The soul and spirit of Catalonia and possibly my favorite city in Europe
07/13/2014 - 07/17/2014 80 °F
Driving into Barcelona, I realized that I had romanticized the city as others might have Rome or Paris. Spain had always held some strange allure to me, whether it was the language, the women, or my heritage - I'm not sure. And Barcelona was always the first and last city in Spain that was talked about, especially by my numerous friends who studied abroad or spent more than a week in the city. As we drove into Barcelona, I was initially disappointed because it looked like other cities and didn't gleam in some special way and I realized I had to clear my expectations and just enjoy myself.
Once I got passed this initial foolishness and started really looking around, I took an immediate liking to the city. The roads and especially intersections are especially spacious, especially because I had spent the last couple days driving thru tiny narrow streets of nameless cities along the Mediterranean in France and Spain. The intersections are especially big because they actually chop off each of the corners to put parking spots for cars. And there was green everywhere. Lining every street. That has always been a big plus for me.
This photo shows an interesting apartment building but also shows the interesting intersection + parking that you see all over the place.
Though not the capital of Spain, Barcelona makes sure that everyone knows it is the capital of Catalonia serves as a poster child for Catalonian culture. The Spanish / Catalonian dicotomy is displayed in Barcelona’s uniqueness at every corner. All signs are displayed in both Spanish and Catalonian, and though all the locals there respond to and speak Spanish, they brighten up just a little when you greet them with “Bon dia” instead of “Buenos dias”.
After parting with Emilie and Noemie, my French companions, I decided to switch hostels. The previous night I had been in a big franchised hostel - Generator Hostel - that has locations all over Europe. While that guarantees good facilities, cleanliness and security, I have learned in my travels that I value those aspects of a hostel infinitely less than the good atmosphere and friendly staff that you typically find at a small hostel. Finding a cheap one right off Las Ramblas (the main touristy drag), I headed there. This hostel turned out to be totally horrible in all of the categories that I don’t care much about (over cramped rooms, subpar showers, good security), but better in the categories I do care about - friendly staff and a great, friendly, close knit atmosphere among the travelers. In the bigger hostels, you can feel at times like a nameless traveler in a very shiek, but carbon-copied big building. In the smaller hostels, you say hi to everyone in the hallway and easily strike up conversation with anyone. When you have 8 beds cramped into a space that should hold 4 beds, you become close with your bunk mates very quickly. For a solo traveler, it is a very easy choice.
After establishing my base for the next 4 days, I didn’t know where to start. There is so much to see and do in Barcelona, but I could luckily put off that decision making, because I had found online that one of the 2 club Ultimate teams in Barcelona had pickup beach ultimate today! After really not playing ANY of the sport that I play 5+ times a week typically in the summer, I was anxious to get out and ball. I rented a bike and had a magnificent 30 minute ride down to Playa de Bogatell. With all the hot women, beautiful beaches, and sand volleyball courts I saw as I rode, I knew that I would be returning to the beach later in the week.
My eyes lit up as soon as I saw Frisbees flying thru the air, and I rushed my bike over to the group. I could see right away from the throws that there was a wide range of talent there - legit club level to beginners. I was always under the impression that Ultimate was still gaining steam and usually played at a lower level in Europe, and this seemed to be about half true as the level was high, but most of the best people on the field (beach) turned out to be American ex-pats or students. Anxious to get right into the mix and hoping to make a good impression, I got a layout D on my first point, and went from there.
Different day at the beach
The ultimate was pretty good and I quickly found out that being in hiking/walking shape is NOT the same as being in Ultimate shape (especially in sand), and my legs were burning before long. We played for until it got dark, and then a few of us played some 500 and I got the opportunity to practice my favorite skill in Ultimate, skying players much taller than me and showed an American kid named Willis a thing or two (and he returned the favor). That kid is 6’3”, just entering college, and is going to tear shit up. Maybe the best part of beach ultimate is when it’s all over, we can just run into the ocean and cool off. After rinsing off, I got a few beers with Willis and Aaron, an American with crazy dreds who is teaching in Guatemala and a big fan of spear fishing! Talking to the both of them just made me want to someday live and work abroad even more. The long and detour-filled walk back with Willis gave me a good opportunity to get some great night photos of downtown Barcelona.
Las Ramblas - the main tourist drag
A HUGE part of what makes Barcelona beautiful, unique, and one of my favorites is the architecture that is such a colorful and interesting departure from the beautiful, but repetitive architecture you see thru much of Europe. The styles vary for sure between many other cities, but nowhere is the departure from the norm as drastic or entertaining as it is in Barcelona.
The most famous (and in my opinion the most genius) of these Catalonian architects was Antoni Gaudi. If anyone out there knows a good quality biography or resource to learn more about Gaudi, please let me know, as visiting Barcelona has sparked a casual obsession in me regarding his influences and works. I was expecting to love his style, which was deeply inspired by natural and natural shapes (curves over straight lines and edges), but I didn’t realize how deep his genius went. For anyone out there who has read The Fountainhead, I’ve never understood the feelings of passion and purity that the author uses to describe architecture as much as when I’m looking closely thru a Gaudi structure. Symbolism plays a major role in his designs, especially in his famous church, but ALWAYS form and function takes priority in guiding his designs. The engineer in my wondered how much harder and more expensive it was to make many of his curved, non-uniform building pieces of stone, but art of this brilliance and beauty must come at a price.
La Sagrada Familia
I had known that I could not leave Barcelona without seeing Gaudi’s most famous work, the still-in-progress church known as La Sagrada Familia. The price tag to get in was about 20 euros, and while I often balk at the prices to get inside some of Europe’s most famous cathedrals, I knew that for this, I would not be satisfied with only viewing the outside. Still without the tallest towers, the church already cuts an impressive figure from the outside. It covers a surprisingly small amount of area on the ground for how high the towers will eventually rise, and this is owed to Gaudi’s unique support structures and design.
The church currently has 2 main facades or entrances that are mostly completed: Nativity and Passion. The provided audioguide can give many interesting details regarding the symbolism in each of them, but any laymen can immediately see the stark contrasts struck by the two.
Nativity, displaying symbols of the birth and early life of Christ, is filled with beautiful and detailed images showing a dozen or so different scenes from the Bible. The entire facade emits life and beauty, including the Tree of Life situated high above the center door.
The Tree of Life is in the center
Notice all of the adornment and detail
Passion, on the other hand, immediately batters you with its stark emptiness and simplicity. Devoid of the artistic flourishes of the other facade, this one depicts the end of Christ’s life - his trial, crucifixion, and rebirth. Though not evil or wicked, it definitely does not have the warm and optimism so evident in the other facade.
By contrast, notice how stark and bare the Passion side is
While the outside is interesting and impressive, if you stop there you are missing the best part of Gaudi’s masterpiece and quite possibly one of the most beautiful interiors of any building in the world. Though the expression has become common place, the Grand Canyon is the only other time that I can remember seeing something that literally took my breath away. Even with the loud, consistent sounds of construction disturbing the otherwise peaceful and almost other-worldly environment, time still seems to slow down the moment you alk in. I physically began moving slower, thinking slower, breathing shallower, afraid that if I went too fast, I might break this magical and fragile spell that had fallen over me. This structure will truly be one of the great man-made wonders of the world when construction is completed and the invasive sounds from the work are banished from inside of these walls. After recovering my mind and senses, this was when the language from the Fountainhead that I previously referred to first spontaneously sprouted up in my mind.
The tree-like supports, so evoking of nature, are one of the most unique aspects of this building and allow it to rise higher and cleaner into the sky than you would normally see. His sense of symbolism continues here on the inside, with each of the 4 main support “trunks” containing an image symbolizing the 4 most prominent disciples - Matthew, Mark, John, and Luke - which are who Christ first built his religion upon.
Beyond the shape of the support structures, the other thing that is so striking is the incredible use of light within the building. Always a fan of the natural, the church’s main areas are entirely lit by natual light during the day, but it is the USE of this light that is so intriguing. Just as I was appreciating this character, the audioguide chimed in with perfect timing:
“There is a misunderstanding that the abundance of light is a positive element; that is not so. The light should be just right. Too much too little light both leave things blind, and the blind cannot see.”
- Antoni Gaudi
Each of the large stained glass windows uses different colors, and together they tell a story as you walk around them. The audioguide describes the story and symbolism, but I can’t remember it very well at this point. Though half of the windows use “cool” colors, all of the light coming in thru these windows has a warm characteristic, encouraging you to bask in their color and imagery.
The construction sounds from outside are not welcome, but despite that I felt an incredible calm while inside La Sagrada Familia. As a non-religious person, I’m not usually particularly moved by the inside of churches, but I spent a lot of time sitting down and trying to digest the feelings this structure evoked in me. The religious symbolism is everywhere, but I think you take what you want from any work of art. For me, I was blown away by the astounding power of man and the feeling that higher levels of beauty and form are attainable when a revolutionary mind is given the proper resources.
After soaking in the glow inside the church, I did go up one of the bell towers and then went into the museum underneath the church. The views from the bell tower were impressive, though I was still reeling from the inside of the church, I hardly noticed.
Underneath the church was interesting, as it described the building of the church and how Gaudi executed some of his genius. Like any true revolutionary in his chosen field, Gaudi thought differently and pioneered principles that had never been widely used before. One of the most interesting of these techniques is a peculiar looking “funicular model”. Using strings and bags weighted proportional to the loads the structures would support, Gaudi used gravity and natural principles to guide his deisgns of the overall shape of a dome or structure. These models helped Gaudi to avoid complicated and tedious calculations and design structures more organically.
The view in the mirror overhead shows how this leads direcly into the focal design. Today, similar models are constructed using complex computer models, but no other architect that I’m aware of used this to the extent that Gaudi did in his day.
Gaudi designed these intricate and elaborate doors himself, and they do an effective job of allowing light in, but making it difficult for anyone to see in
Palau Guell (Palace Guell for those who don’t “Hablo espanol”) was one of Gaudi’s earliest commissions by a wealthy patron, Guell, who would become a lifelong admirer and friend of Gaudi. As an early work of Gaudi, this home is less unique and gaudy and more similar in structure than many of his later commissions. Side note: the English word “gaudy” actually stems from descriptions of Gaudi’s architecture. But as becomes obvious while touring Palace Guell, Gaudi’s style was everything but gaudy, as almost every detail was well thought thru and serves a specific function. This private residence is less distinct and unique that many of his later works, but this urban mansion nevertheless displays Gaudi’s brilliance. It may even be BECAUSE its more traditional structure that it displays his genius so well because the subtleties and unique details designed by Gaudi stand out even more so.
Many of the ceilings are very elaborate
Case and point
Again these windows allow light in, but make it difficult for anyone to see in thru them
As the audioguide describes, Gaudi thought of so many different factors when designing a room or building, from aesthetics to acoustics, multi-use to even ventilation, Gaudi was a master at uniting all of these desires and factors into one comprehensive design. Functionality, above all. The main receiving hall was the best example of this. A room that served as both a concert hall and a chapel, depending on the occasion. As always beautiful to the eye, the room had a small area that served as the altar during religious ceremonies, and could be closed and hidden from view during other times. The acoustics of the room were designed with Guell’s favorite musical instruments in mind, and a large custom organ was also installed.
A view skyward from inside Guell's main concert room
Gaudi displayed some of his uniqueness that he became so famous for on the roof, where he decorated each of the many chimneys with a different, colorful top.
Seafood and Sangria - mmmmmmmmmmm
Certainly one of the things that I was excited about with visiting Spain was the seafood that they’re so well known for. Especially with the cities right on the coast, the seafood is fresh, varied, and used in all sorts of dishes. My favorite of these dishes in Paella. Paella is a delicious dish that is primarily rice, with all sorts of vegetables and meats added to it. There is a lot of freedom regarding what else is added to it, but my favorite is, of course, boatloads of seafood. Usually this includes a ton of shellfish - mussels, clams, shrimp, etc. I had already had paella for a meal in Barcelona, but then I saw an ad for an interactive dining/cooking experience in which a chef talked you thru the making of paella, which you obviously got to eat afterwards, and I couldn’t resist. For 20 euros, I got a lot more than I had originally bargained for.
The experience started out at the “Travelers Bar”, where I started to get to know some of the others that would be joining me for dinner that night. I met people from all over, including a beautiful girl named Ayissa who happened to live in San Francisco, where I’ll be moving to! After chatting about the Bay Area a bit, the chef had arrived and we were ready to head out. Unexpectedly, we headed first not to a restaurant or bar, but to the famous Boqueria - the liveliest and most colorful food market in Barcelona (or the world???). As Abayello, our wonderful chef, explained, it was important to see where the ingredients come from and how to get good quality ingredients. Paella itself, he says, is a very simple dish and the wonderful flavors are owed mostly to high quality ingredients. His bosses told him to skip the market, and get people in and out quicker with this tour, but he felt that it was important enough to see paella from market to plate and took us anyway. Abayello walked us slowly thru the market, taking time to describe what he was looking for when selecting the high quality seafood and meat needed for paella.
After the market, the group (about 20 in all) made our way to the restaurant and into a back room where we could see Abayello cook our dinner in the largest paella dish I’d ever seen. Prior to getting the food started, he first showed us how to make proper sangria. I had always been under the impression that sangria was basically a cheap and sweet variation on wine, but I learned that it can be so much more. Starting with a base of about ⅓ wine (usually red, but it doesn’t have to be), you add sugar, white rum, and brandy to bring it to almost full. Then you add your chosen fruits and top it off with a little Sprite or something similar. The result is magnificent, and after Abayello made the first pitcher, we were free to make our own throughout the night. We took turns making it, and the sangria flowed freely all night long
When we got down to the true business of paella, I was amazed how simple it was. You should know the proper order to add the meats and veggies so that everything gets cooked the proper amount, but it is mostly adding in the ingredients to the large paella cooking dish, and letting it cook. Seafood and meat, then the veggies, and finally the rice which soaks up the delicious juices. According to Abayello, tradionally men are usually the ones that cook large dishes of paella for large parties and events, giving the women a break from preparing meals every night.
The result was delicious and our entire table got our fill. Afterwards we all headed back to our various hostels, but I met up later that night (after a little digesting) with a group of them for some late night dancing to burn off some of those calories. Overall, it was one of the best experiences I had on my travels and would encourage others to look for those sorts of unique opportunities, even if they may cost a bit.
This journal entry does not detail out everything that I saw and experienced in Barcelona, but that would take far too long. I loved my time there and was upset to leave, but there was so much more to see. I did consider for a brief time hitting the breaks and spending my whole 2 weeks in Spain just in Barcelona, but knew I had to see more of the country, especially a country as varied in culture (and language) as Spain. I headed out on a train to Valencia, another town right on the sea known for its beach and as the birthplace of paella (mmmmmmm). I left with a heavy heart, but knew that I would be back to Barcelona again, hopefully for much longer a period.