Friday, October 17, 2014

¡Ándale Barcelona!

If someone asks you where you went for your summer vacation, you really shouldn't say "Spain". One does not simply go to Spain. Unless you plan to visit every single autonomous community that comprises this saucy little kingdom, you'd better be prepared to elaborate on exactly where you went. They are pretty serious about that. Spaniards affiliate with their municipality first, and their country second. There are, in fact, 17 different "Spains", each awash in local flavor, soccer team colors, and associated patriotic fervor.

This makes for a rich and fascinating tapestry, a veritable feast for a traveler craving variety of history and culture. We visited but two municipalities - Catalonia and Basque Country, but even from that small taste (and my distant memory of a day trip to Andalusia 14 years ago) - it was very clear that the diversity of heritage is one factor that sets this country apart from its EU compadres.

Barcelona is one of those cities that I felt somewhat embarrassed about not having been to yet. It seemed like a glaring omission, like being caught in a lie when claiming to love travel. The situation needed to be fixed. I needed to see what all the fuss is about.

Barcelona is a marvelous city to stroll through. A bit touristy, sure, but maybe it's because it hosts so many visitors per city block that its many neighborhoods, parks, plazas and alleys are so navigable and presentable. It's easy to wander from the Barri Gotic in the Cuitat Vella  to the miles of beachfront lined with clubs and sushi bars; from the quiet side-streets peppered with distinguished mansions, to an old amusement park on top of a hill. Everything is well tied together and lovingly manicured.

Old City at night. Quiet and mystical, a bit like a theater set between productions.

Cafes are full of people late into the night. The ever present pintxos (finger sandwiches, pronounced PIN-chos), though native to the Basque Country, seem to be the food of choice here too.

exploring the side streets.
Barri Gotic (Gothic Quarter) architecture

Remains of Temple of Augustus, 1st century BC
Cafe culture
Beach life with the W hotel defining the horizon.
View from Tibidabo - an old-school amusement park on a hill above the city. 
I'd be remiss if I didn't pay homage to the biggest thing going for Barcelona: Gaudi. His mark on the city is indelible; in fact, his vision marks the city like a signature that one can walk through, from one world-famous landmark to the next.

Park Guell is worth lingering in. Gaudi's style is unmistakable, and every architectural detail of his is instantly recognizable anywhere it it encountered, but it's something else to be immersed in his vision, to be inside an entire world where the built environment mimics nature.

The park was planned as a site for housing, recreation and commerce, as part of the urbanization movement in the early 20th century. It was supposed to have a market, residences, and recreational spaces - an early planned community of sorts. That plan never panned out, and instead the city bought the project and converted it to a municipal park. Today it's more of an outdoor museum than recreational space, with hordes of tourists ooohing and aaahing over Gaudi's whimsical gingerbread creations.

Unlike Guell, which is complete in its perfection, the Sagrada Familia cathedral seems to be a permanent work in progress. It's hard to get a grasp of it from the outside; it is so covered in scaffolding, wrapping, and reverberating with jackhammer noise, that the usual solemn calm associated with a cathedral is nowhere to be found. The exterior offers only glimpses and peeks.

But the interior is a whole another story. The interior... is amazing. You can recognize the telltale signs of a Catholic cathedral, but at the same time, you could wonder if you are on an alien mothership. It can only be described as "otherworldly" inside this building. Colossal, yet somehow cellular at the same time. Something about the streaming light, the trippy colors, the organic, rib cage feel of the nave - feels like being inside a giant alien beast. But in a good way.

Detail of cathedral doors
Casa Batllo, however, was a whole different story. It felt warm and homey. The flowing, organic forms were really soothing, and the colors - a lot more muted than in Gaudi's other creations. I found Batllo to be very tactile. I wanted to touch it, cozy up to its welcoming forms. My architectural preferences lean strongly towards modernism, but I could see myself living here.

Lovely Barcelona. It was definitely an architectural tour fueled by finger sandwiches. We explored the work of one great architect, and stayed in a project designed by another (Hotel Arts, aka The Ritz designed by Frank Gehry)

Hotel Arts Barcelona
We wrecked our hips going up and down its many hills, chasing the next great view, and the next iconic building, old and new.

Cathedral of Saint Eulalia, the matron saint of Barcelona.

Modern stuff, seen from a tour bus

3 days is but a fleeting glimpse of this lovely city, but we were glad to have made that check-mark on our list.

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