In early May we took a trip to Barcelona and spent three days exploring the town. Our Kitsap County friend Don Merry joined Brenda and I as part of a bigger European vacation Don had planned. This was a good deal for us because Don did most of the planning and research and passed on the benefit to Brenda and me.
Barcelona is the second largest city in Spain and is economically important to Europe. It has a rich history and lots of things to do, so like with our trip to Provence, we had to limit our choices. On this trip we were regular tourists, just as if we had come from the US. We flew from Paris rather than take the train because flying was competitive in price and much faster. It was an easy bus ride into the city from the airport.
The history of Barcelona is in some ways like the history of Paris. The first known settlers were Phoenicians, in about 300 BC. Like Paris, Barcelona was conquered by the Romans in about 15 BC (earlier than in Paris). They laid out the grid that became the old town section of the city. Eventually Rome fell and Barcelona was conquered by the Visigoths in the early 5th century, and later was conquered by the Arabs in the early 8th century. Like Paris it was conquered by the the Germanic Franks early in the 9th century (by Charlemagne’s son Louis). He established an area ruled by the Count of Barcelona.
Much like the nobility in Paris had taken local control of the city after Charlemagne had moved his court to what is now Germany, the Counts of Barcelona become more independent and expanded their fiefdom to control a larger area in northeast Spain known as Catalonia. A royal wedding joined the territory of Aragon with the County of Barcelona in 1137. This area known as the Crown of Aragon established colonies and trade with other Kingdoms and cities near the Mediterranean. Eventually there was a dynastic link between Aragon and Castile, and with the marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castille in 1469, Spain was united. The center of political power shifted to Madrid. Barcelona still retains the character from its days of independence by celebrating the history, language, and traditions of Catalonia.
In the 17th century Catalonia revolted against King Philip IV of Spain. Catalan forces joined with French forces of Louis XIII to battle the King of Spain. Eventually Spanish forces captured Barcelona (1652), and the French took control of the areas north of the Pyrenees, establishing the mountains as the border between Spain and France. Catalans again sought independence during the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939, and again they lost. General Franco’s rule of Spain from 1939 until 1969 abolished independent Catalan institutions and suppressed the public use of the Catalan language. Despite all these travails, Barcelona became an industrialized and prosperous city. Population grew rapidly as immigrants came from poorer regions nearby. The city modernized extensively in preparing for the 1992 Olympic games.
We stayed at the Hotel Indigo Plaza Catalunya. Our boutique hotel was in the area of town called the Eixample. This part of town connects the medieval old town of Barcelona to some of the small towns that used to be well outside of the city. The Eixample was built in the 19th and 20th centuries and is laid out in a grid of wide tree lined streets, allowing a good flow of traffic and creating a light and bright atmosphere that takes advantage of the normally sunny, warm weather. Every night we dined outside at one of the many restaurants nearby our hotel.
Don worked with a firm he found through Rick Steves Web site to arrange a private tour, which quickly got us oriented in Barcelona and assisted us in planning the rest of our stay. Our English speaking guide (her name was Montse) met us at the hotel after breakfast. She took us on a walking tour up one of Barcelona’s main streets, Passeig de Gràcia, which was just a couple blocks from our hotel. There she pointed out some of the famous Art Nouveau style buildings and other features in the neighborhood. With our guide we were able to quickly move around town and get past long lines at the attractions.
Our first stop was at Casa Milà, an apartment building designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí and built between the years 1906 and 1910. One floor was dedicated to the family of the building owner. There was an underground parking garage and 20 other apartments to provide income for the owners. We were able to see one of the apartments furnished in the original style. The building is now a World Heritage site. It was renovated and restored as part of the city’s preparations for the Olympics. A further restoration of the façade was in progress at the time of our tour. We found the work of Gaudi to be so fantastic and wonderful that seeing his creations became the focus of much of the rest of our time in the city.
Gaudí’s work was influenced by his passions in life: architecture, nature, and religion. Gaudí considered every detail of his creations and integrated into his architecture such crafts as ceramics, stained glass, wrought ironwork forging and carpentry. He also introduced new techniques in the treatment of materials, such as trencadís which used waste ceramic pieces.
After Casa Milà, our guide took us to see the Sagrada Familia, a fabulous basilica designed by Gaudi – and one certainly unlike any other in the world. Barcelona already had a Cathedral, so Sagrada Familia was to become one of the neighborhood Catholic churches supporting the faithful of Barcelona. Gaudi started work on the Church in 1883, and continued work on it for the next 43 years, until his death in 1926. At that point it was only about 25% complete. He left plans for work to continue, and other architects have stepped into the breach and worked on the design, modernized the materials, and worked to continue construction. The church has been built completely through private donations, and no progress was made for many years after the civil war. Today, largely because of receipts from tourism, the church is funded to continue construction, which builders hope to complete by 2026 in time for the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death. The completed church will have 18 spires representing the twelve Apostles, the Virgin Mary, the four Evangelists, and the tallest for Jesus Christ. Eight have been completed so far. When completed, it will be the tallest church building in the world. The first entrance, the Nativity façade to the east, was completed in 1930. Gaudi thought that the hopeful scene of the Nativity should be completed first to inspire work to continue. The starker Passion façade to the West showing Jesus death and resurrection was started in 1987 and has been completed in a more modern style. The main entry, called the Glory façade, was started in 2002 and continues today. Since 2010 the nave has been covered and an organ has been installed so that the church can be used for religious services. Church services were conducted in the crypt (the basement) for many years. The space is huge and can accommodate a large congregation.
Gaudi was buried in the crypt, off to the side from the congregational seating. He died in 1926 at age 74 as a result of being hit and knocked unconscious by a tram while on his morning walk downtown. Sadly, because of Gaudi’s plain clothing and lack of identity papers, no one at the scene could identify him. He was near death a day later at the hospital when the Sagrada Familia chaplain finally recognized him.
After Sagrada Familia, our guide took us to Museu Picasso, located in the heart of the old town section of the city. We took a cab, and during the ride the cab driver and our guide chattered in Spanish and Catalan, which she told us get mixed together in every conversation in the city. The cab driver and many others at restaurants and hotels spoke enough English to ensure our needs were met.
Picasso came to Barcelona from southern Spain when he was 14, and he lived there for 9 years before he moved to France. He continued to visit Barcelona off and on until the Spanish civil war in the 1930’s. After that he thought it dangerous to return. We could not take photos of the art, but if you follow the link to Museu Picasso above you can see lots of information about what we were able to see. This was a museum of his formative years, and if you are mostly familiar with Picasso’s cubism and later artworks, you can see in Barcelona that he was also an outstanding classical artist. You can see how his art transforms as time passes. The museum has some works from his “blue period”, and one fascinating section is devoted to Picasso’s many tries to do his own version of “Las Meninas” (The Maids of Honor), a classical work done by Diego Velázquez in 1656 on display on Museo del Prado in Madrid. On display are Picasso’s many attempts to reimagine this painting in his own style. During his school years, his father sent him to Madrid for his education, but instead Picasso spent lots of time at art museums learning to love classical Spanish art. It was Picasso’s wish to have a museum in Barcelona, and it came about as follows:
….in 1960, on Picasso’s own express wish, his friend and personal secretary Jaume Sabartés proposed the creation of a museum dedicated to the artist’s work to the City Council of Barcelona. By 1963, the museum was a reality and opened its doors in the gothic Palau Aguilar located at number 15 Carrer de Montcada.
After our first day with a guide we were ready on day two to visit some more Gaudi sites on our own. The first was near our hotel, a residential home designed by Gaudi named Casa Batlló, which was remodeled by Gaudi for the Batlló family between 1904 and 1906. Like other Gaudi designs, it makes use of natural shapes and religious symbols. Architecturally it has few straight lines. The façade is a mosaic made of colorful broken tiles. The roof is arched like the back of a dragon. The rounded turret with cross on top is thought to be the lance of Saint George, patron saint of Barcelona, plunged into the back of the dragon. The attic area is supported by skeletal shaped beams. The fantastic looking chimneys on the roof are designed to prevent downdrafts. The tiles in the central light well become lighter as the distance from the sky light becomes greater, giving the the light shaft the appearance that color is uniform from top to bottom. There is extensive design work to keep water out and provide natural ventilation flow. Everywhere in the interior the colors and curved structures continue. It is fantastic.
In the afternoon we took a taxi farther out of town to Park Güell (Gway), which was where Gaudi lived for many years and where also he designed a section of the park. In 1900 an entrepreneur named Eusebi Güell contracted with Gaudi to design a subdivision for 60 high end homes on a tract he owned at the edge of the Eixample. The tracts in the development had a commanding view of the city and the Mediterranean beyond – it was envisioned as a gated community for the wealthy. Güell moved into a large home already constructed on the property, now used as a school. A lawyer friend of Güell hired an architect to design the first new home on one of the tracts. A second new home was built by the project’s works contractor. It was constructed as a show house, designed by Gaudí’s assistant Francesc Berenguer, to encourage sales. Gaudi himself designed numerous features of the grounds, including the guard house at the gate and the home of the guardian.
He used crushed tile mosaics (“trencadis”), natural shapes, and religious symbols that we saw in other of his works. At the tract entry he created a giant double staircase and two terraces under which are two grottos. There is a giant tile salamander along the stairway and a fountain running down alongside the stairs. Originally the fountain was supplied from a water tank constructed into the hillside to collect the drainage. At the top of the stairs is a hypostyle room (a roof supported by columns). This was intended to be the market place for the development. The colonnade (structure connecting the top of the columns) is crowned by an architrave (a main beam connecting the columns), inside of which flows the water supplied to the fountain. Atop the structure is a large esplanade, originally planned to be a greek theater but now designated as a nature square. Lining the square is a very long curvy tile bench that runs atop the colonnade to give visitors a view of the nature square as well as the view of the city. The tile bench was by design a surprisingly comfortable place to sit – good lumbar support for a hard surface.
There were many other design features of Park Güell that bear Gaudi’s fingerprints. In 1906 he moved with his daughter and his father into the second residence on the property. Restrictions on the sale of lots and the distance from downtown made the project unviable, and in 1914 works ceased to further develop the property, though Gaudi and Güell continued to occupy their homes. Only two of the sixty planned homes were ever constructed. In 1926 after the deaths of both Güell and Gaudi, the property was turned over to the city and converted to a public park. Gaudi’s home opened as a museum in 1963.
On our third day in Barcelona we went into the city, first walking along the big boulevard known as La Rambla that runs through the old town to the sea. Along the way we stopped to explore the huge public market nearby. Then we continued down past the statue of Christopher Columbus on the waterfront and on to where we found a nice bench alongside the harbor. There are many other attractions along the waterfront, including public beaches, numerous hotels, harbor cruises, and the tram that takes visitors over to the Olympic Village area.
Just to try something different, we took a cab across town to Parc de la Ciutadella, a large city park with zoo, fountains, a pond, other museums, and lots of places to walk. The area was originally a fortress built in 1715 by King Philip V of Spain as a way to keep control of the rebellious Catalans. Citizens of Barcelona hated the symbol since many Catalans had been forced to help build it. In 1841 the city decided to tear it down, and the park was developed. We checked out some of the features and eventually headed for a large triumphal arch to the northwest. From there we headed back to explore more of the old city and its architecture and found ourselves an outdoor café to rest – we were tired from all the walking.
There is much more to see in Barcelona – numerous other musuems, churches, world class shopping and food. We left with the strong impression that Barcelona was a place we would like to visit again – if not sooner, perhaps in 2026 to see the completed Sagrada Familia!
Here is a photo tour with annotations that show and tell more about what we saw on our visit.