Travels in Spain before Covid: Barcelona Day 9

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November 4th 2020
Published: November 7th 2020
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OCTOBER 28, 2019

Gate 1 announced that this last day of our tour would be a “free day” so I had booked the Barcelona in a Day tour (in advance) from Viator. Dave and I took a cab to our meeting place from our hotel. Kathleen from our Gate 1 troupe had decided to join us for the day. We met our first Viator guide Oliver who is an art historian, most appropriate for what we were planning to see: the Sagrada Familia. Crowds had already formed at 9am so Oliver scrambled to get our tickets.

Oliver began outside the church by explaining the three doors to the church which represent the Nativity (Birth), Passion (Crucifixion), and the Glory (Resurrection). Currently there are only 8 towers completed but when fully built there will be a total of 18 towers. The towers will surround the church with the tallest (170 meters and tallest in the world) representing Christ in the center of the church. Surrounding the church are towers on the Nativity Facade the Passion Facade and the Glory Facade.

The building materials used are very porous and over the years had become dark and dingy from the elements. Previously, pressure washing was used to clean the church but they have stopped this because of the serious damage caused from the force of the water. Cleaning is a constant process, Oliver tells us, and he said the church will never be fully cleaned even after it is finally completed. (Job security!)

I was getting nervous that we wouldn’t be able to avoid the hoards of tourists, but Oliver quickly got our tickets and ushered us safely inside in rapid order where we were immediately awed by what we saw. The exterior of the Sagrada Familia (Sacred Family) is wrought with heavy and intricate stone forms but once inside, the church opens skyward to enormous skeleton-like structures that support the elevated vaulted sunlit arches. Fanciful light patterns cascade to the smooth marble floor from brilliantly colored stained glass windows making the entire church seem other worldly. The “bones” of the church hold up the arc of the ceiling and creates the organic connections as if it were a living thing. My words can’t begin to describe the feeling of awe and wonder at such an achievement.

Floating on fanciful wings, we left Sagrada Famillia for yet another series of Gaudi’s ethereal architectural delights along the Passeig de Gracia, except these were homes not churches. Passeig de Gracia, Barcelona’s Grand Avenue has the highest concentration of Art Nouveau and Modernist architecture in Europe. These unique designs let you know instantly that you have become part of a playful, if surreal new world.

As we walked along Barcelona’s famous “Block of Discord”, we passed the Casa Batllo, Casa Amatller and Casa Lleo Morera studying their unique facades before finally entering the fun-house architectural designs of Casa Mila or La Pedrera, which literally means ‘the quarry’. It also is referred to as “the building that embodies nature”. To me it looks like a series of giant smiling waves. From the outside we could see metal terraces with interweaving leaves and flowers, a strong contrast to the hard stone structure. Each of the windows and terrace doors looked to me like numerous eyes peering out from the giant stone “monster”.

As we moved inside through the organic, undulating rooms (there wasn’t a right angle inside the building) we could see the period furniture of a bourgeois family in the early 20th century. The chandelier, lace curtains and even a fruit bowl on a kitchen table gave us the ability to get a feel for what it was actually like to live in such a unique space designed by “one of the greatest architects to ever live”.

On the top floor, or attic, we were able to explore Gaudi's organic collection of materials that so influenced his designs. You could easily see how a nautilus or skeleton could become the ribs or arches of a roof. Fossilized sea beds, or scallop shells became textural elements while the smoothness of a gourd or knotty meandering branch might provide a fluid connection to the earth and the world around us, to be part of, not separate from.

We climbed up to the roof terrace where we saw the masterpieces of his outdoor sculptures. Each chimney was sculpted into a different sentinel-like totem, giving the space a feeling of a protected, if not mystical, outdoor art gallery, with a fabulous view that connected us to the birds eye perspective of the architecture on the Passeig de Gracia below. We turned away from the street and looked down to the heavily lidded, sleepy interior windows facing inward making me wonder if the building weren’t alive.

Leaving Casa Mila we walked from the Passeig de Gracia down to La Rambla where Oliver left us at the St Josep La Boqueria Market to find our lunch and explore the amazing collection of delightful foods offered. It was definitely sensory overload and with such an enormous selection, we had no idea where to begin in this unfortunately overcrowded food emporium. There was no seating to be had, which surprised me since it was technically not the Spanish lunch hour. After much deliberation we came upon the over-hyped Pinotxo bar with Pinocchio puppets hanging from strings around the edge of the bar. We waited for some time to get the attention of the staff, until my tall and very hungry husband began waving to get anyone’s attention. When even that didn’t help, we gave up and found a better place with nicer staff (and I think better prices) where we grabbed a take away lunch and sat on the floor in an adjacent courtyard to eat.

Chloe, our next Viator guide, found us finishing our lunch and, while we finished, she gave us some bits of history of Barcelona and Spain. The Carthaginians are said to have founded the city of Barcelona in the 3rd century BC. Romans (or was it the mythological Hercules?) arrived soon after, but before Christianity was accepted. Since many citizens were Christians there was much torture and killing. The young Santa Eulalia appealed to the Diocletian governor to spare the city’s Christians. Angered, the governor ordered that she go through 13 tortures, one for each of year of her life, because she would not renounce her beliefs. She survived the tortures then was crucified on a cross. She prayed to God to be taken to heaven and as she died, a sudden snowstorm covered her nude body like a cloak. This was considered a miracle and so she was deified. Her body is in the crypt of the Cathedral of Santa Eulalia.

Chloe, who majored in middle age history, told us that from the beginning of the 9th century Barcelona was protected by a Medieval wall, separating Arabs from the city area. The second and third sets of walls began at the port and stretched as far as La Rambla, El Raval and Barri Gotic but were demolished in the civil war, in part to improve sanitary conditions. In the 1850s the military designed wider streets in the new Eixample by chopping off corners, improving passage ways and visibility resulting in the grand boulevards we see today. Still, I prefer the meandering narrow streets of the Barri Gotic.

We left the Boqueria Market walking on La Rambla towards the Barri Gotic Quarter and as we walked, Chloe explained the current political turbulence that Spain, and Barcelona in particular, was experiencing. Of the 10 regions in Spain, the Basque region, Catalonia, is the only autonomous region, and is the richest of the provinces. As we had learned from Vera, the conflicts among those who would separate from Spain resulted in continued demonstrations and protests (Flags with a star want to separate from Spain). Last year there was a vote for allowing warships in Barcelona’s harbor. Madrid took it seriously and as a threat sent the Spanish National police and helicopters to attempt to control the public. Many were jailed in Madrid and anticipated years of jail time because there was no legal power for a referendum but a coalition of pro independence people were trying to get these people out of jail. This division of loyalties pits families and neighbors against each other. Everywhere we turned in Barcelona, buildings were beribboned with different political flags. A yellow ribboned flag showed the importance of the liberation of political prisoners, the Catalonian Star flag promotes one state one flag independence.

Our walking tour arrived at the Plaza del Pi, not far from La Rambla, where the foundations for a Romanesque church were laid around 1319. This Catalan Gothic Mary of the Pine Church (Basilica de Santa Maria del Pi) has seen its share of violence and disasters. It survived earthquakes, fires, the bombings of 1714 during the war of the Spanish succession and finally a fire, set by anarchists in 1936 that gutted the church with its famous stained glass rose window. The church was finally restored following the end of the Civil War. In 1940 a reproduction of the original stained glass window (which is the same size as the rose window at Notre Dame) was installed completing the restoration. I wish we’d had time to enter this historic church, but when I return I plan to go inside to see the light passing through this famous window, (and I hope my visit will coincide with one of the frequent arts and crafts fairs here).

Nearby, we found children climbing on the statue of Angel Guimera, the man who was nominated for the Nobel prize 23 times for the preservation of the Catalan language. The Catalan language has a unique and complicated history. Its origins came from Latin soldiers but later blended with Portuguese, Italian, French, and Spanish peoples. It is this proud combination of languages and cultures that creates this unique Catalan language spoken here.

The Jewish quarter, El Call, dates back to the 11th century when up to 4,000 people lived here. El Call literally means an alley in Cataln, the one street where the Jews lived, but as the quarter grew the “alley” extended as well. This area, like the Barri Gotic, has meandering narrow medieval alleys that I found to be quite charming.

Near a 4th century Roman wall we found an abrupt modern feel in Plaza Nova, where, ironically, there is an ugly, definitely out of place building that is home to the college of Architects of Barcelona. What were they thinking? The concrete that surrounds the building has been graffitied with Picasso sketches and metal letters spelling out the original Roman name for the city Barcino.

As we moved further into the Gothic Quarter we found children playing in the courtyard of the Church of Sant Felip Neri, in the historic and tragic Plaza Sant Felip Neri. The liveliness of happy children belied the tragic history of this church. On January 30, 1938 from 9am to 11:20am the Sant Felip Neri Church, was used then as an air raid shelter for children from the neighborhood, was bombed by Franco’s ally, the fascist Italian air force, leveling the church and burying everyone inside. The only thing left standing was the church facade which still bears the marks of the shrapnel today. It was years before the truth of this massacre was truly revealed. As we stood there looking at the pock-marked walls we had a visible reminder of the terror and tragedy of war. We were told there were “insatiable geese” wandering around to protect the church.

We arrived at the Square of the King (there are so many squares!) where Kathleen and I were transported back to the Middle Ages standing on the steps of the old Royal Palace where Isabella (Kathleen) and Christopher (me) allegedly shook hands, Christopher receiving the contract money to travel to the new world. It is fun to become fully absorbed in the history of a location.

We crossed La Rambla and walked to the Catalan Gothic Santa Maria Del Mar or Cathedral of the Sea, located steps away from the apartment we were to occupy the next morning. This enormous stone church dates back to around 1329 and was considered the church of the poor fisherman (bastaixos) who hand carried large stones used for its construction. This church was truly built by the people and completed in just 55 years, amazing since most churches of this size and time took more than 100 years to complete. There are reliefs honoring the hard working, devout bastaixos on the main doors to the church. Their story of devotion and hardship is told in the novel Cathedral of the Sea, which is also a movie on Netflix. Although once considered a humble church for the poor, it is now considered a church of the elite. It is free after 5 pm.

From the Cathedral we walked through El Born to Port Vell where we saw Roy Lichtenstein’s famous sculpture El Cap de Barcelona (The Head) installed here for the 1992 Summer Olympics. We also saw the wonderful 85-foot sailboat that we were to board with our wine for an hour-long cruise up the coast. As we entered the harbor we found that this cruise (that was included in our tour) had been cancelled. And no, we did not get our promised reduced refund. It was chilly, we were tired and glad to get back to our hotel to get ready for our last dinner with our friends.

Our busy day (and the last night of our 10 day Gate 1 Tour of Spain) ended with an amazing farewell dinner at the Can Vador restaurant, near our hotel. The restaurant is tucked away on a side street near Diagonal Blvd. Our dinner consisted of a fantastic sampling of well prepared Spanish appetizers followed by a hearty meal with a generous sized Sea Bass fillet and then Caramelized Catalan cream for dessert. We were well fed!

We were so glad to have had an interesting, intelligent group of people to share this journey with. Our charming and very able Gate One guide Vera brought the history and culture of Spain alive. Vera was also able to elegantly smooth any rough edges that occurred during our trip, like the panic when I lost my husband in Granada, of course found by Vera. Viva Vera!

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