April 18, 2016
“Good morning Ms. Lynn, this is your wake up call and have a Happy Birthday in Barcelona,” said the very chipper voice on the other end of the phone this morning. It was only by happenstance that my birthday intersected with Steven’s 50th birthday trip – it was just a matter of good timing. We get to celebrate together.
Anyway, we decided that we would devote one day in Barcelona to all things Gaudi – the most famous and beloved architect from Barcelona. Gaudi is everywhere in Barcelona as he was prolific in his designs. A note to anyone planning to travel to Barcelona though, make sure you purchase tickets to his main attractions in advance – Sagrada Familia, Park Guell, Casa Battlo, La Pedrera, etc. – that is, unless you like standing in queues for hours. I read enough online that I knew this little tip in advance, thank goodness. Also, be aware that for most attractions you will be given an entry time good for only 15-30 minutes. Don’t miss your time or you will be out of luck.
After a light breakfast, the bellman hailed us a cab. While we could have walked or taken the bus or metro, we decided to give our feet a bit of a break. The cab whizzed us through the streets at a dizzying pace (I don’t think I want to drive in Barcelona) and we arrived at our first Gaudi site – La Sagrada Familia.
Let’s just get the obvious word out of the way – Spectacular!! If you can only see one site in Barcelona, it has to be Gaudi’s passion of a lifetime. He started building this church in 1883 and never saw more than part of one facade (Nativity) completed before his tragic death (hit by a tram) in 1926. This magnificent architectural and artistic wonder will finally be completed in 2026 – 100 years after the architect’s death.
Gaudi was a very religious man, and his devotion to the church is evident in his work. However, he had a brilliant eye for design and form elevating architecture to a new level. Each twist and turn, light and shadow, hard angle and soft curve is purposeful and was contemplated before incorporation into the design. Words can hardly do it justice.
The tickets I pre-purchased were called “Top Views,” which meant we could travel to the top of the towers. We were promised fantastic views of the city and a different perspective of Gaudi’s masterpiece. As you know, I consider Rick Steves to be the guru of travel in Europe and consult his books on a frequent basis. So, of course, I trusted him when he described the difference between the two tower trips available when making my selection. The Nativity elevator took you up, but then there was a long walk down; the Passion elevator took you up and down. Since I’m a bit afraid of heights and Steven gets a little claustrophobic (as we’ve determined during visits to other church towers), I decided to choose the Passion side.
Up we went in the elevator to the tippy top of the current structure (it will be much taller when finished). As we got off, the helpful attendant pointed to where we would get the stairs to walk down after we finished viewing the beautiful city scenery. What!?! Apparently, Rick Steves had failed us this time. And it was a very long walk down a spiral rock staircase which luckily had windows to the outside every so often to let in light. Notwithstanding our phobias, we must say the views were spectacular and shouldn’t be missed, even if you have to walk down hundreds of stairs afterward.
We loved everything about Sagrada Familia and would have stayed for much more time (we were there 2 1/2 hours) if we hadn’t had tickets to another site across town. We are looking forward to coming back when it completes, although we’ll probably not come on opening day (I’m not a crowd person).
Another taxi ride took us to Park Guell (pronounced guay), nestled in the foothills of Barcelona. The park was designed as a part of a fancy estate development which ultimately failed – the hip and happening ladies of the time didn’t like being in suburbia away from the action of the city. The entire park used to be free and most of it still is; however, the “monumental zone” where most of Gaudi’s work resides is not. I’m glad I purchased tickets in advance because when we arrived at the ticket area, the next available time slots were for 5 1/2 hours later. There were some unhappy people in line.
While there are several fascinating features to the monumental zone, each as colorful and non-linear as the next, our favorite part was the huge terrace at the very top. It provides an expansive view of Barcelona and excellent people-watching from the vantage point of the colorful bench that rings the entire patio. Designed to be ergonomic, a concept before its time, the bench is decked in colorful mismatched tiles and mosaics. It has excellent lumbar support and what can only be described as “bum stops” so you don’t sink too far back into the seat.
In the middle of the grand staircase lies the famous ceramic dragon fountain. Dragons are seen everywhere in Barcelona referencing its patron Saint George (Jorgi) who slew a big evil dragon.
Yet another taxi ride and we were back at our hotel for a brief stop. When we got back to the room, we were surprised with a lovely plate of chocolate sweets expertly arranged by the hotel’s chef and a cute drawing on the bathroom mirror with birthday wishes. Our favorite concierge, Teresa, arranged for the surprise. It was very sweet of her.
Hunger overtook us and we tried a recommended tapas bar – Tapas 24. The food was decent, but nothing to write home about. However, the conversation of the American millennials at the next table, now that was interesting. When did we get to be so old!?!
Our afternoon was spent at two mansions designed by Gaudi – Casa Batllo and La Pedrera – in what is called the Block of Discord in the Eixample district where we were staying. The discord is in reference to the outlandish facades designed by several architects of the mansions on the street which seem to be trying to outdo each other. But, I think Gaudi takes the prize.
Casa Battlo is all curves and wavy lines as if to emulate the motion of the ocean. Even the glass in the interior courtyard evokes the feeling of looking through water at objects beyond. There are no straight lines in the house, which I think would make it hard to furnish. But that’s ok, Gaudi also designed furniture to fit in his houses – handy guy.
La Pedrera (or Casa Milo) is equally enticing although our favorite parts were the beautiful views from the undulating rooftop and the attic which housed a multimedia exhibit explaining the brilliance of Gaudi’s designs. You won’t truly appreciate his genius until you see the vaulting and arches of the top floor, which not only supports the roof but provides ventilation for the house. You must also marvel at his process of developing the concepts for his columned structures (like the Sagrada Familia) using chain link and a board with holes in it – it’s hard to explain, you’ll have to come to Barcelona to figure it out.
Earlier in the day, we decided to have a nice dinner out for my birthday. Teresa was not on duty tonight, so we did a Yelp search and came up with Restaurant 336 (now closed). Only a couple of blocks away, we set out on foot to find it.
Although the interior lighting was a little bright for a romantic dinner, the menu was fantastic. They had an assortment of prix fixe menus and a la carte. We chose the paella menu since we’d already gone the tapas route for lunch. After service of Cava Sangria (Steven drank mine too), we were served appetizers – the obligatory jamon, cheese, and tomato bread (although, it was bread with tomato wedges, instead of tomato paste – slightly weird). The next course was a fresh salad topped with a balsamic gastrique, Gorgonzola, and crushed walnuts. The main course, the seafood paella with jumbo prawns, mussels, and calamari, was deliciously prepared with just the right amount of saffron and peppers – yum! Our only choice for dessert was Crema Catalana. It was a little more like creme brûlée than the previous one we tried but just as good, and that’s saying a lot because I’m not a real fan of creme brûlée.
As we walked back to the hotel, a bit of melancholy struck us because it’s our last night in Barcelona. There are so many sights we didn’t get to see, so many streets and alleys we didn’t get to explore, and so many tapas we didn’t get to eat. I guess that means we’ll have to come back. Goodnight beautiful Barcelona.