Our first destination in Barcelona is a metro station called Plaza de Gaudí, and of course we know what to expect when we walk up the stairs. "Turn back", 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 is the place in Barcelona we most eagerly wanted to see, 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 it is the one he spent much of his life planning. 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), was entrusted with building a new church in a poor quarter in 1883. It was to be built entirely with donations, and the actual work only started in 1892 – and has not been 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.
It takes us hours to wander around all those parts of the church that have been completed so far – one façade and a number of towers are still unfinished, but the church has already been consecrated and given 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 were included in the UNESCO World Heritage list as one of the first properties in 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.
In 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 it is nicely lit in the evening.
The Park Güell, which is filled with Chinese tourist groups, 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…
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 as it was not exceedingly crowded, and the Mediterranean climate is mild.