This is my third time in Barcelona. I raced through in 1988 during a month-long rookie backpacking adventure. Six years, one Olympics and a degree later I interviewed here for a job with Hewlett Packard. As much as I’m enjoying this lovely city now, I can’t help but wonder – What if I’d stayed?
Barcelona is one of Europe’s most densely populated cities, and it works. With metros, trams, buses, bike lanes and wide sidewalks networked across flat streets, the central city is compact and there’s no need for a car. The Parc de la Ciutadella is smallish, but that’s OK as there are adjacent foothills, mountains and the Med to provide vistas and open space, and many small plazas like our Plaça de la Vila de Gràcia to foster community. This proud City works hard to protect its culture: gritty districts like El Raval and El Born are gentrifying, and the proud people here are always cleaning and balancing redevelopment with preservation. The people are polite, kind, friendly, good looking and well dressed. If only they’d cut back on the cigarettes… everyone smokes.
Today we visit the top site – Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s triumphal Modernista cathedral. The place left a strong impression on me in my first visit, and I’m eager to share it with my boys. To make sure they’re fresh I booked our time tour up the towers for 9:30AM, but that was optimistic – we’ve quickly adapted to Spanish time and I’m the only one around here who’s out of bed before 10AM. So I try to walk the tightrope and get the family up at 8:30, enough time to throw on clothes, wolf down breakfast, and catch a 9AM cab to make our 9:15 – 9:30 tower entry time. There’s a light rain outside but we don’t think much of it… until we get to the main road and there are no cabs to be found. Oops. We try hard but can’t hail a cab, so eventually bumble our way onto a bus that puts us near the Cathedral at 9:40. We hurry in and pray for forgiveness – it’s a cathedral afterall – only to find the towers are closed due to rain. Worry is a waste of imagination.
We forget those frustrations as soon as we enter. It’s staggering – light lofty – a striking contrast to Latin America’s burly, brooding, Christ died for your sins churches. Cranes crawl over the facades as they race to complete the construction before 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death. There’s much to do – finish the Glory facade, scrape a block of apartments to open sight lines, swap out clear for stained glass windows, and build the world’s tallest compressed concrete spire.
Even so the cathedral is rich in stories and scenes. Outside the eastern entry the gothically ornate Nativity facade celebrates Christ’s birth with realist sculptures of the namesake Sacred Family and delightful manger animals sharing the moment with their awestruck shepherds and the Magi. Morning sun shines through blue stained glass on this side, flooding the cathedral with a new days’ light. Western windows are stained in red hue’s, accentuating warmer sunset colors, and perhaps emphasizing the regret of the tragic Passion facade. It’s magnificently modernista and sublimely sorrowful – roman soldiers are interpreted as asian-eyed stormtroopers and weeping figures mourning a geometric Christ on the cross. Entry arches are stretched, strained, tense tendons. The joys and stresses of this building envelop you.
Inside the Sagrada Familia celebrates art, engineering and architecture as much as Christ- enjoy the pictures.
Our long tour tested teen patience. The boys deserve a good lunch, and we find one in a little italian place near the Cathedral. Then it’s a pleasant 30 minute stroll home through the L’Eixample District and our Gràcia barrio back to our flat, where we all deserve a long siesta. Afterwards Sue and I stroll 10 minutes to another Gaudi masterpiece – a night tour of Casa Milà, an apartment building for turn-of-the century bourgeois. It’s stone facade has earned it the nickname La Pedrera – (the Quarry), but it’s the interior and roof that allure. The attic presents a good demonstration arch work, and the roof is a whimsical collection of chimney personalities… playfully lit up for our evening tour.