Sunday, July 31, 2011

Barcelona: Gaudi the Gaudy

We were excited to see that flying from Paris to Barcelona was not only cheap but the city itself isn't overpriced either; a welcome relief after the high costs of Paris, London and Zurich.

Using skycanner.net we grabbed us some tickets to Barcelona at only 40 euros round-trip each. So we headed down for the weekend to check out what Barcelona has to offer, and to take in the sites with friends who live there.

Barcelona is now well known for the 1992 Olympic Games that were hosted there. You can go up onto Montjuïc hill, which towers over the city, and check out the Olympic facilities (Estadi Olìmpic), though they're much quieter now. The most action we saw there was a huge political party parade that passed us. Next walk over to the back side of Montjuïc hill and see the castle Montjuïc. From here walk along the cliff edge so that you can take in the sea and city views from above.

While in Barcelona we were on a mission to see all the works of Gaudí and other 'modernistas'. Gaudí was one of the leaders of the Art Nouveau movement of the late 19th century, and prevalent in his work was intricate wrought-iron gates, balconies and 'trencadís', or mosaics made up of bits of tile. You can see Gaudí's work at La Pedrera, Casa Batllò, Casa Amatller, and Palau de la Música Catalana. We also took the trip over to see Parc Güell, which was fabulous but sadly over-run with tourists.

The highlight of Gaudí's work, though, was definitely seeing the Sagrada Família; an Art Nouveau church that towers over the city. It is now a symbol of Barcelona in the way that the Eiffel Tower has become for Paris. The first stone of the Sagrada Família was laid in 1882, and Gaudí then worked on it for the latter part of his life until he died. Today, over 100 years later, it's still under construction. They claim it will be done by 2030, but when you view what is left to be completed we're not so sure about that.

A genius in his time, Gaudí used weights (sand bags) and string to create an upside down model of the church he planned to build. The style has changed over the last 100 years, and you can see this in the different sections as you walk about it. The best part of seeing the Sagrada Família is, in fact, that it's not yet done. There are few architectural feats such as this in the modern world. These days we just throw things up quickly and with little attention to aesthetics, style, art and design. The Sagrada Família a is work of art in progress, and as you tour the inside you can see the craftsman and engineers at work on her bits and pieces. To see a project like this in process is something you should see in your lifetime. If only to feel like you were somehow a part of it, as others in the past must have felt about Notre Dame and other great works that spanned centuries.

But Gaudí isn't the only famous artist from Barcelona. Here you can also see the work of Joan Miró, and there is an entire museum dedicated to his art. There is the Modern Art Museum (Museu d'Art Contemporani), and of course the Museu Picasso too.

Barcelona is just a nice place to walk about and get evening drinks too. We enjoyed the open air markets found along the La Rambla, a long large boulevard that leads from the Plaza de Catalunya down to the ocean front. There are also boardwalks along the ocean. Among these places, as well as in the historic center of Barcelona, you'll find a lot of wonderful places to eat and drink in true bohemian style. We did enjoy having a drink in the clam and quiet Placa Reial, which is just off La Rambla. However, this place didn't have the energy and nightlife of other neighborhoods. We found it boring. I highly recommend the next two places instead.

One of our favorite neighborhoods for fun nightlife was Gracia. Filled with cool little bohemian restaurants, bars, cafes and nightlife, we were never far from yet another cool place here as we walked about. We bar-hopped for a bit and loved every place we went to. In Spain you don't eat dinner until 10pm, usually, and therefore places stay open late. Another really cool neighborhood that is still quite unknown and little talked about in many guides is Poble Sec. Here you can walk about and find some of the coolest little hidden restaurants and bars that anyone wanting to avoid the touristy or snob joints will love.

One of our favorite bars to go to in Poble Sec is the BCN Rouge bar. Take a step off the beaten path in Barcelona and step into the red. Avoid those touristy bars in the historic center and, instead, wander up to Poble Sec to this bar. It will feel disorienting to first walk into BCN Rouge, since this bar is decked out in full red-everything: red walls, red lights, cozy atmosphere, intimate corners. You are suddenly bathed in red-warmth, and may wonder what kind of place you have accidentally wandered into! But, this is no red-light-district. Just a super cool bar.

Be sure to have lots of tapas while eating out in Barcelona. Tapas are a traditional Catalan meal of small portions that you share with everyone at your table. From little smoked fish to fried calamari and a host of many other things, you'll love the communal style of this meal.

I also highly recommend taking a little road trip out of Barcelona to Montserrat, where you can not only do a hike of the mountain "Montserrat", but also visit the beautiful mountain Monastery that resides there.

Finally, if at all possible, try to visit Barcelona during the Castells festivals which occur the end of each September.

These are traditional festivals where human towers are made by teams of each Catalan city. They climb on each other’s shoulders, sometimes up to ten people-levels high. Beware when the tower collapses! It is a stunning show, but many men get injured (and some killed) when they fall.

If you find you must leave your hotel early on your last day, but have all day until your flight goes out, then do what we did and leave your luggage at the Sants Estacio train station, which has a luggage check. It works like the typical luggage storage you find at most train stations, and allows you the freedom to spend your last day walking about without dragging your things along with you.

A good guide book to Barcelona was the EyeWitness Travel "Top 10" book. We found this to be the best one we had in terms of making the most of Barcelona in just one weekend.

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