We know what to expect when we walk up the stairs at the metro station Plaza de Gaudí. “Turn around”, Natascha commands, and lo! behind us are those strange towers that seem to belong into a Science Fiction film or a desert village in Mali. Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia was on top of our must-see list, so we went straight there with only a brief coffee cortado on the way.
The cathedral is the most famous of Gaudí’s buildings and he spent much of his life planning it. Building it, too, but he never finished more than a small part including one of the facades and one of a planned 18 towers. Antoni Gaudí, then a well-recognized but not the most famous architect in Barcelona (that was Lluís Domènech i Montaner), got the order to build a new church in a poor quarter in 1883. Funding came entirely through donations, and the actual work only started in 1892. Until today the church is not finished yet. Gaudí’s ambitious plans for the construction, the design, and the decoration did not exactly make it easier to collect sufficient funds.
Not only does the eastern façade (the Christmas Façade) look like an organic structure rather than a building, it also seems to be teeming with life – birds, insects, and small animals swarm through ranking leaves, and people are sitting and standing in between. It is rather breath-taking. But then two realisations startle us. This façade, with all its non-conformist décor, the ultimate Catalan Modernisme, is still strictly following the decorative canon of gothic churches: Annunciation, Birth of Christ, Adoration of the Magi, Massacre of the Innocents, and a dozen related scenes. And if you look closer, many of the figures are not particularly well-executed. The Archangel Gabriel for instance might be delivering a parcel to Mary …
The light, the colours, the vertical movement – inside the church we are even more flustered than before – again this is a very gothic use of space and light. And yet it is a very unusual church interior. The pillars are made from different stones and in different width. They fork like trees to support the roof, and light shafts are built into them to let even more light deeper down into the church. For a few hours we wander around all those finished parts of the church. One façade and a number of towers are still unfinished, but the consecrated church has already the rank of a basilica minor.
No wonder that the church is full of visitors even in February and in spite of massive entrance fees. No wonder that Gaudí’s works is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage list as early as 1984. And perhaps it’s not even surprising that Gaudí himself manically spent all his time and energy on this one project from 1914 until his death in 1926.
Over the next days, we also visit a few of Gaudí’s other projects, but the decorative excitement wears off a little. Casa Mila in the city rather pales in comparison with the cathedral and the kitsch in the souvenir shop is quite unbearable. But at least there is a nice light-up in the evening.
Chinese tourist groups jostle in Park Güell. The architecture rather reminds us of Portmeirion village in Wales, a similar architect’s fantasy built a bit later than Park Güell but from the start intended as a tourist destination. In the Park Güell, Gaudí wanted to construct a new and modern town quarter, a kind of gated community but not too exclusive, healthy living within the environment and at the edge of town. Everything was hand-made with a lot of colourful and pleasant details – most noticeable are the pottery mosaics. The plan never attracted many potential home-makers, though. Nevertheless the major communal spaces such as a market and a plaza were completed between 1900 and 1914. Today it would be a top property, judging from the masses of tourists queuing to get in…
In spite of Gaudí’s somewhat limited success during his lifetime, the retrospective rapturousness seems quite appropriate: In German, “Gaudi” denotes a fairground-kind of fun.
Barcelona offers a lot apart from Gaudí and Modernisme – a well-preserved Gothic quarter but also contemporary architecture, many good museums (we visited the Picasso Museum, Egyptian Museum and Olympic Museum), a pleasant harbour, good food and nightlife. It is accordingly an extremely popular tourist destination. We found early February a perfect time for visiting. There were less tourists, and the Mediterranean climate is mild.
NB: We were not sponsored in any way for our to Barcelona and paid all expenses by ourselves.