Thursday, April 28, 2016

A Modernism Marvel and Montjuic

The next morning, although sunny and bright, a cool breeze was blowing from the Mediterranean towards the western mountains surrounding the city, bringing with it thin high clouds and the faintest presence of a haze. Having grown up on a peninsula this kind of weather in the morning is not unusual for a city near the sea. It would burn off quickly and another beautiful sunny day was ahead of us. It would turn out to be our hottest day in Spain.
 Casa Amattler (left) and Casa Batlló (right)

If you search the Internet for Barcelona’s top attractions you will find several of them relates to the buildings of Antoni Gaudi, and other Catalan architects famous for their Modernism era (roughly from 1880 to 1911) designs. On our first day we visited the Passeig de Gràcia, one of the city’s major avenues and gaped at the multitude of Modernism buildings that line the avenue: Casa Amattler (designed by Josep Puig i Cadafalch) next to Casa Batlló (by Gaudi). Further down are another Gaudi, Casa Mila, and Casa Lleó Morera by Lluís Domènech i Montaner, and standing on the Plaça de Catalunya one can hardly miss the rooftop of the Casa Rocamora with its distinct orange ceramic roof tiles designed by the brothers Basegoda. The Passeig de Gràcia is certainly a most unique street. No wonder Barcelona brags so much about it and its beautiful buildings.
Casa Mila by Gaudi

But there is one building that trumps them all. No matter which Barcelonan high ground or rooftop you are on its incomplete towers and ever present construction cranes are visible from anywhere in the city.  Begun in 1886, and projected to be completed only by 2026, 140 years are actually a short time compared to how long it took to build many other buildings of this kind, this Modernism masterpiece by Antoni Gaudi has become the symbol of Barcelona, not to mention a major source of tourists Euros.

 The Basilica de Sagrada Familia 
Call it whimsical, wacky, wonderful, weird, and wayward or whatever w-word you want to employ to describe it, the Basilica of the Sacred Family or simply the Sagrada Familia is something rather exceptional and singular. I am not saying it is the best church I’ve seen, that will come later in the week, but it is different and architecturally the church is a tour de force of ingenuity and light as oppose to the usual darker Gothic churches. Inside and outside it is the amalgamation of the spiritual and the natural according to Gaudi’s vision of the human’s existence in relation to God.

The Basilica de Sagrada Familia 
His ability to envisage something of this magnitude, then made detailed drawings of nearly every square feet of the church’s surface, inside and out, a really extraordinary detailed thinker, and then to build one of the highest naves without the customary flying buttresses and allowed for a kaleidoscope of color from the stained glass windows to provide the décor to compensate for the near absence of the expected ornate chapels, made him a standout among his already phenomenal peers of the Modernism movement of Barcelona.  

 The Passion Façade of the Basilica de Sagrada Familia

Upon leaving the basilica we enjoyed a moment’s contemplation in the park across from the church, taking in the big picture, as if that’s possible, on a bench in the shade of one of the many trees with the reflection of the Nativity Façade crystalized in a shallow pool.

A Modernism marvel 
Interestingly enough, as we sat in the park, my initial thought on the basilica was that it lacks ambiente, ambiance. The place felt cold because of the grey colored stone used on the inside, the extremely high pillars of the nave, and the overall perception of ginormous openness because of the sheer size of the building. But I was making the mistake of comparing it to the many Gothic churches I have seen. There is a huge gap between the technology, tools and design of the early 20th Century and those from 13th to the 15th Century, the same way that Gothic-styled churches were more advance in construction techniques than the Romanesque churches, although artisanship could be of the same quality throughout all periods. This is a relative modern church, a Modernism marvel and should be judged and admired accordingly.  After all, no Gothic architect has ever dared to build an altar that looks like Jesus is parachuting in from the heavens.

The suspended altar in the Basilica de Sagrada Familia 

Afterwards we found a sunny sidewalk table at Farggi, a coffee shop on the quiet side of the church, but still in full view of the basilica, for café con leche and a light, late morning pastry. It wasn’t quite lunchtime yet.  Snack time was short-lived however, time was running out and this was our last day in Barcelona, so we pushed ourselves to move on, out of the massive “shadow” of the Sagrada Familia and headed to the opposite side of the city, to Montjuic, the Jewish Mount. 

We rode the metro to Plaça d’Espanya, a major circular square on the southeastern side of the city, with massive, but beautiful proportioned statues and fountains, walked pass the tall Venetian Towers and slowly made our way up de la Reina Maria Cristina Avenue that leads to the National Art Museum of Catalonia. Along the way I marveled at the treasure-trove of different architectural styles, the buildings and much of the area erected specifically for the 1929 International Exhibition.  

 View from Montjuic with the unfinished Greek columns and the Venetian Towers in front of us and the Church of the Sacred Heart on the hill in the distance 

We climbed some of the stairs up the hill and for the rest use an escalator to the museum level. We never actually went inside the museum. We were not in the mood for artwork. On the horizon the Temple Expiatori del Sagrat Cor, the Church of the Sacred Heart, dominated the Tibidabo Mount on the edge of the Barcelonan bowl. Towards the west, where we just came from, the Sagrada Familia stood high above the surrounding neighborhoods, and immediately below us the varied architectures of the exhibition area and the plaza provided enough panoramic stimulation. Instead of art we were contented with the views from up there, eating a ridiculously overpriced ice cream at the café on the terrace in front of the museum while being serenaded by a Spanish troubadour on a guitar in the hot sun. Unfortunately the huge and famous cascading fountain in front of the museum was not running at that moment.

 The old Catalonian farmhouse inside Barcelona’s Historic Botanical Gardens

One of the surprises we found on Montjuic was the Jardi Historica de Barcelona, Barcelona’s Historic Botanical Gardens, just behind the Catalonian Art Museum. We saw the direction board towards the garden, went in search of it, incorrectly took an escalator to a higher level of the mount, realized we must have passed the garden somehow, took another escalator back down and then found the garden’s entrance hidden behind a non-descripted bear-brown wooden gate. It was not a very big garden, really nothing more than two large hollows into the hill’s side filled with local and foreign species of flora. The tallest and oldest trees in Barcelona is said to be located in the garden. Wandering through the sunny side of the garden some cycads brought back memories from Kirstenbosch in Cape Town for M, while a massive Agave plant reminded me of one that stood in front of my childhood home in the same city. We cross to an area with tall trees and found a pleasant vista. In the garden’s second hollow, a series of rough terraces and stone steps were created, planted with varied thin-stemmed hardy shrubs mixed with ivy ground covers, a large wisteria, its support of small trees groaning under its weight, and many trees, all covered in cool shade, and in the bottom of the bowl what looked like a lovely Tuscan villa, gloriously baking in the bright and hot afternoon sun. It is actual not Tuscan, but a reproduction of a Catalonian farmhouse. I would vouch the house of a very wealthy farmer since I cannot imagine it being a house of a typical Catalonian farmer. The average Spanish farmer has never been that well-off to build such a large house. We took the weight of our feet on the stone steps for a good 20 minutes or so, we sat there chatting, absorbing the greenery, the view, the occasional twittering of birds, the soft whisper of a nearby fountain and the overall tranquility of the unexpected location, and enjoyed the absence of crowds.

Upon leaving the garden I spotted more Catalonian buildings in another garden further up the hill and tried to entice M to climb the 50-odd steps with me but she was more than happy to wait for me at the bottom of the stairs on a bench in the sun on the gravel walkway, Passeig de Jean Forestier, that runs along the front of the museum area.

 National Art Museum of Catalonia

By now it was already past three in the afternoon and I suggested we slowly descend Montjuic in the general direction of our apartment, which was somewhere out there below the mount, but not too far away. A good rest, a cold beer or two, an early dinner and early night were ahead for the rest of the day seeing that we had to catch the early morning high speed train to Madrid the next day. Just as we started to walk away from the area, the monstrous fountain in front of the museum started to flow and a river of water cascaded over its precipice. What a sight! Good photo opportunity too.

So, on a zigzag course down narrow backstreets, not quite sure the exact location of our apartment, I led us down the mount, keeping Avenue Parallel, a major road that I could see as we descended, always in my eye. We reach said avenue one block from our apartment and came across Restaurante Manolo, which advertised chocolate and churros on their menu and spontaneously decided to tick off another item from our bucket list. When we gave our order the waitress was rather surprised, probably realized we are Americanos and not aware of the Spanish culinary protocol to eat churros late at night, but 10 minutes later we received freshly fried churros and a cup of thick sweet chocolate. The snack and drink were absolutely delicious, and the service so prompt and friendly that we decided to return to the restaurant for dinner too.

Ticks of the bucket list: Churros and chocolate, authentic seafood paella, and a whole plate of the most delicious acorn fed jamón (Spanish ham). 

The Temple Expiatori del Sagrat Cor, the Church of the Sacred Heart, dominates the Tibidabo Mount on the edge of the Barcelonan bowl.

Early evening, the sun was already behind the Serra de Collserola, the mountain range that surrounds Barcelona in the southwest, and dusk was slowly descending, I stood on our apartment’s tiny balcony, sipping a pre-dinner glass of Rioja red wine and looked down on the fresh produce shop and the activities on Carrer de Vallhonrat.  

A couple walked their dogs, a man popped into the shop and emerged with a baguette, the butcher on the corner rolled down security rails, closing shop for the night, two gentlemen of advanced age were in deep discussion on a corner leading to a narrow alley, across the street two kids took trash out to large bins near the small square at the end of the street, and a steady stream of pedestrians continued to hurry home from work.

Further down the street two kids was noisily hollering to each other while kicking a soccer ball, and next door a television broadcasted highlights of the past weekend’s football. Meanwhile, the number of customers to the produce shop steadily increased, the smell of food being prepared hung in the air like fog in a valley, and the aroma entered my nostrils and made my stomach rumbled. The neighborhood of El Poble-Sec was doing what it has been doing for the past century. Live and let live. Not much has changed.
Prior to my visit to Barcelona, whenever I heard the city’s name, the song honoring the city, performed by Freddie Mercury from Queen with the soprano Montserrat Caballe involuntary used to start playing in my mind. But since my visit the song has faded a little to the background and the memories now being recalled are filled with the feeling of cool sea breezes on my face, with the footfall and voices of pedestrians and traders on the Las Ramblas, with the smell of seafood and red peppers from a freshly baked paella, with the silence from the Roman remains underneath the narrow passageways of the Barri Gotic, with the sound of soothing ecclesiastical music in the Basilica de Sagrada Familia, and with vivid images of medieval, classical and Modernism architecture.

For a too short period of time M and I were fortunate to be part of this exquisite city. Observers, participants, temporary Barcelonans!     

More Sagrada Familia

Around the Plaça d’Espanya area

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