Catalonia’s capital stands apart, artistically and politically

Barcelona — Illuminated By The Genius Of Gaudi

The Dragon guards the stairway leading to more wonders in Parc Guell. Independent/John Laudando

 

Catalonia is an anomaly — an autonomous community in Spain on the northeastern corner of the Iberian Peninsula, designated as a “nationality.” Its capital and largest city — and Spain’s second largest — is Barcelona. Mention Barcelona, and most people who have been there think first of Gaudi — Antoni Gaudi, the designer whose work in Barcelona is a mind-bending tribute to his eccentric genius. When in Barcelona, Gaudi is nearly impossible to ignore, and we found his path delightful to explore on our first stop of a whirlwind tour of Europe.

The most obvious example of Gaudi’s virtuosity is the Sagrada Familia basilica. More than 100 years in the making, construction of Sagrada Familia started under architect Francisco de Paula del Villar in 1882. When he resigned one year later, Gaudi took over as chief architect and transformed the project with his own distinctive style, which combines the ostentation of Gothic architecture with the curvilinear forms of Art Nouveau. And it is totally amazing. It’s totally unimaginable that someone could actually design something so complex and so unique.

Gaudi devoted the remainder of his life to the colossal project, and at the time of his death at age 73 in 1926, less than a quarter of the building was complete. Upon his death, he himself was entombed in his monumental work, which, upon completion (estimated for 2026 . . . or maybe around 2040?) will be the highest religious building in the world. Gaudi resisted adding further height beyond its planned 560 ft. because, he believed, “No building should be higher than God’s work.” As a result, the building will fall one meter short of the height of Montjuïc hill, Barcelona’s highest point.

While the Sagrada Familia is easily the most elaborate and challenging work of Gaudi, it is by no means his only undertaking in Barcelona. His entertaining Parc Guell is a wonder of imagination and frivolity. This playful urban park, perched above the city on Carmel Hill, is a wonder of Gaudi’s ingenious sculptures and mosaics. The entrance is marked by a combination of the two — a fantastical and enormous sculpture covered entirely with mosaic tiles, known as “Le Drac” or The Dragon. He sits in the midst of two sweeping staircases that lead to the many wonders to be found in this park, including a home where Gaudi lived.

We rambled through Barcelona’s main pedestrian area — Las Ramblas — stopping right on the sidewalk for HUGE sangrias. For entertainment, we enjoyed the antics of the unceasing parade of street performers. Our stroll took us down to the city’s vibrant waterfront, and enroute back to our lodgings, we grabbed a bite from Mercat de la Boqueria, the city’s large and colorful market full of food, flowers, and just about any other thing you might want to buy. When we returned to Las Ramblas in the evening, its main plaza and fountain were brightly lit for the night.

We visited the Museu Picasso, housed in the Palacio de Berenguer d’Aguilar, an immense old city palace from the 15th Century. Its permanent collection consists of more than 4200 works by the artist and focuses mainly on his formative years as an artist, from 1895 to 1904. And not far from it, we discovered the Museu de la Xocolata, where I found my favorite chocolate bar ever — chocolate and black pepper combined, a combination I’ve been trying to find again ever since. We just may have to go back to Barcelona again, so I can stock up.

But no matter where we went, Gaudi prevailed. We saw many of his buildings that were recommended in tour guides, plus we found several more that weren’t even on the list. Mosaics sparkle, curves undulate, the mind boggles!

We were also pleased to find that Barcelona has many restaurants that specialize in mussels — and we had the luck to be staying right down the street from the one that’s rated the best. La Muscleria offers mussels, mussels, mussels, prepared every way imaginable! Inventive, varied, and remarkably reasonable in price. When we return for that chocolate, we’ll probably dine here every night.

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