Casa Batlló; La Pedrera; Assorted other Gaudís; Las Ramblas; Columbus monument; The rain in Spain falls mainly on our heads

Outside of the Gothic Quarter, Barcelona is impossible to get lost in - it’s laid out in perpendicular octagonal blocks (or rectangular blocks with the corners cut off, anyway). It’s reassuring and somehow comforting, though it doubles the walking time to get anywhere as the pedestrian crossings are all set well back from the actual intersection at the narrowest part. Parking, by the way - the only parking in Barcelona as far as I could tell - is at the cut-away corners of the intersections. I’m glad I don’t have to drive there.

The buildings are all four or five stories tall around a central courtyard or light well, in white or tan brick or stucco. Inside the Gothic Quarter, it’s another story. The buildings are just as high, but they’re much closer together - often only an arm’s width apart - and the streets twist around like a basket of snakes. Embedded here and there in the tangle are squares and plazas, each with its own shape defined by the buildings crowding it. If it’s nearly impossible to get lost outside the Quarter, it’s nearly impossible to find your way inside it.

Another thing I found alien, coming from a relatively young city, was the tendency of Barcelona (and of most historical European city centres) to be paved from street-edge to street-edge and from building to building, with no space at all given over to trees or grass or greenery of any kind. With a tourist’s eye it looks charming and olde-worlde, and with a photographer’s eye interestingly geometric, but if I had to live in one of these places I’d go crazy in short order.

Another adjustment, though not an unexpected or unwelcome one, is that Barcelona is hot. The sun beats down like a hammer on the pavement and it was so bright I could hardly open my eyes halfway. Coming from cold, wet Toronto via cold, wet Ireland, it was a happy shock to my system.

Our main objective for Barcelona was to see as much of Antonio Gaudí’s architecture as possible. I’d studied him during the art history portion of my education, but with architecture even more so than most art forms, it’s necessary to experience it in person in order to understand the manipulation of light, mass and volumes of space the architect accomplishes. The first stop was Casa Batlló, a wealthy merchant’s house that Gaudí remodelled (though didn’t design) in the early years of the Twentieth Century. The façade and the roof are meant to represent an allegory of St. George’s battle with the dragon; the exterior pillars are bone-shaped and the roof is a sinuous humped curve of scale-like tiles. The interior is stunning; except for the spot where floor meets walls, there’s hardly a right angle at all. Door and window frames are smooth organic undulations of warm wood, and every one has cunning movable vents to allow for airflow - all in wood. Apparently Gaudí designed every element of the house himself, down to the smallest - an early indication of his coming madness, perhaps.

The structure is built around a central ventilation shaft and light well, which Gaudí tiled in blue and white, using a deeper blue and larger tiles at the top so that with the light falling from above, the eye is tricked into seeing uniform colour and tile-sizes. The light well and the front and back façades are studded with wrought-iron railings in organic, melted-looking shapes. The best part was the loft on the top floor, though - all in luminous eggshell white with perfect arched curves. It was a space that made me feel a calm joy when I entered it.

We spent hours inside Casa Batlló without realizing it, the building is that fascinating. When we were finished we walked up the street to our second destination, La Pedrera, which Gaudí did design. We decided that the admission price was too steep, though, after having paid for Casa Batlló, and took only a quick look at the façade before moving on. It would have been a good time to have been indoors, as it happened, since thick black clouds had gathered and the sky suddenly emptied itself in a heavy rainstorm. We’d gotten used to the heat and the rain and wind chilled us to the bone as we ran from awning to balcony to bus shelter all the way back to the hostel.

We’d been ready to have lunch and set out to make something when we made the unpleasant discovery that this giant 400-bed hostel had no real kitchen - only a closet-sized room with a microwave, hot-plate and one dirty pot. We weren’t pleased, but this has turned out to be the rule in Spanish hostels rather than the exception, even for hostels advertised as having kitchen facilities. We managed to scrape something together, but it caused a sudden re-evaluation of our eating strategy.

The heavy rain lasted an hour, but it never really went away that day. After lunch we went out exploring randomly, looking for more odd buildings mostly. We saw Gaudí’s earliest work - some utterly hideous lampposts at the Plaça Reial - and took a walk down Barcelona’s famous pedestrian street, Las Ramblas. It’s a kilometer long, arched over with trees, full of vendors, living statues, buskers, tourists and pickpockets. Very crowded, and fun to watch, for a given value of ‘fun’.

At the foot of Las Ramblas is a traffic circle, in the middle of which is a gigantic tower monument to Christopher Columbus. It’s an impressive monument - grand without being overbearing, and actually somewhat aesthetically pleasing. The base is covered with relief carvings of episodes from Columbus’ history, but my favourite was the bat on the coat of arms.

It had rained on and off all that evening, and it started again while we were at the monument, so we hid out under a palm tree and watched the cable-cars zip past overhead and the boats in the nearby port. Barcelona’s nice when it rains - it cuts the heat and the dust and makes everything smell spicy and fresh, and the stonework of the buildings stands out to better effect. The rain didn’t really stop, but when it had softened enough we struck out along Las Ramblas, deserted now, made a stop for beer and groceries and went back to the hostel. Some guy had given us half a bottle of vodka he couldn’t drink before he left, so we sat up and polished off the beer and vodka while chatting to a nice Japanese guy named Satoshi, and went to bed when they kicked us out of the common room.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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