“The sky is down.” A lollypop-smeared kindergarten kid stands on his head and laughs. I almost do a headstand, then stop. One, I might see the world upright. Two, it might get a picturesque view of my toned rear. But most importante, I don’t want to wake from this weird dream yet.
Where tea cups sit comfortably upside on mosaic studded ceilings and winding arcades cut from the hillside lead me to emerge under yet another cavernous ceiling, that would have me believe I’ve been taken through another shake of a kaleidoscope.
From the dizzy moment you say ‘Ola’ to a smiling dragon dressed in mosaic at the entrance to Park Guell, you are happily drawn into this story, that could be a sprawling set for a Walt Disney fairytale flick. Welcome to Barcelona’s biggest tourist attraction.
Strolling past avenues of columns and down twisted pathways cascading with little chattering children, I wonder about the man who was something of a rebel wonderkid now turned totemic artist.
One of Spain’s most famous architects he created fantastic modernist monuments and intricate fabulist sculptures. Led the artistic movement known as modernism, based on the use of natural forms.
Another eccentric artist, Dali described it best. ‘Gaudí has built one house from the forms of the sea, representing storm-tossed waves. Another house is made from the still water of a lake…all in pointillistic mosaic”
Call him eccentric, or visionary, Gaudi did in many ways capture the restlessness of Barcelona. In a style that resists being categorized just like the city itself.
Sophisticated, dignified yet loaded with the dangerous charm of a rake, Barcelona can never be brown-bagged with the other big cities of the world. Spain’s second city is hip, exuberant, passionate.
Lose yourself in the narrow winding streets of the Old City, and you will find the artistic little balconies draped with the yellow pennants that cheer for Barca – the local football team, an angry mama scolding her errant son in Catalan, a painter contemplating his easel in a balcony, lanes embroidered with little shops glittering with papier mache and smoke pipes, and maybe a rare blue umbrella in the style of Miro’s paintings, and the most unusual silver trinkets: at once bohemian and elegant. And sometimes, you may find an old Spaniard with way too much wino inside him. This one came wobbling at us, shouting in full baritone ‘Mi tigra. grr…Mi tigra..(I’m a
tiger)….That then, is the Barcelona that lives madly. The fiesta where Gaudi’s ideas took shape.
And while we sit under orange trees sipping fresh orange juice in Spanish sunshine I listen to a school teacher animatedly tell her students (who’d rather cowboy ride the mosaic dragon) the history of the park.
It was conceived and commissioned to be a garden city development, by Eusebe Guell – rich patron of the arts – to be a fashionable residential area, on a hill on the edge of the city. The wealthy of the time turned their noses up at Gaudi’s wilder ideas and eventually the estate was taken over by the city as a park.
Twisted pathways lined with palms lead me to a great esplanade, the highlight of the park – with an undulating bench covered in trencad’s, broken mosaic. Intricate, mind-bogglingly beautiful designs that snicker at our attempt to capture them on film.
The park is vast, meandering, yawning into the wooded hillside. Climbing to the top I spy, in the far distance, the spires of the Sagrada Familia reaching into the Barcelona sky. I wave back.
The metro that will take me to the Sagrada Familia is at the Las Ramblas. The focal point, the gut, the bubbling punch bowl of the city. A boulevard that runs all the way from one end of town to the other. From Plaça de Catalunya, the town centre to Port Vell (Old Harbour)and the sea.
As a human statue of Jesus, grimaces, flaps his hands to relieve the pain, adjusts his robes and then goes back to standing with his arms held out, I take my place in the hum of the streetside cafes dotting the stretch. Sipping endless cappuccinos I watch, what can be described as a carnival of humanity parade past, not really heading towards any place in particular. Unless it’s late evening. That’s when people come streaming out of the opera, make for the thrum and pound of the clubs, or the neon-flashing sex shops, or dally down the narrow cobble-stoned lanes that suddenly yawn into huge piazzas or squares, zeroing in on dinner.
You’ll find every one of God’s creatures here, from a couple of nuns, waddling penguin-like, their necks craning turning in every direction, to jugglers, violinists and colourful, rouged and plumaged transvestites that would send the nuns into full retreat.
Otherwise, unlike other big cities, Barcelona lets you sit back and watch life go by, not lifting you by the collar and hurrying you to the melee of progress. It lets you contemplate, grow. You shouldn’t be surprised that the most famous artists came from Barcelona. Picasso, Dali, Miro. All of whom have museums dedicated to them, in and around the city. And not visiting them would be a waste of an airline ticket, not to mention waste of a lifetime.
‘La Sagrada Familia’, the old porter at the hotel had told me very sternly, with a dramatic roll of the eyes and much waving of hands, – in chipped English – ‘iss verrrri high, grande.. grande. Verry steps. Much steps.’
As I looked down from the top of the spiral stairs of the 100m high towers, breathless and panting, I wished I hadn’t. I discovered vertigo. But in exchange for one blurring moment I was gifted a mind-shushing view of Barcelona bathing in light noon sunshine.
On the outside, the four magnificent spires of the unfinished cathedral imprinted themselves boldly against the sky with swelling outlines inspired by the holy mountain Montserrat.
This was Gaudi’s unfinished dream. A project he gave his life to, from the time he took up the project in 1883 until his death 34 years later. Truly awe-inspiring. And as audacious, as outre and detailed as his other work. Evident in the palm tree-shaped columns that rest on the back of turtles (on a church!)In the snails adorning the facade. Ana, our guide tells us they were cast from life, and then enlarged mechanically to 10 feet in diameter to creep decoratively round the moulding of an arch 50 feet up.
She points to the Virigin and Child on a donkey, also cast from life, magnified and deposited in the great rockery up there. In Gaudi’s own words “I found it (the donkey)at last in the cart of a woman who was selling scouring sand…. With much trouble, I persuaded its owner to bring it to me. And then, as it was copied, bit by bit, in plaster of Paris, she kept crying because she thought it would not escape with its life.”
The crypt is a piece of classic gothic architecture. Hermann Finsterlin (German Expressionist architect rightly says “The Sagrada Familia is for me one of the building-wonders of the world… no house of God, but a house of the Goddess, of his Goddess, his heavenly and therefore unhappy love. ”
The next day I woke up late. Maybe it was the sangria at the Placa Real, one of the more popular cobble-stoned piazzas in Barcelona, where the soulful looking Spaniard strummed the guitar and then, quite ironically, sang “Yesterday” by The Beatles.
Maybe it was the long walk into La Barceloneta – the old sailors’ quarter, and to the shores of the Mediterranean. I don’t know. But there was a note for me at the reception, scrawled on the back of an old envelope. “Take the metro and get off at Diagonal. Follow the green line. Huge building (U won’t miss it). Meet us there at 12.00.” It had all the makings of Casablanca. But I was in Barcelona and having missed the group and more importantly, breakfast, I have no choice but to gawk my route through the city. On my way I stop at a tapas bar in the St Josep Supermercat – the huge market where half a day can disappear as deliciously as my lunch of anchovies and calamari, sardines and wine. I gape at the blood-red strawberries, the sun yellow melons, orange fish and begin to believe it must’ve been the food that inspired Gaudi .
But I can’t imagine what could’ve been the muse behind the tunnel-like arches of the Casa Milá, also called La Pedrera (the quarry). An ambitious apartment complex whose arcades on the upper floor have recently been restored and opened to the public.
Right in the middle of street, risking life and limb, I crane my neck backwards to be greeted by balconies girded in wrought iron, ribbon-twisted, blending with the curves of the uneven grey stone facade that ripples around a street corner. Like everywhere else in Barcelona, flowers burst in colourful ecstasy from the balconies.
On the roof, the phantom-like, chimney pots – a whole battalion of them – stare into the distance with fixed expressions. I turn to see what it is that has held their attention for decades. Within hugging distance stand oval arches pixilated in mosaic. And framed in them, the silhouette of Temple del Sagrat Cor, serene, atop the hills of Tibidabo in the background.
Barcelona sharpened my senses, all of them. And it helped me get a firm grasp on the language. I learnt two important phrases. The life saving, “No hablo Espanol.” I do not speak Spanish. And, ‘Hasta luego.’ See you later. Now, you can bet on that.
Other works of Gaudi: The fountain complex in the middle of the Barrio Chine, the Parc de la Ciutadella, Casa Vicens, Palau Güell, located in the old town, just off the Ramblas, and the Casa Battló (pronounce ‘Baa-ttio’) at the Passeig de Gracia, perhaps Gaudís most beautiful art nouveau project.
How to get there: Many airlines don’t fly direct to Spain. Take a Mumbai-London direct. Connect with a cheap no-frills airline (I took easyjet with a good deal).
Accommodation Costs: Though hostels range from 17-20 E/ night, you can get a good deal at a mid-range hotel on a twin sharing basis for a little more. The Ramblas is lined with accommodation in every range. Check http://www.spainhotels.com. Plan for about 25-30 euro/night for accommodation. (mid range/single). Look up the net for some spectacular off-season deals.
Visas: The most sensible thing to do is get a schengen visa. That way you can also stop in several other European countries on your way back. Spanish visas take about ten days to process so keep that allowance. The Spanish Embassy is in New Delhi so if you live in Mumbai, talk to an agent.
Dining: There are several little places to eat in the lanes of Barcelona. Skip the ubiquitous McDonald’s for at the Café L’Opera glass of cava. Little cafes in the Mercat la Boqueria (the colourful market) are great value for money and a good way to look inside the lives of the locals. Los Caracoles, another great place comes steeped in history. Check out the slew of outdoor cafes in the Placa Reial.
Shopping: The Avinguda Diagonal has all the big names in fashion: Gucci, Armani, Max Mara. Zara is Spain’s own international label. Though you can buy kitschy souvenirs right on the Ramblas, the museum shops – Picasso, Miro, Dali – offer prints and off-beat gifts. Check out the crafts market in the Barri Gotic (Thu & Fri).
Tips: Though many locals speak English, learn a few basic phrases before you go. Especially if you want to shop in the local markets.
Walk as much as you can. It’s the best way to discover the intricately built city.
(Published in India Today Travel Plus.)
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