September 25, 2012

I know I have been in Barcelona for less than two days, but I can definitively say that I love this city. It’s modern, but not in the 1970s-rectangular-buildings-and-large-and-dark-glass-windows kind of way that characterizes many “modern” American cities. Barcelona’s modernism instead has its roots at the end of the nineteenth century, so the buildings maintain a rich sense of history, while also containing an infrastructure to meet the demands of the day. The streets here alternate between wide and open boulevards and narrower alleyways for pedestrians and motorbikes, and there are public squares ringed by balconied buildings every few blocks. Another wonderful thing about this city is that tourism does not seem to be its main industry. It is an incredibly beautiful and vibrant city, going about its business, with plenty of room for everyone.

In London, Paris, and Lisbon, I felt the need to join a bus or bicycle tour of the city before I started exploring by foot. I’ve chosen to do things differently in Barcelona, instead seeing all of the barrios for the first time as I explore them in detail. In this way, I feel like I am slowly filling in a coloring book of the city. No, that’s not right, as this would imply that I knew where the lines were and was merely coloring in the spaces... I suppose it’s like I have a blank piece of paper, and that both the lines and the color are appearing as I walk.

After a breakfast of an ensaïmada and zumos from a Catalan bakery this morning, I found myself at Casa Battló, another Gaudí creation. And — if this is even possible — I like Casa Battló even more than La Pedrera. Constructed in 1906, is presents the very definition of Catalan Art Noeveau — whimsy, curves, light, nature, architecture as sculpture… it left me breathless and full up with magic… A masterpiece of form, light, and color…

Casa Battló was inspired by the sea, and it brought to my mind images of a kind of underwater hobbit house — round windows, blue and green and purple glass, secret rooms, air and breath a light. (Side note: many of Barcelona’s buildings employ interior “light wells” that reach from the rooftop down to the ground. Rooms that would ordinarily be windowless therefore receive natural light. I just love the idea of a well of light.)

This afternoon, I walked through the Plaça de Catalunya and onto La Rambla, a wide pedestrian promenade humming with life. There were stalls of birds for sale, then the flower sellers, then a number of artists with watercolors and acrylics, sketches and photographs. And then paella and tapas and coffee. Midway down La Rambla, I looked to my right to see a large wrought iron gate with hundreds of people milling around rows upon rows of fruit and cheese and bread and meat and fish and pastries and confections of every kind. It turned out to be the Mercat de la Boqueria, and so I plunged in and just kept laughing out loud as I walked. There is something so enjoyable about being around so much colorful and unfamiliar food. I eventually settled on freshly squeezed strawberry juice and a hunk of dark chocolate with a nut I didn’t recognize, and then continued wandering, feasting with my eyes, enjoying all of the colors and textures occupying every square inch of space.

Leaving the market, I plunged into the Barri Gotic, Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, where I fell into a kind of hurting love, a love that made me want to cry, a love that made me what to crawl inside the very experience of the architecture and take up residence. The streets are so narrow that the buildings almost touch above the street. The stone is dark and sooty, and the light streams in at angles, shimmering with texture. I’ve fallen for so many narrow streets in Europe, but somehow it was different there… perhaps because the ground was flat and not winding upwards… perhaps because the surface was pavers and not cobblestones… perhaps because it was darker and narrower than the rest, with higher buildings tilting out over the passageways… Whatever it was, it crushed my heart.

Today was definitely a day of wonders, as I eventually came upon a wide and timber-framed arched doorway that lead into a ring of Medieval cloisters, dark and soaring, the central area full of palm trees, and a fountain, and snow white geese. I gazed around, eyes wide open, having no idea where I was. So I continued walking under the arched stone and then through a low entryway, and found myself within the most beautiful church I have ever seen.

I have been traveling for a month now, and I have seen a fair number of churches, but this one was just leagues beyond the rest. I had entered from the shallow side transept, so I was immediately enveloped by the high alter, immense and darkly golden-lit, moving me to a breathless and tear-filled stillness.

There are so many marvels in the world. Until this trip, I thought that they were all formed by nature — the view of a valley from the top of a mountain, the green of an expansive forest, waves crashing into rocky cliffs, a magical sunrise or sunset… It is spiritually charging to me that — for all its faults — mankind still has the capacity to create the divine.

I eventually exited out of the front of the church (which turned out to be La Catedral de Santa Eulalia) and purposefully didn’t look back until I knew I would be able to see the full façade in all of its gothic wonder. Great spires, pointed arches, adorned stonework… Magnificent.

This evening, I went to the Palau de la Música Catalana, a grand Modernisme hall, to see a concert of Spanish guitar. Over the course of a really excellent evening, the two men and two women onstage displayed wildly virtuosic (and at times irreverently funny) levels of talent. I then walked the two miles from the concert hall to the hostel, people-watching the great numbers of Barcelonans filling the sidewalks and the bars and the cafes. Past Casa Balló, under the balconies of the Pedrera, and onto the Carrer de San Pere Martir, my home for two more nights.

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