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Barcelona, a set on Flickr.

Barcelona is an amazing city in both its unique culture and aesthetic style. As the capital of the autonomous state of Catalonia, it has long maintained its own identity as a part of but something separate and unique from the rest of Spain. The first thing one notices when visiting Barcelona are the contrasts. It is a city whose growth is visually apparent as sections have been added over time to accommodate immigration, industrialization and most recently, tourism. The old city of Barcelona remains as a link to the city’s historical roots. Expansions such as the neighborhood we stayed in, L’Eixample are evidence of a time when the city outgrew its original boundaries and experienced a surge in population and wealth. The Olympic Village is a modernized testament to the investments that poured into the city surrounding the 1992 Summer Olympics and brought about the current age of tourism in Barcelona. IMG_0158 Our Barcelona experience began with a tapas-style meal at Costa Gallega, which seemed to be a popular spot for touring groups of students, particularly American ones. Although not served in the traditional tapas style celebrated more so in Madrid and the Basque region, the Spanish way of dining is all about sharing, small portions and tasting as many things as possible. Weary from a long day of traveling, I opted for the comfort of my bed rather than tackle the city streets. IMG_0181 A walking tour is the perfect way to explore a city like Barcelona. With so many details and hidden nooks and crannies, you really need to be on foot to be able to appreciate its splendor. We began on Passeig de Gracia, a street built to house the new class of wealthy industrialists who used the promenade to broadcast their nouveau-riche wealth and style by enlisting the architectural prowess of the Modernisme, the artists and designers of the time who fused art nouveau and avant-garde to create some truly unique and breathtaking structures. Our first stop was probably the most notable. Casa Batllo was the creation of Antoni Gaudi, the celebrated master of the Modernisme crowd. The house he built is a beautifully bizarre building that incorporates mosaic tile to create a sense of revelry in its harlequin appearance. IMG_0317 From there we walked to La Rambla, a street literally built over a river that has a wide center median for walking and only two small lanes on either side for driving. You have to respect a city that gives so much consideration to its pedestrians and actually encourages them to walk instead of drive. Along the way we also noticed large bike racks with red bikes that we were told were rentable by citizens to use for basic transportation. Such a forward-thinking way to deal with a large population in a growing city designed before the car became the transportation method of choice. IMG_0206 On La Rambla we stopped at the Mercat St Josep, an open-air market that housed some of the freshest produce, meat, pastries and spices I’ve probably ever seen. What’s more is that the prices were far better than supermarket ones and the place was packed, even for a Sunday. IMG_0301 As you make it closer to the sea, Barcelona becomes even more interesting. It seems to change and morph with every corner you turn. As you enter a new barri (neighborhood), the whole style and feel of the city changes. One moment you are in the Barri Gothic marveling at narrow alleys around gothic cathedrals and the next you stumble upon La Ribera where a Lichtenstein sculpture and private yachts welcome you back to the 21st Century. As you travel east along the water, Barcelona becomes even more modern with towering glass buildings and colossal sculptures that were built to impress the influx of visitors for the Olympics. It was in the Olympic Village that we stopped for paella and enjoyed the fruits of the sea in the afternoon sun. IMG_0353 From there we took an impressively large city bus to the site of the thing I was most looking forward to, La Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s uncompleted magnum opus that is still under construction after over a century and a half. Having done my research in advance I was prepared for much of what the basilica had to offer and knew what to look for. I could tell from the wide eyes and open jaws of my compatriots that they were not expecting what they saw. La Sagrada Familia is massive in scope and burts at the seams with details. One could spend hours poring over the minute sculptural detail of the Nativity Façade before even entering the building. Gaudi began work on the church in 1883 before he became the famous architect we know him for today. The original plan was a modest Neo-Gothic church built with donations to be used for absolution. Gaudi soon became obsessed and endeavored to create the world’s first Modernista church and devoted the last 12 years of his life exclusively to the project. Although he died long before its completion, he did oversee a good portion of its current construction and completed the design with the exception of the stained glass and the Passion Façade sculpture detail. IMG_0400 Once inside the mighty church, the awe of the project silences you and opens your heart and your mind to the creative vision of Gaudi. The pillars that support the intricately designed ceiling resemble tall trees that branch towards the top. As they draw your gaze further and further up, brilliantly colorful light from the stained glass paints the white columns in color. By the time you catch a glimpse of the ceiling, it’s too late. The complicated three-dimensional geometric patterns suck you in and seem to move on their own like a well-designed optical illusion. IMG_0420 The Passion Façade is a source of much contention around the church. Some believe it is not in keeping with Gaudi’s style and vision. Since Gaudi did not leave specific instructions on the actual sculptures, Josep Maria Subirachs, another Catalonian artist and sculptor, was brought in to apply his signature take on the death of Christ. The contrast is blatant and so stark it is no wonder some take issue with it. However it does effectively set the tone for what is supposed to be a powerful, somber and bleak part of the faith. Whereas the nativity Façade is glorious and ornate in its design with details and bombast literally bursting forth, the Passion Façade is all angles and sparse conveying a sense of doom and death. That night we dined at the 4 Gats restaurant, a quaint little place inspired by the legendary Le Chat Noir in Paris where the important artists and thinkers of the time gathered for drinks. In 1897, 4 Gats carried on that tradition in Barcelona, attracting such notable regulars as Pablo Picasso and other Spanish artist who often paid for their meal with a drawing or painting, replicas of which can still be found hanging on the walls. The place was supposed to be an exclusive hidden hangout for the intellectual elite but quickly became a Barcelona hot spot. Next stop, Penedes Wine Region…