Travels in Spain before Covid: Barcelona Day 8

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November 2nd 2020
Published: November 3rd 2020
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BARCELONA, Oct 27, 2019

We turned our clocks back one hour (Franco decided to change the time one hour forward) and we left Valencia at 8:30AM. I feel more rested, thank you Franco. Vera told us that after the civil war most people had to have two jobs in order to put food on the table. It was not easy to both eat and get to work. As a result, the time change gave them more time to eat later, yet, Vera told us, most people in Spain don’t know about the time difference in Catalonia. She said some of the locals want to change back to Spanish time but others think it culturally unique and special.

As we knew from our travels before that Spain has a law that makes it mandatory that drivers of buses and public conveyances stop to rest every 2 hours, (what a great idea!). Therefore, we all got off the bus at another Autogrill so our driver Francisco could take his leave and lock the bus up. As we stepped off the bus we could immediately smell the sweet fragrance of the Azahar (Arabic for orange blossom, Spanish for any citrus flower) of the orange tree still in bloom along the coast. The coast is named for this sweet smell of oranges.

After our stop at the rest area we learned that the CDR (Committee for the Republic of Catalan) had closed the roads into Barcelona causing us to use a detour. Here is a little back story: Catalonia, bordering France in the NE part of Spain, is one of Spain’s wealthiest and most productive regions with its own language and a distinct history that dates back centuries. This region was autonomous for many years but was suppressed under General Franco. The highly controversial and complicated Catalan Independence Movement (CR) is comprised of mostly younger and wealthy separatists who are fed up with high taxes that support the rest of Spain with little in return. Still others wish to remain part of Spain. Sadly, this very emotional issue pits neighbor against neighbor, family against family.

Vera told us that many people don’t even know what they are voting for as there is no real plan. The separatists don’t understand the ramifications of maintaining their own defense she said. The Catalans are pretty much equally politically divided but the CDR and the president continue to tell the people that they must fight for independence. Over time several Catalan officials were jailed. 10,000 people were expected in Barcelona to protest against the incarceration of their political leaders and the way police handle political rallies and protests. Spain’s central government sent national police to work with Catalan police during this weekend of protests and riots. One of the protests today was in the narrow streets of Barri Gotic where Dave and I plan to spend several days in an apartment on our own. That news gave us just a little pause.

We were to follow the El Garraf Coast Road to Barcelona from Valencia where I had expected gorgeous views of the Mediterranean sea. As far as I know we kept to this itinerary but I did not see any gorgeous views. I saw a few moorish castles on hilltops in the distance but mostly my view was of unattractive industries along this part of highway. As we approached Barcelona, from my view at the front of the bus, I could see a caravan of police heading from the country into town, not a great omen. Yet it seemed like a lot of unnecessary hype. When we arrived we discovered the protesters were having a peaceful picnic at the train station.

Thankfully today’s protests ended around noon so we continued with our plan to reach the Plaza d’Espanya by 1:00pm where we could find lunch and shop for two hours of free time. Our bus dropped us across the street from Las Arenas, a former 1900 era bullring turned shopping and entertainment center. Bullfighting was banned in Catalonia in 2010. The architecture of the original arena was so beautiful they decided not to tear it down and instead converted it into a multilevel shopping mall with a Neo-Mudejar facade and a circular roof terrace. We were instructed to go up to the top for lunch and to enjoy the great view. Vera’s tip was to go inside the shopping center and ride the free escalators to the rooftop avoiding the expensive glassed in elevator outside.

Following Vera’s advice, Dave and I went inside the mall towards the free escalators. I was surprised at how spacious it was inside. The arena had been beautifully transformed to include some fun play areas, gyms, a theater and lots of shopping. The escalators and inside elevators surround an open space that has, on the ground floor, a changing light show that you can stomp on to create new images or just wait for another theme to appear. The first theme was of beautiful blue, coral and white beach stones. Stepping on the circle created wave ripples. The second theme was of bright orange and yellow fall leaves moving on green grass. I was mesmerized while children and adults had fun playing on the colorful moving palate.

The escalator deposited us on the outside circular platform that curved around the top of the former bullring. From there we heard and saw more protesters marching so we ran to the edge to watch them on the street below. They seemed polite and there were no obvious civil disturbances. They simply wanted to be heard. But, speaking no Spanish, I have no idea what they actually were shouting.

We joined some of our traveling friends from Gate 1 at La Botiga Restaurant. The restaurant was well positioned with views of the Plaza d’Espanya through their large windows. It had a good vibe. Everyone there was raving about the menu, so taking the advise of our friends, we tasted the local favorites such as the Acorn fed Iberian ham croquettes, l’Escala anchovies, Patate Braves and coca bread with tomato. The lunch was surprisingly reasonable for a tourist spot and fairly decent Spanish food.

After lunch we again walked around the 360 degree circular rooftop platform of this former bull fighting stadium, enjoying the commanding views of Barcelona from every aspect. From our aerial perch we had distant views of the National Palace, Montjuic, Tibidabo and the Sagrada Familia, and perhaps a touch of Gaudi.

At 3pm our guide Miguel met us at the bus for our tour of Barcelona. Miguel gave us a brief introduction of Barcelona: Located in the northeast corner of the Iberian Peninsula, Barcelona is confined by ocean, mountains and rivers. Capital of the autonomous region of Catalonia, Barcelona is the second-largest city in Spain and Europe's largest metropolitan area along the Mediterranean Sea. Legend attributes the city's founding to the mythological Hercules, but historians believe the city was originally founded by the ancient Carthaginians around the third century BC. Since that time, Barcelona and the Catalonia region have flown under many flags. As a result, Barcelona’s rich and varied history is reflected in its unique architecture and cultural pastiche.

We began at the Plaza de Espanya where there are two Italian towers that imitate the towers in St Peter’s square in Rome. The four iconic columns nearby were designed for the 1929 World Expo to represent the four stripes on the Catalan Senyera flag. The city of Barcelona decided to keep them, adding to their own iconic architectural elements. This most famous “Spain’s Square” is located at the base of Montjuic known to locals as Jewish Mountain. Our bus took off for the top of that famous mount towards the National Palace, the central pavilion of the 1929 International Exhibition. The palace is now an art museum. Although sadly there was no time to go inside, we did enjoy commanding views from the enormous descending staircase of Plaza d’Espanya to the city below.

Our bus continued up to the site of the 1992 Summer Olympics which I personally could have easily missed (there are so many better options). Torre Calatrava, the gleaming white telecom tower that points skyward with a mosaic Gaudisque base of colorful tile shards, was erected to transmit coverage of the Olympic Games. It was cold and windy and I felt time would have been better spent inside the art museum, but, no one asked me.

From the Olympic Stadium we drove down into Barcelona’s original walled town Ciutat Vella (District 1) which means “old city” in Catalan and refers to a collection of the oldest neighborhoods in Barcelona. There are four traditional administrative neighborhoods in the old city: La Barceloneta (the old fishing village), El Gotic (Barri Gotic), El Ravel (historically a more dangerous area) and Sant Pere, El Born (Santa Cateriana i la Ribera). As Barcelona became gentrified, people thought the old town was too small and over developed, so larger, fancier homes were built in the 19th and early 20th centuries in what is now known as L’Eixample (The Extension).

There are many Ramblas in Barcelona (Rambla means where water goes through like a river). THE pedestrian Rambla separates the district Raval from the Gothic district. The Gothic district is the historic, political, cultural, and most popular tourist area in the city. Part of the medieval city wall used to run along the Rambla. When the city was extended and the defensive wall was torn down, Barcelona's most famous strolling promenade was formed.

The 1992 Olympics were important to putting Barcelona on the map, most especially due to the major renovations to the harbor along the sea. I was shocked at the dramatic transformation compared to the memories of my first visit in here in 1970 when this area was polluted with dark old factories reminiscent of Bizet’s Carmen. There were no promenades, no palm trees, no lovely port with nice restaurants. Just a dank old seaport from which I quickly caught a boat to Majorca.

Thoughtfully, the Olympic renovations kept the original facades of the classic old buildings and selectively demolished many old textile factories and decaying urban buildings to make way for the renovations along the now beautiful harbor, changing Barcelona into a world class city. Palm trees from Morocco were installed along a newly designed seaside promenade. The transformation was astounding to me and wholly unrecognizable. Cruise ships soon followed adding to the income and notoriety from tourism. Modern statues along the harbor include the colorful El Cap, the surrealist ‘Head of Barcelona’ by Roy Lichtenstein and Frank Gehry’s Golden Fish.

We traveled past the Old Fishing harbor to Barceloneta the district between the Old Port and the beach, the smallest district of Barcelona. This area has never been inside the protective walls and therefore is not identified as an historic center. As we wound our way through the narrow streets, I craned my neck to view this area imagining the exploits of Daniel and Fermin from Carlos Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind. I later found there are special tours of the region based on this book.

Barcelona’s Arc de Triumph was built by Josep Casanova as a welcome entrance to the 1888 World Expo, Spain’s first international exposition. Although the expo was attended by more than 400,000 people, it took 10 years for Barcelona to recover financially. Wealthy textile merchants had wanted Plaza Catalonia to be like a little Champs Elyse and had expected this statement to compete with world-class Paris. Those merchants would be happy to know that over 132 years later, Barcelona is now considered the Paris of Spain.

Barcelona is a mix of many contradictions, a Jekyll and Hyde said our guide. Many world famous artists and architects have expressed their fantasies here, in particular Dali, Miro, Tapies i Puig, Domenech i Montaner, Picasso, and Gaudi. This group of unique and daring modernist artists have left an indelible mark on the beauty and culture that is Barcelona. I, for one, am glad they did and delighted in exploring as many works of art and architecture as could be seen in my limited time here. I have made many notes for my return visits!

The long day nearly over, at dusk we finished with an outside tour of the famed Sagrada Familia. The massive UNESCO World Heritage Site is the unfinished masterpiece of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi. Located in the industrial area of Barcelona, construction of this church began in 1882 under the direction of architect Francisco de Paula del Villar who followed the current neo-Gothic trends with flying buttresses and a pointed bell tower. Public opinion and rising costs led to this architect to resign in a year. In 1883 Gaudi, at age 31, became the second architect to take charge of the design. He combined techniques from the Art Nouveau, Modernism and the Arts and Crafts styles but eliminated the flying buttress.

Gaudi’s obvious religious passion combined with his unique approach to design using organic influences have resulted in the breathtaking mixture of Gothic and geometric Art Nouveau forms, some of which appear to be dripping in melted wax. He believed that God’s spirit is found in nature. “The light that changes, the symbolism of life and death in nature is all around you in this church” said our guide. Closer inspection reveals a meticulous stone tapestry depicting the life and acts of Jesus Christ, Mary and Saint Peter. Gaudi employed local people to model for some of these sculptures. I can just imagine the proud citizen who claimed to be Jesus, Mary or Peter.

Gaudi, deeply religious, devoted his life to the creation of this church. Sadly Gaudi was hit by a streetcar and died in 1926. After nearly 43 years of work on the basilica, the project was only 15 percent completed. Thankfully, while he was alive, Gaudi had trained younger architects to be able to execute his designs however, unbelievably the original plans were lost, but Gaudi’s sketches were later found elsewhere, from which the younger architects worked. Eventually Japanese sculptors finished the colorful detailed works and put Asian faces into their designs making this church a collaborative evolution of design. However, according to Architectural Review, Gaudi’s original intent has been lost in the process resulting in something somewhat kitschy and not quite Gaudi.
Antoni Gaudi is buried in the crypt of his beloved Sagrada Familia, and he is now on a list to be canonized. After all this work and notoriety, it was only eight years ago (2010) that the Pope (Benedict XVI) consecrated the completed nave and the Sagrada Familia became a real cathedral. The now-iconic church isn't scheduled for completion until 2026 when it will accommodate some 13,000 worshipers. Dave and I are looking forward to touring inside this church early tomorrow morning.

We checked into our NH Constanza hotel tucked away on Career de Deu i Mata a block from Avenue Diagonal, an upscale shopping area but sadly with no charming little restaurants nearby. Our guide Vera told us she would walk with whomever wanted to go into Plaza Catalonia tonight for dinner. With no idea how long that would take we joined the group for what ended in a very long, cold walk at the end of a very long day when most of us were already exhausted and hungry.

After what seemed like hours, we split up, and with no real destination we chose to follow Vera. Frustratingly, several restaurants were shot down by the collective group. Finally, cold and tired, we chose the one promising restaurant that sadly ended up being closed. Hungry (and a little bit cranky) we jumped on an opportunity to get anything to eat and got seated inside, out of the cold. A man with a picture menu waved us into Cafe Y Tapas on Rambla de Catalonia, a sure sign that this was not a local favorite, a target for unknowing tourists. We were the only patrons and were tucked down into the back of the restaurant. I am not sure what I ordered but was given a “garlic cream” with dried hard boiled egg and ham. It tasted as bad as it sounds. We also ended up with some sort of squash soup that was terrible. The Rioja wine is the only thing that saved the evening and gave me the endurance for the long chilly walk back to bed.

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