Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Barcelona: Part One, La Boqueria & La Sagrada Familia

5:45PM March 15

We could not check in at the second hostel until 11:00, so we dropped our bags off in the luggage room and planned to meet back at 11:00 to check in. Many of the girls were tired of Italian coffee, which comes in noticeably smaller portions, and were overwhelmed by the sight of Starbucks in Barcelona, so they went off to get a "venti" American brew. I happen to find the Italian coffee much better, myself, and was not particularly keen on going back to Starbucks, so I walked around with Kate and Brittany.

We didn't have any destination in mind; we just headed south, thinking we might make it to the water. At Placa Catalunya (top), the large square outside of City Hall, Kate chased the pigeons around for awhile, and we took a right down a large boulevard known as La Rambla. This street, I would later realize, is the real heart of Barcelona culture. It is always crowded: during the day, by tourists, art peddlers, pet vendors, news stands, pushers of all things FC Barcelona, and creepy people in costumes that don't even try to act like statues, but would rather scare you. At night, it remained crowded, but then by partying tourists, prostitutes, and plenty of men illegally selling canned beer. Off to one side, we stumbled into the most incredible farmers market I've ever been to: La Boqueria. There weren't very many prepared foods there, but it had the greatest selection of fresh produce, fish, nuts, candies, sausage, poultry, foie gras, eggs, spices, and various animal parts anywhere. I mostly scoped it out that first trip through the market, but Kate bought a small bag of really awesome cashews.

La Rambla

La Boqueria

Produce at La Boqueria

Fresh eggs


Meat & Sausage


We headed back to the hostel and met up with everybody else, including Tryson--the guy who sings a song with us every week at Caffe Artigiani--who was meeting us in Barcelona after spending the first few days of spring break in Lisbon, Madrid, and Valencia. After we checked in, I headed off with Yvette, Alex, and Jen, who also just wanted to wander. We ended up going the same direction as before and stopped in for a stroll around La Boqueria. I went back at least once every day I was in Barcelona. We next proceeded down La Rambla to the port. It wasn't particularly interesting. There was a shopping mall that did little more than obscure the view, so we turned around before long to meet up with everyone else at La Sagrada Familia.

The port

La Sagrada Familia is one of the world’s most famous churches, sitting at a geographical center in the Barcelona region in between the mountains and sea. In 1882, Antoni Gaudi was commissioned to build this church for L'Associacio Espiritual de Devots de Sant Josep. It was still a work in progress when he died in a freak car accident in 1926, and today the church is still under construction. Following his vision, the church may be finished around 2025. Who's to say if it will ever really be finished, though? Even more interesting, the city of Barcelona has set aside plots of land close to the Mediterranean for three more like churches once the original is finished. It costs a good bit to go in, so most of the people in our group decided they were content with just seeing the impressive exterior. I didn't know when I'd be back in Barcelona, if ever, and I was so taken by the structure from the first time I saw a picture of it years ago. I really had to go in, no matter that cost. Jaimie and Tryson were also quite interested and came along.

La Sagrada Familia, as seen from the east side.

Statues on the western facade

Ongoing construction

The canopy

Even unfinished, it is hard to describe just how grand the structure is. In fact, construction was going on while we were there. The defining characteristic of Gaudi's work is his connection to nature. All of his pillars are derived from the shapes of tree and flower trunks. Many of the curves mimic the swirling shapes of seashells, and as you walk through the massive cathedral and look up at the ceiling, you are not greeted by a simple roof, but a canopy, as might be created by a forest of trees. He wanted you to feel like you were not in a building, but within the wild, only sheltered from god by enough tree cover to protect you from the rain. It was truly majestic. In the basement, there is also a museum which reveals much of his thought process, including tons of plaster mock-ups for various parts of the cathedral, some of them big enough to walk through.

Above the east entrance

A walk-through plaster model

If completed, La Sagrada Familia will look something like this. The white is mostly the unfinished parts.

When the three of us felt content in leaving this masterwork, Jaimie and Tryson were ready to go check out the Picasso museum, but I was so overwhelmed by the church, I didn't feel I could appropriately handle Picasso at that point, so I went in search of their new famous skyscraper, the Torre al Agbar. It was a good walk eastwards from La Sagrada Familia, which is already a ways to the north and east of the city center. The tower stands as the pinnacle of a new business district still largely under construction. There was little to see but the tower itself, which was quite fascinating, using a brilliant combination of glass and vinyl siding, but all around were highways and lots full of dirt and thoroughly modern buildings on the way up. I went, saw the building up close, and then kept moving.

The Torre al Agbar

The under-construction business district

Now that I was walking a lot, my right foot started to singe with pain. Somehow the simple cut in my heel had triggered a twinge in my achilles. For the rest of the trip, my right achilles hurt when I walked for more than ten or twenty minutes. There was little I could do about it though, so I proceeded south towards the beach, as that was to the east of the port. After being on the Riviera for a few days, it was a bit disappointing. It appeared more like a port, with large cargo ships not far off, so I turned back into the city before too long.

The Barcelona beach

Barcelona has a certain dirty grunginess to it, much like American cities, and although aspects of it were really fabulous, like La Sagrada Familia and La Boqueria, I was not particularly taken by it until I found myself in old city. It reminded me a bit of Philadelphia, how all of a sudden, the streets got tinier and the buildings got older. It was really charming, reminding me a lot of Italy and its endless alleyways. There were more great old churches, art galleries, hip restaurants, and a generally trendy classy scene going on in that neighborhood. I did want to give my foot a rest though, so I didn't wander too much, just seeing whatever I could on the way back to the hostel.

Gothic church in the old city

Spanish alleyways

That night we went out to a restaurant that Jen and Alex had found in one of the tour books they'd purchased at the Dublin airport. We did get our real Spanish food that night, in the form of a variety of meat dishes. The girls got dishes ranging from tuna with pumpkin, to squid (ink and all), to a pork and potato-layered pie of sorts. I, myself, was feeling adventurous, so I went for the oxtail. It was really tasty, and several of the girls who were originally scared by the thought, really enjoyed it when I gave them a bite. For dessert I got a banana and white chocolate item, which turned out to be essentially a liquified fried banana drink. It was unexpected and not something I would have ordered if I understood the menu better, but it turned out to be a great capper on the meal.

None of us had slept much the night before, so we decided to retire early that evening after dinner.

A mysterious courtyard for a museum hidden in the old city

A grand thermoter on the side of this building at the south end of Placa Catalunya

Placa Catalunya just after sunset

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