Mandatory coronavirus notice – we feel a bit odd posting all of these travel blogs as the world descends into virus mayhem. We also feel fortunate that by chance we scheduled this trip in the weeks before two of the countries we visited basically closed up. Looking at maps of cases, everywhere we were happen to have a very low incidence of the disease so far. So we hope not to have brought anything back here to London with us and feel hale and hearty ourselves.
Many years ago—25 to be exact—Michael and I passed through Barcelona during a several month stint in Europe WWOOFing (then Willing Workers on Organic Farms, now Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms to avoid running afoul of labor laws). Neither of us can remember much about the few hours we spent in the city between trains (or between a bus and a train—like I said, a long time and many retired brain cells ago!) except that we walked to see Sagrada Familia. Barcelona is, in many ways, defined by the aesthetics of Antonio Gaudí and the Modernist movement of the late nineteenth century, but the city has much more to it. We stayed in hostels that were old apartment buildings from that era with fancy tiled hallways, high airy ceilings and big windows opening onto the busy streets.
(left) Michael showing off our room at Hostal Martinval.
Those of you old enough to remember 1992 will recall that the summer Olympics were in Barcelona, mostly on Montjuic, the small mountain that rises on the southern side of the city. We rode the funicular railroad to the top of this hill to get a stunning view of the Mediterranean Sea, the city, the port and the beaches below. The Olympic pools were built into the hillside so that the view was a panoramic of the city. It reminded me a lot of pictures that I’ve seen of Rio di Janeiro. Barcelona has a Mediterranean feel, the streets are wide, the subway buskers funky, and the architecture light stone and cheery. Signs of the Catalonian independence movement are everywhere, yellow ribbons and Catalonian flags grace iron balconies, trees, and any flat surface available. Including a stone wall right behind us on top of Montjuic as we watched a tagger place the latest yellow ribbon!
The Catalonian language is interesting and beautiful. Modern Spanish is incredibly influenced by the Arabic-speaking peoples who shared the peninsula for much of the middle ages. Catalonia is not, as that area of Spain was protected by Charlemagne’s army. Catalan is the closest language left to the Latin vernacular. It has lots of X’s in place of the CH so that “chalet” is written “Xalet” and “Chocolate,” is “Xocholate.” It is also the official language of Andorra, but everyone there seems to speak both French and Spanish fluently as well. We were on a bus packed with high schoolers who seemed to speak all three interchangeably.
After we had thoroughly chilled ourselves on the beach one afternoon — it was sunny, but not warm — we went to El Bosc de les Fades (the Fairy Woods Cafe) for a hot chocolate. You sit among the medieval-looking trees (the lighting is low, not as it appears in the photograph) and we were lucky enough to be there for the occasional “thunder storm” where low thunder rumbles overhead and the lights flicker on and off. We thought that our younger neices and nephews really would have loved it!
The architect Antonio Gaudí, was a Catalonian nationalist and is probably the region’s most well known figures after another famous Catalonian, Salvador Dalí. Gaudi’s most famous building is the Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona. Begun in the late 1880s, Gaudi designed it to be built on the time frame of Europe’s great Cathedrals; that is, not within one human lifetime. And while its construction has not been continuous over the past 140 years due to Gaudi’s untimely death (getting hit by a tram), the Spanish Civil War, and WWII, it is still not finished. They plan to have the grand opening in 2026, one hundred years after Gaudi left his uncompleted masterpiece in the hands of others. So there are still four tours to be constructed and the front doors are not yet complete, but it is still my favorite Cathedral anywhere!
All of Gaudi’s works are influenced by the natural world of Catalonia. He spent many hours as a child in the rural northeast wandering the woods and beaches. He was a very religious person, and believed that nature was the purest expression of God’s perfection. In his architecture he tried to use ideas from nature because he believed that people should be presumptuous enough to believe they could create anything more beautiful than what God had already achieved. The two facades of Sagrada Familia, the Nativiy Facade and the Passion Facade are oriented to reflect the sunrise (the Nativity or birth) and the sunset ( The Crucifiction or the end of life). On the left is a picture of some of the details of the Nativity facade. You can see that he uses natural elements like tree trunks and leaves in unusual places.
Details from the Nativity Facade of Sagrada Familia
The most amazing part about Sagrada Familia is the interior. It is unlike any other building you’ll ever go into. Gaudi designed it to emulate the experience of walking into a forest. The columns literally branch out at the top so that you feel you are looking up into a forest canopy a hundred feet overhead. There are very few images of humans on the interior, an intentional gesture to minimize the importance of people and emphasize the granduer of nature. There are only three figures in the main part of the church, Jesus in one transept, Mary in the opposite one and a cross hanging in the center surrounded by grapes and loaves of bread.
The interior of Sagrada Familia is mostly simple white sandstone. This is done to create surfaces that reflect the colors of the amazing stained glass windows created by a variety of artists over the past century. All are abstract and symbolic. The eastern side of the church has windows of only cool colors of the morning. The western windows are mostly warm colors of the sunset, and both reflect onto the columns and interior stone to illuminate the central nave. (left) The eastern light at 9:30am)
Because catherdals are designed to draw the eye and mind upward away from our earlthy exhistance, the ceiling is perhaps the most important feature. And it is dramatic!
We’ll write about our adventures in Nantes, France on Monday!