – a much-loved Catalan institution with 12 almost-never-unoccupied bar stools. I suggest taking a quick photo and walking on towards the rear of La Boqueria. Follow your nose and see what speaks to you. Then grab a seat and sample a few of Catalonia’s gastronomical specialities: bacallà salat (dried salted cod) typically served in an esqueixada, a tomato, onion and black-olive salad with frisée lettuce; calçots (a cross between a leek and an onion), which are chargrilled; cargols (snails), a Catalan staple that is best eaten baked as cargols a la llauna; peus de porc (pig’s trotters), which are often stewed with snails — phenomenal!
As you enjoy the assorted tapas, take a few minutes to study the wrought-iron roof and stained glass. (It’s Barcelona, so of course the architecture is relevant.) In 1840, architect Francesc Daniel Molina designed the neoclassical structure that exists today, replacing what was left of the original Sant Josep Convent.
La Boqueria also has exceptional bakeries for a sweet finish to your meal. And an amazing array of freshly prepared fruit drinks at €1.00 per glass, so you can sip away without a care. For more tapas and restaurant recommendations, see FOOD QUEST: BARCELONA.
Walk off your lunch at La Boqueria with a stroll down La Rambla – one of Barcelona’s most revered landmarks. Spanish poet Federico García Lorca is famously quoted as saying “La Rambla is the only street in the world which I wish would never end.” In reality, the walk is barely a mile – 1.2 kilometers or three-quarters of a mile to be precise.
La Rambla has, however, been a mainstay in Barcelona since 1377, when a small stream was filled in and vendors began to show up to sell their wares. You’ll notice designs within the pavement representing flowing water in a nod to the promenade’s origins. Keep an eye out for a mosaic by Joan Miró and the Font de Canaletes, a popular fountain and meeting place.
These days, La Rambla is a major tourist attraction, so you’ll also encounter the usual collection of souvenir kiosks, mimes, musicians and – unfortunately – pickpockets. More appealing are the flower vendors and locals shopping the fresh food markets and sipping espressos.
Take a few minutes to visit the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona’s opera house, located along the promenade. Considered one of the most important theaters in Europe, the Liceu is well worth your time. A 20-minute express tour is offered if you’re in a hurry. Longer tours are available, as well as a video theater where you can watch films of past productions. At the southern end of the street is the Christopher Columbus Monument and the old port of Barcelona — a good way to finish up your stroll.
GAUDI’S WONDEROUS VISION
Believe it or not, I can remember a time when the Sagrada Família was an empty, looming hulk with fantastical spires in the Eixample neighborhood. I climbed the winding stairs on several occasions – a lonely, almost spooky experience since no one was around – but the breathtaking views were well worth the effort.
Those days are long gone! Gaudí’s iconic work is an international attraction, visited by more than three million people annually. Be sure to book your tickets online well before you arrive – or face a very, very long wait. Also pack a pair of binoculars to better view the interior and amazingly detailed roofs and spires.
Gaudí began his construction some 135 years ago in 1882, but the work progressed slowly because of inadequate financing and the destruction caused by the Spanish Civil War. “My client is not in a hurry,” was Gaudí’s reply when asked about the progress of his church — a comment endlessly quoted in literature chronicling the great architect. And clearly, enormous amounts of time have been required to create his vision, which is nothing less than a retelling of the entire story of Christianity. Currently, the project is 70% finished and the final phase – six mammoth towers – are expected to be completed by 2026, the centennial of Gaudí’s death.
You’ll begin your tour at the Nativity Facade. There, above the central column – the Portal of Charity – is a scene depicting the birth of Christ. Mary gently cradles her child while St. Joseph watches over protectively. A lovingly detailed cow and horse look on as well. An intricately sculpted Tree of Life also sits within the portal.
To the right, is the Portal of Faith with scenes of Christ preaching at the age of 13. The Portal of Hope shows the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt. Notice the sweet-faced donkey being led by an angel and Mary’s anguished face. Vignettes of Joseph in his carpentry shop and the marriage of Mary and Joseph are also touching images within this portal.
From the Nativity Facade, you’ll enter the cathedral’s interior. Prepare to have your senses assaulted! The sheer scale of the vaulted ceilings and dizzying verticality is mind numbing. (The interior is 150 feet high.) The intense colors from stained glass windows on both the east and west walls is also overwhelming. Take a few moments to catch your breath and then proceed – slowly – to view this marvel.
Once you become accustomed, more-or less, to the vertical height of the cathedral, notice the columns supporting the main chamber. Gaudí fashioned abstract trees to create a virtual forest within his basilica. Electric stars fill the ceiling — a heavenly canopy to light up the cathedral “sky.”
Equally dazzling are Joan Vila Grau’s two-story stained glass windows. The east wall, with the Nativity Facade, is composed of cool green and blue glass – all to represent creation and growth. The west side evokes pain, sacrifice and Christ’s passion. The glass is yellow, orange and crimson red and in the late afternoon, the entire wall looks as if it’s on fire.
Gaudí’s only concession to traditional church design is an Expressionist “Crucifixion of Christ” suspended high above the altar, a bronze version of a work by Carlos Maní. Also over-sized, the cross is emotionally charged and unforgettable.
Exiting the cathedral, you pass under the Passion Facade. The anguished, modern sculptures contrast starkly to the Nativity Facade. Josep Maria Subirachs’ work depicts the Last Supper, the betrayal of Judas, and a haunting rendition of Christ’s flagellation. Gaudí himself can be seen at the crucifixion.
The culminating vignette within the Passion Facade is a 26-foot tall gold metal sculpture of the resurrected Christ, suspended on a bridge between the four bell towers — an appropriate grand finale.
SANTA MARIA DEL MAR
After La Sagrada Família, you might want to take a break from churches. But at some point, do visit Santa María del Mar. It’s a tiny building that would easily fit into the massive Sagrada Família. But the simple elegance of this early Gothic structure is quite remarkable. And the numerology used to design the church is fascinating.
When the church was built, between 1329 and 1383, the number 8 was the symbol for the Virgin Mary. Consequently, multiples of 8 run through every aspect of the basilica. The 16 octagonal pillars are two meters in diameter and spread out into arches at a height of 16 meters. The apex of the arches are 32 meters from the floor and the central nave is twice as wide as the lateral naves (8 meters each). And beyond the perfect proportions and mystical symbolism, there’s an undeniable tranquility one experiences at the site. Sit quietly and feel the calm.
If you can, visit Santa Maria del Mar towards the end of the day, then take a walk along the beach and watch the sun set over Montjuïc. Later, feast on Catalan seafood and imaginative tapas. And toast this remarkable city, centuries old, but always on the edge of something new.
TCO Publisher, Marla Norman with one of Gaudí’s pets — a hundred-year old tortoise at Sagrada Família.