Gaudi Days and Gaudy Nights in Barcelona by Allen Smith

Our flight arrived last Friday, little more than a week ago. I slept only about three or four hours on the way over, which is a lot for me. I was starting to get real sleepy on the connecting flight from Frankfurt but perked up immediately as soon as we arrived.

We figured out where the train station was near the airport and took the train into grand Placa de Catalunya, where we caught a cab to Hostal Avinyo in Barri Gotic. I surprised Andrew by actually stringing together a few nouns in Spanish and making myself somewhat understood by the cabbie, even if I couldn't begin to attempt anything in Catalan or with correctly conjugated Spanish verbs. Talk about cheap, even with a weak dollar our hostal was just 30 euros a night! And perfectly fine, just a little noisy (okay a lot noisy) at night in a city where the youth like to stay up into the wee hours partying, which often means loud, hilarious singing!

After checking in, we wandered over to La Rambla, strolling down its southern portion to Monument a Colom (Monument to Christopher Columbus) and wandering across a modern, undulating pier to look out at the Mediterranean near Barcelona's huge aquarium.

The scale of Barcelona in general was much larger than I had expected. We wandered back up La Rambla and toured Gaudi's Palau Guell, which the famous architect designed for one of his biggest patrons, an industrialist named Count Eusebi Guell. I actually read a book about Gaudi before we arrived and was eager to see as much of his work as possible. Born in the mid-19th century and living into his 70s into the 1920s before he was stricken by a streetcar, his architecture is unlike anything I ever have seen on this planet, and probably unique in a couple of galaxies as well.

Palau Guell did not disappoint. The first private residence ever named a UNESCO World Heritage site, we started outside admiring the iron grillwork covering the windows and above the main entry. A bird sculpted out of iron symbolized Catalonia, as did some stained glass windows on the interior.

The guide soon picked up that I was a complete Gaudi nut and indulged all of my byzantine questions about him, as we wandered down into the bowels of the complex, looking at the basement designed to house carriages and horses. The brick columns were made to resemble palm trees; Gaudi's work frequently has numerous naturalistic features. The ceilings often are the first thing you notice in his rooms. His world seems upside down that way. Many of the ceilings were marble behind an iron lacework. And of course his signature parabolic arches were omnipresent. The icing on the cake, as often is the case with his buildings, was at the top of the building, where chimneys were disguised in trencandis tilework ‹ the fusion of broken glass and tile. The effect is much like stupas in Hindu temples and creates a very otherworldly atmosphere. And fun too. An iron bat that he designed was a personal favorite.

We next wandered into the Barri Gotic, winding through its narrow, gargoyled streets - quintessential Old Europe. We visited the Barcelona Cathedral, which was begun in the 13th century and finished in the 20th. Gothic with geese in its courtyards and distinctive medallions on its vaulted ceiling, as well as a wood-panelled choir located at the very center of the church. In addition, it was obviously a working church with more votive candles lit than any other church I've ever seen before the various statues of saints in side apses. We took the elevator to the top, where we were afforded a breathtaking view of the city and got our first glimpse of Gaudi's piece de resistance, the Sagrada Familia, a cathedral now 100 years in the making and another World Heritage site.

As the sun set, the jet lag hit us, and we stopped at a funky soup place with a cheery youth playing Bruce Springsteen MP3s. I had yummy minestrone and Andrew has some other soup I slurped on in generous quantities before I got a virgin mango smoothie and we went back to our place to crash ... at 6 p.m., which felt like much later due to the flight.

After a restorative sleep, we started the next day by taking a funicular up to the Montjuic neighborhood, which is in the hills above the Barri Gotic. We visited the Fundacio Joan Miro, a museum dedicated to his whimsical, hieroglyphic art. Whimsy and individualism seem nearly mandatory in Barcelona. We next wandered through some gardens, including the fountained Jardins Joan Margall, on our way over to the Palau National, an imposing domed building constructed for the 1929 International Exhibition and containing an excellent collection of Romanesque art, including frescoes and distinctive crucifixes (some of them painted), from 12th and 13th century churches. Some of it actually reminded me of southern folk artists like Howard Finster.

We walked down the grand staircase from Palau Nacional to the Placa Espanya, noting an old arena for bull fights. Feeling a little museumed out and tired of the loud pan pipes near the museum, we took the subway to the Olympic City, where we sniffed out La Barca, a restaurant recommended by a friend who lived in Barcelona recently. (We'd actually hoped she'd still be there for this visit, but she got pregnant and returned with her husband to Mexico. Wasn't that inconsiderate of her?) She said only that it was near a Pizza Hut on a pier in that neighborhood. We had some paella that was to die for. Yum. Yum. Yum. What a bustling environment. In existence about 75 years, it must be one of the city's oldest restaurants.

Feeling greatly restored, we took a long walk by the shore through Barceloneta, checking out all the boulevardiers strolling on the boardwalk for the weekend, including a man on rollerblades who was pushing his baby along in a stroller!

Barcelona seemed very friendly and a place where people liked to be seen and visit out and about. The weather was mild, although there was an occasional nippy breeze to remind us it was winter. We reached the Torre Sant Sebastia and learned the cable car was not operating in winter. Oh well! We took a bus to Llotja, where Picasso studied, and walked into the Born area. Great area! While walking up the old Carrer Montcada listening to one of the omnipresent guitarists in the city, we stumbled upon the Picasso Museum, and went in to see his diverse work. I'm not as big a fan of him as Miro, even if he probably is more talented. The variety of Picasso's work is greater than almost any other artist I can think of, but I think he has something of a mean streak reminiscent of De Kooning, if not so pronounced as in the latter's work.

Next, we wandered through the Basilica de Santa Maria del Mar, another old Gothic cathedral. The cathedral was nicely lit by numerous votive candles. Outside of it, things were hopping. Some folks were getting ready for some early evening service, and some elderly lady who had fainted or tripped was being tended too. It felt like we'd been plopped just on the outskirts of some Almodovar flick.

We decided to take the extensive subway up to the Passeig de Gracia area to stroll by Gaudi's fanciful colorfully designed Casa Battlo up to Casa Mila (La Pedrera ‹ the stone quarry). This Gaudi apartment building actually was not finished on the outside. He planned to paint colorful religious figures on its exterior, but an anticlerical movement at the time persuaded the apartment owners to talk him out of doing that, so the exterior has a somewhat bare-bones, undulating look to it. But not inside. The facades facing the two atriums are painted streaky blues and pinks. An extensive museum in the building's attic included videos of all of Gaudi's work and background on Barcelona at the time he was working with overly melancholy music piped in.

Up to the roof, we excitedly walked through the maze of chimneys topped off with crazy quilt tiled towers as the moon came out and stars made it feel like we'd entered another universe.

We next decided to have tapas back in the Born area, so took a train back there (to the Jaume I stop). At Taverna del Born, also recommended by our friend, we had Bolalo Born (a tasty fish), potatos ailloli, champignons (mushrooms), jabon (ham) and I ordered milk, getting cafe con leche without the cafe much to Andrew's amusement. We then fully gorged ourselves by walking up to a nearby ice cream parlor, where I got two scoops of chocolate and Andrew got a gofre (waffle) that had a milk caramel taste courtesy sweetened condensed milk that had been cooked a little with it.

continued, view Days 3 and 4 in Barcelona, Spain

© Allen Smith 2004

Originally from Durham, North Carolina, Allen Smith is the editor of the Americans With Disabilities Act Compliance Guide. He has had poems published in numerous literary journals, including Chicago’s Off the Rocks, Crucible and Maryland Poetry Review, and has published an essay in the Urban Hiker.