So eccentric and unique is the work of Spanish master architect Antoni Gaudí that it makes a 21st century traveler wish she could share some late-night tapas and sangria-fueled conversation with him.
SHE: So, tell me, Antoni, where did you get the idea for these crazy, colorful chimneys on the Casa Batlló?
HE: The legend of St. George and the Dragon. Do you know the story? You skimmed the dragon's back as you touched the banister on your way down the stairs.
SHE: I don't know that story and I avoided the handrails. Germs, you know. But I have read Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which I thought of as I walked from room to room. It felt like I was looking out on Passeig de Gracia from a submarine's portholes.
HE: Yes, I find inspiration in nature, but I haven't read the Frenchman's work. I am too busy on my masterpiece, the Sagrada Família.
SHE: Aha. The spindly spires of the church make me think of Capt. Nemo's underwater caves. Or maybe upside-down ice cream cones?
HE: Again, with the Jules Verne analogy! And ice cream cones? Enough sangria for you, silly girl with suitcase on wheels.
So, maybe Gaudí and I wouldn't have had such simpatico conversation, me with the benefit of time and Google, he a genius trying to realize his complex vision.
Still, it might please him to know that a single day steeped in century-old Gaudí architecture remains a mind-blowing experience.
A feast of Gaudí
On a recent quick visit here, I crammed Gaudí's major works into one day, thanks to two guided tours with a break for lunch in between. A more leisurely traveler, or an architecture student, could spend weeks studying the mosaics of recycled ceramics, the wrought-iron forgery and the stained glass windows that are the hallmarks of Gaudí architecture. Any number of books on Gaudí and his freewheeling designs could entertain and educate for hours over strong coffee in a streetside cafe.
I, on the other hand, had two able guides from the Barcelona Guide Bureau, Artur in the morning and Elizabet in the afternoon, for my crash course in everything Gaudí. I had long wanted to see the wavy facade of Casa Batlló (pronounced Bot-YO) and the landmark Sagrada Família, and I was not disappointed. In person, their fantastical nature was grand, even though they seemed like Disney figments or whimsical movie set concoctions.
But they are quite real and part of the fabric of Barcelona's independence as the capital of Catalonia. That independent streak is exemplified in the works of Gaudí (1852-1926), the leading architect in the Catalan Modernism movement of the late 19th century and early 20th century.
There is much written about Gaudí and his work. He vowed a bachelor's life after being scorned in love as a young man. As he grew older, he became more sullen and serious about his work, living his last years in the Sagrada Família, which was granted basilica status last year by Pope Benedict.
And Gaudí was a famously slow and meticulous creator, choosing not to use pencil and paper to sketch, instead constructing 3-D models as blueprints. He made the plans for one multistoried church out of string. Upside down. As the string structure was hanging, he studied its reflection right-side up in a mirror in order to complete building plans. It took him 10 years alone to make the model.
See what I mean about mind-blowing? Industrialist and Gaudí benefactor Eusebi Guell wasn't as entertained. Fed up with his slow-poke architect, he pulled financing for the church in his company town outside Barcelona, which is why the church of Colonia Guell is only one story high.
The Colonia Guell church is one of several Gaudí works that have been granted World Heritage Site status by UNESCO. I glimpsed some, such as Casa Mila and the Palau Guell, from the street, but was able to tour four others: Sagrada Família, Casa Batlló, Parc Guell and the string-model church at Colonia Guell. Some impressions:
A quick 7.5-mile bus ride outside Barcelona brought us to Colonia Guell, a small village that grew up around the textile factory owned by the industrialist Guell. The factory has long been closed; it is now an industrial park. Most of the people who live here commute into the city for work.
Artur helped us learn the pronunciation of the famed industrialist's name: "Remember it this way," he said. "When someone asks, 'How are you?' you answer, 'I am Guell.' " An effective bit of tour guide humor.
While the textile industry that created the village is gone, Gaudí's church (1898-1914) draws daily tour buses. We walked around the narrow streets with Artur, who gamely answered questions about real estate. Seems Americans are always curious about the cost of homes and condos.
The church itself, up a steadily rising lane, seemed to spring incongruously out of nowhere. The walkway and overhead structures outside the church are studded with storytelling mosaics, including a depiction of the stations of the cross. Inside, I felt like I had happened upon an ancient grotto rife with religious meaning but without the typical statuary and symbolism of most Christian churches. The sanctuary has been described as a "womb with a view" and it did exude cozy comfort.
A walk back to the village center found us at a corner cafe where no English was spoken. "Dos aguas, por favor, sin gas." Two waters, please, without carbonation. "Y una dulce," I said, pointing to a sugary confection that reminded me of a decorative Gaudí flourish.
Basílica de la Sagrada Família
Gaudí's opus, which he worked on steadily the last years of his life, could easily be named Church of the Holy Cranes. No fewer than seven massive construction rigs surround the unfinished church and have been a part of the skyline for decades. Only their positions change.
When Gaudí died in 1926 — run over by a tram in the city — just a quarter of the massive project was complete. Work resumed in the 1950s. Completion has been tentatively set for 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudí's death — or maybe a couple of years later.
Sagrada Família is one of Spain's most popular tourist attractions, with several million people visiting every year. They weren't all there on the day I was, but it was crowded. We followed guide Elizabet through the crowd, attempting to keep our footing as we gazed up at the Gothic spires and detailed friezes while working around the beggars.
Inside, the ornate facade gave way to a vaulted, modernistic interior with a crucified Jesus hanging from a circular, lighted frame. This was a 1987 addition. Despite the patchwork appearance thanks to different artists and architects, there has been a great attempt to preserve and respect Gaudí's vision while allowing the building to evolve.
In the downstairs chapel, we stopped to watch a couple exchanging wedding vows. She looked lovely in her formal gown, but everyone else frantically waved paper fans in front of their faces. It was hot.
Visitors can walk or ride an elevator to the top of one of the towers on the east side of the church, but time prevented our group from taking in the view. In hindsight, since this was the last stop of the tour, I should have broken with the crowd and taken a cab back to the hotel. There were plenty of taxis outside the church and I would have loved to spend an hour sitting in the sanctuary. The guided tour provided a taste, but I wanted a whole meal.
On a hill overlooking Barcelona and the Mediterranean beyond is the 30-acre park that was intended to be a gated housing community. After Guell died, the park was given to the city, and besides the hustle and bustle of La Rambla, the city's pedestrian thoroughfare, this is the best people-watching place in Barcelona.
On the day I visited, it was jammed with tourists, some, like me, following guides with umbrellas, and others relaxing on the mosaic stone benches that nestle into the curving wall. The dragon motif at the Casa Batlló becomes a slithering serpent here. Hardly intimidating, the undulating nooks create a social place to sit and talk. If only I had had more time.
I walked through the viaducts and curved, cavelike pathways that snake throughout the park. I wondered what it would have been like to live in the gingerbread house that now marks the front entrance.
Elizabet cautioned us to hang on to our purses. The famous Barcelona pickpockets like to hang out near the mosaic salamander statues.
My favorite of all the sites, and the one I wish I could talk with Gaudí about, is the five-story home renovated in 1904 for another wealthy Barcelona industrialist, Josep Batlló. Since a face-to-face is not possible, I'd settle for one of the remaining private apartments on the top floors, close to the dragon's back and the clever chimneys on the roof.
Casa Batlló is on the "Block of Discord" on the exclusive boulevard Passeig de Gracia, with its clashing architecture styles. You've heard of keeping up with the Joneses? This city block exemplifies this concept, as each homeowner hired an architect to outdo the next-door neighbor. Whoever designed the rather plain corner building adjacent to Casa Batlló must have given up. Who could compete with Gaudí's oddball artistry?
Our group followed Artur — orange umbrella down — to the top floor, climbing the stairs and feeling with each step like we were getting closer to the heart of Gaudí's genius. The windows had been shrunk to filter the harsh Mediterranean light. The tiles became a deeper blue to mimic the sky.
There are no straight lines here; even the windows are curved, framing the Passeig de Gracia in an organic, natural way. We were a couple of stories above the street, but a bunch of leagues under the sea, it seemed, thanks to stained glass bubbles all around us.
Mind-blowing, I'd tell Gaudí, simply mind-blowing.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586.