Voyage Through Barcelona

Ribbed arches in the attic hallway

Ribbed arches in the attic hallway of Casa Batllo

Fourth in a series about a recent trip to Barcelona, Bilbao, Rioja and Granada

On our first full day in Barcelona, we rose at 9 a.m. as agreed, dressed and headed downstairs to make some inquiries with Elias, a member of the Golden Keys Society of Concierges at our Hotel Europark.

We implemented our plan for the day, which was to take the red line route of Barcelona Bus Turistic‘s hop-on, hop-off bus (26 Euros). Before embarking, however, we popped for the tour of Antoni Gaudi’s masterful Casa Batlló for what we expected would be a brief visit (21,50 Euros and worth every penny).

We ended up spending three wondrous hours in a fantasyland of architecture.

Designed and renovated between 1904 and 1906 for the wealthy textile industrialist, Josep Batlló i Casanovas, Gaudi took his inspiration from such influences as Jules Verne’s Ten Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. The original building, originally constructed in 1877, was undistinctive, but it occupied one of the most strategic locations on Passeig de Gràcia. Gaudi convinced Josep that the house didn’t need to be torn down; it could be renovated.

By this time, Gaudi’s career was more than 25 years along and well established. He had long since inherited leadership of the massive project to create a cathedral – what we now know as the Sagrada Familia. In his 50s, he began to design projects that were more personal in nature, inspired by nature.

Every bit of woodwork, sinewy railing, curving window frame, undulating wall and arching ceiling reflects the consistency of his vision. The interiors shimmer with natural light delivered to every room by innovative skylights, windows or openings to one of two building-height atriums. Blue tiles in a darkening gradient, from pearl gray to azure, rise toward the sky from the ground floor, admitting air but dissipating the effects of Barcelona’s powerful summer sun. Gaudi created magnificent salons where the family could watch the social parade along the Passeig de Gràcia below, or dine privately facing a patio courtyard decorated with tiles and a small pool that reflected the building’s artistic exterior.

Facing Passeig de Gràcia, the exterior evokes flowers and dragons and anatomical elements drawn from undersea creatures. It is hard to look away, hard to comprehend. In the attic, a video was projected onto a white model of the building, demonstrating through artistic animations the ideas that inspired Gaudi.

At 12:30, finally, we took a break for coffee/tea (actually té verde and café con leche) and a pastry, our first of many. Spain is awash, it seems, in espresso, especially at about 11 a.m., when the locals have been working hard since, oh, 9:30 or so.

We then jumped on the hop-on, hop-off bus. Honestly, I’ve never been a fan of the tourist buses, but the bus run by Barcelona Turisme is a great way to get an overview of the city. The bus includes headphones that you plug into an audioguide station at each seat. We made a 2 ½ hour circuit that passed through Eixample, Montjuic, the waterfront area and Barri Gotic (the old city) before returning to our starting point.

We stopped at Poble Espanyol at the recommendation of our concierge and a taxi driver, but as far as I’m concerned (as described in my post about what to see, do, eat, drink, skip and shop for in Barcelona), it’s skip-worthy. It’s an architectural museum that was created in the 20s for an exhibition and now consists of facades of towns and homes from cities and regions throughout Spain, reconstructed from historic buildings of the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods. One of the facades housed a theater and art museum; as we entered, bunches of preschool or Kindergartners were herded by adults. I doubt the teachers pointed out the significance of the three-story art installation in the atrium. “Contorni,” by Josef Guinovert is described as a garden “where the trees and plants have been replaced by skew bowling pins, imaginary phalluses and giant peaches.” Not exactly James and the Giant Peach.

Going through one of the rear gates to see the view down the hill, we were greeted by the ear-piercing screech of green parrots that circled from one nest to another in the tall treetops.

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Monk parakeets

By 3:15 we had made our way to the Plaça de Palau stop. We stopped for lunch at a promising-looking tapas place, Lonja de Tapas, and enjoyed grilled octopus with cayenne on potato, grilled squid and fried padron peppers – all excellent. For the second time, we tried a little basic Catalan only to be told by the server, “I don’t speak Catalan. I’m not from here.”

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After lunch, we cut through a narrow street to visit Santa Maria de la Mar, immortalized in the book, Cathedral of the Sea. There we were awed by the gorgeous tree-like pillars that fanned upward and met in the tall arches, as well as the beautiful face of the church’s statue of Mary.

Later, we walked down the street to a landscaped plaza and the restaurant Teleferic (good but not good enough to recommend it). Once again, we were struck by the urban planning of the Eixample: corners are knocked off the blocks at each intersection to create parking, Metro access points, or small urban parks.

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