Barcelona beckons: A paradise of art and culture even in the winter

In Barcelona art and culture seem to spill from the galleries into the streets, and there is an infectious passion for living that radiates from the city’s inhabitants. People who are not ashamed to enjoy excellent paella with red wine at an hour many consider bedtime, followed by cervezas and mouth watering tapas several hours later. People who creatively showed their opposition to their governments support of military action in Iraq by a cacophonous nightly banging of pots and pans from the cities myriad of balconies. My kind of city and my kind of people!

Sculpture at Montserrat

Living in northern Europe gives me the distinct advantage of having many of the western world’s cultural hotspots a mere stones throw away (by Canadian standards at least) and this past month I decided it was time to visit Spain. After all, the Spanish have given us the novel, the guitar, flamenco, Picasso, gazpacho and in Barcelona they have dreamed up some of the world’s most fabulous architecture. Indeed, it was the architecture and the rebellious yet simultaneously laid back attitude of Catalonians that focused my attention on the city of Barcelona and its surroundings.

I started my visit like any other tourist, strolling down Las Ramblas, the city’s most famous street. Even on an overcast Sunday in January, the spirit of this street could not be stifled. In fact, I enjoyed Las Ramblas far more on Sunday. After all, one can find stores anywhere, but when those retail outlets close, the unique styles and spirits of Barcelona’s human statues, painters, poets and musicians really shine through.

From Las Ramblas, I made my way to the Barri Gòtic, or the Gothic Quarter located at the very heart of Barcelona’s old town. There I wandered the narrow streets, walled on both sides by beautiful medieval buildings dating from the 14th and 15th centuries. For me the highlight was the cathedral La Seu. But it was not the interior or exterior of the cathedral itself that attracted me, rather the magnificent 14th century cloister, beautifully floodlit at night, and in that eclectic Barcelona style, acoustically enhanced by a flock of honking white geese!

But Barcelona has more to offer than contemporary shopping streets and medieval architecture. The city is famous for modernisme, the Catalan offshoot of Art Noveau and the city’s 19th century new town, the Eixample, is peppered with extraordinary modernista buildings designed by Antoni Gaudí, Lluís Domènech i Montaner and Josep Puig i Cadafalch.

A sight that is not to be missed is the unbelievable Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família (Expiatory Temple of the Holy Family). La Sagrada Família is a large Roman Catholic basilica designed by the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí. Gaudí worked on the project for over 40 years, once joking “My client (God) is not in a hurry.” Construction began in the late 19th century and remarkably the church is still not completed! I always thought that churches which took hundreds of years to complete were a thing of the past. But when you pay entrance to la Sagrada Família you are contributing to the construction of this enormous basilica. It is being built one donation at a time, and to be a drop in an ocean of such donations, to see the construction in progress, is what truly made la Sagrada Família inspirational for me.

The church’s most striking features are its eight spindle-shaped towers. Many visitors find the architecture overpowering and some find it down right ugly, but I like Gaudí’s style. His Nativity façade, built before construction was interrupted by the Spanish Civil War in 1935, is exceptionally ornate and clearly shows the artist’s devotion to his work. In contrast, the Passion façade was designed by Joseph Subirachs and is especially striking (and controversial) for its understated and tormented characters portraying the crucifixion of Christ. The interior of the church is equally stunning, though it resembles and in fact is, a construction zone. In the main vestibule, columns modeled after trees reach skyward creating the distinct feeling that one is in a forest – natures own cathedral.

I was so inspired by Gaudí‘s work that I spent the better part of the following day in his Park Güell on the hill of El Carmel in the north of the city. Built from 1900 to 1914 the park was originally meant as a suburb for the rich, but it is now opened to the public. Gaudí‘s surreal style can be seen throughout the park in enormous wavy benches, lava-like stalactites, tree-like supports juxtaposed with stark Doric columns, all lavishly decorated with mosaics of broken ceramic fragments, a Catalan technique. And even more than in la Sagarada Família, ParkGüell is in tune with nature. Gaudí wound his paths and grottos around the hill’s natural slopes and cliffs giving the park a calm and peaceful feeling – even when full of tourists.

Of course no visit to Barcelona is complete without spending a few days in the surrounding mountains. One day trip not to be missed is to the mountain and monastery of Montserrat, a 40km train ride north west of the city. As soon as I stepped out of the cogwheel rail car I was awestruck by the view. Strangely rounded outcrops soared skywards in the sun above the monastery, and below the valley was filled with mist making it seen as if I were truly above the clouds and in heaven. Hiking in on the mountain of eroded sedimentary rock from a sea drained some 25 million years ago, was attraction enough for me. However, there are two major attractions within the monastery proper: “La Moreneta” (the Black Virgin), an icon supposedly hidden in the hills by St. Peter, and Montserrat’s world famous boys’ choir. Both are well worth the trip. I was impressed by the understated beauty of La Moreneta amid the riches of the monastery. The choir too was intriguing, and they could have been a heavenly chorus if it weren’t for the beeps and flashes emanating from the cellular phones that people were using to capture the moment. Perhaps they figured it was permitted since the pictograph requesting no photos showed a camera, and not a phone … Still, these days any place of great beauty has its tourist problems, and the camera phones were not enough to spoil the beauty of the mountain.

In fact despite its great (and well deserved) popularity with tourists, Barcelona and its surrounding areas have retained their spirit and very original flare. Barcelona beckons, summer or winter, and is well worth a visit.

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