Monday, March 23, 2009

Barcelona: Part Three, Lots O' Gaudí

9:00AM March 20

I got up a little bit earlier on Friday, but many of the girls were long gone, as they'd wanted to spend a few more hours in the old city with Victoria, who was departing before the rest of us at noon that day. Jen and Marielle, along with Tryson and Jaimie, were still around, and they told me they planned to rejoin the other girls upon their return with Victoria. I thought I join up with that group, but I still had almost two hours to kill until they got back. In the intervening time I decided to visit La Pedrera, the apartment buildings up the street designed by Gaudí.

On the outside, the building melds into the rest of the block, both in terms of size and material, as the facade is still mostly concrete—dirtied by a century's worth of dust—complimented by wrought iron balconies. Gaudí was conscious of his surroundings, but it still exemplified his style, with naturalist-looking curves implemented into nearly every aspect of the exterior. The door looked more like a set of interwoven branches than anything, glass filling the gaps in the metal structure. Passing through it felt like entering the space below a willow tree, its long branches hanging down to create a cover, and once inside, I was transported into a new colorful forest-like expanse, devoid from the outside world.

Most of what can bee seen in this still-active apartment complex is a Gaudí exhibit in the attic space of the building. There, many more plaster models can be found of his major works, along with samples of some of the furniture he designed. What I found most fascinating though, were the various collections of fruits and vegetables, arranged to evoke the shapes which appear in Gaudí's work. Here it became ever more apparent how connected he was to his natural surroundings, even creating models of plants to fully grasp their structure. The attic itself was also quite a cool space, appearing more like a set of tunnels, or a wine cellar, with its arced brick ceilings.

Model of La Pedrera in the attic-museum

Gaudí model of a tree

After the museum portion, I ascended one of the spiral staircases to the roof terrace (top). This was one of the most awesome sights, as the whole roof had been turned into a sort of coral reef, with every chimney and staircase taking an oceanic form. Gaudí did not see these structures as obstructions to be hidden on the roof, but rather embraced and used them as the focal point to his design. Not only did all of the stacks have wind-swept forms, but the terrace floor also moved up and down, like a wave on the ocean. I can't imagine a better communal space for the apartment.

The roof terrace at La Pedrera

When reentering the buildings, I toured the top floor, where a sample room is still decorated as it might have been in 1912, when the first tenants moved in. Even though it is a mere seven-story building, this more realistic vision of Gaudí took six years to build. For comparison, the 102-story Empire State Building, constructed only twenty years later, took less than a year and a half. To me, this signals the amount of detail that went into the design. As it was an apartment, used by many residents, of varying tastes, over a long period of time, the interior was nothing of note, as he allowed each tenant to create their own homely space within his walls.

Inside an apartment at La Pedrera

Looking up through the center plaza at La Pedrera

I still had a bit of time before I had to meet the girls, so I went in search of authentic Spanish sausage. Before too long I found a nice place where I could eat some tapas choricitos at the bar. The miniature grilled links mad a great snack, and gave me another chance to try traditional spanish cuisine.

When I returned to the hostel, Tryson and Jaimie had left to rent bikes and pedal around by the beach. Jen and Marielle were still waiting for the other girls though, getting impatient to start the day as they took another twenty minutes or more before returning themselves. We all then headed off to La Boquería to pick up some items for a picnic. While we were there, I was curious to try pitahaya (right), an exotic many-seeded fruit that was quite prevalent at the market, so I got a pitahaya "zumo," another popular item at the market similar to a smoothie. It was pretty good, but a lot like melon, and I'm not a real fan of melon. The biggest problem was the beverage, although it sat on ice, was almost lukewarm, which didn't make for the most appetizing fruit juice. We picked up some bread, a bit of manchega and a Catalan cheese, and a link each of sweet and spicy cooked chorizo before taking the subway up to Park Güell.

I was so enamored by anything Gaudí had created, and less so by the city as a whole, that I had no problem going back to spend another afternoon at Park Güell. This time, I made sure we got off one stop earlier than I had the day before, so we wouldn't have to deal with all of the escalators. This stop was a little further from the station, but we immediately found signs pointing towards the park, up the hill, and I recognized the route from my walk back a day earlier.

The park was just as splendid the second time, and we quickly found a nice archway to picnic under in a part of the park I hadn't made it to the day before. We were treated to some great lute music during lunch, played a few feet away from us, resonating wonderfully through the artificial cavern. As expected, all of the food was really great, and after lunch, we headed out to the grand balcony at the top of the park. There, we all sat down, and before long we were each napping under the warm sun. It was another wonderful day in the park, and I'm so glad I went back.

Our lunch spot under the archway. The lutenist sits on the right side.

Gaudí's house from 1916-1926

Bubbles on the grand balcony

The bookstore at Park Güell

I did return to the hostel on the subway that day. When we got back, the girls started making plans to go clubbing that night. I had hoped to go see some flamenco, but I couldn't find anyone else interested in going to see the traditional Catalan music and dance with me, and I felt obliged to accompany them where they went. We ended up at a bar that reminded me a lot of picture I've seen of "The Cavern," the Liverpool club the Beatles frequently played at early in their career. It was dingy, and the brick walls arched overhead to form a ceiling as well. It had a great charm to it. The best part of the evening was when I struck up a conversation with a Spaniard, and I was able to hold it more or less in Spanish for ten minutes. It's been three years since I took Spanish in school, and I was so happy that I remembered enough to have a decent conversation. I felt like I knew enough to get by in Spain, and if I were to live there, it wouldn't take too long to become fluent.

The next morning I had one more destination I wanted to see before we departed: Casa Batlló. The house was two blocks from our hostel on Passeig de Gràcia, commissioned by a family of the same name in 1904. It was completed in 1907. Like everything else by Gaudí, the house was stunning Marielle had gotten to calling it the "rainbow" house, due to its colorful facade. As it was built with one family in mind, Gaudí's touches extended much further into the design than the facade.

At the top of the first staircase in Casa Batlló

The second floor of the elevator-stair room at the center of the house

Looking onto the back terrace

A hallway on the top floor

Looking down through the center of the house

Gaudí was not one to put art ahead of function, and in entering each room, it might have been easy to mistake it for any other house. The same basic elements were there, but in the details, Gaudí showed his true form, rarely using rectangular shapes at all. Everything from walls, to cabinets, to windows, to light fixtures had a certain curved natural quality to it. Even the wood itself appeared more tree-like than most wood paneling. Like a Frank Lloyd Wright design, it was clear that Gaudí was a part of the building process right down until the tenants finally moved in, and maybe even then after, looking after every aspect of the house. Even the chain-link fences along the back terrace had a natural charm to them.

The interior was so spectacular, I was a little disappointed by the roof terrace. He used similar concepts to La Pedrera for the chimneys and staircases, but the whole didn't flow quite as well. I believe the terrace was his place to experiment and show off on La Pedrera, so he really did it up, whereas, on Casa Batlló, it was just another aspect in the design of the whole house, so he did not focus on it as much. There was one standout feature though. In a small round room on the roof, he planted a mirrored ball at the center with water dripping over it. The only light in the room came from directly above the ball, so the effect of the dripping water was reflected right back onto the ceiling. It was quite ingenious. (See for yourself by watching the video below.)

The roof terrace

After Casa Batlló, I had a bout an hour's more time to kill before me met to check out at the hostel, so I walked around the old city one last time, again discovering new alleys and art galleries that I'd missed before.

Much like Rome, I found Barcelona to be a very flawed city with a great collection of interesting and historic sites. I was quite happy to be heading home to Florence. I don't regret going to Barcelona, as I had a great time, but Nice was definitely the more fun and relaxing part of the trip for me. That little taste of France and Spain piqued my interest in the two countries even more, and I hope to visit both much more extensively in the future.

High over the Spanish coast

Corsican mountains through the clouds

A wonderful little island in the Mediterranean

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