Thursday, October 9, 2008

Blown Away by the Modernistas

Monday, October 6, 2008

Though I did not intend to, it turned out that I saved the best for last. Indeed, on my last day in Barcelona, I decided to take another self-guided walking tour (as outlined in Lonely Planet) of the area called L'Eixample. This region, consisting of about 12 street blocks in the heart of the city, showcases the work of the Modernist architects that flourished in Barcelona in the last quarter of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th. Apart from the gigantic figure of Antoni Gaudi, they include Domeneck i Montaner and Josef Puig i Cadafalch. The best place at which to start such an exploration of this burst of architectural creativity is the lovely Parc Guell and when I found out over breakfast that one of my Youth Hostel fellow-residents, a German woman named Gisella, decided to visit it too, we made plans to travel there together.

Taking the Number 24 bus from the Plaza de la Catalunya (fare was 1. 30 euros one way), we drove through the wide boulevards of this fascinating city and arrived, about 20 minutes later, at one of the many entrances to the Park. We were glad we had opted for the bus because the journey was long and involved a steep climb up a mountain which afforded lovely views of the city sleeping quietly in the autumnal sunshine.

Our exploration into Parc Guell took us first to the Museu Gaudi, a pink confection of a house in which the artist had once lived. Now converted into a musuem, visitors are free to wander inside for 5 euros, but Gisella and I decided to pass as we had a great deal to cover that day. Instead we walked towards the wide open ceramic tile encrusted terraces, Gaudi's handiwork, which offered views towards the park's main entrance where the famous iconic figure of the ceramic lizard is to be found. Of course, we took pictures by the spouting fountain and the sunflower tiled terrace and the towering columns punctuated with the octopus-like tentacles of the ceiling decoration. With each vignette that presented itself, I understood more about Gaudi's creative passion. Walking around the terraced tiers of the garden, I had the chance to appreciate Gaudi's work as a landscape architect and I understood again the organic nature of his creations.

Then, Gisella and I were in the bus, making our way towards the center of town to begin our walking tour of the work of the Modernists or Modernistas as they are known in Spain. One after the other, we paused to admire the buildings created with the principles of Art Nouveau in mind--the curlicues, the fussy flourishes, the total femininity of the aesthetic vision. We saw La Prendrera, the famous apartment building designed by Gaudi on Passeig de Garcia. Just a few steps away was Casa Batllo which my guide book suggested we tour if there was just one building we could afford to see. And so Gisella and I purchased a ticket (16. 50 Euros each), which seemed like a princely sum until we entered the space and were swept off our feet.

Casa Batllo is a private mansion for which Gaudi received a commission from the Batllos. He conceived the entire building as deriving from the Sea and chose blue as the dominate color on his rather subdued palate. Inside, motifs from the sea--shells, conches, sea horses, whales, star fish, etc. envelope the space so fully and so ingeniously that words can do it no justice at all. As you wander from one space to the next, you don't quite know what to take in--so detailed are the touches, so imaginative is the execution. In his signature material--ceramic tile, carved and polished wood, blown glass--Gaudi had created a home that is not just one-of-a-kind but state-of-the-art as well for its time. The aesthetic features are so perfectly balanced by the scientific and engineering rationale that prompted them that what you see is a perfect marriage of the Arts and the Sciences in that one space. What's more, every single little feature from the brass door handles to the crystal chandeliers, from the wrought-iron window boxes to the cutest little elevator you ever did see, are entirely conceived and fashioned by his stupendous imagination. This home is certainly one of the most splendid things I have ever seen in my entire life and I emerged out of the place totally overwhelmed.

By this time, I had lost Gisella. Using the audio guides that came with our entry ticket, we had viewed the building at our own pace and, in the process, had drifted apart. Deciding to complete the walking tour on my own, I pressed bravely onwards taking in the Casa Amatler, the Fondacion Antoni Tapie, the Casa Lleo Morera, the Casa Pia Batllo--all of which define the work of the Modernists. Some of the building facades carried elaborate carvings, others had astounding wrought-iron scrollwork, yet others had fancy balconies...every single one of these features falls under the umbrella of Modernism, but I guess the tour reached it zenith at the Palau de la Musica Catalana, designed by Montaner for the performances of Catalonian Music.

This building is striking in the extreme for the facade that sports the busts of famous composers such as Verdi and Beethoven, Mozart and Wagner, ceramic pillars that hold up the structure, ceramic tiles that freely decorate the floors and the ceilings and a wealth of stained glass windows. I decided to grab a bite to eat in the cafeteria inside--a wonderful selection of Spanish tapas presented itself and in choosing to nibble on serrano ham and fish paste with shrimp, I found myself a tasty little lunch, before I picked up the pace once again and arrived at the Mercat de la Boqueria, a famous street market right of Las Ramblas. There, I bought myself neat packages of serrano ham and manchego cheese and with a baguette was able to fashion some truly delicious sandwiches for my dinner later that day.

And then, when the sun was close to setting, I realized that I had been in Barcelona for three whole days and had not yet visited its beaches! As you can tell, beach combing is rather a low priority for me, but since I could not possibly leave without setting eyes on the Mediterranean, off I went on another long ramble in the direction of the beach. Within a half hour, I was at the waterfront, enjoying the promenade on a particularly pleasant evening as I watched families have a fun time together. In the far distance, the land mass curved around towards the French fishing port of Marseilles and on the other side, the sea stretched towards the Costa Brava. Ahead of me, the brilliant azure-blue of the Mediterranean made a spectacular backdrop and I was so glad I did find the motivation and the energy to see the sea!

On my rambles back, I took a different route past the ancient Roman quarter once again and, quite by chance, came upon a leather shop from which I bought my one big purchase of the trip--a Spanish leather backpack.

Barcelona was everything I had expected it to me and more, but by the end of three days, I was ready to back my backpack and move on and, the next day, I left the hostel early to catch a bus to the airport for my return to London.

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