May 14, 2011

A Walk in the Footsteps of Antoni Gaudí

¡Hola from the beautiful port city of Barcelona - 2,000 years old and a fabulous combination of Gothic and Modern, Moorish and Spanish, traditional and avant-garde!

The capital of Catalonia has many famous sons and daughters including the artists Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí, opera singers Montserrat Caballé and José Carreras and cellist Pablo Casals, but none is as renowned or as overwhelmingly identified with the city as the Moderniste architect Antoni Gaudí. So, with limited time to explore this multi-faceted city I decided to focus on this singular citizen and set off on an all-day walking tour of Gaudí's marvelous edifices.

It was easy to start - the first stop turned out to be just a few meters from my hotel! Palau Güell (1886-1888) was built as a private residence for Gaudí's great patron, textile baron Count Eusebi de Güell and was the project that catapulted the architect's career. Unfortunately, at the time of my visit the interior was closed to the public due to renovation so I could only admire it from the outside. A monumental entrance with parabolic arches, fanciful iron gates and doors and decorated with the Catalan coat of arms topped by a helmet with a winged dragon was a pretty good hint that this was not an ordinary home. But the best evidence came when I looked up and saw the multi-colored ceramic chimney pots like a crazy topiary crown!

Turning left onto the central promenade of old Barcelona, La Rambla, I cruised along with a sea of populace past flower stalls, human statues, men selling bizarre noise makers and a few covert games of three-card Monte, up to the Plaça de Catalunya and the Passeig de Gràcia. Here the crowd thinned out and the boutiques got fancier and after a short walk I came to what is probably Guadí's most famous private commission, Casa Batilló. Originally constructed in 1877, the townhouse was purchased by the Batlló Family who requested a total remodeling by Gaudí during 1904-1906. The façade of the building is surreal. Known locally as the Casa dels ossos (House of Bones) there is not a single straight line to be found. Rather, the onlooker can imagine anything from a skeleton to an underwater kingdom to a dragon's scales. A warped exterior wall of carved sandstone is covered in a mosaic of broken ceramic tiles with irregularly shaped windows and balconies set in.

I was delighted to discover that the house is now open to the public and offers tours of the interior enhanced by an excellent audio guide. Not surprisingly the outrageous exterior carnival of shapes and colors was echoed on the inside but with one very important detail. Despite the seeming impracticality of the design, Gaudí was actually very thoughtful and creative in his attention to creature comforts. For example, each of the sinuously carved doors and windows was outfitted with a discreet ventilation screen that could be opened or closed to allow the circulation of air. Gaudí also used architecture to express his religious devotion and the house is not only furnished with a convertible chapel on the parlor floor, it also bears many symbols of Christianity such as a roof line representation of the Dragon of Evil impaled on St. George's cross and a turret with anagrams of Jesus, Mary and Joseph and Gaudí's unique four-armed cross.

Back out onto the Passeig de Gràcia and a short walk up to the corner of Carrer de Provença to see Gaudí's massive five-story building Casa Milà, better known as La Pedrera (The Stone Quarry). Built between 1906-1910 for a wealthy widow and her new husband, the exterior features the same undulating lines and elaborate ironwork as Casa Batlló but is not as sublimely whimsical. Tours of the interior including the rooftop chimney park and a restored apartment are also available but I was running late and still had a long walk to get to my next destination, Gaudí's magnificent cathedral Temple Expiatori de La Sagrada Familia.

Begun in 1882 and still very much a construction site, Antoni Gaudí's Sagrada Familia was conceived as a virtual "Bible in Stone" and has become the very symbol of the City of Barcelona. The exterior is highlighted with shell-like towers, often topped with Gaudí's signature colored ceramic finials, which stand guard over the three façades dedicated to The Nativity, The Passion and the Glory of Jesus. The interior resembles a forest with tree-like columns reaching high up to the ceiling where an oculus sheds light upon the altar. The stained glass windows are vividly colored in oranges, greens and reds and the overall effect is much lighter and more transporting than most traditional Gothic cathedrals. Consecrated last November, the anticipated completion date is still at least 20 years in the future, but this work in progress is a must-see on any visit to the city.

It's nearly three o'clock and time for lunch! Heading back to the Diagonal I came across an appealing tapas bar and sat down to a delicious feast of little plates of ham and olives and cheese and octopus and some things I'm not sure what they were, all washed down with a perfect local beer. Restored, it was time for the climb up to Barcelona's answer to Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens, Parc Güell.

Intended to become a residential estate in the style of an English garden city, the project did not succeed and the venture was turned into a public park instead. Today both residents and visitors come to enjoy the view from sculpted gardens and recreation areas all decorated with Gaudí's signature broken ceramic tile mosaics. There is also a museum dedicated to the master in what had been the Park's show house that was actually occupied by Gaudí from 1906 to 1926, the year he died in an ignominious tram accident.

Finally it's time to head downhill to the last stop on the tour. Just off the Carrer Gran de Gràcia, on the Carrer Carolines, is the Casa Vicens, an example of Gaudí's early work done in the Orientalist style. Built as a private residence, the dwelling comprises four floors with Moorish arches and tile decorations on three façades. It has turrets, a fountain and a large garden and is surrounded by a wall featuring Gaudí's characteristic ironwork and floral themes. The home remains in private hands with no public access so I had to be content with gazing from across the street!

Although it is still sunny and warm it has been a long day and I covered a lot of kilometers on my Gaudí expedition. It's time to go back to the hotel to have a little rest before dinner in one of Barcelona's many fabulous restaurants. I will be leaving here tomorrow but please check back for the next stop in my Iberian Itinerary! ¡Adios!

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