20 September 2009 – Barcelona, what a city!

Casa Batlló, my favourite of all Gaudi's creations

Casa Batlló, my favourite of all Gaudi’s creations

As this is just a weekend break we wanted to make the most of the time we had but today was Sunday so we weren’t sure what would be open, especially as Spain is a predominantly Catholic country. We decided to head towards the centre of Barcelona and see what we could find. After all, the Gaudi buildings could be looked at from the street, even if everything was shut. If the worst came to the worst we could head for the beach.

Breakfast was a rather odd mixture of tiny, delicious chocolate covered doughnuts and calamari (a breakfast first for me!) with probably the best, freshly squeezed fresh orange juice I’ve ever had. Good job I’m not counting the calories today really. Danka, at hotel reception helpfully gave us a map and directions for the train station and we set off into a beautiful hot sunny morning.

The train station turned out to be a ten minute walk from the hotel which made me wonder why we’d bothered with the taxi last night. The streets were quiet and much of the walk was through an industrial estate so I was pretty glad I had Commando with me. The middle aged woman in charge of the ticket office said she spoke ‘un poquito’ (a tiny bit) of English which turned out to mean she was pretty fluent. Really, in England if someone says they speak a little bit of Spanish that tends to mean They’ve mastered Hola, Gracias and por favor. She explained the best thing was to buy a T10 ticket which would give us ten trips on the metro or train and directed us to the right platform. She even told us where to get off for the best sightseeing.

The station was impressive, spotlessly clean with clear displays and pristine trains that turned up exactly when they said they would. Nothing like the London underground then. In no time at all we were stepping off the train into bright sunshine feeling rather disoriented. We knew we were in Passeig de Gràcia in the Eixample district but a glance at our map told us that this was a very long avenue running through the centre of the city. Despite it being Sunday, it was bustling with people and lined with covered stalls selling books.

“What we need is one of those maps that have a big arrow saying ‘you are here,'” I said looking around hopefully to see if I could spot one.
“Look at that building,” Commando said, pointing upwards, “isn’t that one of the Gaudi ones?”
We were standing right outside Casa Batlló, my favourite of all Gaudi’s creations. I was so excited, if it hadn’t been for a stern ‘don’t you dare embarrass me’ look from Commando I’d have jumped up and down.

This is a very special and very beautiful building, with a facade of coloured tiles, seed pod windows with bone like frames and skull shaped balconies giving it its nick name ‘casa dels ossos’ or house of bones it is one of a kind. Although it was completed in the early 1900’s the Art Nouveau concept was so ahead of its time it still seems outlandish today. Despite it being Sunday morning it was open but the queue was so long, winding right round the block, we decided to give it a miss. After all we could have spent the whole morning queueing and there was so much more to see. Even so I had to be dragged, rather reluctantly, away.

Commando cheered me up by pointing out the tiles making up the pavement all along Passeig de Gràcia. They are small and six sided, tessellating to make up a pattern that looks like an ammonite with flowers all around. Gaudi designed them for Casa Batlló and, in the 1970’s, they were adapted for the pavements. It was becoming pretty obvious that we wouldn’t have time to do and see all the things we wanted in the short time we had. Things going by the wayside does at least give us an excuse to come back but there was one thing that really couldn’t go by the wayside, Sagrada Familia, the symbole of Barcelona and the biggest project of Gaudi’s life. After a quick coffee, a long look at the map and a toilet stop at Café de la Radio, where I did resist the scrumptious looking cakes, we set off in what we hoped was the general direction of the great unfinished church.

We decided it was too sunny to take the metro and, clutching our map, set off along Gran Via De Les Corts Catalanes in what we hoped was the right direction. The walk was a good plan, even though it turned out to be quite a long one, we saw so much more of the city that way. On the metro we would have missed the best bit of marketing I’ve ever seen, a Fiat 500 embedded in the front window of a shop, complete with simulated broken glass. Wish I’d thought of that one, after all it isn’t often people stop in the street to take pictures of your marketing, and that wasn’t just me either.

Even without the fantastic Gaudi creations the buildings we saw were breath taking. Even the petrol stations are quirky and different, open fronted buildings where cars have to drive inside to get to the pumps. Then we caught our first glimpse of the famous spires and knew we were almost there.

Yes, it may be covered in scaffolding and cranes but it is no less impressive for it, each side is different and everyone has their favourite, some, like George Orwell, hate it with a passion others love it. One thing is certain, no one can ignore it. It can be appreciated, if not loved, on many different levels. I look at it and admire the design and the artistry that went to create it, Commando looks at it with an engineering eye and wonders at the way such a building was made, others I’m sure appreciate its religious symbolism. Our first view was the facade of the crucifixion and of the massive queues to get inside. We walked around the outside, examining each side and getting cricks in our necks staring up at the mass of spires. I had to be forcibly dragged away from the astonishingly intricate nativity scene, created by Gaudi himself. Commando wanted lunch. That breakfast calamari was a long time ago.

Of all the wonderful tapas places, cafes and restaurants in the area where did we end up? Mac bloody Donald’s that’s where. I swear Commando has a plan to eat in a Mackie D in every country in the world. So, despite all my good food intentions, I ended up with a Big Mac but at least I avoided the fries and the luscious chocolate milkshake which, in my opinion, is the only real reason for entering those Golden Arches at all. Only in Barcelona could the inside of a fast food restaurant be a work of art, a huge mosaic covered one whole wall so maybe the chocolate milkshake wasn’t the only reason to go there after all.

Feeling slightly less wobbly we went back to face the queue. It wasn’t any smaller but, luckily, it moved quite quickly and we were soon inside the gate, €22 lighter and staring up at the crucifixion scene. This is the side of the building I prefer, even though it wasn’t Gaudi’s own work. Inside, we marvelled at the beauty of the two large stained glass windows and then again at the queue for the lift to go up into the spires. We decided we would try to find some stairs. Neither of us minds walking and I for one could always do with the exercise. Although we found some stairs they were for people coming down only. Eventually we found another lift on the far side with a slightly shorter queue. The little lift took just six people so the queue moved agonisingly slowly. There is a charge of €2.50 for the lifts but it’s well worth the extra money.

As we crept towards the lift we looked at the stonework and the array of little circular windows. Intriguingly out of the dozens and dozens of little plain glass circles there was one circle filled with beautiful stained glass. I’m not sure why this should be, perhaps they will all be like that one day and they are replacing plain glass with stained glass one window at a time. I do hope so because it will be truly breathtaking if they do.

At the top we started our slow decent down the 230 steps of the spiral stair case, looking through the gaps every so often as we went and wondering if it was worth the wait and the money. Then we came to the bridge realised it most definitely was. The views over Barcelona were spectacular to say the least as were the close up views of the tops of the towers. The stairs themselves were a work of art, spiraling down in an ammonite like pattern. It was a long way down but nothing we couldn’t handle and nothing we regretted for a second.

Gaudi began work on Sagrada Familia in 1883, knowing he would never see it finished. The last months of his life were spent living inside the church and, when he died in 1926, his body was buried in the crypt so in a way he is still part of it. I wonder if he realised that 127 years on it would still be surrounded by scaffolding with no end in sight? Some say it will be finally finished by 2026, (the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death) but others say it’s unlikely. Who knows?

We left Sagrada Familia and walked Carrer Provença to the corner of Passeig de Gràcia. Before long we were looking up at the astonishing Casa Milà, known as La Pedrera or the stone quarry, with its undulating pale stone façade contrasting with the strange dark wrought iron balconies. It was Gaudi’s final project before Sagrada and the cause of much controversy and many run-ins with the planning office. It really is a thing of beauty though and well worth our long walk. There is an exhibition of Gaudi’s works on the upper floors but sadly we had no time to see it.

Next door we found a lovely little café called Farggi Tubs & Ice Cream and sat at one of the tables on the street. Grateful to be off our feet we looked at the menu. The choices of ice cream had my mouth watering but Commando said we should stick to coffee or we wouldn’t enjoy the tapas we planned to have later. With a last regretful look at the menu and a thought about calories I agreed.

By now we’d had enough of craning our necks to stare up at buildings and decided to round off our day with a few hours relaxation at the beach. Consulting our maps again, we took the metro from Passeig De Gràcia to Estacio de Franca and decided to walk from there rather than change trains. Getting away from mind bending buildings was an impossible feat though and before long we were back to craning our necks and our cameras were clicking again. The cause was a lofty glass construction with several horizontal limbs that seemed to hang in the air with no visible means of support. The glass acted as a mirror reflecting blue sky and fluffy white clouds with the limbs creating a strange mirage effect. An enormous butterfly perched bizarrely at the top. Further down the road an odd crescent shaped structure, appeared to be made of twisted copper wire.

At the edge of the park we came across a sculpture that made us smile. An incredibly long pair of shapely bronze legs culminated in a rounded behind. We couldn’t help ourselves, we had to go round the other side to see what she looked like from the front but we found this particular lady was perfectly symmetrical, all backside and no front. After our little detour we continued onto Carrer de la Marina until we came to a huge fountain surrounded by jets of water so fine they looked like little white puffs of cloud hovering above the ground. I was tempted to stop right there and dip my hot aching feet in. How many miles had we walked?

Overlooking the fountain another strange sculpture, a kind of Picasso face suspended in the air, made us look skywards once more. By now we could almost smell the sea and my feet were begging to be paddled in the cool salt water. I almost ran the rest of the way, past the less than attractive Hotel Arts (a building that looks like it is covered with white scaffolding – but what do I know?) ignoring the beachfront restaurants and across the little decking bridge. As soon as we reached the sand I whipped off my shoes and padded down to the sea. I’m sure my hot feet hissed as they hit the cold water. It was bliss. The beach was clean and not too crowded and we spent a happy hour or so with the cool salt water lapping at our toes until hunger got the better of us and we thought we’d better find somewhere to eat.

Most of the beachfront restaurants, offering so many tempting treats from oriental to traditional Spanish food, were crowded and the menus outside looked quite pricey so reluctantly I put my shoes back on and we walked back towards the park. On Carrer de la Marina we found a little parade of shops and restaurants quite out of the way and almost hidden from the road. This looked more like our kind of place, not too showy, more like somewhere the locals would eat. There were tables with parasols outside El Rey de Tapas Bar Restaurant so we decided to take a seat and try our luck.

The waitress was not phased by our appalling Spanish and the tapas menu was mouth watering. Our only problem was choosing. Eventually we narrowed it down to Bombas Picantes (big spicy breadcrumb covered meat and potato balls), Tapa Sal Chichon (Catalan Salami), Pinchos de Morruno (shish kebabs), Tapa Champinonos (amazing garlicy mushrooms that melt in the mouth), and Tapa Tortillia Patatas (potato omelettes) plus some garlic and sun dried tomato bread. I would have liked some calamari but Commando isn’t keen so it seemed greedy to have something we couldn’t share (I will have to take Mini Commando with me next time as he adores sea food so we will be able to fill our boots with octopus, squid and fish). To wash it all down we had very welcome jug of Sangria.

It was wonderful sitting on the street in the sun, relaxing and watching the world pass by. Not long after our last dish arrived I felt a few spots of rain but, as the sun was still shining, I wasn’t too concerned. After a long day in the hot sun a little shower seemed quite a welcome thing. When the shower turned to drizzle and then to a downpour the waitress came out to ask if we wanted to move inside. She shrugged her shoulders in bemusement when we said no, after all we were under a huge umbrella and, as we explained, we are English so we’re used to the rain. I guess it’s no surprise the world thinks the English are mad sitting under a parasol in the pouring rain eating tapas!

After our meal and a lovely cappuccino topped with lashings of naughty cream (I was on holiday ok?) the rain showed no sign of stopping. Reluctantly we left the shelter of our parasol and squelched off towards Parc de la Ciutadlla on our way back to Estacio de Franca. Wearing just our t-shirts and short trousers we stood out from the locals who had all miraculously produced umbrellas and raincoats from somewhere. Luckily it was still warm so although we were soaked to the skin we weren’t at all cold.

We made it to the park and decided to walk through it to get a little bit of shelter from the trees. This turned out to be a great idea as we stumbled upon a metro station, Ciutadella Vila Olimpica. We dashed inside and dripped little puddles while we peered at our metro map. We saw we could get a train to Passeig De Gràcia but would have to get out there and change to the train station to get back to El Prat. Still the rain would have stopped by then wouldn’t it?

The dark clouds had made the park like dusk even though it was only late afternoon. By the time we stumbled back out onto Passeig De Gràcia it was as dark as night and the rain was torrential. Dodging the crowds and the opportunist North Africans trying to sell us umbrellas for €5 we managed to make it to the station dripping wet but still warm and laughing. At El Prat station we peered out at the dark and tried to will the rain to stop. If anything it seemed to be getting worse, not only was it still pouring down but now dramatic lightning and thunder had joined the rain. The umbrellas I’d refused on Passeig De Gràcia and the little fold up one I’d taken out of my handbag to make room for my make up bag back in the UK haunted me. It’s a good ten-minute walk from El Prat station to Minotel Ciutat del Prat and it looked like it was going to be a very wet one.

Despite the fact my shoes were full of water and I could feel rain running down my back inside my clothes the walk through the dark, deserted streets back to the hotel was exhilarating. The storm was so spectacular we kept stopping to look between the buildings at the lightning forking across the sky like a huge free fireworks display. We were almost disappointed to find ourselves back outside the hotel.

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